Query Lines to Make an Agent Sigh

sighI was going through my current batch of query letters, and while many of them are very good, it reminded me how difficult it is to write a strong pitch. You have to accomplish so many things in a concise format: introduce your book in a way that the agent wants to read it; give just enough information about yourself to be helpful; convey a bit of your personality; avoid query landmines and clichés.

I understand it’s not easy. I never reject writers for making one silly mistake in a query — I sincerely assess whether the book being pitched looks interesting to me. But as I was going through my current batch, I found most of the same kinds of “sigh worthy” lines that I’ve been seeing for years. Try not to say things like this:

1. I’m certain this memoir will be a huge success!

2. My book will make readers laugh out loud.

3. All those other Christian books are getting it wrong – but my book gets it right.

4. I have published five books with PublishAmerica, all of which have been listed on Amazon.

5. I  am writing a fiction novel.

6. Have you ever wondered…?

7. Several agents have already passed on my book, but had positive things to say. Here are excerpts about my book from three other agents’ emails.

What is the hardest thing about writing a query letter? Have you made these (or other) mistakes?

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. […] Seven things you shouldn’t say in a query letter […]

  2. […] Query Lines to Make an Agent Sigh by Rachelle Gardner […]

  3. what not to say to an agent | little rockets on December 5, 2012 at 8:20 PM

    […] motions out of the equation is literary agent, Rachelle Gardner. She’s put together a short list of what not to say to an agent (and well, not looking like an idiot is always […]

  4. Laura Hurlburt on December 4, 2012 at 7:03 PM

    I read Query Shark until my eyes fell out and followed every step she suggested. (She is genius, if you haven’t found her yet!) My form is correct, I feel certain of that.

    I think the hardest part of the query letter is what Rachelle said, “introduce your book in a way that the agent wants to read it.” I’m sure what she means is the query should be compelling to the agent, therefore making him/her want to read it. But I feel the agent’s subjectivity is the hardest part of my querying experience. I just haven’t found an agent who wants to read the story I’ve written. It’s okay. I’ll just keep on keeping on.

    • Jim Gilliam on December 6, 2012 at 6:40 AM

      Amen to that Laura. The query is about the book. Not the author or the agent. The subjective part is whether or not the agent thinks they can sell it to one of the Big Six, or an imprint thereof, for a hefty advance. Repping a book is hard work and takes a lot of time. Fifteen percent of a 20,000 dollar advance amounts to 3,000 dollars. Considering the work involved, it is hardly minimum wage. Fifteen percent of 200,000 on the other hand is 30,000 dollars. That will help to keep the agency’s lights on.

      So, bottom line, we the unpublished, great voices that we have, remain with our light hidden under a bushel await an agent with enough faith to lift the basket, revealing our craft to the literary world.

      Do not despair. John Grisham self-published his first novel A Time to Kill and sold it out of the trunk of his car at flea markets and meetings of local garden and book clubs. He got lucky with The Firm and both books became blockbuster movies.


      • Laura Hurlburt on December 7, 2012 at 6:41 PM

        Thanks for the encouragement, Jim!

        Once I taste enough rejection, I just may go the self-pub route. In the meantime, I’m working on growing thick skin.

        All the best!

        • Jim Gilliam on December 7, 2012 at 7:16 PM

          Me too! My skin is pretty thick. I just read a blog about querying. I think this guy works for an agency but is not an agent. Anyway he spent some time with agents from his agency. What he said was very enlightening. According to him one agent went through 19 queries in 14 minutes and rejected 18 of them. This guy is also a first time author who is still looking for an agent. He did share that he kept getting form letter rejections until he started attending writer’s conferences and meeting agents and other published writers. He still gets rejections but they are helpful in content.

          His bottom line seems to be that in this business it is not how well you write but who you know.

          Okay. I sent out 10 queries today 5 email and 5 snail mail.

          One thing he said that I’ve started is first few sentences to introduce the book. Genre, how many words, and the world the protagonist lives in. Then 300 word summary of the book. Last a author Bio pertinent to the work and a thank you and a call to action (I look forward to hearing from you.)

          Keep the faith Laura.


  5. Jim Gilliam on December 4, 2012 at 1:49 PM

    Here is a query pearl I picked up the other day.I pass it along for what it’s worth.

    If you query via email why not summarize your query letter in the subject line?

    Here’s my new query subject line.

    QUERY, 80,000-word Suspense Thriller TARNISHED HERO, by award winning author Jim Gilliam.

    Covers word count, genre, and a peek at the author.

    You’ve stated that it is a query, given the word count, genere, and author info.

    You’ve got the agent’s immediate interest. Most agents are so inundated with email queries that saving them even one mouse click will be appreciated and give them the idea that they understand their position and are therefore a fellow literary professional.


    • Jim Gilliam on December 4, 2012 at 1:52 PM

      My bad. It should read that you understand their position. Not they understand their position.


  6. S.C. Barrus on December 4, 2012 at 12:41 PM

    I had the same issue as many people here.

    Condensing a complicated, character driven lit fic story told through multiple points of view into 300 words not only feels as though I’m trivializing my own work, but the condensed version always sounds boring, even to me.

    But I’ve never really had issues not hearing back from agents. Usually I just get a form letter, sometimes something personalized, but generally speaking I hear back from at least 60-70% of them.

    Anyway, I’m fully committed to the Self Publishing route now, though an agent will still be nice.

    • Jim Gilliam on December 4, 2012 at 1:33 PM

      I hear you. Most of the agents I query get back to me too. Occassionaly one will send me a personal reply. I got all excited the other day when I got a personal reply from an agent using their stationary and envelope plus postage and not my SASE. I immediately emailed him a great big THANK YOU!

      When I couldn’t find an agent for my first novel I published with BookLocker.com a POD outfit. I’ll keep trying for an agent for my second novel, but after a couple of months of more “This just isn’t for us.” It’s hello BookLocker.

