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Sunday, April 19, 2009


Michelle asks: What’s a query letter, exactly, and how do you write one?

The truth is, Michelle, this is not something I really have to do very often. I mean, I wrote one or two a few years ago, but I don’t really remember what I said. I’m no expert.

I can tell you what they are, basically. Query letters are page-long introductions to your book (and, to a lesser extent, to you). They are designed to give agents a very quick idea of what you’re writing about, and ideally, to entice them to read a bit more. There are a lot of guides on the subject all over the internet—some good, some bad, and some very, very bad.

Because it is my duty to give you the VERY BEST advice at all times, I decided to do a little research on this one. So I sat down with my beloved agent Daphne Unfeasible, who reads hundreds of these at a go, and asked her what makes a query letter REALLY STAND OUT for her. She has listed these elements out for me, and I am going to illustrate them for you.


First and foremost—agents want to see you have CONFIDENCE! You’re smart. You can smell a bestseller a mile away. Your book is going to be HUGE. Like, crazy huge. You’ve been following the trends (unlike these other idiots!) and you know what’s big. So compare yourself to as many bestselling authors as you can. This will definitely get the agent’s attention.

Also, agents really want to know how good of a movie you think your book will be. This is important because a). everyone knows movies are more important than books, b). you are the best judge of just how DRAMATICAL the material is.

Have I told you about ME?


You’ve given the book to your mom, and your neighbor, and maybe some children, right? And they loved it, right? Because, God knows, they’d never just SAY that to make you feel good. They MEAN IT. And agents need to know that you have personal acquaintances who think your book is awesome. There’s nothing like the hearsay of a few random, unnamed people to really show that this book has popular appeal.

"My friends love it."


Look, agents are busy people, and they need to know which words on the page to stare at the longest. This is when you crack out a querent’s SPECIAL SEASONING. “Sprinkle” freely. See? See how you looked at that word? Are you even SEEING these words here, without the quotes? Probably not. That is why you must “use” “quotes” as much “as” possible.

Me, "working" with my "friends."


Rules are for stupid people. You know that, and I know that. Agents only put them out there as a test. So the agent says that they only want to see three pages, or one sample chapter. Pfffft. Send the whole thing as a BIG ATTACHMENT.

Rules are for little people.


Nothing impresses an agent more than characters who like to escape from between the covers. Your characters are always chattering away at you—so let them keep right on talking in the letter! This shows you are creative ALL THE TIME and that the voices never, ever stop.

Shhhhhhhh! Can you HEAR them? They're TALKING again . . .

I’ve taken all of these concepts and combined them into one perfect query letter which you can use as a model!

Dear Daphne,

Sixteen year-old Bethagony Strong has never been to the dentist.*

Her parents have always had good explanations for this, like: “We can’t afford one,” or, “All the good ones are dead.” So she has never thought too much about those “fanglike” teeth of hers. But everything will “change” for Bethagony in one fatal gym class. When her teacher tests her breathing rate after a “burst of exercise” and discovers that she has none . . . she is immediately sent to Murkwater, the “mysterious school” in the mountains that only has classes at night. Once there, she notices that everyone has teeth just like hers, and nothing is what it seems . . . **

I would like to interest you in my vampire romance novel, Breathless and Toothy, which is “285,000” words long, every one of which will bring you CASH MONEY. I wouldn’t “waste your time” with anything that wasn’t going to make you rich. This book will not only be a major bestseller, it will then make a “blockbuster” film. Think Stephen King and Laurel K. Hamilton “wrapped up” in Nicholas Sparks bread with a side of Nora Roberts. That’s what this book is. I literally threw up in my mouth a little when I realized just what a success I had on my hands.

I originally conceived of this book as a series of six films, not unlike the Star Wars franchise. (I even started with part four!) Then I rewrote it into a television series, and from there into a non-illustrated graphic novel, and from there into an entirely new and indescribable form of text, movement, and flavor that I called “storymunch.” From there, at the behest of all my readers (one of whom called Breathless and Toothy “the most important work of art I’ve ever tasted”), I rewrote it into a novel. But even though I have reworked it into a “conventional” form, nothing can take away from my extremely powerful originality. There has never been a “story” like Breathless and Toothy.

