I thought I knew a thing or two about query letters. Like what makes for a powerful hook—what basics to include, what to leave out. I’d read stacks of screenplay queries as a literary assistant. And while I didn’t always have confidence in my own writing, I believed I had an eye for spotting talent in others. The agents I worked for seemed pleased with what I deemed strong enough to pass on to them, too. Still, after recent events, I started to question if I understood as much as I’d hoped…

A few weeks ago, I offered to help a friend with her own letter for a novel, and it proved difficult to get my head around. I had familiarity with the story, and assumed I’d be able to bring a somewhat professional opinion to the pitch. We researched the agents she admired most, and the kinds of letters they’d responded to before. Nonetheless, after several revisions and much back and forth, we just missed the mark. The drafts were technically well written and made sense, but there was something missing.

It would be easy to write it off as a simple problem—after all, I’m not as familiar with novel query letters compared with those for scripts. Unfortunately, I’d also been tinkering with a letter of my own for a screenplay. Even with an intimate knowledge of what makes my story tick and all that past agency experience, still no luck. My letter isn’t where it should be.

So what’s been going wrong? Why have these letters been so elusive?

To uncover some answers, I did even more digging this week online to find successful query letter samples and gather tips from experts. I also took a moment to reflect on all I’d learned from reading letters to see if there was something I’d overlooked when trying to actually write letters—something that could help me moving forward, and hopefully my friend and others, too.

In the past, my humble desk at the agency was the first stop for new writers looking for representation. I had to have some sense of what to look for in order to keep my job. It was mostly a subconscious process (and sadly often a split-second decision due to the volume of letters). Still, as I look back on it, a few similarities emerged from the letters that worked.

For example, if a writer had won any relevant contests, that was something of interest. Or if they had a background that might give their stories added credibility or polish, that was also a bonus (i.e. even an amateur writer with a comedy spec script stood out from the stack if they’d also done stand-up or comedy workshops). Yet mostly I looked for letters that were short and sweet. Clean. Compelling.

Keeping with that theme, Screencraft has a wonderfully succinct article on how to write a strong query letter by story analyst Ken Miyamoto. There’s an emphasis on how important it is to truly nail that log line. While a good log line is especially crucial for screenplays, I also believe it is essentially the heartbeat of any story. All kinds of writers would benefit from checking out his straightforward suggestions.

Huffington Post offers a solid place to start with basics culled together by the Writer’s Relief staff. Their article helps to break the process into four easily digestible steps. They also note that within the very first few lines of the letter, agents are keen to quickly get a sense of a book’s genre and marketability.

Blogger Chuck Sambuchino shares an extensive list on Writer’s Digest of real letters that actually captured the attention of agents—and the agents also give their own insights into what specifically caught their eye. This round-up is a gem of a resource, covering a variety of genres.

Editor of Adweek’s GalleyCat, Jason Boog, also provides links to several samples of successful letters via agency websites, blogs and forums. It is particularly great to click through his list not only to examine the queries that worked, but also to get insight from the various writers about their own letters. One chain of comments particularly struck home—and may have opened my eyes as to why these latest attempts at query writing have been so fruitless for me. Writer Stephanie Diaz responded to a question about her successful letter from a writer who was confused if he should include comparisons to other books in his own query, as he’d heard conflicting advice. Her answer was pitch-perfect. “To be honest, some people told me not to compare my book to ones that are bestsellers, but I ignored them…it didn’t end up mattering.”

It seems Diaz simply followed her gut. Told her story. And she is now a represented and published author—in fact, her novel spawned a series of books.

I’d come across this very same debate in other research—where one article says no comparisons are best for new writers as they might sound out of their league, and another suggests that a comparison is a quick way to give agents a taste of the story and its market. For my two cents from my reading days, I think comparisons can work. Saying a story is “a bit of X meets Y with a twist” fits nicely into that short and sweet slot—just as long as the comparisons aren’t delusional. Still, anyone reading this paragraph and trying to figure out the best plan for their own letter might needlessly get caught up in the confusion of what to do next.

If they don’t have the kind of insight Diaz expressed.

So maybe query letters should be tackled in the same way we look at story suggestions from a critique group. Some advice is so dead-on that you feel it in your bones (even when it’s painful, requiring some serious revisions ahead) —because it is exactly what the story needs. Other advice, even if sound, may not be a fit for where your story is ultimately going to go.

With any kind of formal letter (resume cover note, office correspondence and the story query), the layout alone appears so formulaic that it almost seems there must be a way to just plug in key words to make it work. Yet perhaps the first step is to write our query letters with the same passion as the story itself. Not just with seriousness and precision (though that’s required, too), but with conviction. A belief in what we have to say. After all, what is a brilliant hook but simply the heart of a story told in its purest form?

In the case of my friend’s letter, we may have simply overthought it. Hard not to do, when a strong query letter is critical. Still, we analyzed so many samples that in addition to drawing inspiration from them, we may also have let them influence her style, too. Constantly comparing and re-comparing each paragraph of her letter drafts to others, maybe we’d forgotten that the inspiration must be the story itself.

I still believe it is supremely important to look at samples of what has worked (like the ones listed above), and to do homework to know exactly what a particular agent wants (like we did). At the same time, these templates and tips—including my own rough, subconscious list I used way back when—are there to help give form to a letter, not shape its voice.

As I get ready to tinker with my draft once more, maybe I’ll try to go in as a writer, not the reader, first. No need to re-create a letter meant for someone else’s story.

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