Six impossible things

Query Letters

A query letter is one page, asking the editor if he/she wants to see a submission of the book.  It includes some sort of very brief summary of the book (so the editor can get an idea whether it’s worth asking to see it), and there are two schools of thought about this.

One school is the “don’t give the editor a reason to reject it” philosophy.  This means keeping the description of the book to the elevator-lobby version (you meet Stephen Spielberg in the lobby waiting for the elevator and have eleven seconds to pitch your book to him before his elevator leaves.  What do you say?).  The query, by this philosophy, would go something like”

Dear Editor:

I have just finished my 100,000 word crossover fantasy/SF novel, The  Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread . The story deals with the manic adventures of a perpetual grad student and a purple monkey attempting to defeat the Evil Overlord of the Galaxy, in a style that is a cross between Douglas Adams and H.P. Lovecraft.  Would you be interested in looking at it?  The entire manuscript is available if you wish, or I can send a portion-and-outline if that is what you prefer. Thank you for your time; I look forward to hearing from you.


The other school of thought is that if you have a page in which to get an editor interested, there’s no point in limiting yourself to one sentence.  There’s room for a paragraph or two of summary.  In this version, the query letter would read something like:

   Dear Editor:

I have just finished my 100,000 word crossover fantasy/SF novel, The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread. 

Perpetual grad student Linda Beaucomp is startled when a purple monkey arrives in her student apartment and demands that she save the world before she has had her morning coffee.  Justly annoyed, she cracks him over the head with the coffee pot, killing him on the spot.  Soon she is on the run, charged with gratuitous monkey-murder.  In desperation, she hooks up with a smart-alec Arcturan cab driver and his mysterious companion, who are oddly good at avoiding the robo-cops.

“When the monkey proves to be alive after all, the three discover that the Evil Overlord of the Galaxy is behind the manhunt.  As it becomes harder and harder to avoid the Overlord’s minions, Linda and her friends race to find the only thing that has a chance of defeating him:  the mysterious and deadly book known as the Necronomicon.  Soon they are dodging multi-tentacled horrors as well as robot cops, leading up to a three-way showdown to decide the fate of the universe.

Would you be interested in looking at it? The entire manuscript is available if you wish, or I can send a portion-and-outline if that is what you prefer.  Thank you for your time; I look forward to hearing from you.


I personally favor the second sort of query, but that’s partly because I have such a hard time boiling things down.  I’m a novelist; if I coulda said it in less than 100,000 words, I woulda.  But there’s nothing wrong with the first sort, either; it’s a matter of preference and personal philosophy which you choose.

Note that neither version contains comments such as “This book is terriffic!  A great read, start to finish.  I am sure the movie people will be all over it.  It is full of original ideas and you will love every bit of it.  My mother and my best friend think it is superb, and so does everyone else I have shown it to, so I know that readers will buy it.  The world needs more funny stuff like my book.  It is really excellent.”  (Each of which I have seen in proto-query-letters written by students…and sometimes, more than one.)

The editor knows that you think your book is terrific and original and a great read and so on, and she doesn’t much care what your Mom and best friend think unless they happen to be personal friends of hers, also.  The editor has his own opinions about movie people and what the world needs, and doesn’t really want to deal with them in a query letter, thanks.  The editor wants to know facts about this book you are offering:  is it finished, how long is it, do you think it belongs to any particular subgenre (the presumption is that you are smart enough not to send a medieval quest fantasy ms. to the editor of a line of Westerns or mysteries, though not everybody is this smart), what is the book about, what is the book like.

The last two are the tricky bit with a query:  you want the one-line or two-paragraph summary (whichever you choose to use) to be intriguing, but you don’t want it to sound like the hyperbole on the back of a mass market paperback that’s trying not to give away too much of the plot.  Editors are, by and large, allergic to puffery.  So you need to figure out which facts and events are intriguing and important enough to present, and how to present them in an interesting manner, without trying to fit everything in.  I didn’t, you note, mention Linda’s roommate, or the incident with Chthulu at the truck stop, or the head robo-cop’s serious problem with battery acid abuse.  There’ll be room for some of those in the five-to-ten-page outline/synopsis that goes in with the portion. I didn’t get coy about the ending, either (OK, I didn’t say who wins, but I didn’t end the summary on an attempted cliffhanger or a teaser question. That’s for blurbs; this is a query.)

For this supposed book, I also stuck strictly to the action-adventure plot, because that’s what it is.  If it were a more character-centered book, I’d probably spend at least a line or two on Linda’s emotional development and maturation (or whatever character-growth thing is going on in the book), and the more character-centered it was, the more time I’d spend on it.  The point of the summary is to give an accurate and intriguing representation of the book, so that the editor can get an idea whether he’s interested.  It isn’t going to do you any good to write a brilliant action-adventure summary that the editor thinks would be just great for his space opera line, and then send in a manuscript that turns out to pay only the most superficial attention to the action because it is really a deep and serious character study of the long-range psychological and emotional impact on the main character of losing his pet dog when he was six.  The editor probably won’t like it or buy it, and you will have wasted months with the ms. sitting on the wrong editor’s desk, because the right editor read the action-adventure summary and passed (since he was only interested in deep psychological etc. stuff).

  1. This is a terrific breakdown on queries. Thank you.

    Funny thing, I found myself thinking `The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread’ actually works as a title. (I don’t know what that says about my sense of humor.)

  2. My husband would like to read “The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread.” When is it coming out? 😉

  3. A nice clear description of a query letter and I like how you give options. So often people say “this and only this is a query letter” – but then again you’re never much about absolutes…

    • Nct2 – When I get interested enough to do an actual plot summary and submission chapters and somebody buys it? Nobody buys mss. on a query letter, that I know of; they only ever ask to see the ms. And since I haven’t actually written or submitted any of this rather silly example… 😀

      Alex – I have an alergy to sweeping generalizations and prescriptive statements that goes way, way back. 🙂

  4. It was mostly intended as a joke. You come up with the most amazing examples.

  5. Bravo! I was very unclear on the topic of query letters before this post (not that I’ve ever tried any, though). How do you know which publisher publishes a specific type of novel?

    • Mary – There are books at the library that list publishers and what kinds of books they want to see, or you can look up a publisher’s submission guidelines (google the publisher’s name and “submission guidelines”). One of the best ways, though, is to look at your bookshelf (which is probably full of the kind of books you like) and copy off the names of the publishers who published them. Then check those publishers out at the library or on-line.

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