Nathan Bransford, Author

Thursday, March 22, 2007

101 Things in Queries That Catch My Eye (Or At Least As Many As I Can Think Of)

Similar to my fascination with shiny objects and sports on high definition television, there are certain things writers do in query letters that catch my eye, leaving me transfixed and occasionally drooling. Some things in a query letter catch my eye in a bad way -- I still receive a bazillion query letters that begin with rhetorical questions, and I react like a wounded character in a bad war movie. ("I.... I can't... make it... You go on without me.") But there are many ways to activate the reptillian section of the brain and make me think, "query letter good me happy."

Here are as many as I can think of, in the order in which my scattered and very busy brain comes up with them (i.e. not necessarily by order of importance, except for the first one, which definitely is the most important). Also please note that a good query letter does not have to have all or even any of these elements, but these are the ones that help signal to me that a good query letter experience is happening.

1. A Personalized Letter - Here's the thing. Yes, I love being flattered by query letter writers who mention that they read the blog, and yes, it makes me blush and sputter, "Gee golly, little ole me?" but it's also no coincidence that the people who actually take the time to Google me and read the blog also write the best query letters. If you're Googling me and reading my blog and other agent blogs it shows that you're taking the time to be a well-educated and well-prepared writer, which reflects well on your dedication to the craft and business of writing. So it's not even so much that I'm more likely to request your manuscript because I'm flattered -- a personalized letter is just a tipoff that the query letter is probably going to be good and that I should stop staring at the shiny objects and pay attention to the query letter.

2. Credentials - Credentials aren't mandatory if you have a great story. But if you are a LA Times bestseller or an Edgar Award Winner, I'm probably going to pay attention to your query letter (and probably also spit out my coffee in excitement). Publications in literary journals and the few magazines that still publish short stories = also good.

3. Humor - We love the funny.

4. Length - If you haven't already, please take a look at my post Anatomy of a Good Query Letter, because I think that is the perfect length for a query letter. Long enough to convey the information it needs to convey, not so long that it's overkill. There is definitely such a thing as too short, and I'd say 85% of query letters are too long, with a full 50% being way too long.

5. A killer plot - great plots leap off the page. And the heart of the plot, as Jessica Faust pointed out in a really great post yesterday, is conflict. Describe a great central conflict and I'll be interested.

6. You know how in your Outlook inbox the "from" lists who the e-mail is from? That should be your name, properly spelled. It's not hard to set -- work with your e-mail program. Sometimes it's a bizarre username or e-mail address that has me cringing before I open up the e-mail.

7. Title - A great title always catches my eye, although to be honest bad titles stick out a whole lot more than good ones.

8. I am a sucker for: historical fiction, very well-written literary fiction and memoir, sports, fiction that takes place in other countries, philosophical science fiction, narrative nonfiction, and international affairs. I consider many different genres, but I'm a sucker for these.

9. Journalists - journalists are good writers (since, you know, that's how they make their living), so I always pay extra close attention to query letters from journalists.

10. Ambition - I'm always impressed by people who have really thrown themselves into writing, like people who start reading series, who start online communities, who start anthologies, and who are intimately involved with writing and really take it to the next level. It's another sign that they're really serious about this whole writing thing.

11. Referrals - A friend of one of my clients or a friend is a friend of mine. Unless you're a Laker fan.

12. MFA Graduates - I mean, you went to school for it, right?

13. Previously published - This one kind of goes without saying. If you've been published it's a good thing. I'd like to take this opportunity, though, to point out that if you have self-published a novel you should not call yourself a "published" writer in a query letter. In industry parlance "published" means published through a publishing company that paid you an advance and (hopefully) royalties.

14. Contact info listed in your query - You'd think this would go without saying but...

15. No attachments - I don't open them (unless I ask for them).

16. Gimmick-free - I'm not a gimmick guy. Your protagonist probably shouldn't "write" your query letter, there's no real need to think out of the box and get all wacky on me. Just write a good solid query letter. Trust me, I've seen it all, and if it's something I haven't seen before I'll probably just be scared.

17. Website - Please please please don't send me off to your website to look at your material in lieu of a query. Just write me a query. However, if you do have a cool website definitely include a link. Especially if it's a shiny website or one that shows streaming videos of sporting events.

18. Cool characters - It's very very difficult to make a character come alive in such a short letter, but make that happen. It's all about the details.

19. Word count - I don't really notice word count unless it's over 175,000 words, in which case I'm going to need a little convincing. Much like hiking across a desert without water, I could probably be persuaded to do it but there had better be a darn good reason for it.

20. Mentioning how much you love my clients - This probably goes in the "personalize" paragraph, but this always makes me insanely happy. However this means you really do have to have read books by my clients, no falsies!

21. GOOD WRITING - The best for last. Good writing trumps all.

Ok, so I didn't quite make it to 101. Still, this should give you plenty to go on as you're writing those quer.... Oh! Coins!


Anonymous said...

Dang, Mr. Bransford, you're a pretty good writer yourself. Thanks for the tantalizing post!

Jennie said...

I really enjoy reading your blog. I'm a long way from querying agents, but I like to think that if/when that happens I will have the best shot at acquiring representation thanks to the educational efforts of agents like yourself. Thanks!


