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Query Letters Revisited (in Two Parts)
"Musings" for March 2007

by Margot Finke

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It is about a year since I wrote a column on query letters, and considering the chatter about them on various lists, it’s about time I wrote another one. Not so long ago, when editors and agents welcomed your first few chapters, and often accepted complete manuscripts (gasp!), a good query letter was important, but it didn’t make-or-break your chances of acceptance. Let’s face it, all that has changed. Many larger publishing houses are closed to submissions, with the exception of authors already published by them, or those who are represented by agents. Smaller publishers, often give us writers better odds. They will accept queries from the unwashed. . . . er, I mean unpublished masses.

This makes your query letter almost too hot to handle — right? Every word you’ve written, rewritten, and agonized over, depends on one page of perfectly written and impeccably chosen words. How nervous making is that? I’ve heard writers say that writing their book was a snap, compared to crafting one page that would decide the fate of all their writing dreams. Okay, now, get a grip, take a drink if you must, and let’s write that sucker!

First Things First

That one pristine page needs to be filled with words, potent and powerful enough to lure an editor into asking for MORE.


* Research likely publishers, their websites, their current list of books, and their editors.
* Study their Submission Guidelines: find them on the publisher’s website.
* CWIM (Children’s Writers and Illustrator’s Market) is a good source of publisher and agent information and URLS,
* Send exactly what they ask for — no "extras."
* Make notes of the many snippets of publishing news that flow through the writing lists you are on. Keep them in a handy file.


* Make a list of your writing accomplishments
* Gather any relevant clips.
* If you have qualifications or upbringing that bring a special depth and insight to your plot or characters, add these to your query.
* If your book fills a particular need, make sure you include brief details.


* Boil your story down to one paragraph. This paragraph must waft the essence of your plot, and the dilemma faced by your main character, under the editor’s sensitive nose, and hook her into wanting more. Piece of cake!

Distilling thousands of words into a few lines is one of the most difficult tasks a writer can tackle. Think if it as deglazing a hot, buttery pan with wine, and allowing it to simmer down into a delectable, though minimum amount of sauce. What you serve up to editors in this paragraph tells them a great deal about your story, and your ability as a writer. With this in mind, I suggest you dissect your plot, keeping only the vital elements and turning points, for inclusion in that all-important paragraph.

You can’t please everyone. I have listened to many editors and agents talk about what they like in a query letter. A few love a little personal information. Some like you to add how you’ll promote your book, should it be accepted. Others want information regarding similar books out there, and why you feel yours is better. All of them love when you mention a book they edited, or a book their publisher published. Considering we mostly know nothing about the editors and agents we query, include whatever of the above you can fit onto one page, plus that crucial paragraph.

Query Letter Resources

Query Letters for Children's Books Fiction - Musings - April 2003
Query & Cover Letters: How to Get 'Em Right - Musings - March 2006
Writing Chat for all Seasons — Query Letters That Worked + Lousy Rejection Letters.
Fiction Writers Connection — Query Letter Do’s and Don’ts
Rites of Submission: Cover Letters and Queries by Jacqueline Ogburn
Do’s and Don’ts How to make the Perfect Query Letter by Gail Eastwood
FAQ Query Letters by Tara K. Harper

Writing the Actual Query:

NOTE: Editors do not come knocking on your door. Published writers are the ones who regularly send their manuscripts out to earn their keep.

Part Two: Query Letters That Worked


Margot Finke's biography and index to Musings.

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