Examples of Successful Query Letters
One of the easiest ways to learn what makes a good, standard query letter is simply to see an example of one that does its job well. If you write fiction or narrative nonfiction, a query letter is your first (and often, your only) chance to get an agent interested in reading (and, with hope, signing) your work. You should put just as much care and attention into crafting and polishing your query as you did into your manuscript. After all, if your pitch doesn’t hit its mark, your book will never leave your desktop.
The main objective of a query is simple: Make the agent care enough about your protagonist and your plot that she wants to read more.
Following is a successful query for a middle-grade novel that led to and agent first requesting this full manuscript and later signing of representation for the author, Dianna Dorisi Winget. Her debut book, A Smidgen of Sky, went on to sell to Harcourt and hits shelves this fall.
No matter what you’re writing—fantasy, thriller, sci-fi, romance—or whether you’re writing for children or adults, there’s a lot you can learn from this example about conveying characters clearly and getting an agent invested in your story in just one short page.
Example of a Query Letter
Dear Ms. Kole,
 According to your agency’s website you’re actively seeking middle-grade fiction, so I’m pleased to introduce my novel, A Smidgen of Sky.  This novel won me a scholarship to attend the Highlights Foundation Writers Workshop at Chautauqua. It was also awarded honorable mention in the Smart Writers W.I.N. Competition.
 A Smidgen of Sky is the story of ten-year-old Piper Lee DeLuna, a spunky, impulsive dreamer, whose fierce devotion to her missing father is threatened by her mother’s upcoming remarriage.
 Everyone else has long accepted her father’s death, but the fact that his body was never recovered from his wrecked plane leads to Piper’s dream that he might one day reappear and free her from the secret guilt she harbors over his accident. Her stubborn focus leaves no room in her affections for her mother’s fiancé, Ben, or his princess-like daughter, Ginger.
 Determined to stop the wedding, Piper Lee schemes up “Operation Finding Tina”—a sure plan to locate Ben’s ex-wife and get the two of them back together. But just as Piper succeeds with step one of her plan, a riot breaks out at the prison where Ben works, and suddenly nothing seems sure.
 Since middle-graders care deeply about things and people and love to daydream about their future, I think readers will identify with Piper Lee and find her an appealing heroine as she learns that you can both cherish the past and embrace the future.
 This story, set in the coastal region of Georgia, runs about 33,000 words and is somewhat similar in tone to Kate DiCamillo’s Because of Winn-Dixie.
 I’m a 1990 graduate of the Institute of Children’s Literature and my work has been published in U*S* Kids, Child Life, Columbia Kids, True Love, Guide and StoryPlus.
Thanks very much for your time. I have included the first ten pages and look forward to hearing from you.
 This is pretty basic personalization, but it shows me that Dianna did her research. In your query, make it clear that you’ve done your homework and are querying this particular agent with good reason. Agents like to see signs that you’re a savvy writer who is deliberate about the submission process—that bodes well for your working style, should we partner with you in the future.
 It’s unusual to lead with accolades, but in the children’s world, the Highlights Chautauqua workshop is a big deal. If you have similar achievements, by all means, shout them from your opening paragraph. If not, just dive right in and start telling me about your novel.
 In setting up your story, you absolutely must convey a sense of what your main character wants most in the world, and of what’s standing in her way, as Dianna does here. We care about Piper Lee right away because we know what she cares about, and this is key.
 We get a good sense of Piper’s character here; it’s important that your query not just flatly tell us about your characters, but show us who they are. The conflict (another essential element of all compelling fiction) rises when the fiancé and future stepsister are introduced. Dianna does a great job of establishing her protagonist’s denial, and she’s already built a lot of tension when she hints at what will soon shatter it. This further demonstrates that her story is driven by strong character motivations—just as any good page-turner should be.
 This gutsy scheme teaches me even more about Piper Lee. It’s also bound to have some disastrous consequences, and that’s exactly what agents want to see in a novel: strong actions, strong ramifications, and lots of emotions tied to each.
 This is a bit of self-analysis that writers shouldn’t indulge in when writing queries. Dianna could’ve easily left this paragraph out (especially the vague “since middle-graders care deeply about things and people”) and let the strength of the story speak for itself. Of course you think the book is thematically resonant and that readers will love it—you wrote it. So refrain from editorializing. That said, this still makes this letter a great example to show here—because it’s proof that even a query faux pas won’t result in an instant rejection. If you sell your story well enough, agents will overlook small missteps.
 This simple sentence is a great and concise summary of necessary information. When you query, be sure to include the stats of your manuscript (genre, target audience, word count, etc.) and any relevant comparative titles—with a caveat: Be sure to highlight a comp title only if it helps the agent get an accurate picture of the style of your story and if it doesn’t smack of delusions of grandeur. Claiming you’re “James Patterson meets Dan Brown” is useless. Dianna’s comparison here was quite apt and, again, made her seem savvy—and realistic.