      Let me know what you’re writing and I’ll pick up a copy and if I like it I’ll give you a good review. I don’t do reviews on books I don’t like, but I will drop you a private email and tell you why I didn’t like it.

      Good luck.


      • S.C. Barrus on December 4, 2012 at 1:48 PM

        Hi Jim,

        How was your experience with BookLocker? (BTW, your blog is giving me a 404 error)

        That sounds great. It will be a while before I self publish because I’m determined to do it right.

        Right now I’m heavily researching self publishing, ebooks, POD, etc, and what I’m learning really appeals to me. As I learn, I’m blogging about it, citing authoritative sources, and keeping each post heavily research oriented, not conjecture.

        The plan is to collect all this work around February and publish it as an eBook either using Smashwords or BookBaby.

        In the mean time, I’ll be finishing up my steampunk thriller/adventure novel which will be much easier to market than my lit fic, and I’ll probably release both of those novels within 6 months of each other, with a reworking of a 3 day novel I wrote last year coming in 6-8 months after that.

        So when I say I’m fully committed, I’m all in. I would still like an agent to help navigate those uncharted waters though.

        Anyway, I’ll follow your blog and when I have news, I’ll let you know for sure.

        • Jim Gilliam on December 4, 2012 at 1:57 PM

          My experience with BookLocker has been very good. Nice folks.

          The best source of selfpublishing is Dan Poynter a personal friend. Checkout his website. You won’t be disappointed.


  7. Keri Neal on December 4, 2012 at 12:38 PM

    Oh yes, I am guilty of cliches too. And may I add, never start a query “In a world where…”

  8. Jim Gilliam on December 4, 2012 at 10:16 AM

    It is really just supply and demand. Of all the thousands of books published each year. Only 10 percent are novels. Yet. Ninety percent of queries to agents are for novels.

    In other words its hard to sell food to someone who has just eaten. Look up the Bio of any agent in any good literary agency. Most say that Jane Doe has fifty clients (let’s say). Jane Doe receives 1,000 queries per month (those are from us. Part of the 90 percent). How many hours are in a day? Do the math. She can pick and choose at the buffet because she’s not hungry. So what we need is to read an agent’s Bio from that same respected agency that reads: Sally Jones just joined our agency and is busy building her client list. There’s where the gold ring of acceptance resides. She’s hungry and keeps going back to the buffet table for seconds and thirds. Get your query in early to her, before her client list builds.

    Anyway. That’s one approach.


  9. S. Kim Henson on December 3, 2012 at 10:31 PM

    True confession: I wrote in several of my very first query letters that I thought my book may land me on Oprah’s famous couch. I feel better now that I’ve admitted it.

    • Heather Day Gilbert on December 4, 2012 at 12:16 AM

      Love this! Hey, I think every author thinks that, deep down, right?

      • S. Kim Henson on December 4, 2012 at 12:47 AM

        I’m not sure, Heather. But I’m happy you showed up so I’m guessing you have too. At least there are two of us. 🙂

        • S. Kim Henson on December 4, 2012 at 12:47 AM

          Oh, just don’t put it in writing.

  10. Cathy Olliffe-Webster on December 3, 2012 at 9:48 PM

    You know, there’s so much stuff out there about what to write and what not to write I feel like saying, “Look, I wrote a damned book. You wanna see it, or not?”

    • Jim Gilliam on December 4, 2012 at 1:15 AM

      Oh. I so agree with what you just said. I used to jump out of perfectly good airplanes and get shot at for a living. After that I started my first novel while my ship was cruising off the coast of the coast of Kuwait. An agent works for you, but the paradox is that unlike your contractor, who you can decide not to hire. An agent is the gatekeeper to the publishing industry and gets to decide whose money they are going to take. So as a potentual employer your potential employee gets to choose if they want to hire you as an employer. But in all fairness to the agent, if they choose you and can’t sell your book. They go bankrupt. It is just not fair. But I keep trying.


  11. Celia Jolley on December 3, 2012 at 8:46 PM

    I meant to say “novel fiction” instead of “fiction novel”!

  12. Kristin Laughtin on December 3, 2012 at 7:47 PM

    I’ve written several query letters for practice, but even after several years of reading blogs and learning about what works, it’s a tough art. Like several others have said, the most challenging part is condensing everything down into a short enough letter. Learning which aspects of your plot are important to highlight takes time and practice, and often several revisions to weed out all the extraneous information. Then, one has to figure out how best to sell the remaining information without sounding cocky, overconfident, or deluded!

    • Jan Thompson on December 3, 2012 at 10:22 PM

      Well said!

  13. […] a lighter but still serious note, Rachelle Gardner (@RachelleGardner) lists 7 Query Lines to Make an Agent Sigh (and not in a good way). Don’t use these. […]

  14. Krista Phillips on December 3, 2012 at 5:42 PM

    I probably did the laugh-out-loud one.

    I made some mistakes that now make me want to pray that God allows those people to forget what my name was when I pass them at conference.

    I think the most difficult thing for me in a query letter was to find the balance between sounding confident and not sounding cocky. There is a fine line, and I think it trips many, including myself up.

    Then I tended to go the opposite and be like, yeah, you’ll probably hate this but here goes anyway.

    And yeah. That’s not good either!!

  15. Mandi Lynn on December 3, 2012 at 5:41 PM

    The hardest thing for me is my age. I’m a teen author so I’ve asked around as to whether I should put my age or not. So far I haven’t but I stopped sending out letters in order to revise my book. I always get mixed opinions on whether to put my age. Any thoughts out there?

