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How to Write a (Possibly) Successful Query Letter

We’re going to cheat a little with today’s writing-related Challenge of the Week, since query letters aren’t actually literary-agent specific. You can send them to smaller publishing companies as well – or any Big 5 publishers who are feeling generous and open.

“What’s a query letter?” You might be asking.


A query letter is the get-me-published version of a cover letter.

Its purpose is to 1) let literary agents or smaller publishing companies know that you and your manuscript exist, and 2) tell them exactly why that manuscript is the best thing since Shakespeare penned his last play.

Sound easy? It’s not.

It’s a challenge. Sometimes fun. Sometimes educational. Sometimes worthwhile. But always a challenge.

As one fellow writer friend of mine basically put it, you have to use the right words to catch the right literary agent (or small publishing company) on the right day at the right time after they’ve consumed the right amount of coffee.

Oh yeah. And that’s all in about 350 words.

By the way, if you haven’t figured it out yet, your writing challenge this week is to compose one. Here’s how you do it in three easy-to-understand, headache-to-employ steps:

  1. Find a literary agent or small publishing company. You can do a general internet search for one (just be careful to avoid vanity publishers, something we’ll be discussing soon enough) or find a database such as to pull from.

  2. Check out their website, specifically their submission guidelines. Are they open to new submissions at this time? If so, do they accept your type of manuscript? If so, do any of the contacts they list look like a good fit for you? If the answer is yes to all three, then go a little deeper, looking to see if they want just a query letter or part of your manuscript too. Do they tell you exactly what information to include? Do they tell you what to put in the subject line?

If you want any hope of being traditionally published, follow their guidelines to the max!

  1. Compose your query letter.

As for that last step – the actual writing part – here’s one of mine to go off of. I think it’s pretty awesome. The literary agent I sent it to disagreed. But what does she know?

Besides, it can serve as a general guideline for your query letter attempts. Because most of these please-publish-me! letters do follow this basic pattern:

Dear Julie Gwinn,

It’s December 1776, and the brand-new United States of America is failing miserably. George Washington’s near-obliterated Continental Army has been pushed from New York almost into Pennsylvania on a seemingly never-ending retreat, leaving New Jersey exposed to the dubious mercies of the British and their Hessian help.

Unable to get out of their path, 17-year-old Abigail Carpenter is forced to open her Princeton home to five of the king’s men, an imposition she’s furious about, no matter how kind and accommodating one of them tries to be. But she comes to see her situation in a very different light after a sixth uninvited visitor finds his way to her doorstep: a wounded American spy.

Desperate to save her town, state and country, Abigail dives right into the world of midnight rides, secret signals and elaborate fabrications, all of which she knows could end with her dangling breathless from a rope.

What she’s much slower to recognize is that it isn’t just her neck at risk. War is rarely that easy.

Set around the Battles of Trenton and Princeton, Maiden America is captivating and carefully researched historical fiction from start to finish. At 128,000 words – including a historical notes section – it’s completed, edited and self-published through Amazon’s CreateSpace while it waits for a literary agent who’s as passionate as its author about making history downright addictive.

Due to the time period, Maiden America does have significant Christian undertones that can broaden its appeal into that market as well. It also has a published sequel, Designing America, which covers the Battle of Yorktown. And there’s a third book in the works that will center around the burning of D.C. during the War of 1812.

In short, Maiden America is a hit waiting to be discovered. All it needs is a push or two from someone who knows the publishing market and how to navigate it.

Thank you for your time and consideration. I look forward to hearing from you!


Jeannette DiLouie 717-609-5661

Now that I’m looking it over again, I think I might know why it didn’t make the cut. I listed the word count as being 128,000 for a genre that typically runs at 120,000 words or less. And yes, that kind of detail can – and probably will – destroy your dreams of being happily traditionally published ever after.

Or who knows. Perhaps it’s just that my query letter didn’t catch the right literary agent (or small publishing company) on the right day at the right time after she’d consumed the right amount of coffee.

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