The Waiting Game – The Misery That is the Query Letter


My 10-Step Method For Tackling the Dreaded Query Letter

Having recently completed the final edits on a 104,000 word manuscript, I have now ventured into the murky waters of soliciting a literary agent, a difficult but necessary step in the process of finding a publisher. This foray has me harking back to my high school physics class and Newton’s  third law of motion – for each action there is an equal and opposite reaction. As stimulating and enjoyable as I have found the task of researching and writing to be, my limited experience at sending out query letters has shown it to be its equal and opposite reaction – a soul-destroying waiting game where time stands still and creativity languishes.

Now don’t get me wrong. I am not flinching in the face of rejection. It goes with the territory. However, I have found the waiting to be rather difficult. Part of this discomfort is, no doubt, owing to the fact that many agents, due to the large number of submissions they receive, do not respond to queries unless they have an interest. Although understandable, this leaves the queryor (yes, I just made it up) in an intolerable state of limbo.

But well aware that I am in no position to change the face of modern publishing, I have decided that I will attempt to counter the ill effects of this daunting process through a systematic approach that suits my individual needs. I am certain that countless writers before me have found better and more effective ways to do this, but here is mine.  So in ten easy steps, here is my process for sending out query letters:

1) Write a synopsis while the plot lines are still fresh in your mind. There is no getting around it. Writing a synopsis is hard. I have heard many veteran writers describe this as one of their least favorite activities. But we all know it is necessary, so just get it done. Chuck Sambuchino at Writer’s Digest offers some great examples here:

2) Rewrite your synopsis. As stated above, writing a synopsis is hard. Get someone you trust, perhaps your editor, to read it and offer suggestions. Take it to your critique group, if you have one. You shouldn’t overload it with characters, but it should cover the main plot line and display your protagonists entire character arc – in one to two pages! I know, right? That’s why it’s so hard. Only when you are comfortable with the synopsis move to step 3).

3) Draft a basic query letter. Unfortunately, each agent will have slightly different requirements. But there are several items that are nearly universal.

  • Title (duh!)
  • Genre
  • Word count
  • BRIEF summary – you don’t have to give away the ending in the query letter. This is more of a hook – think of book jacket copy
  • Published works – if you have them
  • Platform – if you have one, i.e. blog with thousands of followers
  • Contact Information

Find Chuck’s favorite examples here:

4) Find an up-to-date list of agents that represent your genre. I have been told that there are a number out there. I used the on-line version of Writer’s Market. Unfortunately, it is subscription only. I bought the book at a writer’s conference and then upgraded to the on-line version. You can find it here:

5) Break the genre-specific list down into groups of ten. I wanted to send out a small batch at a time so that I could modify my approach as I went. My thought was that if I sent out one hundred queries and then decided later that my approach was flawed, it would be difficult to take a second bite from the apple, so to speak.

6) Research each of the first ten agencies on the list and customize your query for each. As stated above, the requirements will vary between agencies and you will want to choose the agent within the firm who represents your genre. I also like to personalize each query if possible.

7) Send them out. No explanation necessary – I hope.

8) Start on your next project. As simple as it sounds, this was the profound conclusion that I came to when waiting on answers from that first batch of queries. I could feel my creativity and enthusiasm ossifying and decided that I needed to get back to work. It was liberating! Don’t put your creative life on hold trying to sell your last project. That way, it won’t be your last project for long.

9) Rinse and Repeat. After one month, rinse off the stink of rejection from the previous batch of queries and move on to the next ten agencies on your list.

10) Re-evaluate. Time often lends perspective. If your approach isn’t working, revisit your synopsis and basic query letter. Coming back to it weeks later may allow you to see flaws you overlooked before. Is it compelling enough? Does it command a market? Does it reflect your voice? If not, rework it and go to the next ten on the list.

So there you have it. My strongly held, but largely unproven, method of querying literary agents. Unfortunately, sending queries out in batches, as I have described, draws out the process over a longer period of time. However, I feel it allows me an opportunity to re-evaluate and adjust my approach and lets me to get back to work on my next project as soon as possible. Do you have a better approach? If so, I would love to hear it. Drop me a comment. Good luck and keep writing.

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15 thoughts on “The Waiting Game – The Misery That is the Query Letter

  1. Yes, the waiting game is NO FUN. I might add an eleventh point- WRITE! As in start that next draft. Outline, plot, do something creative. This is important, too, because agents/editors want to know you are serious about writing and intend to make it a career. I’ve found this to be oh-so-helpful in this wacky world of publishing.
    My best to you!

      • I suppose I am the same, but only to the extent that while I am actively writing one story, I may be outlining and looking for research materials for another. I can’t really work on two first drafts at the same time. I am a bit like a method actor in that regard.

      • I have so many in the pot because I’m a slooooowwww editor. I can only chug through so many pages in one day, while creating – well, now, that’s fun! Next stop for Sue is getting these bad boys in the hands of a professional editor. Let them take over.
        If only I were rich!

  2. You’re right, the waiting is really difficult. Maybe I’m just naturally impatient, but I found that to be the worst part as well. Once I did sign with an agent, I discovered that the waiting never really ends – now I’m waiting while she submits it to editors! I think your advice to start work on another project is very good – an excellent distraction and efficient as well!

  3. Thank you for sharing your experiences. I am a long way off getting to that point, only sending out short stories and poems at the moment, but it is very helpful to have a panoramic picture of the mountain that must be climbed!

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