The “novel” describes Bethagony’s adventures at Murkwater, a school for vampires. At first, Bethagony is in shock when she discovers what she is. But she soon adjusts and decides to run for vampire student counsel, become captain of the football team, reform the school’s blood sourcing policy, and stop a “1,000 year-long war” between clans of rivaling vampire factions. All this while she battles with the evil head of the cheerleading squad, Febrina, for the affections of the hottest boy in the school, Bartolo Nultoid.

“Are you talking about me? I’ll tell you what happens with that. Bethagony is totally hotttt!”

Shhh! Be quiet, Bartolo!

“But what about me? I have things to say, too! Tell her about the battle scene with the vamp-droids!”

Oh, Bethagony! I can never keep you quiet either! We have to leave some surprises for Daphne Unfeasible!

“But she has know what happens! Show her the book!”

I already have, Bethagony. I know the submission guidelines say that you only want to see one sample chapter, but the fact is . . . this can’t wait. Once you “get bitten” by Breathless and Toothy, you’re not going to be able to stop. Talent like mine is rare. So I have “included” a .pdf file of the entire book, along with sample cover ideas, flap copy, and some mockups of promotional Breathless and Toothy dental care products.***



*Note the powerful opening sentence.
** You must ALWAYS use the phrase “nothing is as it seems” or “nothing will ever be the same” at least once in a query letter. It’s best to use both of them, actually.
**This is purely gravy if you have the time to do it. Agents love to see your cover mockups and marketing spinoff concepts.

UPDATE: Daphne has just read this and told me that I did it all wrong! These were all the things she does NOT want to see! I’ve made a dreadful mistake. I’m never doing this query stuff again.

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Blogger Nicholas said...

Peter, Paul, and Mary! I've been doing it wrong for all those years... no wonder I've been "red-flagged" by some publishers... whatever that might mean.

At least I finally know that the form of my query letter was the (only) reason my 13-part novella about an underground accounting academy was never accepted for publication anywhere... did I mention that it's the first musical in written form? Genious, I'm telling you. Genious!

2:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Plz to write that book, MJ. Will be your best friend.

Justine L

2:54 AM  
Blogger Anila said...

It took me WAY too long to get it. Oh, MJ.

3:12 AM  
Anonymous Elizabeth said...

This was "pretty" funny.

5:04 AM  
Blogger Patrick Alan said...

285,000 words seems short for such an epic. Can you make it longer?

6:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have a few writing questions:

1.) Do you have any advice on starting a novel?

2.) Do you have any suggestions on how to organize said novel's plot & characters etc?

Thanks and Best Wishes!

- Stevie

6:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

is this miraculous and consistent habit going to carry on til May? Will the MJ Ning exist beyond BEDA lines?

7:59 AM  
Anonymous Kait V said...

Would you mind if I "borrowed" that "query letter" to send to tons of "agents"? It doesn't matter that my (partially completed) novel has nothing to do with vampires.

Question: What is the point of life?
Question 2: How do I figure out what career I should go into?

8:23 AM  
Blogger Tenley Nadine said...

I'm a senior in high school and some friends and I have started to think about our senior prank. Unfortunatly, we have been pretty unsuccessful.

So basically my "question" is, do you have any ideas?

8:34 AM  
Blogger Hollishillis said...

oh my god. that quert was...fabulos. I can die happy now. thank you.

9:27 AM  
Blogger notasecretagent said...

I know there are more than two of us who are "dying" to read that book. Maybe someone could write it and post in in serialized-form next BEDA! Though 285,000 divided into thirty days... that's a lot of vampire school.

1:55 AM  
Anonymous jnr said...

i expect to be grinning about 'non-illustrated graphic novel' for another couple of hours. at least.

thanks. :)

3:07 AM  
Anonymous Kaylen said...

at least make a short story of that.

that just made my day.

6:53 AM  
Blogger Alex Dahlberry said...

Oohh, that's why the publishers have all turned me down...

7:35 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Breathless and Toothy?! I just got back from work, where I burst into laughter about that at least five times. My co-workers think it will be a "fangtastic" novel.

11:25 PM  

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