Example of a Good Query Letter II

by | May 31, 2007 | Query Letters | 57 comments

You wanted it you got it. Below you’ll find an example of a query that tickles the old partial-requesting region of my brain, the very powerful section of gray matter that manages to overrule the part of my brain that says, “But you already have 12 partials and 2 fulls in your inbox!! What are you trying to do to me??”

First I’m going to just print the letter so you can get a sense of the flow, and then I’ll point out some of the parts that I thought were particularly effective. Thanks very much to author for agreeing to participate! As always, please be exceedingly polite in the comments section if you’re providing feedback or disagreeing with something, because otherwise I might just have to activate the part of my brain that deletes impolite commnets.

Here goes!

I have been reading your blog since (the dearly departed) Miss Snark mentioned it, and I have enjoyed and learned a lot from your posts. I like your straightforward style, and I hope you will be interested in my novel.

When her husband leaves for a month-long overseas charity project, Candice Warburton is facing a possible cancer diagnosis and grieving the recent and unexpected deaths of her much-loved in-laws. The last thing she needs is the man who broke her heart ten years ago as the new client at work. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what she gets.

My 85,000 word women’s fiction novel, LIFE, LOVE, AND A POLAR BEAR TATTOO, explores how a tiny crack in a marriage can widen into a devastating split, and how honesty, however painful, is always worth the price.

Several of my several short stories have been published, most recently in Dark Cloud Press’s THOU SHALT NOT anthology. My co-written entry in the 2005 Three Day Novel contest (www.3daynovel.com) was honored with a short-listed finish.

Thank you for taking the time to consider my submission.

The thing I like most about this query is that it flows extremely well. A good flow is perhaps the most important aspect of any good query. Whenever I come across an awkward turn of phrase (like “I’ve written a 100,000 word historical fiction.”) or extended passive voice (“the main character was betrayed and has decided to not be a sucker anymore”), or if there’s a poor word choice where it’s clear it’s not a typo, 99% of the time I reach for the rejection button. Professional writers just don’t make mistakes like this — the sentences wouldn’t look right to them. This author, on the other hand, doesn’t have a misplaced word in the entire query.

The second thing I like about this query letter is that there is very good conflict. The main character is clearly reaching a crisis point in her life, but rather than being explicitly told she’s reaching a crisis, we’re shown: She may have cancer, her in-laws have passed, and then there’s the hook — an old flame has resurfaced at the worst possible time. It’s a very solid opening. Both ingredients of the hook are present and accounted for: Quest (overcoming cancer and grief), conflict (arrival of old flame).

The third thing I like is that there are really subtle details that go a long way toward establishing a sense of who these people are in a very short space, which, as everyone knows, is one of the hardest things to do in the short form of the query letter. In just the first paragraph we learn that her husband is spending a month on a charity mission (good person), just as she learns she might have cancer (she needs him) and as she’s grieving the loss of her in-laws (she was close with them). All of these things heighten the tension for the impending arrival of the old-flame (danger!). This isn’t a typical story of a woman-done-wrong-by-bad-husband-who-falls-into-bed-with-high-school-sweetheart, you get the sense that this is a good human whose life just got extremely complicated and who might make a human mistake in a weak moment. All of that conveyed in just a couple of sentences. Very tough to do, but very well done.

Then in the third paragraph she brings it home by giving a nice sense of the themes. At this point I wouldn’t even have needed the writerly qualifications in the fourth paragraph, but that’s just icing on the cake. It’s also an appropriate length, and she gets extra points for mentioning the blog.

So there you have it. Quite a strong query letter.

57 Comments

  1. John

    It could be even tighter by eliminating “Unfortunately, that’s exactly what she gets” which seems redundant.

    As for the story itself, it looks like the reader won’t have much sympathy for the hubby. With his parents recently dead and Candice facing cancer, he goes overseas, albeit for charity work. Conflict diluted.

    Reply
  2. Stephen Parrish

    You forgot to mention she’s got a kick-ass title.

    Reply
  3. Nathan Bransford

    John –

    I don’t know if I agree — he could be grieving his parents and making a bad choice. To me, the fact that he’s going on a charity mission but leaving his wife for a month is great conflict, and doens’t necessarily mean he’s a bad person.