Nice post. I had already read the Anatomy but reviewed it so it got stored in the same set of brain cells with your current entry.

Here's a question regarding the query letter and its surrounding process: In your opinion, how many agents should one query before accusations of hammering expired equines begin to seem accurate.

By the way, I agree with the "Dang, Mr. Bransford" comment. Your writing has tractor-beam qualities. I'm sure it has to do with the way you cloak education in humor. It reminds me of putting a dog's pill into a piece of cheese or of a particular musical selection performed by Dick Van Dyke.

Nathan Bransford said...

Red Stick Writer-

Thanks for the kind words! I don't think there's a number of rejections after which the dead horse should be considered beaten, I think that has more to do with your own sense of things. Sort of like, "You know when you know." And of course there's also a finite number of reputable agents...

I think I'll blog about this sometime in the future.

Liz said...

Thanks for putting this information together into one easy to read and humorous post. I looked upon the composition of the query letter the same way I look at doing a sudoku puzzle. Both give me a case of hives.

You've just provided the Benadryl!

brian_ohio said...

Just great... I've now edited my query to include the wonderful points you've mentioned... and it's longer than my novel. *Barnacles*

Seriously, though, you mention humor. I've read a few agent blogs who find humor to be unprofessional. As if, by reading agent blogs, we no longer see them as merely agents, but friends as well. Also... humor can be dangerous. It's hard to be funny using only words. (please re-read the beginning of my response for an excellent example of this).

You mention what you are a sucker for... I've read your bio on are you interested in YA Urban Fantasy at all... or do you prefer Science Fiction?

*Doing my Maxwell Smart* Would you believe... I have a YA Urban Fantasy?

Wonderful points, as always. I'm looking forward to the *getting out calculator* other 79.

sylvia said...

Yay, more to obsess about! Seriously, this is a much-needed sanity check and very helpful.

Nathan Bransford said...


That's interesting that other agents find humor unprofessional. I suppose there's a balance, and it shouldn't be a matter of trying too hard or anything like that, but I don't see a problem with it.

I'll definitely consider YA urban fantasy.

And math was never my strong suit.

sylvia said...

brian: well, some of the examples of humour that have been cited include "publish me or I'll kill myself/stalk you" style jokes. I think you need to be fairly secure about your own sense of humour to pull this off

Greg Prulles said...

Great list.

I'd like to see a list of things that have made you pass on recent queries that were otherwise good according to your list, maybe had a lot of these things, but had something that made you think it wasn't what you were looking for.

Gabriele C. said...

I am a sucker for: historical fiction [...] I don't really notice word count unless it's over 175,000 words

That made my day, lol. So there are agents who would take a look at epic historical fiction that's over 120K.

You like Romans? :)

*goes off to finish one of her NiPs*

Dayna_Hart said...

From one crow-person to another, thanks for a great post. (actually, for a series of them...I haven't been by in a while :)

Anonymous said...

Bransford will cross the desert to Acaba to read my 250,000 manuscript, because it's his please to do so.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Fumblefingers will try this again:

Bransford will cross the desert to Acaba to read my 250,000 word manuscript, because it's his pleasure to do so.

Heidi the Hick said...

Well I've been lurking here for a month or so, and I would just like to say that this post is very helpful.

...and I feel much better about all the literary agent stalking I've been doing for the last year!

Peter R said...

What a breath of fresh air your blog is – I’ve read so much convoluted stuff about how to write a perfect query letter ‘make them laugh,’ ‘make them cry,’ ‘open with a rhetorical question,’ ‘hit them with a 250 word hook,’ yes it’s all out there. Your perfect query letter is just simple, straight forward and informative. – phew.

One question though: I live in the UK, is there any mileage in querying agents on both sides of the Atlantic?

Nathan Bransford said...

Peter r-

Thanks so much! I'd say yes, query on both sides. There are many wonderful agents in the UK, and you may wish to start there, but I'm open to considering authors from around the world, including the UK.

Anonymous said...

Ok, so I should mention that I'm a Spurs fan, right?

(Seriously, good tips, thanks much!)

Jennifer McK said...

Thank you so much for the tips. It did bring up some questions for me.
1. Can you give an example of philosophical science fiction?

2. Do you consider "epublished" being published? (no advances, but royalties)

Just curious.

Tom LaLumiere said...

An excellent list and good advice. It's good to have a firm idea of what an agent would be looking for rather than guessing as to what a "good" query letter looks like. Thank you for posting it.

Zenythe said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you. From a person who has been writing since I was knee high to a cricket, you may have just given me the key to that golden door. I just hope it is the right door.

AudreyVH said...

Rather enjoyed the tips mentioned and quite thankful the list didn't really tally up to 101. That number should be reserved for dalmatians and such.

PS--You do that Piggly Wiggly shirt justice, a feat not achieved by many.

Debbie said...

I've done some light research into agents before, but have just started a serious search...and you have landed yourself right at the top of my agent hit list. Congratulations!

But, seriously, there are some pretty dry agent blogs out there. Kudos to you for making the journey just a little better for all of us.

Anonymous said...

about .21 im 11 and im guessing your clients books are for adults so....

good advice though as usaul.

unfortunately when my manuscript is finished i wont be able to query you :( i dont live in the usa

Anonymous said...

^^ i mean 20

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