Even Good Queries Aren’t Stunning (II)

So, I posted my very first query letter, which was a pretty bad query letter. Agent/Writer/Deb Extraordinaire Mandy Hubbard popped by to say it wasn’t half-bad. And it wasn’t- with some tinkering, I did manage to get a couple of partial requests with it.

Here’s the thing- I think most competent writers will produce an okay query letter. I know you’re scared, and your whole everything is tied up in your novel, and it’s a big deal to be searching for an agent and OMGSTRESS. But seriously– if you’re a competent writer, your query letter is probably okay. Not great, but okay.

That’s why it’s important to send your query out in small batches. I would send it to 5 or 10 agents at a time. If I got no response or instant rejections, then I’d revise the query letter until it got a better response.

So let me show you a successful query letter. Notice I’m not calling it a good query letter. Because at the end of the day- it’s still a query letter. I learned from the first one, I had a draft of this that I tested, I tinkered and this is the version that I sent that got several partial requests, which ultimately led to representation.

Dear Ms. Agent:

Nothing ever happened in Ondine, Louisiana, not even the summer Elijah Landry disappeared. His mother believed he ascended to heaven, the police thought he ran away, and his girlfriend felt he was murdered. Decades later, certain she saw his ghost in the town cemetery, fourteen-year-old Iris Rhame is determined to find out the truth.

Enlisting the help of her best friend Collette, and forced to endure the company of Collette’s latest crush, Ben, Iris spends a summer digging into the past and stirring old ghosts in search of the truth. What she doesn’t realize is that in a town as small as Ondine, every secret is a family secret.

The difference between this and the Weston query? It sets up the conflict immediately. This is what’s going to happen in this book, and this is who’s going to do it. It also sets the tone, because it confides in the reader, guess what– there’s something the characters don’t know, dun dun dun! }

My name is Saundra Mitchell, and I’ve been a writer for fifteen years, both in film and fiction. Currently, I write the Fresh Films short film series, and shorts from this series have been juried selections at Academy Award-qualifying festivals for the last three years. In fiction, I’ve recently published “An Accounting of Sins,” short fiction, with Edgar Literary Magazine, and “Revival Season,” flash fiction, with SmokeLong Quarterly.

I still include screenwriting information in this query because by then, I was doing well enough to name check the Oscars, so I thought it might help. (It didn’t.) But, this time, I had excised the random, extraneous publications and focused on my fiction as my primary credits. }

“Last Summer’s Iris” is a Southern Gothic young adult novel, complete at 50,400 words, and I’d like to offer it for your consideration. I’ve enclosed five sample pages; please feel free to recycle them if they’re unneeded. Thank you for your time; I look forward to hearing from you.

Hey look, I gave the title, I gave the genre, I gave the category. Now the agent knows exactly what’s on offer here. And by this point, I had figured out that no matter how good (or bad!) the query was, I got a better response rate if I sent pages. If an agent asked for more than five, I sent more. If they didn’t say either way, I sent five pages. I also gave them an out to just throw them away instead of trying to stuff them in my SASE and search for make-up postage. }


Saundra Mitchell

{This part, I still got right.}

Since I wrote both of my queries, you can see that they’re pretty similar.

But now that you’ve seen both, I think it’s clear why one was more successful than the other. The Weston query contains shockingly little information about the book. It’s almost a query that says, “I wrote a thing. Will you look at it?”

Whereas this query, for the book that became SHADOWED SUMMER, says, “I wrote this book. It’s about X, it contains Y, and it features Z. Will you look at it?”

My bad query wasn’t half-bad. And my successful query is still a query letter; the pages mattered the most.

So please take a deep, deep breath, and relax just a tiny bit. Querying is incredibly stressful, especially lately– but don’t let all the talk terrify you into believing your query letter has to be the word of the Muse dripped in gold-blood ink on the page. It doesn’t.

Write your query letter, send it in small batches. If you’re not getting a good response, revise the query letter! Send five pages (or more if the agent requests them.)

You can do this! And if #queryfail, #queryslam and Slushpilehell are getting you down, here’s a gif by Omar Noory that I enjoy when I need some perspective: