Writing the Perfect Query



Looking for an agent or publisher? 

Perhaps you’ve been searching for a long time and don’t know why you’re being rejected. Yes, you understand the numbers are against success, but your story is amazing, you spent months, maybe years, working on it. It brings tears to your eyes even now when you re-read it. If they would just read it, they would love it. So, why are they rejecting you? Or worse, not answering at all…

I’m sure you’ve been told that publishers, editors and agents are massively busy. Manuscripts are piled—metaphorically because it’s all email these days—but suffice to say there are many awaiting them every single morning. There simply is not enough hours in a day, or a week, to read every single one. 

I was one of those editors for a long time so I know this is a fact. 

Know also when I say that, these days, editors/publishers/agents don’t have time to look for the best stories. They are looking for reasons to reject. And it begins with the query because it’s the first thing they see. 

But there are things you can do to increase your chances of success.

Remember, this is a business letter. Treat it as such. It should be no more than one page. No, your book isn’t special; it doesn’t rate a bigger space.

Capture attention with your greeting. It’s the first thing they see. Do not use Dear Madam, or Hello, Sir, or even worse TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN or Hey, Dudes. Find out their name and use it. If there is no specific person to which you address the letter, use the company name. And get it right.

Write your hook. 

Be unique, but truthful. Try something like: I’m seeking representation for my novel, To Love a Stranger, the follow-up to To Love a Neighbor, which was shortlisted for the Joe Schmoe Prize, and a finalist for the Books First Novel Prize in 2016.

But, you argue, I haven’t published before. What about a personal connection: We met at last year’s NYC Annual Conference and chatted briefly about your work with up-and-coming romance authors. (You DO attend conferences, right? Networking is crucial.)

You might refer to something the agent has written or said in public. “I saw your presentation at the NYC Writers Conference last year. Your comments on the lack of female protagonists with dark pasts really resonated with me. My book is, in part, an attempt to redress that balance.” Don't lay it on too thick. Just show that you've put thought and effort into choosing which agents you query.

Lacking the personal touch, what about a referral from an established author or a publishing insider? Jane Doe at Shortly Books suggested I contact you regarding representation for my 90,000-word debut romantic suspense novel, To Love a Stranger.

If you are still shaking your head, what about jumping right into the fire. I’m writing to seek representation for my 90,000-word debut romantic suspense, To Love a Stranger.  

Writing Your Synopsis

                                                         What is a synopsis? It…


                                       1) is a narrative summary of your book--with feeling.

                                       2) is written in present tense.

                                       3) is written in third person.

                                       4) is written in the same writing style as your book.      

                                            If your book is "chatty," then  your synopsis should be, too. If your book is serious,                                             literary, filled with dialect, or any other style, so must your synopsis be.

                                        5) introduces your main characters and their main conflicts, all woven together in the                                              narrative.

The synopsis is the most important part of your submission package. It has to be developed and 

sweated over and polished with the same attention you devoted to the novel itself. 

Along with the cover letter, the synopsis is what sells the editor on the manuscript. 

If they don't see anything they like in the synopsis, they won't even glance at your chapter samples.

The synopsis is your sales pitch. Think of it as the jacket blurb for your novel (the synopsis is often used in writing this, and by the publisher's art and advertising departments, if the novel is purchased), and write it as though you're trying to entice a casual bookstore browser to buy the novel and read it. Which isn't too far from actuality.



Rather than being daunted by the enormity of such a task, break it down into steps.

The first step: Sit down to that final reading with a pen and paper beside you. As you finish reading each chapter, write down a one- or two-paragraph summary of what happened where, and to which character, in that chapter.

Do you notice any themes running through your chapters as you're reading? Basically it's a topic, certain language, thread of action, or color scheme that keeps popping up from beginning to end. Take note of them. 

You may just discover your one-line story summary that agents and editors like so much, if you didn't know what it was before. Or even if you thought you knew what it was, before (surprise, says the Muse, you were wrong).

