The Secret to Writing a Successful Query Letter

by Andrea Somberg, Harvey Klinger Inc.AndreaHeadshotRC

I love receiving queries. There is such a wonderful sense of unlimited potential—perhaps this is the next manuscript I’ll fall in love with! Perhaps this will be my next bestseller! Of course, my excitement is somewhat tempered by the fact that I receive a lot of queries, and I can’t fall in love with all of them. But over the years I’ve noticed that there is a certain type of query letter that really grabs my attention. Whether it’s for literary or book club fiction, young adult or middle grade, romance, fantasy, thriller or cozy, the queries all share one thing in common—they leave me intrigued. And I cannot wait to read the manuscript.

So, how do you write an intriguing query letter, one that will leave the editor or literary agent wanting to read more? Let’s first start by looking at an example. The following email was from Kim Hooper, author of People Who Knew Me. I fell in love with her query letter and, soon after, her manuscript. The book went on to auction and was just published by St. Martin’s Press, receiving rave reviews in the Wall Street Journal, Booklist, Library Journal and elsewhere.

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Dear Andrea,

I am seeking representation for my novel, People Who Knew Me, and wanted to reach out to see if you’d be interested in taking a look.

On September 11, Emily Morris is lazing in the bed of her lover, playing hooky while he goes to work at the World Trade Center office they share. When the towers collapse–along with the affair she’s been using to escape her unhappy marriage–she sees an opportunity. By September 12, everyone in her life thinks she is dead. By the next week, she is living a new life in California, pregnant and alone.

People Who Knew Me weaves back and forth between the present–fourteen years after 9/11–and the past. When Emily is faced with a devastating diagnosis, she must revisit the past and make peace not just with those in her current life, but with the people who knew her in the life left behind.

I am a 34-year-old novelist residing in Southern California. After completing the Masters of Professional Writing program at USC, I went into a career in advertising, writing fiction in my off hours. I have been a contributor to DimeStories, was selected for the America’s Next Author anthology, and was a featured author at the West Hollywood Book Fair. You can learn more at: www.KimHooperWrites.com

I look forward to hearing from you!

Sincerely,

Kim Hooper

***

There was a lot I liked about this query—Kim let me know the title of her book right away, she kept the letter short and to the point, and she provided excellent bio information. But what I really loved about the query was that her plot description created so many questions in my mind. And the only way that I was going to have them answered was by reading the manuscript.

So, what are the sentences that stood out to me in this query? Let’s go through it on a line-by-line basis, and I’ll tell you what I was thinking and what made this query letter so successful.

On September 11, Emily Morris is lazing in the bed of her lover, playing hooky while he goes to work at the World Trade Center office they share.

She has a lover? Does that mean she has a husband? Why would she cheat on him? Is she having an affair with a colleague? Do other people in the office know?

When the towers collapse–along with the affair she’s been using to escape her unhappy marriage–she sees an opportunity.

So she is having an affair! But her marriage is unhappy. I wonder why? Is it her husband? Is he horrible? Why does she stay married if it’s so bad?

By September 12, everyone in her life thinks she is dead. By the next week, she is living a new life in California, pregnant and alone. 

What!? Whoa. Why? What was it about her past that was so horrible that she had to flee town, betray her friends and family, and create a completely new identity? Especially when she is going to have a baby?

When Emily is faced with a devastating diagnosis, she must revisit the past and make peace not just with those in her current life, but with the people who knew her in the life left behind.

What type of devastating diagnosis? What is waiting for her in her old life? Who or what is she going to have to confront?

This letter does something that every successful query letter should do—it tells us about the manuscript while simultaneously creating questions in our minds.  I’ve read many query letters over the years—hundreds of thousands of them. And 9 times out of 10, they provide too much information that is the wrong type of information.

 

So here is the secret to writing a perfect query letter, one that will make literary agents and editors sit up and take notice:

Takeaway #1: There are three things you absolutely need to include in your query letter. They are the following: (1) Who is the protagonist? (2) What is the conflict? (3) What is at stake?

Takeaway #2: It’s not enough to tell the editor or agent what your book is about (i.e., the protagonist, the conflict and the stakes). Every sentence you write should create additional questions in the editor or agent’s mind.

Takeaway #3: Ask a friend who knows nothing about the manuscript to read your query letter. Ask them to write down the questions that occur to them after reading each line of your pitch. Does each sentence generate multiple questions? If not, go back and revise. On the other hand, if your friend is confused—if they can’t easily identify the protagonist, the conflict and the stakes—go back and revise as well.

There you have it. A foolproof way to write the strongest query letter possible. I look forward to reading all of your masterpieces!

And as for Kim Hooper’s manuscript, People Who Knew Me, the answers to all of my questions were ultimately answered—but in ways that I never imagined. If you are suitably intrigued, you can find the book on Amazon, B&N or your local independent bookstore.

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Andrea Somberg is a literary agent with Harvey Klinger Inc., working in the industry for over fifteen years. Her clients’ books have been NYTimes and USA Bestsellers, as well as nominated for The Governor General’s Award, the Lambda Award, the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award.  Andrea also teaches courses for MediaBistro and Writers Digest. You can visit her online at www.andreasomberg.com and www.harveyklinger.com, and query her at andrea@harveyklinger.com (just be sure to include your “intriguing” query letter and the opening five pages of your manuscript in the body of the email).

12 comments to The Secret to Writing a Successful Query Letter

  • Am I allowed to say that I think the query letter is even more effective than the publisher description? Either way I want to read it, but this pitch is fantastic! Just enough information to tease and make me want to throw money at it. <3

  • David VonAllmen

    This was a fantastic article. I’m keeping a copy to reference next time I write a query.

    Can you give any examples of the “wrong type of information” that you see most often in query letters?

    • Good question! I would say that anything that doesn’t add to our understanding of the protagonist, the conflict or the stakes, and anything that doesn’t intrigue should be left out. Most query letters are way too long…

  • I read every post I can about “how to write (the best/most amazing/perfect) query letter,” but this one spoke to me. Kim’s query has voice. So often, I’m trying to construct my query like a recipe that I sometimes forget my voice.
    Thanks for this post and that reminder.
    Voice is what separates one writer from the next.
    Ellen

  • Well now I REALLY want to read this book! Thank you for breaking down this fabulous query letter (I’m gearing up to start querying the YA novel I just finished and soaking up posts like this like a sponge!) and I look forward to discovering Kim’s work!

    • I hope you enjoy the book–definitely let me know what you think! And good luck with pitching your YA novel–it’s a terrifying time, I know, but so exciting as well.

  • Thank you for this fantastic, succinct query letter lesson. I love it – and no wonder you wanted this manuscript. Had me going this way and that in the space of a few sentences.

  • Thanks, Andrea, for a great post. You made it super clear what works in a query letter. I’m out here sponging up everything I can on how to write a fine query. It’s an art in itself. I’m keeping a copy of your post nearby for frequent reference. Best to you.

  • Thank you, Andrea, for this eloquent query letter example and your concise break down of its elements. This post is so incredibly helpful, to see how to construct a query letter so that it creates questions with every sentence.

    Thanks so much!