  16. Amy on December 3, 2012 at 4:12 PM

    Honestly, there is only 1 query that I have tailored to suit each agent that has rejected me. I have never used the word “Novel.” Probably because I do not feel I have the right to use that word. Yet. My unpublished works are either a “finished manuscript” or a “work in progress.” I always use the trite closing, “Thank you for your time and atttention” followed by a sincere, “Sincerely,”
    I try to write it the way I would say it only much more eloquent. (still working on that)
    I am in the same boat as the first commentor, Tom. Maybe worse. I am utterly incapable of properly condensing my multi-faceted, mind-bogglingly complex ideas that embody the premise of my Sci-Fi manuscript into a single paragraph. I lack ability.
    My recent WIP is a love story, a silly little work of Womens Fic that I cannot condense into a synopsis, let alone a query.
    But it won’t stop me. Insuffinciencies or no. I am working on them and will continue to bite, bleed, and break, pour myself into them because there is simply no other way for me to live. I have to write but I do not have to be read. I only really, really, really want to be.

    • Heather Day Gilbert on December 3, 2012 at 4:23 PM

      Hi Amy, I’d just suggest sticking to your main character(s) in your query and give a rough sense of the trajectory of action for THAT character. Don’t try to put in all the layers and subplots and side characters. Boil it down to a hook sentence, then build a paragraph or two around that. If there’s a theme in all those subplots, put that in as a separate sentence(faithfulness in marriage, etc).

      Another important step is letting outside eyes read over your query first. The best is an author that has queried and landed an agent with the query–they have a sense of what you need.

      Hope this helps. I know I was totally clueless when I started out as to how to boil things down. But you really have to show you’re able to be concise. There will be MORE exercises in conciseness, like writing a back cover blurb, writing a synopsis for the proposal, etc. It’s actually good practice!

  17. ddelano on December 3, 2012 at 3:31 PM

    Years ago when i sent out my very first query letter i actually included a quote that a friend of mine had made comparing my writing to (a famous author)! Looking back i just laugh – i still can’t believe it did that!

    • Amy on December 3, 2012 at 4:13 PM

      I think that is ballsy and awesome.

    • Jim Gilliam on December 3, 2012 at 5:23 PM

      How’d that work out for you?

      I’ve made several mistakes like that. But really the main thing an agent or editor wants to know is:

      Is it finished? Believe it or not writers sometimes query when their manuscript is nowhere near finished. What’s the genre? Some writers query agents with books that agent doesn’t represent. What’s the word count. That’s important to the potential publisher. Why did you query me? Were you referred? Did you meet me at a conference? What? Why do you think it will fit my list? You have to do your homework. Don’t waste your or the agent’s time if his list of book deals are for books that are nowhere close to the theme of your book.

      You should be able to immediately use the middle half of your query for back cover copy.

      Short Bio as it pertains to the book you are offering. Pub creds etc. Not. I’ve been trying to write this thing for years and I finally did it.

      Always end with thanks and a call to action. Thank you for considering my work. I look forward to hearing from you.

      Do Not! Restate the obvious. I’m enclosing a SASE. I’m submitting according to your guidelines. You either did or you didn’t. If you didn’t you’ve wasted everyone’s time.


  18. Rachel Wilder on December 3, 2012 at 3:20 PM

    “Fiction novel” drives me crazy! There’s only one kind of novel–fiction. Every time I see someone use it I want to slap their hands with a ruler.

  19. sherrie miranda on December 3, 2012 at 2:45 PM

    I haven’t used number 6, but I have seen it as an example of a good query, as well as having seen other agents mention asking a question.
    I tried to do it, but it didn’t feel right.

  20. Heather Day Gilbert on December 3, 2012 at 1:52 PM

    Two things I’ve learned over time about queries:

    1) The shorter/more concise, the more likely it’ll get noticed.

    2) Use action verbs with your hook/blurb section. It makes a huge difference.

    And from personal experience, never EVER say “My book picks up speed as it goes along.” Yup, been there and actually did that.

  21. Diane Yuhas on December 3, 2012 at 12:42 PM

    I would love to see a zillion successful query letters with notes about why they were successful. Any such thing in existence?

    • Jim Gilliam on December 3, 2012 at 1:03 PM

      Actually there is. Just Google “Query letters that work. Your have more than enough material. It will boggle your mind and make you dizzy.


      • Diane Yuhas on December 3, 2012 at 7:50 PM

        Thanks, Jim. I can’t wait to start looking.

    • Christine Dorman / @looneyfilberts on December 3, 2012 at 4:49 PM

      Also check out The Nelson Agency’s blog, Pub Rants at http://pubrants.blogspot.com and go to the right side margin links. Kristen Nelson has two extensive sections on queries: “Agent Kristen’s Queries: The Inside Scoop,” in which she places queries online with comments throughout each query about how she’s feeling / what she’s thinking as she reads. The other section is “Agent Kristen’s Query Pitch Workshop,” which has queries for different genres. Agent Sara Megibow, who is also with the Nelson Agency, has a Twitter site, @SaraMegibow. Once a week, usually on Thursdays, she does “Ten Queries in Ten Tweets in which she reads queries from the slush pile in real time and then tweets about each, saying if it is a pass or an accept and briefly tells why.

      If you are willing and able to spend some money, Writers Digest has a copy of a webinar Sara Megibow did for them on Queries. It’s quite informative and enlightening. Also, Chuck Sambucino (of Writers’ Digest) has written a book on how to write queries. There are numerous examples in the book. I found the webinar more helpful than the book, but the book is considerably less expensive.


  22. Jim Gilliam on December 3, 2012 at 12:39 PM

    You’ve written your 90,000-word novel. It is on the shelf in your local Barnes & Noble. The average customer will spend more or less than a minute in deciding whether to purchase your book. That customer decision is based on cover art, back cover blurb, the first couple of paragraphs, and to a lesser extent. Awards and praise for the book. Well guys your first customers are the extremely busy agents and editors. They are looking for books that are going to sell well not read well. You can have clouds without rain, but you can never have rain without clouds. You’re in competition with thousands of other writers out there who write as well as or better than you do. All vying for an agent or editor’s limited time. If you can’t condense your novel have an expert do it for you.

    The query is mainly about the book and convincing the agent that she can SELL it.


    • Amy on December 3, 2012 at 4:16 PM

      I never thought about it from that perspective. Interesting…

  23. Dee Bright on December 3, 2012 at 12:12 PM

    I love all the responses and can relate to so many of them.

