Query letter quandaries: pro tips from the pros

What stands out in a strong query letter? What red flags in query pitches warn literary agents that a manuscript isn't ready for representation?

the cryptic art of the query letter—a Chopping Blog post for querying authors

The simplest answer: a lot in both directions. Here's a sampling of keen advice from our Book Broker interview series:

I’m really looking for an author who can capture the essence and voice of the story in a short space (and we know it isn’t easy to do and this isn’t a deal breaker).  —Karly Caserza

This is something we've heard from a number of agents: an imperfect query letter isn't necessarily a sinker. Agents will still peek at the opening pages of a manuscript even if the query letter was off the mark. However, wowing an agent with your pitch will influence how they approach the rest of your submission.  

For non-fiction, make a strong, concise case why you’re the best person to write about the topic.Lisa Grubka

A "good" submission (of non-fiction) consists of a letter briefly describing the idea (which should be original), the author's qualifications (including all social media numbers), and who the potential readers will be.Jane Dystel

Clearly a lot of research is required for all queries, but the specificity is much greater for non-fiction. However, you can usually pitch nonfiction projects that haven't yet been written, which is never the case with fiction.

In your query, it’s going to be the premise that hooks me initially—a pitch that gives me a peek into a story with clear, compelling stakes and strong, interesting characters.Sharon Pelletier

In both a submission to an agent and a submission from an agent to a publisher, it's about how quickly you can get the reader excited. It sounds obvious, but there's an art to bringing us in with that first line of a pitch or a manuscript—that straight-to-the-point quality is what everybody's looking for. The subject matter may ultimately not be your cup of tea, and the book may not necessarily ever be published, but that's how you know you're dealing with a real writer.Erin Hosier

If the author is clear, it makes my life much easier—and given we, as an agency, receive about 5,000 submissions a year, we need as much of a steer as possible.Broo Doherty

Stories are living and breathing entities, and they need to be pitched as such. Queries will often fall 'flat' in their set-up—they will have a lot of world-building and character-building as part of their fascination, but stories are about what happens to us and to our characters; queries will often fail to inspire that energy that underlies the desire to know what happens and what happens next.Weronika Janczuk

Beyond the very basics of genre/market—hook me in with something about the story; I care much more about that than I do about you at this point (sorry, but I need to fall in love with your book first). A useful sentence to keep in mind is: When A (inciting incident) happens, B (character) must do C (action) otherwise/before D (catastrophe). You might need to play with that to make it fit your book but that covers the basics of what I need to know… who am I rooting for, what’s their problem, and what’s at stake if they fail? Intrigue me; make me care.Hannah Sheppard


To conclude, here's a great summary from Kerry D'Agostino of Curtis Brown LTD:

A good query letter always includes the following:

A quick, direct introduction: What kind of project is this (Upmarket fiction? Literary fiction? Young adult?)? How long is it?

A brief description of the book: This should be no more than 100-200 words; consider what your “jacket copy” might one day read. Focus on the parts of the story that are easiest to distill. For fiction, who are your main characters? What are their goals? What obstacles do they face in achieving those goals? For nonfiction, what is the central issue that you are exploring, and how are you exploring it?

Comp titles: Here, you want to list two or three books that were published within the past few years. They should be successful publications, but nothing that seems overly ambitious. When considering your comp titles, you’re not necessarily looking for books that have told the same story that you’re telling, but rather for books that appeal to the same audiences—that are part of the same literary conversations. Where do you see your book on a bookstore shelf?

An author bio: This is the place to list anything of note about you as a writer—have you had previous publications? Do you have a degree in writing? Have you participated in any writing workshops, events or contests of note?—and also about you as the writer of this particular story. Is there something about your background that connects you to what you’re exploring in these pages?

Why me: This is an important part of every query, even though it is all too often overlooked. Here, let me know why you are reaching out to me in particular. Did something in my profile catch your eye? Does my work with another author suggest to you that I might be a good fit for your work as well? If there seems to be a genuine connection between your work and one of my clients’ projects, that is something that will stand out to me immediately. —Kerry D'Agostino

David Griffin Brown (Septimus Brown) is the founder and senior editor at Darling Axe Editing

David Griffin Brown is an award-winning short fiction writer and co-author of Immersion and Emotion: The Two Pillars of Storytelling. He holds a BA in anthropology from UVic and an MFA in creative writing from UBC, and his writing has been published in literary magazines such as the Malahat Review and Grain. In 2022, he was the recipient of a New Artist grant from the Canada Council for the Arts. David founded Darling Axe Editing in 2018, and as part of his Book Broker interview series, he has compiled querying advice from over 100 literary agents. He lives in Victoria, Canada, on the traditional territory of the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations.

Immersion & Emotion: The Two Pillars of Storytelling

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  • Loved the voices, all pointing to an engaging A+B+C=D. Thanks, Renee

    Renee Leonard Kennedy
  • Loved the voices, all pointing to an engaging A+B+C=D. Thanks, Renee

    Renee Leonard Kennedy

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