As a writer who really wants to get published, I’ve learned that a query letter is absolutely necessary. There are no shortcuts. But, at first, it’s daunting, intimidating, and fearful. How on earth do you boil your 100,000 word manuscript down into roughly 250 words? (Hint: You don’t!).
The whole thing sounds impossible, and I’ll admit the learning curve has been a struggle.
I haven’t sent any queries to literary agents in months because I didn’t have a query letter that would be worth an agent’s time. But lately I’ve been working hard to fix that. Crafting the perfect query letter is a process.
The very first query I sent to a literary agent is, thankfully, lost to human history. Though it would not surprise me if that agent printed it off and framed it on her wall for the days she needs a good laugh.
The earliest draft of a query letter that I still have for my book, THE LESSER BETRAYAL, is the piece of garbage pasted below. This was my 2nd draft.
Now, remember, I had no idea what I was doing. I really was trying, but I was clueless. Still, you’re allowed to laugh while I throw up in my mouth a little. When measuring the weight of stupidity, this query letter breaks the scale.
===(NOTE: The novel had a different title back then)===
Dear [agen’s name],
According to your agency’s website you are actively seeking new works of young adult fantasy/sci-fi. I am excited to introduce my novel, The Blade of Shifqu.
Ashura is a young assassin in the Order of Shifqu who is sent into the heart of enemy territory to kill a princess in order to remove an ancient curse upon her people.
Ashura’s story begins as she presses her attack on the princess whom she has been sent to kill. When a guard surprises her with his quickness and strikes her down, she believes she is dying as she loses consciousness. Ashura then begins to relive significant moments of her life, all the while assuming that they are simply an unexpected part of her death experience.
Upon waking and finding herself surrounded by her enemies, Ashura realizes the horrible truth that she has been captured. She tries to fight them, she wants to survive and escape so that she can finish her mission to kill and go home. But when she discovers friends among her enemies and enemies among her friends, her world is turned up-side down. She struggles with walking the path the Order of Shifqu has laid out for her. She must decide if her people’s curse can be cured by murder, or if there is another, less violent, way. She also wrestles with becoming the person others expect her to be, and becoming the person she is.
Ashura’s story is about the struggles of friendship, love, finding the courage to become her own person, and ultimately having the strength to walk the right path even when it’s not what she thought it would be.
The story is set on a planet called Tellia, and Ashura’s journey crosses several continents.
The Blade of Shifqu is a complete fantasy manuscript at 85,600 words.
I have had several of the middle and high school youth in my youth group read chapters as I completed them and the response has been incredible. Every time they would see me they wanted to know if I had completed another chapter so they could read more. Other test readers for my book range in age from 9 to 65, all with very positive critique.
I currently work with children, youth, and families at Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Fort Wayne, Indiana. I am a 1999 graduate of The University of Findlay, and a 2003 graduate of Duke University. I have written extensively for presentation (speaking) and teaching (confirmation curriculum for 8th graders), but never for publication. The Blade of Shifqu is my first work of fiction.
Thank you for your time in considering my work. I have included the first five, double-spaced pages of my manuscript and I look forward to hearing from you.
Oh, the horror! No wonder the literary agent ran screaming. It’s terrible! Everything I could possibly have done wrong, well, I did them wrong. Very wrong. But I kept plugging away at it. Below is part of another draft from about midway through this whole process. It still stinks, so you’re welcome to laugh while my inner self cringes.
Life as a prisoner is not what Ashura expected. Then again, as one of the most talented members of the Order of Shifqu, she never expected to be taken prisoner.
Ashura’s mission to kill a princess ends in failure. When she awakes as a captive, she’s certain she’ll be killed. But Ashura unexpectedly finds herself entwined in the life of the princess’ village. She is guarded by Kostel, a former hero-turned-traitor of the Order.
Ashura hates Kostel, and she’s certain he hates her. Yet, he proves to be the truest of friends. His friendship allows Ashura to see beyond the truths she has always known. Ashura’s worldview is further deconstructed when she learns a different version of her people’s story: a version that makes everything she has ever believed a lie.
Her heart shifts. She loves the villagers. And she wonders if there might be more to her friendship with Kostel.
When the Order of Shifqu attacks the village in force, Ashura must choose between duty and love. She must join the attack and betray the villagers, or defend against it and betray her people. Faced with two treacherous alternatives, Ashura can only choose the lesser betrayal.
THE LESSER BETRAYAL is complete at 101,000 words.
Ugh. Okay, I might seriously throw up in my mouth again.
This draft sounds moderately better. It’s shorter, but it’s still WAY too long for a query letter, and I’m trying to do WAY too much! I’m still trying to tell the STORY, which is not what a query letter is supposed to do. A query letter is supposed to pique an agent’s interest in the story so they want to read your manuscript, not tell the story itself.
Essentially, writing a query letter is like trying to get a first date with a really excellent pick-up line. You can share your story AFTER your potential date agrees to the date. Until then, just work on the pick-up line.
The above example is not a query letter that any agent would consider. Ever. It’s trash.
This July, I’ll attend the Midwest Writers Workshop at Ball State University. I know how much I need help with my query letter skills (or lack thereof), so I signed up for a query critique with a literary agent. The thing is, I want this critique to go well. I want the agent to say, “This is great! What do you need my help for?” It’s not likely, but it has given me motivation to buckle down on this submission for the critique.
I’ve been working hard. Even the Noodle Friends – my writer critique group – have been working hard alongside me (Thank you, Amanda, Christine, Val, and Victor! You are truly amazing!).
The thing is, I want to craft an excellent query letter that will grab an agent’s attention. It’s the only way I’ll ever be published in the traditional manner, and that’s my goal.
I’ve written and re-written several drafts over the past few days. I think I might be close to something decent. The query below is probably the one I’ll send in for my query critique, but I may tinker with it some more. It’s close to my 30th attempt at a query letter for this book, but I haven’t kept track of the number of drafts very well. (I’d honestly like to forget most of those previous drafts).
This query draft weighs in at 241 words. It cuts out the superfluous fluff of the story. It focuses on the protagonist, her desires, and the stakes at hand in accomplishing her desires.
I’m writing because I know you represent young adult fantasy. I would like to introduce my YA fantasy, THE LESSER BETRAYAL, complete at 101,000 words.
Ashura is a warrioress who only wants to protect her people, the Children of Daedin, by finding a cure for death. When she fails to kill a princess of those believed to be responsible for the curse, Ashura awakes as a captive. She expects to be tortured and killed. Instead, Ashura is shown kindness and hospitality. The relentless love of Ashura’s enemies causes her to question everything she has ever known. Ashura discovers the key to saving her people from death when her captors give Ashura immortality. But the Children of Daedin are bent on destruction. They assail Ashura’s new friends in force. If they succeed, then the cure for death that only Ashura’s former enemies can provide will be lost forever. Now Ashura must betray her own people in order to save them. She will sacrifice everything—even her newfound immortality—to protect the Children of Daedin from themselves.
I am an associate member of SCBWI, and an active member of a writer critique group. When I don’t have a book in my hand or a keyboard under my fingers, I work with children, youth, families, and elderly folk at First UMC in Mount Vernon, Indiana.
May I send you the finished manuscript? Thank you for your time. I hope to hear from you soon.
Is it good? I don’t know. I think it’s better than my previous attempts. The thing is, I’ll know I’m close to having my query right when agents start requesting my manuscript. Until then, I have to keep working on it.
I’ve learned that you can’t give up. You have to learn from your mistakes, laugh them off, and keep working until you get it right.
My query letter may not be perfect yet, but I’ll keep working until it is.