Anatomy of a Winning Query

Have you noticed that agents tend to talk a lot about what not to do in a query, but less about what makes a great one? It think it’s because the good ones are each unique; it’s hard to come up with a formula that makes a terrific query. But the unexciting or badly composed queries have a lot in common with each other; many people make the same mistakes, and we’re just trying to help you avoid them. It’s much easier to say what not to do than describe what to do!

Nevertheless, I’ve been wanting to write a post answering the question, “What makes you immediately want to say YES to a query?” Yesterday I got the perfect opportunity. I received a query that made my heart palpitate and my fingers stumble all over each other as I typed the response requesting a full manuscript. I couldn’t wait to read the book. Why? What made me have that reaction? I’ve tried to analyze it, and here’s what I came up with:

1) The first paragraph put me right into the middle of a provocative scene. The writer described, in first person, something that had happened to her that was fascinating. Not something general like “I had cancer” or “I was a teenage model” but an actual scene like from a novel. It was brief, only a few sentences, but it completely grabbed me, partly because of what the scene was, and partly because…

2) It was so well written. The author’s voice came through; immediately I could tell she was educated, a bit sassy, unafraid to speak the truth. The words were simply put together in a pleasing way. They spoke loud and clear: GOOD WRITER.

3) The book she was pitching happened to be an area of interest for me–a spiritual memoir–and an unusual one. She’s had a unique journey and she has a fun way of telling about it. I love the freshness of it.

4) The topic she’s writing about happens to be one that I think is selling strongly right now.

5) The query was clear, to-the-point, and well organized. The first few paragraphs gave an overview of her story so I’d know what her memoir was about. She wrapped up that section with a really funny hook (or log line) that summarizes her book. She briefly described the structure of the book and the themes it encapsulates, and she defined her target audience (a pretty big one). Then she told me about herself: her degrees, her writing credits, and her awards. So she told me everything I needed to know in her query, while keeping me interested the whole time.

6) The author is fresh from an MFA program, which by itself wouldn’t necessarily draw me in, but combined with her obviously compelling writing (even in the query) and the fact that she won her university’s most prestigious writing award last year, it impressed me. I could see potential beyond this one book because she’s more than a person with a story to tell; she is a writer.

7) Did I mention she was a really good writer? Even in the query, her way with words had its way with me.

8) The book she was pitching immediately seemed like it could be really big. I felt like she was tapping into something many people could relate to. It brought to mind Eat, Pray, Love and The Glass Castle, two of my favorite (not to mention bestselling) memoirs. I could envision a review in People magazine.

This is the most important part: It’s not the query, but the book. The idea was strong and fresh; the writing in the pitch was so good that it seemed likely the writing in the book would be strong. The query is important in that it shows me your writing skill. But in the end, the query’s not the thing. The book is. Do I want to read it? Do I think others will want to read it?

These are the things that drew me in, but there is also something indefinable about why a query grabs me, just like you can’t always describe exactly why you love a particular book, movie or TV show. It’s just so good, you’re tempted to say. Sometimes all the elements combine together to hit you in your sweet spot. When that happens, it’s pure magic.

Now I’m off to read the manuscript, which is already resting securely in my Kindle. Lucky me.

8 Tomorrow: What will happen next if I absolutely love the manuscript? A look at the agent process.
Rachelle Gardner, Christian literary agent, WordServe Literary Group, Colorado.

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


  1. […] Anatomy of a Winning Query […]

  2. […] Anatomy of a Winning Query […]

  3. Suzanne on April 30, 2009 at 1:52 PM

    >Thank you so much for sharing with us what you find compelling in a good query (and letting us share the excitement of “a find”). I’ve broken down a query letter on my blog (it just happens to be a query I sent you which earned me a request for a partial). But all I could do was point out what ingredients are necessary for a query, not what draws the agent’s interest. It was good to see the same thing from the other side of the fence.

  4. Robin Shope on April 29, 2009 at 8:36 PM

    >I got THE CALL from a ‘well-known agent’. I was thrilled. Then I began to worry, ‘if she took me, what is wrong with her?’ (Self-doubt creeps in after several turn downs). But then I told myself to buck-up because she was a well-known agent and she wanted me! me! me! me! Months passed. No action. Then she went to a conference where eight publishers asked to see six of my stories. It took her 3 months to send out a few. One of my mysteries she attached a disclaimer to ‘It has graphic sex but the author has agreed to tone it down on request.’ GASP! It was clean as a whistle! Not even a kiss but the publisher didn’t know that and turned it down, unread. One day my agent said she had no idea where to send my proposals. I bought Sally Stewart and gave suggestions. She thanked me. A month later she asked me to resend my suggestions because she had misplaced them. I felt held hostage for eighteen months. Finally I cut the ties. I felt badly. She was a nice lady. And she came highly recommended as a good agent. Today I am on my own. Plugging. I guess I got the call I wish I never had. Sigh.

