Tips for Surviving Query Letter Hell

I suck at writing query letters.

In fact, I’m so awful at making a story sound enticing, I’ve given up explaining the premise of new movies to my boyfriend. When I do, he inevitably has no interest in seeing them.

This September I spent upwards of thirty hours writing and rewriting (and rewriting) the 200 words that comprise my query letter’s pitch. Thankfully I had some patient feedback from beta readers and other writers on the internet. Otherwise, I’d still be sitting on a supremely dry and boring excuse of a query for These Fleeting Flames.

Today I’m going to share a few hard-won tips that helped me write a half-decent query letter.

A query letter is not a summary

Probably my greatest obstacle was the belief I was telling an enticing story by listing all the cool things that happened in the first act.


A query letter isn’t a summary. It’s not a synopsis. It’s a little story of its own that makes someone desperate to learn more. It’s the blurb on the back of a novel that’s so amazing you shell out your cash.

Don’t be like me and list things that happen one event at a time. Bo-o-o-oring. Spin a narrative. Start with a first sentence that grabs attention. Then show who the protagonist is and her situation in a way that implies stakes and a clear goal. Give people a reason to read about her. Then introduce the catalyst that changes her life. Escalate the stakes. Leave the character with a hard choice to make between her goal and something she might actually want more than her goal, and make sure the awful consequences of each choice are clear.

Simple, right? Ha! :joy:

Every sentence in the query must also pull its weight, and there must be a clear through-line. Don’t try to bring in too many subplots, characters, or themes, though my research suggests you can give a little nod to your “B Story” (e.g. a romance arc in a fantasy book) somewhere in the middle.

All the while, you should hint at your character’s voice (i.e. personality) and the story’s tone. Try not to name too many characters or other proper nouns, as they will probably be difficult to follow for someone who reads a pile of queries each day.

If this sounds simple and straightforward, congratulations! If, however, this sounds like rocket science, then allow me to tell you…

The #1 best thing you can do


Study successful queries in your genre and age category. Seriously! I’d still be muddling through useless drafts of my query letter if I hadn’t gone to do some research.

Here are some great resources to check out:

  • PitchWars showcases from previous years
  • Queries of prior Query Kombat winners
  • Writer’s Digest (sometimes agents analyze successful queries)
  • Google results for “successful query X genre”
  • Blurbs for popular books similar to yours
  • Blogs of authors who write books similar to yours, as some may have blogged about their querying experience (or even posted their query on reddit… you’d be surprised!)
  • Writer forums where people exchange query critiques

If you scrounge around enough, you can find queries by authors like Sarah J. Maas, Marissa Meyer, S. A. Chakraborty, and Mike Chen.

In my case, I found three stellar YA queries I wanted to study. Only two were in my genre, but the third had excellent voice (something my query sorely needed). I printed them off with wide margins and found some coloured pens. Then I analyzed each query line by line to see what I could learn, making notes in the margins. For example, did they start with a hook? Did they bookend the query with a reference to that hook? How did they escalate the stakes and how did they present a difficult choice to the protagonist, or leave the reader with a final question? What sort of methods and/or language did they use to portray the character’s voice? How many words did they dedicate to setting up the character and/or world?

Develop a formula

Once you’ve done your research on what works and what doesn’t, you may find it helpful to develop a “formula” for the structure of your query. In my case, I noted similarities between my three example queries and came up with something like this to use as a skeleton for my own query:

1) Opening hook.

2) Character introduction. Goal, stakes, and voice.

3) Catalyst. Reveal something character might actually want more than her goal and why that’s a problem.

4) Character must choose between doing X at the expense of Y, or A at the expense of B.

5) Concluding sentence poses a twist to the opening hook to bookend the query, ideally raising the stakes or explaining why X and A have the costs they do.

It’s in the details

I mentioned earlier that your query should not be a summary. Since you’ll be glossing over much of your story, there’s the danger of making everything so cut and dry that you lose the details that make your story fresh and exciting.

Ensure your query still includes some details, ones that are vivid and specific, the kind that create an image in the reader’s mind. These details are going to make your story stand out as unique from other similar stories. Show how you’ve put a new spin on something that’s been done before!

In my case, I received feedback that my story sounded “generic” and that many “visionaries had come before me” (i.e. implying I was rehashing old ground). Thus, I endeavoured to show in my query why my take on dragonriders is unique. I sat down, made a list of the compelling aspects of my story, and picked a few that I could work into my query without the requirement of too much background information.


If you’re writing for young adult, voice is very important. Fellow writers had to hit me over the head with this fact a few times before it sank in. That’s because voice is hard. Being clever in 200 words is quite a different skill than developing a character over 350 pages.

You can be pretty subtle with voice and still convey a lot. Even three extra words in your opening could demonstrate what sort of character your protagonist is. My best recommendation is to look up successful queries or back cover blurbs to see how others have portrayed their protagonist’s wit, humour, or sarcasm.

I’ve found voice can also be a great vehicle for convening those aforementioned vivid, specific details about your story’s characters and world. If you can get into the head of your protagonist and show the reader how she sees the world, you might be surprised what little hints of worldbuilding you can sneak in to set your novel apart.

Single POV

If you’re writing a book with more than one point of view, you might have an easier time following one “main” character for your query. This will allow you to dedicate valuable query real estate to framing your character as someone sympathetic or compelling. If you split the query over two or more POVs, you will need to be that much smarter about giving readers a good sense of each character in fewer words.

This isn’t to say a query that has two or more POVs can’t work. I’ve read plenty that are awesome! But when you suck at writing queries as much as I do, you might find it easier to start by focusing on a single character. Choose one “main” character, or the character with the most compelling arc. Don’t be like me and write a query that ends up serving two half-cooked characters.


You’ll need it! At least I did. I was so confident in the first draft of my story’s query (after all, I’d written a half-decent one for my adult novel, right?), but boy did a few random people on the internet set me straight.

Make sure you test drive your query with readers in your age category and genre. Do consider that readers outside your genre may not always provide applicable feedback. As with all writing, there are many elements that are subjective, so if you can, run your drafts past a few people at a time to see if there’s consensus about any problems. That way you’ll have a pretty solid idea when some aspect of your query needs work.

Most importantly, don’t be afraid to do a complete scrap and rewrite. Tinkering around with sentences for a query that is fundamentally flawed will get you nowhere. Really listen to what people are saying. Don’t spin your wheels like I did. Since I was loath to start over from scratch, I revised the same query three or four times, but each draft was equally ill-received. When I finally scrapped that version and did my research, I produced a completely new version that was many times better than earlier iterations.


Writing queries is incredibly difficult. We novelists are used to bleeding hundreds of words onto hundreds of pages. Limiting ourselves to 200 words can feel like torture. But don’t give up! With the help of research and some honest feedback, you’ll write a query that makes your story sound as awesome as it is.

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