 The bio paragraph and sign-off are short and sweet, and that’s really all we need. If you’ve hit on the basics well and conveyed the essence of your story and why it’s a good fit for that particular agent, you’ve done all you can to entice us to request the full manuscript.
Other Successful Queries
Dear Ms. Megibow,
I am seeking representation for my YA novel, The Weight of Zero, complete at 86,000 words. Seventeen-year-old Catherine Pulaski knows Zero is coming for her. Zero, the devastating depression born of Catherine’s bipolar disease, has almost triumphed once, propelling Catherine to her first suicide attempt. With Zero only temporarily restrained by the latest med du jour, time is running out. In an old ballet shoebox, Catherine stockpiles medications, preparing to take her own life before Zero can inflict its own living death on her again.
But Catherine’s life is changing with unexpected and meaningful relationships that lessen her sense of isolation. These new relationships along with the care of a gifted psychiatrist alter Catherine’s perception of her diagnosis as a death sentence. This is a story of loss and grief and how the many shapes of love – maternal, romantic and platonic – lead to Catherine’s successful struggle to come to terms with her chronic mental illness.
This manuscript was awarded the SCBWI 2014 Work-in-Progress Grant in the Contemporary YA category and the Serendipity Literary Agency 2013 YA First Page/Novel Discovery Contest. My experiences with children as a juvenile prosecutor and court appointed child advocacy attorney definitely influenced the writing of this story. But it was my husband’s job that gave birth to it. He is a child psychiatrist and through him, I understand that treatment can and does work. This is what inspired me to write a story of hope.
Thank you for your time!
Commentary from agent Sara Megibow:
This query caught my attention right away because of the unique way Karen portrays conflict. Unlike other young adult novels where the antagonist might be a teacher, a parent or another kid, in The Weight of Zero the bad guy is Zero – Catherine’s bipolar disorder. Karen has effectively set up a story in which everyone is fighting Zero – the story has both internal and external conflict (as all good stories should) but the unique hook is how she has balanced conflict between the characters and the disorder. I imagine a scale – on one side is Zero and on the other side is Catherine’s support network of family, friends, doctors and therapists. This unique spin really works!
The second thing that impressed me in this query is right there in paragraph two. We know this is a contemporary young adult novel involving issues of mental health and mental health care. What makes this story stick out in a crowded field? The fact that Karen tells us this is a success story – the story of a team of caring people who combine to overcome Zero – is a very powerful and unique hook. As an agent I immediately identified this portrayal of mental health care as something librarians and teachers have been requesting. And I was right!
There’s no doubt Karen’s writing is stellar – her use of voice, imagery and mechanics right here in the query are superb. It’s the portrayal of conflict and the use of successful mental health care as a hook that combine to make this a knock out query.
We submitted THE WEIGHT OF ZERO exclusively to Kate Sullivan at Delacorte/ Penguin Random House. Two weeks later we had an offer and are thrilled to be working with Kate on this debut! This is a very personal book for me – my father-in-law worked in child and adolescent psychiatry for 40+ years and has been a huge advocate for successful and effective mental health for kids. I’ve grown up hearing about the importance of these success stories and now I can’t wait to get this amazing, beautiful, inspiring and intense story into the hands of readers. THE WEIGHT OF ZERO releases in October 2016.
I’ve been “attending” WriteOnCon the last few days and appreciated your frank and funny advice about query letters. I hope you will be interested in my middle grade novel, STEERING TOWARD NORMAL.
STEERING TOWARD NORMAL is a 56,000-word coming-of-age story set in the world of 4-H steer competitions. (I’m from Minnesota–we know cows.) It begins when eighth-graders Diggy Lawson and Wayne Schley discover they have the same father. STEERING TOWARD NORMAL is the tale of how the boys go from being related to being brothers.
Diggy’s life may not be typical, but he’s content. He hangs out with Pop and the county’s farmers, raises steers to compete, and daydreams about July Johnston, high school senior and girl of his dreams. Hardly anyone teases him anymore about how his mom abandoned him on Pop’s doorstep and skipped town on a tractor.
Then Wayne gets dumped at Pop’s, too. Suddenly, Diggy has a half brother messing things up. Wayne rattles Diggy’s easy relationship with Pop, threatens his chances at the state fair, and horns in on his girl. Diggy believes family is everything, but he’s pretty sure Wayne doesn’t count.
The first ten pages of STEERING TOWARD NORMAL won first place in the SCBWI Carolinas Writing Contest, judged by Sarah Shumway, Senior Editor at Katherine Tegan Books.
I am a graduate of the Creative Writing MFA program at UNC Wilmington, editor of the SCBWI Carolinas quarterly newsletter, and member of the NC Writer’s Network. My work has appeared in Our State magazine.