    At the very least it’s complicated, and conveying that sense of “complicated” is tough to do in a query letter, and it makes me want to know how it will turn out.

    Reply
  4. Dot

    I agree that this is a well-written query. I’m intrigued.

    But I’m feeling kinda . . . obtuse, or something, because this seems like a fancier version of what you described as an Ingredients Query. Cancer, grief, old flame, widening crack in a marriage. Does it tell you the story and I’m not seeing it?

    Reply
  5. Nathan Bransford

    Dot-

    It’s the beginning of the story, and then there’s a sense of the rest of the story. A woman might have cancer, then her in-laws die, then her husband leaves for a month, then her old flame arrives. Those are events that form the basis of the plot, and then she provides a sense that as the book moves forward it’s going to be about a crack in a marriage.

    In ingredients queries, there isn’t really a semblance of a beginning of the story or even a middle or much of sense of a plot, you just receive a list of things that are in the book. And when those pieces are outside of the context of their place in the story it’s impossible to understand how they fit in. And they end up being devoid of meaning.

    The main difference, to me, is that a good query gives a sense of what story will be told, an ingredients query just gives a sense of what’s in the story. If I come away with a sense of the story it’s good, if I just know what’s going to be in the book but have no idea of what the story is, that’s not good.

    Hope that clears it up.

    Reply
  6. John

    Nathan,

    This query brings up a couple of technical questions:

    Are caps the preferred method of indicating the title, rather than italic?

    And is there supposed to be a hyphen in “85,000 word”?

    Reply
  7. Nathan Bransford

    Yes, within the publishing industry the most common way of indicating titles is to capitalize (you’ll see me doing this on the blog a lot).

    And I’m not sure about the hyphen matter, either way is fine by me, but if a copywriter wants to chime in on the proper usage we can put that one to bed.

    Reply
  8. original bran fan

    I have a question. Is the telling of the theme in paragraph 3 the norm? In otherwords, it goes intro, hook, theme, credits? 1, 2, 3, 4? As formulas go, that’s a pretty nifty one. But now I wonder, is telling the theme always necessary?

    Reply
  9. Don

    On the hyphen thing, house style may vary, but typically a compound adjective is hyphenated a compound noun is not. So a fire truck is painted fire-truck red.

    We’re all writers, editors and/or agents here so presumably we know our adjectives from our nouns.

    Reply
  10. Christopher M. Park

    Definitely a strong query, and kudos to the author. I do have one unrelated question, though–Nathan, you mentioned that you have a bunch of partials on your desk. I thought that you only requested fulls? Was that just throwing too many hopefuls off?

    Chris

    Reply
  11. Nathan Bransford

    OBF-

    That’s a good formula, although I’d say theme is optional. Paragraph three could either elaborate or complicate the plot, or possibly be eliminated entirely. In Anatomy of a Query Letter I the author went straight to qualifications in the third paragraph.

    But I think this length is something to shoot for.

    Reply
  12. Derrick

    The author did an excellent job! The only thing I would do differently on my own letter is maybe mention the title first.

    (Just for the sake of branding, that way when I read her plot, I think the title, and establish a relationship between the two)

    Reply
  13. Derrick

    Nathan, here’s what I meant I’d do with the letter:

    I have been reading your blog since (the dearly departed) Miss Snark mentioned it, and I have enjoyed and learned a lot from your posts. I like your straightforward style, and I hope you will be interested in my 85,000 word women’s fiction novel, LIFE, LOVE, AND A POLAR BEAR TATTOO.

    When her husband leaves for a month-long overseas charity project, Candice Warburton is facing a possible cancer diagnosis and grieving the recent and unexpected deaths of her much-loved in-laws. The last thing she needs is the man who broke her heart ten years ago as the new client at work. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what she gets.

    LIFE, LOVE, AND A POLAR BEAR TATTOO, explores how a tiny crack in a marriage can widen into a devastating split, and how honesty, however painful, is always worth the price.

    Several of my several short stories have been published, most recently in Dark Cloud Press’s THOU SHALT NOT anthology. My co-written entry in the 2005 Three Day Novel contest (www.3daynovel.com) was honored with a short-listed finish.

    Thank you for taking the time to consider my submission.