  5. Loren Christie on April 28, 2009 at 10:39 PM

    >Thank you. This post is very helpful to me. πŸ™‚

  6. Anita on April 28, 2009 at 9:30 PM

    >Thanks for this query info…and since you love THE GLASS CASTLE and live in the CO Springs area, I have to let you know I recommend the memoir in my Gazette book column this Sunday. On Monday I’m posting a short interview with the author on my blog.

  7. Rose McCauley on April 28, 2009 at 9:28 PM

    >Thanks for sharing, Rachelle. I can’t wait to read the rest of the story. I did wonder how long this fabulous query letter was–only one page or longer? rose, who wants to hurry up and finish the book I’m on so I can start eat, pray, love which is at the top of my TBR pile

  8. Anonymous on April 28, 2009 at 9:18 PM

    >Wow–how many people can meet all those levels of expectations? Not only must we have an instant best-seller, we need an MFA to boot! No wonder good writing isn’t enough these days…congrats!

  9. Richard Lewis on April 28, 2009 at 6:17 PM

    >Tease! What’s it about, what what what?

  10. Timothy Fish on April 28, 2009 at 6:06 PM

    >Jealous? I’m not jealous. I wish I were, but I’m not. No, if I’m going to admit to anything, I might as well be honest and admit to being envious. I kind of makes you feel like the package of new underwear on Christmas morning that gets put aside in favor of the shiny red fire engine, doesn’t it?

  11. Chatty Kelly on April 28, 2009 at 4:18 PM

    >I'm jealous! (Could I really be the only one wishing it was me?) I'm really excited for the writer & you too. That is amazing.

    Thanks for sharing the process. I'll try to get my coveting under control and be ready for tomorrow's edition. πŸ™‚

  12. Roland on April 28, 2009 at 2:44 PM

    >This book is going to be on my mom’s bookshelf in a year.

    Actually, 3 and 4 are absolutely my biggest problems with querying my first novel which is about a weird subject that no one wants to read and no one knows how to sell. If I’m a good writer, and the books is half as good as I think it is, I should be able to overcome those obstacles and get someone excited about the book somewhere.

    Maybe I need to have a spiritual journey that ends with an epiphany.

    Or maybe I should focus on 2 and 5?

  13. Robin Archibald on April 28, 2009 at 2:39 PM

    >Rachelle, could you post if/when the book hits the shelves? (Hopefully it will make it through the process!) I’d like to read it.

    I love fiction, but memoir, with its similar elements can be just as compelling. And finally the literary memoir is becoming popular in Christian publishing.

  14. Rachel on April 28, 2009 at 2:30 PM

    >I hope you follow this query through the process on your blog. What a cool idea. Excellent reading for us, plus a great idea of the quality of material that comes across your desk.

  15. Marianne on April 28, 2009 at 2:14 PM

    >Wow, it’s exciting to read about you getting so excited about a query. I will save this post for future reference. One question, would you say that Eat, Pray, Love is consistent with a Christian world view? My spiritual memoir also takes me down the road of yoga and meditation (while working in Afghanistan) and I had assumed agents like yourself would not consider it for that reason.

  16. Dawn Herring on April 28, 2009 at 2:02 PM

    >I loved the idea of starting the query so it feels like you’re in the scene of a novel or someone’s life. Great advice! Worth emulating.
    I read both of those memoirs you mentioned; so different, each with their unique voice.
    I’ll be looking forward to more insight on this one in future postings.

  17. Julie Gillies on April 28, 2009 at 12:49 PM

    >You sound as thrilled and excited as a child on Christmas morning, Rachelle!

    Thanks for letting us share in the fun and learn in the process.

  18. Amber on April 28, 2009 at 11:11 AM

    >I must admit I was a bit afraid to write a query after reading so much negativity on-line after queryfail and agentfail. This brought everything back into perspective. Thank you! As others before me have said, this will help in knowing what TO DO, not only what not to do. (Or something like that…)

    need more coffee…

  19. Phronk on April 28, 2009 at 10:53 AM

    >Thanks for posting this; I was painfully intrigued by your excitement over this query on Twitter yesterday.

    “Her way with words had its way with me” had its way with me with its way with words.

  20. Keli Gwyn on April 28, 2009 at 10:16 AM

    >After hearing your excitement about this query on Twitter yesterday, I was eager to read this post. Thanks for sharing what made it work so well for you.

    Congrats to the writer who captivated you and to you for discovering a gem. I wish you both the best as you move forward on this.

  21. Cheryl Barker on April 28, 2009 at 10:00 AM

    >Rachelle, ditto on Sharon’s comment. What a helpful post. Thanks so much for recording your thoughts here for us!