    For me the biggest challenge with a query is condensing everything cogent onto one page. It does force me to make every word count, and being the word-whirlwind I am, that’s a good thing!

  24. Ursula Jordaan on December 3, 2012 at 12:09 PM

    Any examples of good query letters??

    • Jim Gilliam on December 3, 2012 at 12:59 PM

      Well known agent Donald Maass has written a nice little monograph on writing a query letter that you can download for free on his website. Other agents also write on the subject. Writer’s Digest offers numerous tutorials on the subject including a query clinic for a nominal fee. See my post above for an example of my current rendition. It may not be the best letter of its type, but after trial and error it is what I’m going with for now. I also tend to query agents who ask for the first couple of chapters of my novel as opposed to just the query letter. Even if they pass on the novel, it is (I think) based on their conception of the saleability of my writing and not on the cleverness of my query letter.


      • Ursula Jordaan on December 3, 2012 at 3:26 PM

        Thanks Jim!!

        Will take a look for sure.

  25. Stephanie M. on December 3, 2012 at 11:56 AM

    I found the hardest part was making myself sound cheesy. I mean, exciting blurbs are pretty cheesy when you’re writing them. I was reminded of the scene in The Holiday where Cameron Diaz has a voice-over of her own life. Once I got over that it was fine.

  26. Bonnie Ferrante on December 3, 2012 at 11:40 AM

    #7 Made me laugh out loud.

    Since I write novels, I find it difficult to be brief in a query letter.

  27. Lindsay Harrel on December 3, 2012 at 11:26 AM

    Keeping it to one page is difficult, as is writing a compelling hook.

    • Meghan Carver on December 3, 2012 at 1:52 PM

      Yes! Some others are commenting about getting their story down to three paragraphs, but I’ve never been able to do that and still have room for any bio, etc.

  28. Cherry Odelberg on December 3, 2012 at 11:13 AM

    Attempting to wrestle a full novel into 300 words, gripping,yet not spoiling; and presenting a bio in that happy balance between pomp and whine eludes me –and I have been trying to do this since the time that query was for nonfiction, proposal was for novel and Writer’s Market had not yet thought of CD or online.

  29. Diane Yuhas on December 3, 2012 at 11:03 AM

    I’ve not yet written a query letter, but I think it will be difficult to write confidently when I’m so unsure of its reception. How humiliating to put forth your heart’s desire only to have it meet with indifference. By the way, how long do you wait for a response before you figure it was placed in the circular file?

    • Jim Gilliam on December 3, 2012 at 12:02 PM

      Most agents state in their submission guidelines their reply times. Like two weeks for queries. Six weeks for MSS. Some ask you to wait for up to two months before you ask for a status report. Most agents get back to you before their published reply times. However, these days, unfortunately, no response is the response.

      Rule of thumb. If the agent is interested, she will reply promptly. I can’t stress the importance of strictly adhering to the individual agent’s submission guidelines. Failure to do so is bound to get you the no response. Response.


      • Diane Yuhas on December 3, 2012 at 12:39 PM

        Well, that’s one thing I have going for me. I can follow directions 🙂

  30. Jim Gilliam on December 3, 2012 at 10:48 AM

    Along with writing a great book, writing a great query letter is the most important thing a writer (at any stage in her career) can learn.

    I’ve looked back over some of the many letters I’ve written and have tried to come up with a current philosophy of writing a query with a hook.

    At the top of the list is. One page! One page! One page! If an agent sees more than one page. You could be the next Lee Child and the agent will pass.

    Next is. Homework! Homework! Homework! Remember that the 2013 edition of Writer’s Market is ONLY a reference book. Always go to the agent’s website. Submission requirements constantly change. I don’t know how many times I’ve read that agent X is looking for this or that. And when I look on the website there is a blurb that this agent is not open for queries until six months from now. Follow the agent’s submission guidelines to the letter! One more time. Follow the agent’s submission guidelines to the letter! Do not send more material than she asks for. If you’re not professional enough to follow simple directions then the agent doesn’t have time to waste. Every agent that I know. Receives hundreds of queries a month. Her time is valuable and so is yours. Don’t waste it.

    Breaking the query into three parts. The first part is the introduction. You need to get in and get out. Genre and word count etc. Something personal about the agent. I met you at such and such writer’s conference. I’ve read your Bio or I read your interview with Jane Doe. I’ve read this or that book you represented and that’s why I think my novel will fit your list. Short and sweet is the rule here.

    Look at the back cover of a book in your genre. The middle part of your query should look like that. Not uncle Joe read it and thinks it’s better than Hemingway. Describe your book in 300-words or less.

    Finish with a short Bio that is pertinent to your writing. Not me and my wife Molly and a dog named Blue love to take long walks on the beach.

    Always thank the agent for considering your work. Don’t restate the obvious. I’m enclosing an SASE. It just fell out of the big envelope onto her desk.

    Here is an example of my current query letter. I’m still getting rejections but they are coming back to me in days instead of weeks.

    L D 02 December 2012
    The Agency, Inc.
    570 East Avenue
    Madison, GA 30650

    Dear Ms. D:
    I am seeking representation for my completed 80,000-word suspense thriller Tarnished Hero. After reviewing your impressive Bio and your Crits for Water Interview, April 10, 2012. I feel I would be a good fit for your current client list.
    In the early 1960’s, Tim Kelly’s Coast Guard career takes him to Galveston. Hoping to put his father’s death. At the hands of a union busting thug. Behind him. Kelly transfers to San Francisco where he meets Brenda Conrad and an overbearing, sadistic executive officer. Given a choice between courts martial and combat duty in Vietnam. Kelly chooses Vietnam. When three of his friends are killed in a friendly fire incident. Kelly releases his rage in an Air Force officer’s club. Returning to the U.S. with a less than honorable discharge. He embarks on a new career as an undercover narcotics agent. After his rescue from the drug cartel when his cover is blown. He plans to marry Brenda Conrad. Before the wedding can take place. Brenda and her best friend. The daughter of the Governor of Texas. Are kidnapped by the cartel and spirited to a secret island off the coast of Yucatan. Kelly enlists the aid of a local Mayan rebel leader to find and rescue the two women.
    In addition to guns, drugs, and human trafficking. The powerful Campeche Cartel is heavily engaged in the sale of human organs and tissue on the black market. The director of this branch of the Cartel convinces the leader of the Cartel to engage in germ warfare against their rival cartels. A bitter, discredited, former Army germ warfare specialist becomes the head of the project. He has his own agenda. The release of airborne Anthrax over thousands of tourists attending the San Antonio 1968 World’s Fair.

