Query Hell and the Literary Agent’s Eye

Black-and-white feather and flourishWrite a 119,000 word novel? No problem.

Write a query? Shoot me now.

I have been working on my query letter for over a month now. It has gone through the careful eyes of several, trusted Beta editors and STILL opinions vary as to which version they like (I have roughly five variations).

I am just about to . . . What’s that? What is a query? Ah . . . let me back up a bit then.

A query is one of Dante’s realms of Hell. It is roughly 200 words (possibly less – sometimes a single sentence), that must sum up your entire book and makes the agent DESPERATE to read more. Not just “want” to read more, but MUST read more, because: a) your prose is so outstanding and b) your concept so amazing, that they are going to give you a chance to be heard via your manuscript. Note: they can still say “no” after they read pages.

This past week, I have been attending the Cape Cod Writer’s Conference and, I must say, it is worth your attendance. So far, I have taken two classes taught be NYC agents – Sorche Elizabeth Fairbanks – The Art of the Query, and Anne Hawkins – Why Agents Reject Good Books. Here is what I learned:


1. A query must contain the protagonist, antagonist, conflict, and resolution. ONLY NAME those characters. Forget the BFF – if the friend is a critical player, just mention her, but not her name. Too many names = too confusing.

2. Be vivid and not a broken record. Your query shows your writing chops, your flow, and the feel for the character. It needs tempo and brilliant writing skill. Do not be redundant. For example (and I am using what Fairbanks gave as a great specimen): “Anne walked down the cellar stairs, her bare toes cold on the icy floor.” Do you see the mistake/redundancy? I’ll let you stew on that and cough up the answer at the end of this post ;)

3. If you have a personal story that links you to your fictional character, add it. This is not some long, rambling story, but something that makes the agent think, “Wow, this person is going to really be able to portray this character.” This is NOT: “I’ve read nine-milion sci-fi pieces” OR “I published two articles in a sci-fi magazine” (your credits go at the end). This is “Dear so and so, when I was ten, I nearly lost a limb in a shark attack, but I was lucky. It got me thinking: what would my life have been like if fate wasn’t on my side that day? SHARK ATTACK is the fictitious story of so and so who loses her leg to Bruce the Shark and how she becomes stronger though that loss blah blah blah.”

4. EVERY BOOK must contain one of the 4 S’s: STYLE, STORY, SETTING, SOMEONE. This means that what makes your book spectacular is one of the afore-mentioned. STYLE is very rare – it is a true literary work, so don’t even think “you ‘dat fly.” STORY is the gift of storytelling so richly, that people read for that aspect alone. SETTING is when the location is so brilliantly drawn that it becomes a character unto itself. SOMEONE is a beloved protagonist. MOST writers fall into the SOMEONE category, so make him or her shine. IF you can’t pick out which one is your strength, your book may not be strong enough.

5. Conflict: Agents want to see an INTERNAL struggle and an external one as well. They want to see an active, vibrant protagonist, not just someone who is dragged around by an outside conflict. Do not have more than three, major plot points in the query or you will be ringing your own death knell.

6. Personalize to the Agent: Let the agent know HOW you know them. Did you see them speak? Read their blog? Love a book the represented? Let them know. Plastered their photos on your bedroom wall and built a mini-shrine to their greatness? I’d probably skip that tidbit.

7. Word Count: Word counts for fiction (including YA) should run between 80k and 125k. Anything shorter or longer raises a questioning eyebrow. Agents also want to know if your book is the first in a series (which helps them figure out if you are just going to be a one-hit-wonder). Series books are popular and a great series it their golden goose.

8. Crucial Lines: Agents normally read the first couple sentences from your letter. If they are not grabbed immediately, they jump to the last few sentences (your credentials). If you have professional writing experience, or valid writing chops, they go back to the top and read the entire query. This means that those first, few sentences BETTER GET THEIR ATTENTION.


Everything above applies BUT, non-fiction is harder (stop screaming and pull yourself together!):

1. YOU MUST HAVE A PLATFORM OR CREDENTIALS: For non-fiction, showing a platform (basically an already established readership that you bring with you to the table) is critical. The agent is not there to get you readers. You bring your own and they can help make that group grow. No platform? Then you must be an expert in your field. Writing a book on landscaping? You better have a degree, or loads of professional experience in high-profile places and published work in magazines. Having four-zillion Twitter followers and nine-million blog-lovers works as well.