What you will have when you are done examining your chapters is a chapter-by-chapter novel outline. This is pretty dry reading, and since chapter-by-chapter outlines seem to have fallen out of favor with editors and agents, this will likely remain one of your most valuable writing tools, and that's about it. Don't throw this away when you've done your synopsis, either. You may know the story intimately now, but you do forget details over time. 

You may revise the novel in the future, and this outline will help. 

Reading an outline is easier than leafing through or rereading an entire novel.

What you are doing with your chapter-by-chapter outline is distilling the story down into smaller and more manageable packages, step by step.

Next step, from the chapter-by-chapter outline, pinpoint the most important plot points. These will be the highlights of your synopsis in that outline. Notice I said the most important points. We're talking about only those events and motivations that moved the story forward in a major way. We're talking about only the most important characters, the ones your reader will ultimately care about, not the bit players. Right now, we are striving for bare bones.

Let's See Some Enthusiasm!


Now, envision one or two things while you rework that synopsis: imagine you're writing a jacket blurb for the novel, 

one that will pique the casual browser's curiosity and make him or her want to buy the book to see what happens. 

Read a few jacket blurbs, to get a feel for them.

You've just seen a terrific movie. You're describing it to your friend. You're not saying, "The good guy chased the bad guy and shot him and that was the end." That doesn't sound very enthusiastic. No, say things like, "The good guy is wounded, but he knows if he doesn't stop the evil Dr. Death, the whole world is in danger, so he staggers after Dr. Death, falls, somehow gets to his feet again, and at last zaps him with the Good Guy Death-ray to save the world."

That's how your synopsis will sound, when you're done: enthusiastic, enticing. A description that makes the reader want to pick up the manuscript and find out how this happens!

How can you make your synopsis unique, exciting? Start with the main character and his or her crisis. Include snippets of dialogue or quote briefly from the novel itself. Don't neglect to reveal the character's emotions and motivations, those points that explain why a character does something, but keep it brief. If the setting is exotic, inject a taste of it into the synopsis with a brief paragraph. This includes any background information that is absolutely necessary for the reader to understand the story. Build excitement as you near the conclusion of the story summary by using shorter sentences and paragraphs. The synopsis is a sample of your writing; it is a taste of what reading the actual novel will be like, so give it your all.

Don't forget that one- or two-sentence story line, or the theme of the  story that you discovered. It should go in your synopsis, or in your cover letter. Editors and agents like having this distillation; not only will it pique their interest, but it's something they can use when presenting the novel to the buying board. It's also something you can use, the next time someone politely asks you, "What's your novel about?"

Shalts and Shalt Nots


Now for the "thou shall and shalt nots."

First—acceptable length. Usually, allow one synopsis page for every twenty-five pages of manuscript, but even that could be longer than most editors and agents want to see. Most editors and agents prefer short synopses from two to ten pages.

Always keep in mind that the synopsis must remain interesting, and supply the necessary information, then cut, cut, cut. Keep making passes deciding what you can refine or do without completely. This is the hardest part. Don't know what to cut? Lose the adjectives and adverbs; keep the motivation and "flavor" of the story.

You have to tell the entire story. Don't send the first three chapters and then start the synopsis at chapter four. Don't leave out the ending, hoping to entice the editor or agent to request the full manuscript in order to find out what happens. What they will do is decide you're an amateur.

No matter what tense your novel was written in, the synopsis is always written in present tense (Jerry goes to the bullfight as opposed to Jerry went to the bullfight.) Format: readable font, usually Times or Times New Roman, single-space your synopsis.

The first time you use a character's name in the synopsis, type it in CAPITAL letters. Do this only the first time. Avoid confusion by referring to a character the same way throughout (not "Dr. Evans" the first time, "Jerry" the next, and "the doctor" another time). It's also advisable to identify which character(s) is the point of view character by typing "(POV)" after the first instance of the character's name.

Try beginning with a paragraph describing your character. Not the physical attributes but the most compelling characteristics. Second paragraph, do the same with the antagonist or the character who plays off your main character. 