My professional background is in PR and marketing, having promoted new fiction and nonfiction authors with [redacted] and marketed magazines online for [redacted]. Additionally, I was president of my 4-H chapter in fifth grade. This is a multiple submission.
I look forward to hearing from you about BLUE MOO.
Commentary from Kate Testerman
Rebecca got off to a great start by referencing a conference where I’d spoken, and her query showed she’d taken my advice to heart. The first paragraph of the book’s description does a great job of setting the story in a specific place (with a fun parenthetical that shows the author’s sense of humor). The hook line of “BLUE MOO is the tale of how the boys go from being related to being brothers” is something we’re still using to describe the story, many steps later on the publishing road.
Rebecca goes deeper in the next two paragraphs, showing me what Diggy’s life had been, and how it changes when Wayne comes to live with him and Pop. The line “Diggy believes family is everything, but he’s pretty sure Wayne doesn’t count” is an almost perfect example of the voice that so hooked me on my first reading of the partial, through my reading of the full, and why I offered representation.
Of course, it didn’t hurt that Rebecca had won a writing contest with this material, judged by an editor I knew and respected, and was a member of the SCBWI, as well as a past member of 4-H herself!
As with all great queries, though, this one also touched a personal note for me, as my husband was a 4-H member and farm boy in his youth, and reading about these two boys helped me better understand his childhood.
Dear Mr. McCarthy
I noticed on your Publishers Marketplace page that you represent quite a few young adult books with magical elements. Because of this, I am submitting for your consideration Midnight Thief, a 74,000-word YA fantasy that will appeal to fans of Kristin Cashore’s Graceling and Tamora Pierce’s Tortall series.
To Kyra, high walls and locked doors are not obstacles, but invitations. She specializes in nighttime raids, using her sharp senses and extraordinary agility to break into Forge’s most well-guarded homes. Then she meets James, the deadly but intriguing Head of the Assassin’s Guild. He has a job for Kyra: infiltrate the supposedly impenetrable Palace compound. The pay is good, and the challenge appealing. It’s the perfect job for someone of her talents.
But as Kyra establishes herself in the Guild, her “perfect job” starts to unravel. Her assignments become increasingly violent, demanding more than Kyra is willing to give. Then Forge is attacked by Demon Riders — barbarians riding bloodthirsty wildcats — and Kyra suspects the Guild is to blame. When a failed mission lands Kyra in the Palace dungeons, she faces an impossible decision. If she cooperates with the authorities against the Guild, James will kill her family, but if Kyra does nothing, she’ll see Forge overrun by Demon Riders. As the city falls into chaos, Kyra uncovers a secret from her past – a forgotten link to the barbarian invaders that will test Kyra’s loyalties and ultimately challenge the limits of her humanity.
I am a doctoral candidate at MIT doing my dissertation research on the neural basis of reading in children. I also write a blog on the brain science of creative writing, which has been featured by several industry websites, including Science Magazine, Nathan Bransford’s blog, and The Book Deal. My essay “From Words to Brain” was published by 40k books in English and Italian.
Thank you for your time and consideration.
THOUGHTS FROM AGENT JIM MCCARTHY
One of my favorite things about Livia is how incredibly thorough and thoughtful her approach is to every aspect of her writing and the business. So it’s no surprise to look back at her original query and see that it’s pretty much flawless.
She starts by doing two things that I love: indicating that she chose to query me specifically for a reason that makes sense (I do represent a lot of YA books with magical elements, and that is what she has written) and then giving comp titles that make sense and are presented in a way that doesn’t feel braggy. So in paragraph one I already know she’s serious and this is a query I will take very seriously.
Then she launches into a description that is concise, clear, and…exciting. That “To Kyra…” line tells us so much about Kyra—that she’s an adventurer, she may have a criminal side, and she’s probably pretty feisty. I was probably already ready to request this. Then the rest of the description deepens that feeling and does something even more impressive: it captures an epic fantasy novel’s story and world in 193 words without being vague OR confusing. MIDNIGHT THIEF is a great novel, and it plays out in an incredibly well-realized alternate world. Here, though, Livia isn’t precious about trying to relay everything her novel does. She strips it down to its core and presents us with a bare bones synopsis that still manages to capture the feeling of the book and the attitude of the main character. I’m all in.
But she still has a couple tricks up her sleeve. This bio fascinated me. A doctoral candidate at MIT? A blog on the brain science of creative writing? Let’s see what this smarty can pull off! I continue to be dazzled and surprised not only by Livia’s creativity and writing but her dedication, analytical mind, and commitment to learning about the business of publishing in addition to sharpening her craft. Her query was just the tip of the iceberg, but it’s a gleaming point that gives great hints to what lies beneath.