Monday, March 17, 2008

Successful Queries

Dear Rejector,

What I always wished I could see would be query letter examples of books that 'made it' - you know, show me Stephen King's query letter for 'Carrie,' show me Alcott's query letter for 'Little Women,' show me a query letter for any of Oprah's books (which may or may not have deserved to make it, but that's neither here nor there). It's instructive because of what the authors leave out, much more than what they put in, you know? For all I know there's a website that does this, or a book of published ones, but I've never heard of any. If you have, would love to see it! Thanks!


Dear Rejecter,

I like your blog--thanks for sharing your insights. Here's my question: you say you put aside 5% in the "maybe" stack. There's so much info out there to warn the clueless, but very little for those people who are almost there, but not quite. I'm thinking of the ones getting full requests, getting comments back, yet ultimately end up with a pass. Could you explain a little about the line between YES! and We-e-e-ll, not quite?


I get a lot of emails asking me to present a query that worked, and I've never done it. A couple of reasons:

(1) We generally do not keep them around.
(2) That would be a violation of copyright, as the author of the letter has a copyright on the letter.
(3) It's not very polite to do to the author.
(4) It wouldn't help you.

Once again, the basic query format is 2-3 paragraphs telling us what your book is about in a way that makes it sound awesome, and the last paragraph contains some technical information about the book and any writing credentials you may have. It isn't any more complicated than that.

I put a query in the maybe pile because it does just that: It makes the book idea seem interesting, or at least, would seem interesting to my boss (she has different tastes than I do, but for the purposes of my job, only her tastes are relevant). Me posting a query that got her attention because the author had a good idea would not help you very much because it doesn't help you with your idea, which I presume is different. Only you have the power to write a great book and then summarize it so well it sounds like we have to read it, and no amount of reading other people's book ideas is going to help you do that.


green_knight said...

The fangs_fur_fey community on livejournal did this thing where all members published their successful query letters - ranging from here to here. Interesting reading.The series proves that a) there is no such thing as the perfect query letter, and b) first time writers with good ideas and no publishing credits *do* get picked up all the time.

Stephen said...

There is a book called "I Have This Nifty Idea…" which contains about 30 outlines/synopses that lead to a book contract. These came from about 20 different authors in the SF/F market.

Published (about) 2002 by Wildside Press, edited Mike Resnick.

These are not query letters as such - I suspect these people already had agents and previous sales, looking at the names involved. But if you really want to see what has worked for authors, this is the only book I know of.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure I agree that publishing a query letter wouldn't be of help to unpublished writers, if only to show how mundane successful efforts can be. Having once been a buyer, nothing was a bigger turnoff than cute-by-half or hard-sell queries.

As you've often stressed, the idea is paramount, and the ability to execute it is not far behind. A query letter wasn't always sufficient to excite me about an idea, but if was often easy to reject based on an annoying cover letter.

The Rejecter said...

I recommend people look into Green Knight's post.

Deb said...

What about the other topic? The "almost there but not quite" question?

The Rejecter said...

Almost means the idea was kind of interesting, but not totally interesting. There are very, very few of those. Most knocks themselves very early on.

The Rejecter said...


Wow, that is one expensive paperback. I'll have to try to read it in a store.

For people's information, I actually have read a ton of books about publishing, but only a few appear in my Amazon Affiliates store, because those are the only ones I've found so far that I can honestly recommend. Most of them are pretty bad or redundant or contain information you could find on the internet for free.

Aimless Writer said...

I think I'd want to read the "hook" part of the queries so I can see what made you say yes. However this would probably be different from agent to agent.
I think that exciting hook is what we'd like to see. What in this letter made you think you might want to see the rest? How did others squish a 350 page manuscript into one paragraph?

Anonymous said...

There are also examples, and links to others, at the Absolutewrite forums under the Share Your Work thread. You have to be a member to get access, but it is a site that any writer serious about their work should consider joining anyway

Anonymous said...

