To Bleed Flames: Writing a Query Letter

Writing my first query letter has been transformative.

I have lived the life of a phoenix. The thrill of taking my beak to shell swelled into the emotional glory of flight, tempered next by the exhaustion of age. Death arrived, finally, and my body shivered into flames—a transformative fire, a chorus of mystical chemistry—until I had remade myself.

Eh, in short, it was really effin’ hard.

Here’s my personal path from zero to an actual query letter.

Stage 1. I Googled “query letter.” Big flop. TOO MUCH advice with too few examples.

@SafajarWrites saw me crumbling, and she pointed me to @LindsayWrites‘ tweet about her successful query: THIS is the first damned thing that made the query letter feel do-able.

Lindsay Lackey, author of All the Impossible Things, sent 25 query letters. She got 20 requests: 18 fulls, 2 partials. Hell yeah.

Lindsay’s thread was the first example of a SUCCESSFUL query I’d seen. It was also the first time somebody told me to use voice.

Using her advice, I broke her query down by friggin’ word count. I read everything she said, and I dissected her query again. Here are my notes, messy as they are. Every time I got disoriented or discouraged on my first draft, I returned to these notes on her query.

This all took ~3 days.

Stage 2. I shared my fragile draft with “safe” readers.

Four writer friends who do memoirs and children’s books read my query letter. These writers hadn’t read my novella yet, but they’d heard some excerpts. My husband also read it.

These readers weren’t my toughest critics, but they didn’t hold back. With their help, I attacked the most clunky, tangled, boring phrases. My query letter improved.

That took 2 weeks.

Stage 3. I got on Query Shark (@QueryShark)! And I read everything.

This website is run by brutal (and brilliant) agent Janet Reid (@Janet_Reid). I cannot fathom how she has the time and energy to run this site in addition to managing all of the books she has repped and sold. But she’s critiqued, with hilarious flair, ~300 query letters.

At first, I thought “some of these queries suck, do I really need to read all the entries?” (A) Yes, I did. (B) I shouldn’t have been so uppity, because I was making some basic-ass mistakes.

Query Shark tightened the belt on my word count: my query went from 330 words to 250 words. I submitted to Query Shark. Though my letter hasn’t been picked for critique (yet?), clicking “send” forced me to work hard first.

Notably, Ms. Reid reaffirmed the importance of voice in her crits:

I also started following Mindy McGinnis (@MindyMcGinnis) via the Writer Writer Pants on Fire podcast. She’s the author of a pile of great friggin’ books. On her blog (by the same name as the podcast), she also crits query letters in a series called The Saturday Slash.

She has ~200 crits posted. A little burned out after my Shark Query dive, I read about 30. She’s also a sharp, astute crit-writer. Her preferences seemed to align with those on Shark Query.

Stage 3 took about 1 week.

Stage 4. I tweeted for more help, and BOOM, Twitter delivered.

@EliseIsWritinYA helped me enter my first DM group, one for query letter + synopsis swapping.

The group shared the following:

  • Patrick Bohan’s “Query Letter ‘Mad Libs’ Formula” is brilliant. It aligns (roughly) with what @LindsayWrites says and with Query Shark. It can help you add layers of conflict complexity. The drawback is this formula relies on your book having a single, clear (or at least main) big baddie. (My book just doesn’t.)
  • Writer’s Digest did a “Successful Queries” series, with 60 successful query letters plus explanations from agents. I read about ten letters, I’d say. This source got a little overwhelming for me, but seeing so much variety in the letters was encouraging. There is no one “right way” to get the query letter done, just key elements that it needs to possess (e.g., tension, stakes, conflict, voice).
  • In 2008, Nathan Bransford, an agent, examined 180 queries submitted to him in a week to determine “The Best Length for a Query Letter.”
  • Emma Lombard, an author, asked 14 literary agents to share their biggest tips and pet peeves for query letters.

This all happened in 1-2 days.

Stage 5. I found the courage to actually share my letter… with Internet strangers!

Internet strangers shredded it. The experience was awesome and brutal. Yes, I had a few beers. Yes, it was intimidating. But 100%, I feel this step was critical.

I swapped with four people over several drafts.

Stage 5 took 1.5 weeks.

Stage 6. I arrived at a draft worthy of submission.

Deciding my query was ready (“ready?”) didn’t involve a choir of angels descending. No fireworks, no confetti. It was more that I noticed feedback diverging. Folks are still giving suggestions! But the feedback isn’t overlapping anymore. I’ll honestly keep tweaking the query letter… the crit partners I’ve connected with are sharp people, and this is the kind of document you could keep polishing for years. BUT I do feel confident in saying “Yes, I have a query letter.”

Reflection. So, weird flex, I have an MA in 19th-Century Romantic poetry. I’ve also been a technical editor for about 10 years. Writing a query letter is the hardest document I’ve ever had to prepare. It took 14 drafts minimum (I started counting) + just over a month. I had to cut some very precious darlings. However, even though my “book” is just a humble novella, I’ve tried to take the process seriously. And because of that, I feel far more prepared to do it again next time.

On to the synopsis!

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