Questions on Queries

Here are a few questions I often receive about queries and what I say in response:

You said “don’t pitch a novel unless it’s complete.” Do you feel the same about query letters? Do we only query completed works, or are ideas fair game?

If you are sending a query to an agent, only pitch projects that are ready to go. If it’s a novel and you are not previously published with a mainstream commercial publisher, this means a completed manuscript. For non-fiction, a complete book proposal and two sample chapters will do. (But more and more, publishers are asking for complete manuscripts on non-fiction, too. Especially with unproven writers.) Think about it. If I read your query and I like it, the first thing you’ll hear from me is, “Please send a book proposal and several sample chapters.” If that looks good and I’m seriously considering representation, I’m going to ask you for everything you’ve got. I can’t sell to a publisher without the whole shebang (unless, like I’ve mentioned repeatedly, you are multi-published and a proven commodity). You can’t query an idea, because ideas have no value without execution.

What about sending in a synopsis instead of a query?

Don’t do it. Some people send a synopsis and NOTHING else, not even a salutation or a closing. IMHO, it’s rude and unprofessional. In fact, I received one recently. Just a one paragraph synopsis. Nothing about the author. Just a line saying, “Email me if you’re interested in seeing more.” I wasn’t interested, so I deleted it without responding.

I’m curious to know if there are any cliché phrases that you’ve found in query letters that writers absolutely, positively should avoid.

The thing about clichés is that in a few cases, when used correctly, they can be perfect in a query, especially if they make the reader laugh. In most cases, however, since your query is a writing sample, your best bet is to avoid sounding hackneyed or derivative. The best advice I can give about clichés is (another cliché): When in doubt, leave it out.

I’ve attended workshops where the author has strayed from the guidelines and got picked up. And encouraged us to do the same. We’re told to follow guidelines. We’re told to stand out. I realize our writing will determine if we stand out or not, but what kind of things that stray from the guidelines would catch your attention in a good way?

I wrote in a query post that I don’t expect you to be slaves to guidelines. I’m just trying to offer tips here, ya know? With ALL guidelines (on writing, pitching, querying, etc.) try to see behind the specific advice and get to the basic truth. With a query, the basic truth is that you need the agent/editor to want to see more, or you’re sunk. It’s up to you to figure out how to accomplish that goal. Use guidelines to help learn the craft of writing and the business of publishing… let them go when you don’t need them anymore. I can’t say “what kind of things that stray from the guidelines would catch my attention” because that’s as individual as the person.

Do you accept query letters for books that have been indie-published? I ask this because I have one, but I’ve been seriously considering having it edited by a professional, rewriting it and then seeking representation for it.

Yes… no… maybe. It’s a common question these days but there are too many variables. The most important consideration will ALWAYS be how good your book is, and that’s subjective. I suggest a normal query to agents, including the POD information (release date, sales figures). You’ll find out soon enough if it’s catching anyone’s attention.

I know the importance of addressing the letter to a specific person, not just Sir or Madam or Dear Agent, however, even though I feel as if I know you from reading the blog, Dear Rachelle seems far too informal. Is Ms. So and So acceptable to most women who are agents?

A few years ago, I read some heated debate on another blog about the “Ms.” salutation. I was stunned to find that a few women seem to resent or dislike the term. Nevertheless, the correct salutation is Ms. Gardner or Mr. Johnson. Once you’ve corresponded with the person, you can take your cue from how they sign their emails. I’m always just Rachelle and I prefer being addressed that way. Personally, I don’t object to people querying with my first name rather than “Ms.” because I go to great lengths to be approachable by writing my blog.

Could you please provide the pronunciation of the word “query” that won’t make agents/editors wince? Does it rhyme with PRAIRIE or EERIE?

Leave it to an English teacher! Potayto, Potahto. Tomayto, tomahto. Your choice. Just make sure you use the preferred pronunciation of the editor/agent you’re talking to. (tee hee) As for me, I could hardly care less. As long as you SPELL it right.

Photo credit:

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. […] out how ready your manuscript needs to be for a Twitter pitch contest, and Rachelle Gardner answers questions on queries. In addition, Lisa Tener details 7 qualities to cultivate to help you get a book deal, and Jenna […]

  2. Pat Iacuzzi on October 10, 2018 at 9:18 PM

    Question: (very similar to Kathryn Harris’s): …. finished story that did very well in a publishers’ contest; all it needs is polish. However, it’s not the genre I usually like to write in, and I worry about “branding”, (like getting stuck in a time-travel machine) as I also have an “untested” story (which I prefer) that is near completion. Any suggestions which direction I should go?
    And the query–all I can offer is a huge thank you, Rachelle for showing us how it’s done!

  3. Molly Jebber on October 10, 2018 at 3:12 PM

    Hi Rachelle, I’ve followed you for years. Your advice helps make me a better writer and now author. I appreciate your advice, and thank you for taking the time to share your expertise!

  4. Pam Halter on April 18, 2008 at 7:44 AM

    >I want to comment on having the whole manuscript written and ready to go. Absolutely! I was asked for a full proposal at a writer’s conference. I sent it when I got home and 4 DAYS LATER, they asked for the WHOLE MANUSCRIPT! Imagine if I didn’t have it ready.

    It’s worth the extra time to finish before you send a query or proposal.

  5. Marla Taviano on April 17, 2008 at 12:22 PM

    >Quairie? Really? I’ve never heard it pronounced that way. I must not get out much.

  6. Tiffany Stuart on April 17, 2008 at 9:08 AM

    >Love this inside scoop you give. Every time I leave encouraged and smiling.

  7. Kathryn Harris on April 17, 2008 at 8:28 AM

    >Since you seem to be in the mood for answering questions *smile*, I have a rambling one that may seem stupid, but here goes:
    What should a writer do if they have what they believe would be a great idea for a novel, but it isn’t in the same genre they are interested in writing (e.g. they write romantic fiction and the idea is sci-fi) and they don’t know any writers of that genre with whom to share the idea?
    As always, thanks giving us writers a glimpse at your side of the desk and for being making yourself so darn approachable.