If you look through the archives of Miss Snark's blog (around December 2006, iirc) you'll find plenty of examples of hooks for unpublished novels along with Miss Snark's comments as to which ones work and why (and which ones don't, and why). It's very informative.


Andrew said...

Aimless, I think that's a question to deal with at the writing stage, not the querying stage. If you've written an unmemorable book, no amount of tinkering with the query letter is going to make the book itself memorable. If you've written an enticing, unforgettable, exciting book, then your query letter needs only to present what's wonderful about your book.

You don't need to see Stephen King's query letter for Carrie to know what's wonderful about Carrie. If you need someone's help to figure out what's wonderful about your own book, you may not be ready to query it until you've revised it some more.

Anonymous said...

I usually write a 1-sentence blurb about the story before I start writing it. I just imagine that my book has been made into a movie, and that I'm looking at a Netflix DVD sticker of my story, and I write down what I see there (without who's in it and the year and all that, just the plot description). By the time I'm done writing the novel, I edit the sentence as necessary to fit what I've actually written. Then I do a 3 sentence version, too, a 1-page synopsis, and a 3-page synopsis. I have practiced being able to dial the level of detail up and down from 1 sentence to 3-pages, and now I get a true kick out of it.

Also, this ability comes in handy should you be offered a publishing deal and they want to know if you have any ideas for a second book. Then you can give them a couple of 1-sentence pitch-lines (or "loglines" they call them in the movie biz) and have them pick 1. I did that recently after being offered a deal from a small house, and they offered feedback on a possible second book project based on these type of 1 sentence descriptions.

Anonymous said...

There is a book coming out in April called How Not To Write a Novel by Howard Mittelmark. I happen to get an advance copy of this book, and let me tell you, not only it is hilarious, but it is absolutely true. As an editor, I see these mistakes over and over again. He also has a chapter on query letters, with examples. His examples are written to exaggerate the errors, but I think it could be very helpful to would-be authors.

Anonymous said...

For my first novel, I was getting occasional requests for partials/fulls until I revised my query by following examples on Then the requests tripled. Don't know if that was a coincidence or if by rewriting it, I just hit on the right tone.

In the end, I haven't gotten to "Yes." Had great comments, but apparently I picked a topic that is a very tough sell. So I have written in a new genre and will try again.

My next query is already done - has been for months - I keep tweeking it so it's ready to go when I finish editing in about 6 weeks. Unless you are very lucky, you cannot write the perfect query over a weekend. Think rewriting it for weeks, if not months.

I've also rewritten my bio to fit the current novel and am almost done with the longer, chapter-by-chapter outline. The short synopsis? Now that's another story. Ugh!

PTH 1963 said...

Here is Nicholas Sparks' query for The Notebook:

Anonymous said...

See Pub Rants at

The agent there has a section about queries that worked for her. They're interesting to read, but as the Rejecter has said, aren't necessarily helpful. It is interesting to see how different each one is from the next.

Nancy Beck said...

I've actually found a few links on the Internet on query letters:

Absolute Write thread

Another Absolute Write thread

Lynn Flewelling's Query Letter

Write a Great Query Letter

The first thread I mentioned actually has a bunch of links in it as well.

I also agree with green_knight's post.

Cathy said...

Just have to ask: do you write, send in submissions, and get rejected, too?
Just curious about what you want to be/do besides be "the rejecter."
In 5 years, what would you like to be?
A published fiction writer? A screenwriter? In PR? A venture capitalist? Living in Alaska?
You have a fun blog!

US Writer said...

Writers, are we still having this discussion? With all the time spent jack jawing about writing it's a wonder any books get published.
Criminy. Here are 'the rules' and they are not a mystery.

Improve your craft. Don't bother reading Sparks' query letter except in the case of idle curiosity because it is his query and has nothing to do with the book you've written. Sell yourself. It's not that hard. Over time you will learn what is great about your work and what doesn't work.
Keep a rejection pile; you'll smile about it later. And if you don't smile about it later, it'll still be ok.
U.S. Writer