The Quandry of Writing a Query Letter


Anyone who knows me well knows two things;

  1. I’m very sentimental about tradition.
  2. I absolutely hate the phrase “That’s the way we’ve always done it” (a.k.a. Sometimes I really hate tradition.)

It’s kind of a paradox or an oxymoron or something.  Whatever.  The point is tradition has its place.  Until it doesn’t anymore.  I’ve realized that sometimes we hold onto tradition to the detriment of experiencing something better or more fulfilling.  Let’s take Aunt Rose, for example.

Aunt Rose made the most unbelievable holiday dinner dishes that in most cases were unexplainable.  Like meatcake casseroles, dripping with some kind of sauce that would melt in your mouth in a gooey hot mess.  All I know is that when the holidays came around the local stores would run out of butter because Aunt Rose needed it for her diabolical concoctions.  They were a tradition.  But let’s face it, sometimes traditions can kill us.

Everyone has an Aunt Rose in their family.  You know, the matriarch you see once or twice a year who dishes up the best food that will put you under?  Amazing that she always made the most cholesterol inducing, artery clogging, gut busting potluck gimmies that could make Richard Simmons keel over in a spoonful and yet Aunt Rose lived to be, like, 178 years old.

That was then.  Once Aunt Rose went peacefully in her sleep, in perfect health, a million years after she was born, we stopped consuming the sixteen thousand calorie dishes she was known for.  We were sad to see her go, but our waistlines weren’t.

This is how I feel about the Query Letter.  The all important letter I need to send out to literary agents in hopes that one day I’ll get picked for the “A” team, and maybe even someone will pass me the ball.  The Query Letter.  The ambiguously formatted document that will either get me accepted into an elite club or most likely get me an unsympathetic, mass produced rejection letter, the likes of which are littering the countryside, having dashed the hopes of young and talented and handsome writers such as myself.  I imagine a whole division of Xerox based out of Hoboken simply dedicated to the manufacturing of rejection letters for the minions of New York City literary agents.

The Query Letter.  They’re all the same….

“Dear Mr. ScreenerOfMyQueryLetter,

I am seeking representation for my manuscript…”

I’m not exactly sure how many queries I’ve written, but about half have been the droning, narcoleptic prose that leaves me feeling soulless and confused, like it’s 1984 and I’ve been seduced by the spell of Big Brother and the Thought Police.  I must be free, I must be free!!

Of course, I’ve only written half of my query letters that way.  The others I’ve written like Jack Kerouac, on the road to adventure and the unknown, freestyling my way through the process in an attempt to be witty and clever and most of all…


Because isn’t that the point of the entire exercise to begin with?  To illustrate how we as artists are different from one another?  I like to think so, which is why the ongoing tradition of The Query Letter drives me white jacket mad.

Do a search online for “Query Letter” and you’ll get NINETEEN MILLION RESULTS.  And the search results are all essentially the same:

“How to Write a Query Letter”

“How to Write a Query Letter: 10 Dos and Don’ts”

“Successful Queries” (one of my favorite misleadingly inaccurate results)

“How to Write the Perfect Query Letter” (another favorite misleading result)

And on, and on, and on for another nineteen million results.  And here’s the kicker; “How to Write the Perfect Query Letter” is as vague as a politician at a podium.  So are all of the other results.  I’ve read an article about query letters written by the very literary agent I tried to query, and found the exact same wordiness but obscure helpfulness as every other article.  Sure some articles have good tips, like don’t tell the agent your age.  I guess that’s helpful.

I’ve followed the “Successful Queries” formula to the letter, but didn’t find success.  False advertising, I say.  Some agents have yet to return my letter, a full two years after I sent it.  But I get it, they’re busy.  I understand.  They probably get thousands and thousands of queries from poor saps, er, uh…hopefuls just like me every month.  All joking aside – I GET IT.  They get thousands of letters that LOOK.  THE.  SAME.

It’s no wonder that an agent, charged with reading books to determine their craftsmanship and marketability isn’t eager about reading yet another, seemingly mass produced query letter by Joe Q. Public wanting to be the next John Grisham.  I wouldn’t either.  It’s basically like telling a person who reads for a living they need to read A through F of the phone book.  Every day.

Every.  Day.

Read the phone book every day, and then be excited about it.  Uh…oh, hey, read a quarter of a million identical letters and then pick the next big thing.  Choose the story that might start the same as the others, but have an exciting twist at the end.  Or maybe represent the girl in the small town that is following the rules of writing a query letter and has a really interesting story to tell and stop publishing books by Snooky.

Bitter?  I’m not bitter.  I drink lemon with my tea.  Bitter?  Whatever.

Seriously, I’m not bitter.  But I am disappointed.  I’m disappointed that a whole industry is squashing a perfect opportunity to tell young writers to be unique, creative and different.  Instead we’ve somehow taken an artistic community and reduced them to paper pushing mimics with rules one agent may follow but another may not.  I completely support adhering to strict rules of cleanliness (unless you’re catering to the naughty crowd, then by all means be naughty), respect and proper use of spelling and grammar.  I completely support these rules as an absolute.

There are a lot of people out there, their, they’re that simply shouldn’t be writing or blogging or texting or tweeting or scribbling with crayons.

Certain rules are basic rules of understanding.  Respect, grammar and spelling are essential to simply being able to read a query letter.  Format should be subjective.  Better yet, format should be creative.  Think about this, would you read a book if it began the same way as every other book you’ve ever read?  Probably not, because that would be BO-RING.

I say, let’s put down the drab constraints of putty walls, fluorescent lights and Times New Roman and pour a little life into this drink!  I say, begin your query letter with the words “Let me tell you a story…” and then knock it out of the park.  I say, separate yourself from the pasty sap sitting at Starbucks writing Atomic Vampire Space Operas and do something DIFFERENT!

Maybe we can start a groundswell of electronic paper that will right this Andrea Doria literary ship listing to starboard, this tidal wave of creative spark and spunk and fervor and well, any other descriptive noun I can come up with.  Maybe, just maybe, if enough people get on board, the new standard will be that no query letter looks the same.  The tradition will be to break tradition.

Get on board!  Tell a friend!  Tell them I sent you!

And maybe I can be Leonardo on this sinking ship metaphor mash-up, spreading my stubby T-Rex like arms on the bow of this literary monolith of new creative endeavor.  It could become a thing.  I could be known for breaking down barriers, like Pearl Jam and flannel shirts.  My next ridiculously clever and entertaining query letter will be Jerry Maguire-ish anecdotal legend, and an agent wearing a stained oxford shirt with patches on his tweed jacket will accept me as one of his own and work tirelessly in the night to get my book published with a little penguin stamped on the spine and distributed to the masses.  I would actually make money doing this.  The people would actually read my work.  The little people, whose average height is taller than mine…

Or I could keep writing a blog to entertain four people.  You know, whichever comes first.

Half of all the letters I’ll write this year will have my own unique stamp on it.  Like a coffee stain, without the caffeine.  Mine all mine.  The Greg Effect.  But I’ll keep taking my chances and see what happens.  Like dropping a little bit of myself into the pond just to see the ripple.

Breaking one tradition and hoping to start another.

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