    -That way, we have the title right away, and after reading her plot, we will correlate her title to her plot. 🙂

    Reply
  14. Dot

    Yes, Nathan, that’s very helpful. I especially like a good query gives a sense of what story will be told, an ingredients query just gives a sense of what’s in the story.

    Thanks!

    Reply
  15. Susan Helene Gottfried

    Nathan, isn’t the cancer angle a put-off? I’ve been told by a few other agents that it’s either a hard sell, or else something to run screaming from, in case it’s contagious.

    Reply
  16. Nathan Bransford

    Susan-

    Cancer is definitely common, however I liked that the focus wasn’t on the cancer but more on the rest of the protagonist’s life. I’ll have to see how it’s handled in the manuscript.

    Reply
  17. pixy

    Good luck to the author! Great example.

    Reply
  18. Anonymous

    Poop, I have all of those ingredients in my novel: in-laws, illness, death, husband no more, and yes, a cute, furry tatoo. What am I to do?
    However, good, clean letter.
    My question, is the letter a little too informal?
    She indicates, she is familiar with your blog, and I think I know you from the blog, but should it be so casual?

    Reply
  19. Nathan Bransford

    Anon-

    No, I didn’t think it was too informal. There clearly is a line between professional and too casual, but this was comfortably on the correct side of that line.

    Reply
  20. writtenwyrdd

    Some people deal with grief by isolating themselves, so the husband’s actions made sense to me.

    That’s such a great query letter! Thank you (and its author) for sharing. This dissection is very educational.

    Reply
  21. Anonymous

    It’s so easy to spot a bad query letter, yet really bad ones are what are offered up so often as examples of what not to do. Well, sure, we know not to do that. But how do we go that last furlong or shed those last 5 lbs?

    For those of us who are pretty sure we don’t suck at writing queries, but may need that final guidance to go from good to great, it’s really nice to see queries that resulted in requests for pages.

    Nathan: You mention you would like permission to use queries in the blog that didn’t make your cut. How about permission from more people who did?

    Thanks!

    Reply
  22. McKoala

    I’ve seen this query about the blogosphere in several different formats – all of them good. This author has worked her socks off to hone good into great. Great to see dedication does work.

    Reply
  23. Welshcake

    Thanks for posting this Nathan and the author. Really helpful stuff.

    Reply
  24. Hélène B

    Do I remember this query from Miss Snark’s Happy Hooker contest?

    Reply
  25. L.C.McCabe

    Nathan,

    The fact that the query letter did not begin or include any rhetorical questions shows that she has been reading your blog.

    I’m surprised no one else mentioned that bit of trivia.

    Thanks for sharing!

    Linda

    Reply
  26. Mary

    That is a very elegant query. Compliments to the author. And thank you, Nathan, for sharing this.

    Reply
  27. Anonymous

    The most interesting thing about this is that people have such different tastes. I am betting a lot of agents would reject this for several reasons. What we can take from this is that no set of style standards works for everyone and that if one person does not like it, try another who might.

    Reply
  28. Anonymous

    I have to agree with Anon 11:48. It is a fine query but it simply isn’t my kind of book. I think many fine queries are rejected because of personal taste, not because the queries are bad. In otherwords, if your query is good, don’t worry about making it flawless. Good will get the job done if it matches the taste of the agent.

    All the more reason to follow Miss Snark’s advice: query widely.

    Reply
  29. Heather Wardell

    This is my query, and I appreciate the comments.

    What stuns me is that nobody noticed the “several of my several short stories” typo near the end. This includes me, and I’ve read and re-read this letter until my eyes have requested a transfer to someone else’s head. My husband glanced over my shoulder as I was sending out a query and said, “Oh, typo.”

    Sheesh. 🙂

    BUT I’ve had several requests for pages from it… now that I’ve fixed the typo, I should get thousands!

    Heather

    Reply
  30. Anonymous

    Nathan,

    What about a bad query? I love it when someone tears my work apart and I can improve on it. So why not post a bad query and tear it apart? don’t just tell me what not to do, SHOW ME!

    Please.

    Reply
  31. Brian Ostrovsky

    Thanks for giving us first-time novelists a better understanding of the agent’s perspective.