    Will Kelly succeed in rescuing the two women and prevent a global pandemic of respiratory Anthrax?

    My first novel Point Deception won the Texas Association of Authors’ 2012, Best Fiction Award, placed second in the 2012, Stars & Flags War Fiction category, garnered an honorable mention in the 2012, New York Beach Book Festival, and was the number one finalist in the Thriller category in the 2012, National Indie Excellence Awards Competition. In addition to my first novel Point Deception and my second novel Tarnished Hero, I’m over 12,000-words into my third novel The SADM Project. The theme is one of our tactical NUKEs is missing.

    Thank you for considering my work. I look forward to hearing from you.


    James W. Gilliam, II
    75 West Street
    Warwick, New York 10990-1428 – (845) 544-1563 – jgill12775@optonline.net

  31. Sundi Jo on December 3, 2012 at 10:39 AM

    Perhaps trying to convey your personality in the query letter, with a very short amount of words.

    “3. All those other Christian books are getting it wrong – but my book gets it right.”

    That one makes me sad, as it shows pride and a skewed view of others’ talents.

    • Daisy on December 7, 2012 at 12:21 AM

      sad and scared. makes me wonder WWJW

  32. Else on December 3, 2012 at 10:28 AM

    I’m so old that when I went to school, we were taught letter-writing. A query falls under one of the categories we were taught: Business letter.

    The rules for a business letter were, as I recall,

    1. Open with a salutation (Dear So-and-So)

    2. State your business clearly. Stick to the business at hand. Do not make personal remarks or discuss matters irrelevant to the business.

    3. Close by thanking the letter recipient for their time.

    4. Sign the letter appropriately.

  33. Denise Loughlin on December 3, 2012 at 10:22 AM

    Argh, Rachelle, a million apologies on typo in your name. No excuses for committing one of the ten most deadly deal-killing sins for anyone, let alone an unagented author.

    Mea culpa. To infinity.


  34. Meghan Carver on December 3, 2012 at 10:21 AM

    The hardest part of the query letter for me (today anyway!) is conveying a bit of my personality without sounding schmaltzy or brown-nosey. I used an exclamation point in one letter, like the one in that first sentence, and then agonized over it after I sent it. Thanks for the list, Rachelle!

    • Jennifer Major @Jjumping on December 3, 2012 at 1:35 PM

      I KNOW!!! I want to sound confident, but not like Herb Tarlek on Italian coffee!!

      • Meghan Carver on December 3, 2012 at 1:50 PM

        I had to google Herb Tarlek, but it turns out I just didn’t know his last name. Yeah, love WKRP, except now I’m going to have their jingle running through my head all day long. 🙂

  35. Denise Loughlin on December 3, 2012 at 10:20 AM

    Great info, Rachel – thanks so very much! It really helps to get agent feedback like this with specific, useful tips about how to let you, or any agent, realize short form that my books will rock your world, boost you to the highest tax brackets thus inducing you to read, love and shepherd my “literary baby” to bestsellerdom.

    Or something akin to that, right?

    Thanks a million,

  36. Emily R. on December 3, 2012 at 10:20 AM

    The hardest thing for me is getting personality in there. Putting personality in my book is second nature, but the moment I realize I’m writing something besides fiction and it needs to be professional, my writing suddenly gets dry…

    • Roxanne Sherwood Gray on December 3, 2012 at 4:51 PM

      Emily, I agree. It’s hard to condense and still keep the personality in tact. I haven’t quite managed that.

  37. Jeanne on December 3, 2012 at 10:11 AM

    I think the trickiest thing about writing a query is getting my hook solid and then condensing 90,000 words of story into a riveting 3 paragraph summary.

    Thanks for sharing things to avoid, Rachelle. 🙂

    • P. J. Casselman on December 3, 2012 at 10:27 AM

      I’d encourage you to run some of those by your friends if you haven’t already. They can help give them some punch.

      • Jeanne on December 3, 2012 at 6:29 PM

        It’s been a terribly busy day. Jim, you’re right. I’m keeping that one in mind. 🙂

    • Jennifer Major @Jjumping on December 3, 2012 at 1:34 PM

      And, sometimes you can help them punch your friend, right? No names, Miscreant #1, no names…

      Seriously though, a certain pastor friend in Kansas, again, no names, helped me out alot in my writer life and still earns high respect from me. Fresh eyes from 2 or 3 crit peeps makes a huge difference in the quality of the query.

      • Jeanne on December 3, 2012 at 6:30 PM

        Okay, Jennifer. You need to behave on Rachelle’s blog. No punching–friends or otherwise. You have boys, you know where it leads…. 😉

        • Jennifer Major @Jjumping on December 3, 2012 at 6:41 PM

          hahaha! You are correct, Ma’am. I hope I didn’t scare the Chief Miscreant.

          • P. J. Casselman on December 4, 2012 at 2:38 AM

            Who Andrew? Nah, nothing scares him. 🙂

  38. J. M. Tompkins on December 3, 2012 at 10:04 AM


  39. Julie Luek on December 3, 2012 at 9:37 AM

    Yikes– I don’t have a lot of query writing yet, but some of those do seem like big blunders. Thanks for the heads-up. I try to make like a sponge and absorb as much of this information as possible.

