Writing a Good Query Letter

Posted: January 21, 2012 in On Writing
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If you plan to enter your book in Amazon and CreateSpace‘s fifth annual book contest, you’d better write the best damn query letter you’ve ever written. According to the rules, the first cut, which is 1,000 from the 5,000 total entered (in each category), will be judged on query letters alone.

Amazon, of course, is partnering with Penguin books and first prize is a $15,000 advance and a book contract. The two categories are fiction and young adult fiction. Entries are accepted beginning Jan. 23 to Feb. 5 or until 5,000 entries are received in each category.

Of course any time you write a query letter to an agent it should be as good as your book. Agents look at your query and consider your voice, story concept, and writing ability all in the query. I bet you thought they made their decision on the first three chapters or so of your book.

No. First you have to send them those chapters. And before you can do this, you must piqué the curiosity of the agent or editor.

The basic structure of a query is not difficult. It should be written in present tense. It should grab the reader’s attention. It should be representative of the agent or editor’s needs or expertise. It should list your publishing credits, if any, or any professional experience you may have which would show why you are the best person to tell your story.

You should tell the agent your genre, that it is finished, how many words it is, and if you are working on a series. The story outline should be in your writing voice, bring up some enticing questions, include a brief synopsis, and set the place and time (historical or if it is not set in current era).

The letter should be less than a page and should leave to reader wanting more . . . just like your first chapter.

Okay, I’m going to attempt to write an example here. Don’t judge me to harshly because I just decided to do this:

I am submitting my finished book, a mystery thriller, about 86,000 words. I’m working on a sequel where Billie Bly, P.I., stumbles upon a mad bomber using an online dating service* to troll for his victims. (*I changed this because I have a high concept idea I don’t want to share).

P.I. Billie Bly’s psychic warns her someone will be murdered today, but neglects to tell her it will be Billie.

As she walks down the sidewalk in the busy Pearl District of NW Portland, she sees two men grab a boy and pull him into a warehouse. She draws her gun and follows carefully when shots ring out.

She finds the boy lying in what looks like a pool of blood and looks for the shooter. When she looks back the boy is sitting up with an evil grin and a big gun, and he shoots Billie.

She’s left for dead, but is found by a white-bearded man she calls God and whisked to the hospital where her heart stops twice. The day she finally gets out of the hospital her younger cop brother is murdered during a second attempt on her life.

Billie vows to avenge her brother’s murder, but is met with resistance at every corner. Her former partner and boyfriend heads the investigation and puts her under house arrest as a material witness. The suspects include the mayor of Portland, who doesn’t want Billie snooping around; the mayor’s mistress, a buxom brunette who is married to the city auditor; a seedy con after revenge of his own; her former partner and boyfriend; and her assistant’s new boyfriend, an undercover P.I. who inserts himself into her investigation.

As she tracks down her brother’s killer, she is nearly blown up in her garage, she falls three stories escaping from a villain, is shot at by a sniper at a Pirate Festival, nearly run off a mountain road, and shot in a showdown with the villain.

If you have interest in my story, I will be glad to send it you.

Okay, first sentence I establish I am submitting my book, its length, the genre, and that it is finished. Yes, agents get queries from people with works-in-progress. I also indicate I am working on a second book because they want series character’s in mysteries and will want to set up a multiple book contract with a publishing house no matter what genre in fiction.

In the story synopsis I try to set the hook in the first sentence. What? She dies in the first chapter? (Read on).

Did you notice I wrote it in present tense? This helps grab the reader and avoids a passive query.  In the second paragraph, I show a call to action and tell the reader where the setting takes place, in Portland’s Pearl District.

In the third paragraph, I name the suspects briefly and set up a second call to action, her brother’s murder. I tell the reader she faces many obstacles. In the last paragraph, I summarize the peril my heroine will face.

Then, I attempt to close the sale, suggesting I am ready to send my manuscript. I have one agent in mind who has a pretty good blog I’ve followed the past year and subscribe to. I will probably mention it to her and thank her for some of her tips (likely one specifically) to show a personal connection.

That’s it. I didn’t do too bad, although I would probably go back and rewrite the obstacle and attempts on her life paragraphs.

One last thought. You should be ready in the event and agent or editor requests a synopsis, along with manuscript chapters. If you haven’t done one, don’t freak. The suggested length is five to six pages, unless otherwise requested (double spaced, single if you have a lengthy story). It should be a basic outline of the highlights of your book, of course written as well as your book and in your voice. Present tense is a good idea here too.

That’s all. Send it out now. Feel free to use the links below to find your agent:



  1. Helen Wand says:

    Thanks Don. You always have great tips and examples. I know your story and am excited that you are going to enter it in the contest. It’s a good mystery, well written and fun because it’s set in Portland.
    Good Luck! Keep us posted.

    • Don Weston says:

      Thanks, except I am not entering the contest. I just used it as a point of reference. However, Oregon Writer’s Colony is considering holding a workshop for writers next year in early January to prepare people who want to enter the contest. We hope to bring in a Portland writer who made the finals last year. (I’m on the workshop committee for OWC). I might enter it next year.

  2. […] Writing a Good Query Letter (donweston.wordpress.com) […]

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