Wednesday, December 11, 2013

How I Got My Agent, Step 2: The Query Letter

If you are reading this post, you have probably heard of a query letter. But because there is so much information out there regarding query letters, you may not have a clear picture in your mind as what EXACTLY a query letter is.

It could be anything from a piece of paper soaked in your own blood, promising your first unborn child, or a magical unicorn, on which you will ride into your dream agent's office before galloping into the sky together to begin your long and fruitful union.

Hopefully, I can clear up any misconceptions that you may have about these obscure letters that at best, pave the way to Jaguar convertibles and your face of the cover of Time, and worst, condemn you to a penniless life in your mother's basement where you live primarily on Spaghetti-Os and ramen.

So let's begin:

What it is:
*a short letter of introduction to publishers or potential agents
*your calling card
*an advertisement of your product (A.K.A. your book)

What it is NOT:
*longer than a page
*an opportunity to use as many “big” words as possible
*a place to ramble or confess secrets



          Jesse Sullivan dies for a living. As a Necronite, she is one of the population's 2% who can literally die in place of another person without disrupting the precarious universal order. This talent makes her quite the American commodity. However, in Death and Taxes, quirky and sarcastic heroine Jesse dreams of a life unencumbered by lucrative replacement deaths. A girl can only wake up on her back so many times before she wonders what life is really about.
         She cannot get health insurance because of her high risk profession. Religious zealots persecute Jesse and her fellow Necronites as soulless "zombies." Not to mention all of her friends are just as strange as she is: morticians, comic book collectors and crackpot psychics. This is the family she made along the way and with one terrible decision, may lose forever.
          Before writing Death and Taxes, my work has appeared in several journals: North American Review, The Florida Review, Zone 3 and others. I received the Rachel Maddox Award for Creative writing in 2005 and earned a Master's in Creative Writing in 2007 and an MFA in Creative Writing in 2010. Currently, I work as copy editor for a small press New Issues, and I teach freshman composition. Death and Taxes was written last fall, just after my return from a teaching assignment in Prague, where I was lucky enough to spend a quiet summer in one of the most beautifully charming European cities.

Please find pasted below the first five pages. The full manuscript has been workshopped by other writers, is clean, and ready for your enjoyment. I look forward to your response.

Thank you for your time.


Kory M. Shrum

Explanation of What You Just Read:
Ignoring the terribleness of my original title (Death and Taxes), let me explain to you the format I followed when constructing my letter. I followed the format I read from many magazines/articles that claimed to have the correct formula, and apparently, they must have.

Paragraph 1: The hook. You want to hook to draw the agent in the same way you would draw readers in. It should be as intriguing and interesting as possible.

Paragraph 2: The conflict. Personally, I think this is the weakest part of my letter, but you can do better! This is where you establish what your character has to lose and the conflict/trouble driving your book. It should serve to deepen your potential agent’s interest in the material.

Paragraph 3: Biography. If you have any writing qualifications or publication history, this is where you place it. If you don’t, try to think of other ways you can emphasize your developing talents (i.e. I charge all the neighborhood kids a nickel to edit their papers, and bygone, they all make As!) Also, try to make yourself seem more interesting than you really are (I think I overdid it with the Prague mention. A bit pretentious, don’t you think?) But whatever it takes! Present yourself as a writer who takes writing seriously.

Paragraph 4: The pitch. As far as paragraphs go, this is a tiny one. In fact, mine is only three lines. I specified what was included, why it was awesome, and what I expected to happen. Keep it simple.

Final thoughts
Of course you should also include the address/header material (date, names, etc.) as in any formal letter.

If your query “sticks”, you might want to have the following ready:
A brief synopsis of your novel (500 words)
First 50 pages polished and ready to send—but really the WHOLE book should be ready.

It is not uncommon for agents/publishers, upon liking your query, to request more. Be ready to give it to them. It varies, of course, between 10 pages or 50 pages, the first three chapters, whole manuscript, a synopsis, etc. But as long as your manuscript is polished and you have a 500 word synopsis on hand, you should have little problem fulfilling these requests, whatever they are.

So as you ready your letter and materials, let us see how your research is going. NEXT: Step 3—Submit


  1. Thanks for sharing your process - I attended a panel on Agents at WFC13 this year and find it interesting that you didn't include the genre or word count of the novel; or was that placed elsewhere in the letter?
    Looking forward to seeing how the next step went!

  2. This is the entire letter, no tricks! :) I know that some include genre and word count, but it is important to do so in a way that doesn't disrupt the flow. For example, I could have said:

    "Before writing Death and Taxes, a 80,000-word, urban fantasy novel, my work has appeared in several journals: North American Review, The Florida Review, Zone 3 and others."

    As you can see it is a short aside rather than its own declaration. The bottom line is that of course there is some variation. I hope my template is just a starting point for you, a place from which you can add your own personality and flair ;)

    Thanks for asking! :)