    I’ve read your query letter posts and I wonder what your take is on the use of a quote from the book to highlight an element of the story vs. just highlighting the same point as the author. Thanks.

    Reply
  32. Anonymous

    all novels are fiction

    Reply
  33. Scott

    Hey, Nathan. Excellent blog. Sorry I’m a bit late to the party.

    I have a couple of questions that relate to email queries in general, and perhaps your example here, as well.

    What is the standard subject line for a query? For example, did this author include the title of her work?

    Also, is it ever appropriate to relate that the work being submitted is the author’s first novel? In other words, how important is experience when it comes to getting your query answered? Does screenwriting experience hold positive weight?

    Apologies for the compound questions. 🙂

    Reply
  34. Nathan Bransford

    Scott-

    For e-queries, what you put in the subject line is up to you, but all agents appreciate when the word “Query” is in there somewhere.

    And for your second question, please check out the post on How to List Your Publishing Credits in “The Essentials.”

    Reply
  35. Scott

    Cheers, Nathan. Missed that bit. Much obliged.

    Reply
  36. Heather Wardell

    I’ve had several emails from people wanting to read this book, and since I’ve now moved on to querying my second novel I’ve decided to make “Life, Love, and a Polar Bear Tattoo” available for free download.

    Click on my name to go to my blog, and you’ll see the book’s download page on the right-hand side.

    I’d love feedback if anyone reads it!

    Heather

    Reply
  37. Anonymous

    Haven’t we been chastized for using redundant term “fictional novel”? It seems to me that I’ve seen the query shark chomp that one many times.

    Reply
  38. Anonymous

    Of course, we’ve been CHASTISED for misspelling words and for leaving out important words too…I meant to say THE redundant term “fictional novel”. Sheesh.

    Reply
  39. Heather Wardell

    Anonymous, “women’s fiction” is the genre. Like “science fiction”.

    Reply
  40. Anonymous

    Okay, it's pedantry, but hey, this is about writing. Note this from Nathan:

    >>And for your second question, please check out the post on How to List Your Publishing Credits in "The Essentials."

    The stop correctly goes inside the quotes.

    Reply
  41. Nathan Bransford

    anon-

    Um… ok. You got me. Now go work on your manuscript.

    Reply
  42. Anonymous

    Nuh. You were right and Heather and others are wrong, mostly, except for some idiosyncratic style sheets!

    Reply
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  44. Anahita

    Nathan you teach excellence by analyzing excellent query letters. Thanks!

    Reply
  45. Anonymous

    Hi Nathan,
    I’m pretty new to your blog, but I really love it. I was hoping you could answer a question for me. If I’ve written lots of manuscripts but haven’t tried to find an agent before the last few months, should I mention that in my biography?

    Reply
  46. Justine Hedman

    I’m just agreeing now, I like that we get a chance here to see what has impressed an agent. Most of my findings are based off what not to do… thanks for turning that around. I’ve had an especially hard time writing my query becuase I feel like I need to put so much more into it. I’m excited to finish reading the blogs so I can take another stab.

    Justine

    Reply
  47. Anonymous

    Love the blog. But gotta say I am a bit surprised you asked for more after reading this query. After all, she did refer to her work as a “fiction novel.”

    Reply
  48. Justine Hedman

    Only to you Nathan…

    I love getting a “this isn’t for me” letter in two minutes flat… it’s great!

    Sorry, but no one can read a submission that fast. Oh well, there are other fish in the sea no?

    (just saying automatic no’s do exist, it’s called auto email replies.)

    Reply
  49. Newbee

    I would like to post a question to anyone out there…including both those who have and haven't been published before. How on earth do you stay so focused? I'd like to hear anyone's ways they keep their fingers to the "keyboard".

    Reply
  50. Anonymous

    Nathan,

    So basically, if i have the rest of my query letter like this, however, lets say im a newbie and i need a way to get started (so basically, i have no experience) would you still toss it out the door like the other same old same old garbage????

    Reply

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ABOUT NATHAN

Hi, I’m Nathan. I’m the author of How to Write a Novel and the Jacob Wonderbar series, which was published by Penguin. I used to be a literary agent at Curtis Brown Ltd. and I’m dedicated to helping authors chase their dreams. Let me help you with your book!

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