  40. Jessica Nelson on December 3, 2012 at 9:22 AM

    I didn’t make those mistakes (I’m sure I’ve made others) but only thanks to blogs like yours, Miss Snark and others who share what NOT to do. 🙂

    • Meghan Carver on December 3, 2012 at 10:17 AM

      It definitely pays off to read the blogs!

  41. Stephen H. King on December 3, 2012 at 8:52 AM

    Rachelle, thank you for those! The hardest part for me when I was writing query letters was that I really had no perspective from which to know what would make an agent sigh. Out of my first batch of three (yes, my first few batches really were that small till I realized how the game was going to go and started with batches of 20) replied with a polite no, with a suggestion about my name, and I made the mistake of replying to him. But in my day job, that’s just a professional thing to do–who knew it was a no-no with agents?

    – TOSK

    PS–mentioned RG in my blog yesterday, a discussion of “what to do now” that NaNoWriMo is done. I said something to the effect of “wrap those beautiful new novels up and send ’em right away to this wonderful agent I know.” Then I deleted that and replaced it with sound advice.

    • P. J. Casselman on December 3, 2012 at 10:24 AM

      Getting people to spam an agent is the new way of ordering 20 pizzas for the neighbor, right?

      • Stephen H. King on December 3, 2012 at 11:22 AM

        Yeah, which is why I didn’t leave it there. Still, it was fun to read it before I pressed the delete key. 🙂

        – TOSK

  42. Roxanne Sherwood Gray on December 3, 2012 at 8:39 AM

    Rachelle, Sharing what makes you shake your head and say, “Oh, not again,” is so helpful. Thanks so much!

  43. Diana Harkness on December 3, 2012 at 8:30 AM

    I agree with the first comment, but feel inclined to add that I’d like agents to realize and remember that I am not experienced at querying an agent. What I would most like is to hand the agent my query at a conference and then have them read and respond while I wait or sometime later. I had a short list of 2 agents. The lack of response within 30 days means I have to query the other one, but how do I know what to change. And the other one wants the manuscript mailed which is much more difficult than an email query.

    • P. J. Casselman on December 4, 2012 at 2:35 AM

      Unless these agents asked for you to send them something, it’s a cold query. I’d recommend broadening your list and not waiting for responses.

      You can get some critique from various places, however. writers’ groups, a rare few agents and friends can help craft a good query. Then it’s a matter of demonstrating the marketability of the work. Even a great story will go unpublished if there’s no market for it.

  44. Angela Brown on December 3, 2012 at 8:27 AM

    The hardest part thing about a query letter is knowing when it is cracker-jack ready.

    Next is pressing send.

  45. Mercey Valley on December 3, 2012 at 7:25 AM

    Query letters. Aaaaaugh!!! What to do? Had me beaten for a while until I felt confident that I could send it right and not overbaked. It does seem like a fine line to get it so right, and reading EVERY bit of info I could find from trusted sources helped majorly.

    I’d rather send a one-sheet. Now THAT I can do, no problem! You want something that sells? Hand me a blank page and I can bring it alive with the addition of an image, a blurb, and sell anything. One-sheets speak my language. Translate that to a query…? Sooo close 😉 Even if my query’s great, I still ‘feel’ slightly dud.

    Hardest thing about a query is doing your best and wondering how it will be received. Back to the worst-book-ever post from last week, it proves so much is down to personal opinion and preference or what’s selling at the time. No matter what the worst part is, at some point the bullet must be bit. If it explodes, we do a Wile E. Coyote and go for the next round.

    • Jennifer Major @Jjumping on December 3, 2012 at 1:31 PM

      And walk off with “pathetic Coyote!” music.
      I’ll trade you a query letter for a one-sheet!!

      • Mercey Valley on December 3, 2012 at 11:11 PM

        Deal. If we knew where we went wrong we wouldn’t make the same mistake twice.

        One day we get to be the Road Runner 😉

  46. P. J. Casselman on December 3, 2012 at 3:57 AM

    The hardest part of writing a query letter is my bio. I don’t have anything attractive to an agent. Being an unpublished author with an M.Div. says I’m a huge gamble. Being too poor to go to book conferences doesn’t help either. So when I send out a query, I wish I could leave the bio section blank.

    My 2 biggest mistakes in query writing-

    -I put that my novel was 79,438 words.
    -I called Janet Reid “Mr. Reid” during the chum bucket. Oh the shark bit me on that one. (She’s awesome, btw. I love her bluntness and you can tell she genuinely cares about writers.)

    • Beth K. Vogt on December 3, 2012 at 4:07 AM

      Use that M.Div. to your advantage, PJ — and your life experience too!!
      Keeping track of your word count to the ones column? That tells me your detail-oriented.
      And that whole calling a Mrs. a Mr. problem?
      Just. Don’t. Do. That. Again.


      • P. J. Casselman on December 3, 2012 at 10:21 AM

        Thanks Beth, you’re the ultimate cheerleader! 🙂

    • Stephen H. King on December 3, 2012 at 8:44 AM

      I’m sure Janet found it interesting, but agents named Pat make me nervous. I just go with the full name (“Dear Pat Whosit”) rather than venturing out into unknown gender-land.

      And one of the things I learned at a conference (hmm, that sounds kinda like “one summer at band camp”…) was that if you’re a fiction author, the bio part is pretty much ignored. At least, it is by the agents who were there.

      – TOSK

      • P. J. Casselman on December 3, 2012 at 10:20 AM

        What’s scary is when they have a picture and you still don’t know. O.o

        The ignored bio could be a good thing. My current WIP is about a Jewish cop solving the murders of Clergy. I’m only qualified to die in it.

        • Stephen H. King on December 3, 2012 at 11:26 AM

          I apologize if there are double posts; my other reply seems to have vanished.

          Never heard of an author killing himself in a book. I suppose it’s possible, but usually we leave the virtual corpses for those who’ve irritated us–bosses, agents who ignore us, etc. Still, seems like you’re more than qualified to be the wise minister who advises the Jewish cop on the ways of the clergy.