Third and subsequent paragraphs, describe what happens in the story—give a play by play of the plot's highlights, the events that propel the story and characters forward. Then close with a wrap up—yes, tell the end—of the story. 

Synopsis Checklist:

                 · Does the opening paragraph have a hook to keep the reader reading?                  · Are your main characters' conflicts clearly defined?                                        

                 · Are your characters sympathetic?   

                 · Can the reader relate to them and worry about them? 

                 · Have you avoided all grammar, spelling, and punctuation mistakes? 

                 · Have you hit on the major scenes, the major plot points of your book? 

                 · Did you resolve all important conflicts?  Did you use present tense? 

PERFECT QUERIES / Taken from agent’s web sites


Dear Agent,

A woman who cannot trust. A man who will not love. A passion richer than the dark of midnight. This is an intriguing opening intended to catch the agent’s attention.

Dangerously attractive anatomist, Dr. Damien Cole, is suspected of being the killer who hunts in the back alleys of Whitechapel. Blaming himself for the death of his sister, Damien exerts a rigid control, refusing to succumb to the joys, and torturous pain, of strong emotions. He struggles against his growing attraction to his unconventional assistant, Darcie Finch, denying that which he fears above all else - love. A paragraph that illustrates something about the main character.

Betrayed by those she trusted, brave, resilient Darcie is thrust into Damien's strange household. Working beside the mysterious doctor, she is ever aware of the charged atmosphere that crackles between them, and of the fact that she must never again put her faith in a man of secrets. A paragraph about the second character.

Haunted by the passion that burgeons in her soul, she looks deep into the heart of her enigmatic employer, and finds kindness hidden beneath his steely reserve. But as the bodies line up one by one, Darcie must decide if Damien is worthy of her love or if he is a terrifying creature unburdened by guilt or remorse, a murderer who prowls the East End streets. A third paragraph that talks about their relationship in the story.

I am a member of Romance Writers of America, and past associate newsletter editor for the Toronto chapter. THIS BOOK tied for first place in the 2004 Haunted Hearts contest hosted by the Gothic Romance Writers chapter of RWA. A short bio listing just the author’s or the novel’s highlights.

Would you be interested in reading my work? I look forward to hearing from you. Thank you for your time. Quick closing and a thank you.

FYI-this book sold to Zebra Books.

Dear Agent,

In childhood, friendships are so easily formed that differences often go unnoticed. One glance into a preschool classroom would attest to this fact. As people approach adulthood, they seem to make distinctions and divisions based on sometimes arbitrary circumstances. Doesn't every high school have its cliques? Hand-Me-Down Heartbreak is a completed 75,000-word contemporary romance that begins with this idea. A little girl from a loving home meets the troubled boy next door. She is drawn his adventurous spirit; he enjoys her winning attitude. They become best friends, until teenage hormones pull them apart. This author opens the query with her theme. Authors who write a theme into their stories inevitably end up with a deeper, more thought provoking piece. Agents and editors are intrigued by themes.

Tracy Gilbert is the grown-up girl and my story's heroine. When her childhood buddy returns to town after a long absence, Tracy wants nothing to do with him. She has an adopted daughter and a plan for her life that precludes involvement with unsuitable men. Riley Collins is the picture of unsuitability. His hair is too long, his eyes are too wild and he severed Tracy's trust when he ran away with her older sister thirteen years ago. And yet, he's grown into a man who is as fascinating as he is handsome. Circumstances compel Tracy to accept a short-term assignment as Riley's consultant, and she sets a new and towering goal: to finish the job and escape his company before he breaks her heart a second time. This paragraph introduces both characters and their dilemma.

My heroine is a single mother by choice. This is a viable option today, and I think it says something about the woman choosing it. Whether she has become cynical about the prospect of finding love or is simply taking charge of her future, this woman must be strong and independent. I hope readers will identify with Tracy. My hero is a man who has risen above a less than fortunate childhood to become an admirable man. I hope readers will fall in love with Riley. I'm sending the first three chapters for your consideration, and would be pleased to send the complete novel at your request. Thank you for your time and patience. I look forward to hearing from you soon. And a wrap-up. Since there is no bio paragraph, I am led to believe this is a first-time author. 

