The Query Letter Revisited

The manuscript was completed, polished and pared down to the optimal length for a first-time author. And it was time for me to write a query letter and see if I could get an agent interested in my book.

There are a ton of resources online with instructions on how to write a query, and some that even tell you how NOT to write one. I read through most of them and developed what I thought was an award-winning letter.

Then I found an online forum created specifically for review and critique of Query letters. Maybe my query could be improved (slightly) to make the very first agent who reads it call me immediately. So I posted my beautifully polished letter and sat back to hear the praises sung.

Oy vez! Was I wrong! The comments flew thick and fast. You should this, you shouldn’t that, use this format, tell us that. Whew! Wait a minute! Let me just catch my breath for a bit and try to understand.

Okay. So maybe some agents want the title, genre and word count at the end of the letter instead of up front. I can work with that. Some want to see who my prospective audience might be: that’s a little harder, but I can do that, too. However, everyone — and I mean EVERYONE — wants me to “show, not tell”.

Huh? What?

Now, I’m a really literal person. I get hung up on semantics a lot, and this phrase is making no sense to me at all. I’ve written a story. Told a story. And this letter is telling you about the story I’ve told. So what do they mean, “show not tell”? They want diagrams? pictures? I’m completely stumped.

I try again and again to write this query properly, and still get the same critique: “show, don’t tell.”  My hair is coming out in clumps, my fingers shake when I type, and my feet are cold all the time. And still I get the same reaction. “Show, don’t tell.”

I want to give up.

And then some blessed person says, “You’re describing things to us. Show us the action.”

What? Wait! Oh, I get it — you want actions, not reactions. I’ve been giving you reactions. I see it now. One more stab …

and I have, at last, after 3 weeks and 12 attempts, a successful query letter.

Now of course the letter hasn’t been asked to do its job yet — I’ll get to that later this week. But at least it has the format and content it needs to catch that always-elusive agent’s attention.

So if, like me, you get stuck in the middle of Query Purgatory, there is a way out. If people are telling you “Show, don’t tell”, just give them the action. Take out the emotions, the descriptions, the stuff that was the hardest to write. They don’t want that. They want the action, the plot, the problems that characters face. Not how they feel about it, but what they’re going to DO about it.

And if you want, use my little formula: not “show, don’t tell”, but “actions not reactions.”

And now wish me the best of Irish luck as I prepare to send this lovely little letter out into the world on its own.

3 thoughts on “The Query Letter Revisited

  1. Pingback: That dreaded query letter … | Gifford MacShane

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