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How to write a query letter (without hating it) - Part 1

craft Nov 07, 2019

When I became a mother for the first time I experienced this bittersweet and terrifying emotion of vulnerability. I read a quote somewhere on facebook by Elizabeth Stone that captured it perfectly: 

“Making the decision to have a child - it is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body. ”

You could easily replace the decision to have a child with “making the decision to start querying your novel”. The feeling of vulnerability yet pride is a very similar mix. Because everyone will tell you that rejection is inevitable as a writer.

With agents receiving thousands of submissions a year and only offering representation to two or three new authors you’re expecting rejection when you send out those submission materials.

This is why querying is so stressful. There are so many unknowns, and you’re in limbo as you wait to hear ‘the prognosis’ about your labour of love.

The biggest mistake writers make with their query letters

I have a theory that it is precisely this ‘realistic’ mindset that explains the ‘job application’ query letter that I see so often when people ask me for help with their query letters as part of my work as a book coach.


One of the biggest mistakes writers make when they prepare to begin querying is to take off their ‘writers hat’ and replace it with their ‘job application hat’. This query letter makes it easy for agents to pass. It doesn’t grab them or showcase the writer’s voice.


It doesn’t connect to them, and it shuts them out of the story like a soundproof door. It’s almost as though the writer didn’t really want the agent to request the novel, deep down. They just wanted to go through the motions, because what else is left to do once you’ve written this thing? 

Writers struggle to let agents into their stories in their query letters. Not only are they so close to them that they can’t reduce them to a short letter and synopsis, but there is an emotional component that causes them to hold the agent at arm’s length and self-sabotage.

I encourage you to keep your writer's hat on and prepare your query materials with an open and trusting heart.

Easier said than done, I know.

Photo by Siora Photography on Unsplash

Why writers shut agents out of their story

How can you prepare your submission materials in a way that celebrates your story and continues your creative engagement with it, when it feels like you’re sending it out like a child on the first day of school at best, and a lamb to the slaughter at worst?

When writers begin composing their query letter they often strip all of the emotion and the internal level of the story out of their letter, leaving only a bare (and often unintelligible) summary without a soul. Really, they don’t want their story to be out there in all its humanity. So they summarize the plot and leave out the story.

It’s a defence mechanism to avoid sending out the heart and soul of your story for judgement. It’s a form of armour you don’t even know you are donning. 

Instead of capturing your story’s essence in your query letter, or continuing to try to understand that essence in the process of writing it (for fear of finding out your story isn’t finished after all) you send a safe, detached, version of your book with no life to it. An android version of the story that is bulletproof but sanitized of the very things that give the book itself its power. 

It’s not that you don’t know how to connect to readers through writing. It’s simply that you’d deep down prefer to keep the beating heart of your story safe and sound in the privacy of your own hard drive, rather than shoving it out into the digital wilderness in the form of an email, to fester on the slush pile, before being judged unworthy or -worse- completely ignored.

 Photo by Jessica Lewis on Unsplash

How to Survive Rejection as a Writer

Before you crumble into despair and hopelessness, I want you to notice that I am being a bit of a drama queen. 

And, quite possibly, so are you. 

You are more than this book. You are enough. You are just as enough as a newborn child is enough to be ‘worthy’ of its mother’s love.


Rejection will not kill you. If it did, Kathryn Stockett, author of The Help would have died 60 times; Lisa Genova (Still Alice) about 100 times and J.K. Rowling would be relatively lively having only died 12 times. 


And only you get to decide if you’re going to continue writing and continue loving it. Only you can force yourself to stop.

Don’t give away your power to an anonymous intern at a massive agency. 

Don’t let fear stop you from trying. 

The only way to guarantee you don’t get an agent is to never submit to one.

Photo by Nayanika Mukherjee on Unsplash

How to actually enjoy querying your manuscript

Take back your power by reframing the process. 

Let’s reimagine your query as a hopeful missive, sent out in search of a connection (rather than sent into battle). 

Let’s reimagine your query as part of the process of digging into your story and honing in on your book’s heart.

Let’s reimagine your query letter as more than a summary of your novel. It is not something that happens after your novel is hermetically sealed, finished, THE END.

Let’s reimagine your query and synopsis as another form of storytelling and a continuation of the evolution of your manuscript into the book it’s meant to be.

Put your writer's hat back on.


  In our next blog series...

The next blog post in this series on writing persuasive query letters will look at how you can use storytelling in your query letter.


Writing your query letter soon? Join my free workshop!

If this has resonated with you, you may be interested in joining the first cohort of “Brave Pitching for novelists”, launching 25th November 2019. To hear more about the course and keep informed about future blog posts and a free workshop on writing your query, join the early interest list here:


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