This manuscript sold to Harlequin. So, you see, first time authors can get in ‘over the transom’ AND receive big sales.

Dear Agent,

The Beijing '08 Olympics are over, the war in Iraq is lost, and former National Guard medic Ellie McEnroe is stuck in China, trying to lose herself in the alien worlds of performance artists and online gamers. When a chance encounter with a Chinese Muslim dissident drops her down a rabbit hole of conspiracies, Ellie must decide who to trust among the artists, dealers, collectors and operatives claiming to be on her side – in particular, a mysterious organization operating within a popular online game. This author opens with her main character and her dilemma.

TITLE is a fast-paced, 108,000 word mainstream novel set in a China where the ultra-modern and cutting-edge clash with ancient neighborhoods and traditions, and in an America where the consequences of war reverberate long after the troops have come home. It will appeal to fans of William Gibson’s books with contemporary settings, Laura Lippman’s strong female protagonists, and almost anybody’s whacked-out travelogues about the world’s more surreal places. Comparing your book to well known stories, especially ones already handled by the agent, are very compelling.

I have a background in politics, Chinese history and the entertainment industry. I am working on a pop biography of Zhou Enlai for a small press and with a partner wrote a feature screenplay based on a series of Taiwanese fantasy novels, TITLE, which was optioned by ActionGate Films. I was also a contributing editor for TWILIGHT OF EMPIRE: RESPONSES TO OCCUPATION, a collection of essays about the American occupation of Iraq (Perceval Press, 2004). I lived in China, travel there often and speak decent, if not quite fluent, Mandarin. This author’s credentials are related to the theme of her novel.

I’m querying you because you like novels set in foreign countries. Also, I hate the Lakers. And a bit of humor proving the author has done her homework and isn’t just targeting any agent for submission.

Note from the agent who signed this manuscript: This query is just stellar. It's well written, it has a nice balance between key details (alien worlds of performance artists and gamers), plot (chance encounter drops her into a rabbit hole of conspiracies), personalization (knows my taste), and most importantly of all, hates the Lakers. I had to restrain myself from immediately offering representation. I waited on the novel though, which was amazing.

Writing a cover blurb


Awful to think of but stats say that most people don’t read beyond the first sentence of your blurb. That’s why it needs big impact. Make catchy, engaging, clever, unique.

Writing a killer blurb is easy…

1- Use a formula.

               2- Start with a situation.

            3- Introduce a problem.

4- Promise a twist.

Only four steps. Makes it sound so simple, doesn’t it? Then why is it so difficult?

Because a blurb should run 100-150 words. 

How on earth do you condense a 100,000-word story to one tenth of its size?

What is your main character’s situation? The catalyst that set your story into action? 

Use the character’s name—it gives the reader something to focus on—a real person, of sorts to care about. 

What is the problem that keeps your character from satisfying their situation? What is in the way? (If you cannot answer these questions, or you have too many answers to the questions, I suggest you take another look at your plot line). Is it a particular person causing the problem, a physical event, or an emotional issue? 

Here’s where a lot of authors go wrong. They fail to insert the ‘emotion’—the tone of the book. Is it playful, or serious? Loving or mysterious? That tone should filter through into your blurb.

What has your character done to fight the situation facing them? Here’s another place authors mess up is in giving too much information. Remember, your goal is to get the reader to buy the book, not read the back and know your story. Hint at what the character gets up to in the book. 

Possibly use a cliffhanger—Can he get the girl before the volcano erupts?

A couple more things:

• Where is your story set? Can the addition of this add to the tone of your blurb?

• Keep the sentences short. Remember, readers are in a hurry, they will be skimming this so don’t make them linger too long on one sentence. White space around the paragraphs is a good thing. Gives the illusion of space—less to read.

• Run the blurb—or several different ones—past family and friends. Ask their honest opinion.

• Don’t submit it right away. As with the book itself, let it sit a while so you can think about what you have.