2. FOR MEMOIR: You must be the first in your idea / story. Have a cancer story? Forget it. It sounds harsh, but we were told over and over that no one wants another cancer story unless you have a mind-blowing spin on it. Basically, why would someone buy an unknown person’s memoir that someone famous has already written?

A Few More Tips:

Remember that some genres are dying. Apparently ChickLit is gasping its last breath (IN HER SHOES walked right out the door). Didn’t know that.

Beware mixing genres (romantic horror can be hard to sell because the romance fans don’t want the horror and the horror fans don’t want the romance). If you try it, one genre in the book MUST take the lead.

Conflict of interest: Agents won’t take a book that is too similar to something they are already representing, or a subject that would insult their current writers (see comment below to clarify this mind-twister).

Beware of querying the big five publishers directly. If they reject you, an agent often doesn’t get a second shot to approach them with your book. Small and medium-sized presses are fine. The big five are: Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, Penguin, Random House and Simon & Schuster.

Beware signing contracts without a good LITERARY ATTORNEY. Joe Shmoo, attorney at law from down the street, most likely will have no clue what a good contract looks like.

Lastly, some things you have no control over, like an agent’s personal taste. Some rejections come down because a book is simply not their cup of tea or they can’t figure out who they would sell it to.

Okay – so the answer to the sentence from above: “Anne walked down the cellar stairs, her bare toes cold on the icy floor.” Did you figure it out? It should be: “Anne walked down the cellar stairs, her bare toes cold on the icy floor.” Your mind’s eye will KNOW her toes are bare because she can feel the floor. Remember – MAKE EVERY WORD COUNT.


24 Comments on “Query Hell and the Literary Agent’s Eye”

  1. Great post! Thanks for the links, too. “Agents won’t take a book that is too similar to something they are already representing” makes sense, but others say, send your query to agents that are representing books similar to yours. I guess the key word is “too” as in “too similar.”
    A friend of mine is sending out 60 queries to start.
    Best of luck climbing from the fiery pits!


    • You are correct – It is a matter of “too similar” because I too was under the impression that they like novels similar to their own they already rep. What they mean is “carbon copies.” Hawkins said she had a great query and story from a man who talked about going into an underground cult to expose it. She had to turn it down, because she already had a writer who penned a story about a woman going into an underground cult to find her child. That is what they mean when they say “too similar.”


  2. Thank you for explaining this. I have had to write a few of these in the past and I always struggle. I have never attended a conference either so that might be why my understanding is more limited, but this post explained it in much easier terms for me. Thanks Kate!


    • LOL! Don’t let them scare you. It took me forever to be able to cut right to the main thrust of my novel. And I STILL question if I have written the best query I can. Try different versions of your query and track which ones get the best responses :)


  3. Although I am not a professional writer, I am a recreational blogger and found several of the insights you shared in this post to be quite helpful. Fine tuning my entries before posting to my blog will become a more prominent part of my repertoire. Thanks for sharing!


  4. Great post. Whenever you can meet an agent, at a conference, or at least hear them on a panel, you can gain a lot of insights. I queried twelve agents two years ago ( though in hindsight, I should’ve waited) and got four responses. My book has improved since then and I’m excited to get back on the query train soon! Thanks again.


  5. Do writers of many articles, essays, reviews, 1 book (like myself) ever get an agent to find more gigs for them? I’d love to write another nonfiction book – could an agent get me a contract? Just wondering


    • I am not quite sure what you mean by, “find more gigs.” You have to bring the idea to them and if they like it, they may represent you. The job of an agent IS to get you a publishing contract with your best interests in mind. This differs from journalism, where you pitch a story idea, they tell you to run with it, AND THEN you write it and get paid. Actually . . . I have an article running tomorrow (Friday).


  6. Great post – so glad I came across this in a LinkedIn group. While I’ve struggled my whole life to write a novel, I’ve finally accepted that I’m more of an essayist and non-fiction writer. However, my 13-year-old daughter just finished a YA fantasy novel that totally blew me away, and I’m trying to help her put together a query letter. I know it’s a long shot for a newly minted teenager, but at very least it will be an important learning experience to go through this process. I will certainly show her your suggestions.


  7. very helpful and nicely organized post. I’ve sent out query letters and received rejections but the way I finally got a publisher to read my novel was through networking. Conferences are a great way to connect and build that network.


  8. Pingback: No Wasted Ink Writer’s Links | No Wasted Ink

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