        • Jennifer Major @Jjumping on December 3, 2012 at 1:28 PM

          I’d say with the beard, they’d catch on that PJ ain’t no girl.

          • P. J. Casselman on December 4, 2012 at 2:02 AM

            You never met my Aunt Martha.

    • Jennifer Major @Jjumping on December 3, 2012 at 1:29 PM

      Didn’t an utterly brilliant beta reader suggest rounding that number off a few digits?

      MISTER Reid?

      Slaps forehead.

      • P. J. Casselman on December 4, 2012 at 2:05 AM

        Yes and a fine suggestion it was.

        Janet slapped her forehead with a fin, I’m sure.

    • Christine Dorman / @looneyfilberts on December 3, 2012 at 1:32 PM

      You’re not alone, P.J. I am unpublished and am too poor to attend writing conferences just like you. Thankfully, I have read that yet-to-be-published writers should keep the bio section short. (I think Wendy gave that advice).

      One thing that I have realized would be appropriate in my bio section for my fantasy novel query is that I grew up in a very Celtic culture, hearing stories about banshees and faeries. The novel’s main character is a faerie, her mother’s a banshee and Irish folklore and symbolism are woven throughout the book. The other thing I am working on currently is getting an MFA in Writing. I have read in a number of sources that a degree in English (which I have) is meaningless since so many writers have one, many publishers are “impressed” by MFA’s in Writing. Even if the initials don’t help on a query, continuing to hone my writing skills should.

      I think you may be selling yourself short, though. For the bio section on a query for your novel about bullying, I think there are a couple of things that would be important to mention. First, if as a pastor, you have counseled teens who have been bullied, shunned, or who have had suicidal thoughts, you could mention that you have worked with teens like your protagonist. Also, if I am recalling correctly, didn’t you encounter some bullying yourself when you were in school? If so, you could say that the focus of the novel and the development of the main character stem from your own experiences. The experience doesn’t have to be identical to be valid.


      • P. J. Casselman on December 4, 2012 at 2:08 AM

        Thanks Christine. I suppose I’m not giving agents enough credit to see what my degree and experience brings to the table. My presumption’s been: well, they’ll think it’s a religious book and toss it.
        Here’s hoping this next one sees light!

  47. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser on December 3, 2012 at 3:56 AM

    When I started querying, I went under ther assumptionb that I was writing a “back cover blurb” that would hook a reader.


    I was writing a sales pitch that would convince a professional within the publishing industry that my book would be a viable PRODUCT that could be successfully marketed.

    • P. J. Casselman on December 3, 2012 at 4:05 AM

      Mmm hmm. It’s forces us to do some market research. That’s a bit time consuming to say the least.

    • Jennifer Major @Jjumping on December 3, 2012 at 1:26 PM

      A fine balance to be sure, but you’re also trying to hook the agent,who is a reader. Right? Maybe your friends should mention what a riveting story you tell and how your dialogue is INSANELY good.

    • Heather Day Gilbert on December 3, 2012 at 1:50 PM

      Brilliant breakdown on it, Andrew! We have to show how our books will sell. And I’ll admit to having some really inept, stinky queries when I started out.

  48. Beth K. Vogt on December 3, 2012 at 3:41 AM

    Challenges of query letters:
    Getting them started … and wrapping them up.
    I want to hook an editor with an intriguing idea … and then end professionally.
    But really, “cordially” has never done it for me. Not that I’m not cordial — most of the time. It’s just not a word we toss around this day and age …
    And “respectfully”? Well, sure, I respect editors. And agents.
    But still, it sounds so “this is what my 8th grade English teacher taught me in class about how to write a proper letter.”

    • P. J. Casselman on December 3, 2012 at 4:03 AM

      My English teacher told me to learn the guitar. 😛

      • Beth K. Vogt on December 3, 2012 at 4:04 AM

        PJ, you crack me up!!! And it’s 1:04 AM. What are you doing up?!?!

        • P. J. Casselman on December 3, 2012 at 4:06 AM

          It’s 2:04 here. I’m off tomorrow and I had a long nap, so…
          I am heading to bed though! zzzzz

          • Roxanne Sherwood Gray on December 3, 2012 at 8:34 AM

            When I wanted to take up acting, my father suggested I take typing, just in case…

      • Stephen H. King on December 3, 2012 at 8:40 AM

        I have to ask–so did you?

      • Diane Yuhas on December 3, 2012 at 10:50 AM

        You are hilarious, P. J. I love your comments.

      • Jennifer Major @Jjumping on December 3, 2012 at 1:24 PM

        But what about your other teachers??? What did they suggest?
        Please don’t say “cello”. I cannot see you playing a cello. Stand-up bass, absolutely! Cello? Nnnnno.

    • Jordan on December 3, 2012 at 12:49 PM

      You guys are hilarious.

      To answer the original question, why not “sincerely”? Seems to be the most popular option I see.

      • Beth K. Vogt on December 3, 2012 at 2:37 PM

        Why not “sincerely”?
        It seems so … bland.
        So fill-in-the-blank with the approved, handed to me by my grade school teacher word.
        And while I may be sincere … I usually am with a query … it doesn’t reflect my personality at all.
        How to close a query in a way that reflects me — and yet doesn’t pander, doesn’t overdue …

        That is my question.

        • P. J. Casselman on December 4, 2012 at 2:00 AM

          Unfortunately “Conditionally Yours” probably gives the wrong message, but it is accurate. 😀

  49. Gabrielle Meyer on December 3, 2012 at 2:22 AM

    In writing a query letter, I want to find the right balance between being confident and optimistic vs. proud and unrealistic. Since it’s the first introduction, I want to make sure I’m professional, likeable and interesting. I think it’s a great test in seeing how good you really are at writing.

    • Mercey Valley on December 3, 2012 at 7:12 AM

      Ditto! Such a task!

    • Jennifer Major @Jjumping on December 3, 2012 at 1:22 PM


      And signing it “Seriously, Almost Francine Rivers” is not such a good idea.