  22. Sharon Ball on April 28, 2009 at 9:55 AM

    >Rachelle, I absolutely love that you shared your thought process in determining what makes a good query. Your insight is very helpful. I can’t wait to read about your reaction to the manuscript.

  23. LauraLee Shaw on April 28, 2009 at 9:18 AM

    >What a refreshing post! Thank you for sharing this, and congrats to both of you, Rachelle and anonymous.

  24. Nicole O'Dell on April 28, 2009 at 9:15 AM

    >Wow. I’m excited for you and for this writer. Someday, when the book is ready to release, I hope you’ll link us back to this post so we can tie it all together.

  25. Kim Kasch on April 28, 2009 at 9:14 AM

    >It must be like finding a diamond in a pile of rocks.

    So cool and exciting.

  26. Teri D. Smith on April 28, 2009 at 8:56 AM

    >I totally agree at how fun it was to hear you so excited.

    It excites me to get back to work to in a way that will do that to an agent or editor!

    You’re motivating us!

  27. on April 28, 2009 at 8:49 AM

    >There’s not a writer reading this that doesn’t wish that was them. To make an agent so giddy and excited about a book that they can’t wait to read it is every writer’s dream. Congrats to that writer and yes… lucky you.

  28. Marla Taviano on April 28, 2009 at 8:03 AM

    >This makes me giddy, and it’s not even me! I’m going to print this out and keep it by me as I work on my next proposal. πŸ™‚

  29. Anonymous on April 28, 2009 at 7:52 AM

    >Thank you so much for this post! I’m happy for both you and the author. It’s so great to find something wonderful to read–and as an author, to see that dream coming to life!

    I do have a question concerning submissions:

    Do you ever accept re-submissions, and do you know (in general, of course), if many agents do? My purpose in writing this is NOT to further bury your inbox in queries, I promise!

    Recently, I sent a completed manuscript to several agents in the Christian market. Most who have responded were very kind, but passed. Several of those passes cited this reason: the economy is so bad that the publishing world is not open to people who are currently unknown and do not have an automatic reader-base of a significant size.

    While I am waiting for the economy to rebound, I am building my platform, which has already expanded greatly (and it is sensible to assume that it will only continue to grow because of specific professional changes in my life). I am submitting my manuscript to others to critique and am even considering an editorial service in case technical/creative reasons served to prompt a “pass”.

    So with these three elements that will change significantly (i.e., my much larger platform, more effective marketing plan, and a manuscript that will have the editorial service “seal” of approval), would it be appropriate to re-submit when/after the economy rebounds and the publishing world opens back up to people like me?

    Thank you so much for your advice and encouragement, Rachelle!


  30. Catherine West on April 28, 2009 at 7:48 AM

    >I guess that makes all the other queries that make you want to rip your hair out worth it. Can’t wait to hear more!

  31. Krista Phillips on April 28, 2009 at 7:12 AM

    >Great, encouraging story! Thanks so much for sharing!!

  32. lynnrush on April 28, 2009 at 6:54 AM

    >Awesome. I’m glad you shared. I watched it unfold on twitter yesterday so I knew I had to get to this post first thing this morning.

    It’s nice to read about specific examples of a winning query. I wish you the best on this one, Rachelle.

  33. Jill on April 28, 2009 at 6:52 AM

    >Your excitement and enthusiasm come through loud and clear. You’ve got us wanting to read the book!

  34. Karen on April 28, 2009 at 6:46 AM

    >I love when you get excited! Doesn’t matter whose book it is. That’s what reading is all about–good stuff that turns us on!

  35. Janna Qualman on April 28, 2009 at 6:42 AM

    >Well, I have to say I’m so very excited for this writer! We all dream of our work being so well-received, and she gives me hope. Best to her!

  36. Sharon A. Lavy on April 28, 2009 at 6:26 AM

    >Rachelle I am happy for you. To read through the pile of querys that come through your email and find the gem that makes you want to read the whole manuscript has to be a real thrill.

  37. Jessica on April 28, 2009 at 5:38 AM

    >Great post! I love hearing about what works for an agent in a query. Congrats to the writer. I hope the manuscript is everything you want it to be. πŸ™‚

  38. Katie on April 28, 2009 at 4:07 AM

    >That was a very helpful post – thanks for sharing. My mom bought me Eat, Pray, Love for Christmas. I haven’t gotten around to reading it yet. Now I want to read it. πŸ™‚

  39. RefreshMom on April 28, 2009 at 3:24 AM

    >There’s one really excited writer out there who is thrilled that she got it right and that you *got* it! And a whole bunch of readers who can’t wait to hear ‘the rest of the story’ as things progress.

    Thanks for sharing what worked. Now to get to revising…