The Dreaded Agent Query Letter!

Well, Andrés Cruciani here once again (would YOU like to post on our blog? Shoot us an email!), and today I wanted to talk about the query letter.

Seems like as I get further from my Fiction MFA conferment, more and more of my peers are finishing their novels. And that means: query letters! (Because for most of us MFA graduates, we think we must traditionally publish. Or, at least it's our default.) (Understandably so, more on that some other day.)

For those who don't know, the query letter is what you send to literary agents to tell them that you've finished a book and would like them, the agents, to represent your work. If the agent accepts you as a client, then they take your book and send it out to a bunch of publishers and try to get your book out into the world. Agents are necessary middlepeople (they're basically acting as filters for the traditional publishers), and for authors who get stuck in the traditional publication mindset, their literary careers live or die by whether they get a (good) agent. So it's a big deal.

Now, we're starting to get people asking us for help with their queries. So I thought I'd just post my response to one writer's query letter:

Dear X, 

I lost your email in a giant thread of emails, so I'm responding here:

First, CONGRATULATIONS ON FINISHING!!!  That's wonderful news!  Now comes the hard part. :)

So, my main piece of advice is to follow the "3-graf" form for the query.  The first paragraph should go something like this:

Dear So-and-so, [personalize for each agent]
I submit to you my literary novel, BOOK, for your consideration.  [more personalization] I'm writing you because I read that you were seeking fiction that explores grief.  Also, I read Jane Doe's [an author she represents] THE PITCHER IN THE WHEAT and loved her poetic and symbolic writing.  I think my book will fit in perfectly with the novels you represent.  Thank you for considering my work.

Ok, then, the second "paragraph" is when you get into the book, which is mostly what you've done.  HOWEVER, I would shorten it.  Focus on the absolutely essential, and make the essential come to life on the page. 

The only point of the second "paragraph" is to get whoever's reading the query (which is very often not the agent) to read the first ten pages of your book (which you need to copy & paste into the text of your email).  That's it.  You want them to say, "Wow, this is interesting!" and then be compelled to go to the bottom of your email.  Don't worry about not hitting main points.  Focus on one thing, and grab your reader by the hair.

The last graf (an actual paragraph this time) is where you need to show off.  Don't be humble—this ain't the place!  They are getting HUNDREDS of these queries a week, and, somehow, you need to stand out.  To do that, unfortunately, you need to show off.  They're looking for a few things: credentials, publications, preexisting networks.  Don't worry about what you don't have, and focus on what you do.  

Basically, the point of the query is to get past the intern that is most likely reading it.  How?  By making the intern say, WOW.  They need to read your query and the pages you pasted and then tell the agent: You need to read this.  If you can accomplish that, you will get people asking for your manuscript.

I hope this helps.  Let's keep working on this!


p.s.  Check out Query Shark, a blog about queries.

Andrés Cruciani is the founder of Toho Publishing. He’s a writer, editor, and teacher, and we’re publishing his first novel! You can join him on Facebook, Twitter, Medium, YouTube, and Instagram.