      • Gabrielle Meyer on December 3, 2012 at 1:24 PM

        Jennifer – how did you know how I signed it? 🙂

        • Jennifer Major @Jjumping on December 3, 2012 at 1:42 PM

          HAHAHA! I laughed out loud when I read that!

          • Daisy on December 6, 2012 at 11:26 PM

            Me too. 1. Because I think I know who Francine Rivers is. 2. Because I signed mine Jo-Wannabe.

  50. S. Kim Henson on December 3, 2012 at 2:19 AM

    I’m glad to read a post about what NOT to include in a query letter. Sometimes don’ts are more helpful than instructions about what to write.

    I’ve signed off on letters with something like “Thanking you in advance for reading. Looking forward to your response.” That was until I read an agent’s post that said including such statements is presumptuous. I no longer close my letters that way. What do you think?

    Thanks for the examples.

    • P. J. Casselman on December 3, 2012 at 4:02 AM

      “Thank you for your time” is always appropriate though. 🙂

      • S. Kim Henson on December 3, 2012 at 10:37 AM


        That’s exactly what I switched to. I figured it was a safe closing and I like safe. 🙂

    • Christine Dorman / @looneyfilberts on December 3, 2012 at 8:03 AM

      Thank you, Kim. You just touched on why I find query writing intimidating. While the example Rachelle gave make sense to me, thanking someone for reading a query is something I would have put at the close of my letter too. Perhaps “looking forward to your response” is the phrase that the agent felt was “presumptuous,” but that doesn’t seem like an inappropriate line. It seems polite. I can understand how cliches (You will laugh till you cry) and oversell (My YA fantasy will make readers forget the name J.K. Rowling)are lines that will make an agent sigh, but I am stymied as to how being polite turns into a query landmine!

      • Susan on December 3, 2012 at 8:16 AM

        I don’t get why that would be presumptuous. It’s polite to thank people for their time and reasonable to assume they will respond in some fashion. This is the weird thing about writing these letters: you can’t just write as one human being to another, you have to weigh every word for how it might be interpreted by somebody who has prejudices you can’t even imagine. Frustrating…

        • S. Kim Henson on December 3, 2012 at 10:48 AM


          Meant to address my reply to you and Christine. Sorry about that.

        • Christine Dorman / @looneyfilberts on December 3, 2012 at 1:14 PM

          I agree completely agree, Susan. It is quite frustrating.

        • Claire M. Caterer on December 4, 2012 at 12:35 PM

          An agent might find that presumptuous–though I can’t see why–but I doubt that’s a sigh-worthy line. It’s just politeness. I used something like that in mine. As long as you don’t imply, “And that response had better be quick, sister!” I think you’re fine.

      • S. Kim Henson on December 3, 2012 at 10:45 AM


        I don’t remember much about the post except the part I mentioned, but I think the reason the agent said it sounded presumptuous is because by writing “Looking forward to your response,” writers are saying they assume the agent will respond when their guidelines may say they’ll only respond if interested.

        “Thanking you in advance” … something to do with trying to force/guilt the agent.

        It sort of made sense to me so I changed to “Thank you for your time,” like P.J. mentioned.

        • Susan on December 3, 2012 at 11:35 AM

          Okay, that makes a bit more sense. I usually say, “Thank you for your time. I look forward to hearing from you.” I usually just write to editors, etc. that I’ve met at conferences, so maybe that’s safe.
          Really I’m not looking forward to hearing, because I assume it will be another rejection, but I figure I’d better not say that!

          • S. Kim Henson on December 3, 2012 at 10:22 PM

            Yep, Susan … looking forward to your rejection might not go over well. Lol.

      • S. Kim Henson on December 3, 2012 at 10:49 AM

        Oops. Sent a reply under my comment, but put it in the wrong place. Hope you received it, Christine.

        • Christine Dorman / @looneyfilberts on December 3, 2012 at 1:12 PM

          I did receive it. It came in my email. Thanks Kim. 🙂

          While I agree that P.J.’s “Thank you for your time” works–it’s clear and assumes nothing (except that the agent will read the query), I still find the agent’s response to “Thanking you in advance” a bit extreme.

          Thank you for passing on your experience. Now we all know that going with the simple and direct “Thank you for your time” is the safest way to express gratitude.

          • S. Kim Henson on December 3, 2012 at 10:27 PM

            Christine, I agree. Better to play it safe.

    • Peter DeHaan on December 3, 2012 at 8:43 PM

      I like to use “Thank you for the consideration.”

      • S. Kim Henson on December 3, 2012 at 10:34 PM

        I like that one too, Peter.

  51. Tehila on December 3, 2012 at 2:09 AM

    I haven’t written a query letter yet, but I imagine that I would need to be cautious in the area of conveying my personality in a way that is truthful and professional, without sounding over-friendly and presumptuous.

    Thanks for these guidelines and pitfalls to avoid!

    • Betty on December 3, 2012 at 10:49 PM

      By the time you’ve written 20 or so query letters, you get pretty good at it. Not to say that will get you an agent, but your letter writing skills soar.

  52. Daniel on December 3, 2012 at 1:32 AM

    I have the same problem(s) as Tom. Condensing a complicated story into 300 words, and not getting any response from agents.

  53. Tom M Franklin on December 3, 2012 at 12:46 AM

    The two hardest things for me are:

    * Condensing the complexity of my story, my characters, and the tone of the book into two or three cogent paragraphs.

    * Never hearing back from agents.

    — Tom

    • Terri Thompson on December 3, 2012 at 6:01 PM


    • Lynn Johnston on December 4, 2012 at 6:20 PM

      At first glance, I thought her topic was “Query Lines to Make an Agent Sign,” instead of “sigh.” Now that topic would be right down my alley. As great as it is to know what not to write, it would be stellar to know what always caught the agent’s attention.

      I think the worst thing I ever included in a query letter is a comment about how my friends enjoy my writing and suggest that I should write a book. Looking back, I can only imagine how many agents rolled their eyes to that remark.