Example of a query that worked

June 9, 2010

I love practical advice. What do I love even more? Practical advice with examples.

So today I’m sharing the query I sent to literary agents with the hopes that it will help you create your own pitch letter. I’m no expert on this, and my query isn’t perfect. But it’s the result of a lot of research into how to write a good query, and several people who know what they’re talking about helped me mold it into its current form. Despite its flaws — which I hope you’ll point out in the comments — it passed the real test: it yielded a decent number of bites from literary agents who asked to see my partial or full manuscript and/or proposal. I don’t know why each of them expressed interest. But that’s gotta mean the query has a few good elements, right?

E-mail Subject: Query: Title Here (travel memoir)

Dear [Agent],

I'm seeking representation for my travel memoir, [Withholding Title to Surprise You Later]. I'm querying you because [personalize here for agent. I hand-picked the agents I queried for specific reasons that I’ll explain in another post.]

You'd think shadowing a bull-riding cowboy would be enough. Or covering an execution at a Texas prison. As a journalist at the Houston Chronicle, I had plenty of adventure, but it wasn't the kind I wanted. I longed to travel. Not to Europe or the Caribbean like other single twenty-seven-year-olds. I wanted to go to Africa. And I wanted to go alone.

Africa?” My friends and family spit the word back at me as though it were a euphemism for bottomless pit. “By yourself? Why would you want to do that?”

[Title] is my story of leaving my job to follow a dream, backpacking through an undeveloped continent. I don't want to be the woman who talks about her dreams. I want to be the woman who lives them. And by the time readers are done with this travel memoir, they'll want to take leaps in their lives, too.

Unlike the narrator in most women’s travel books, I'm not looking for love or running from a relationship. My journey takes me to the mountains of Cameroon, where I help a grieving polygamous family heal; to the sandstorm-plagued desert of the infamous Timbuktu; and to a near-empty zoo in Burkina Faso, where I watch an AIDS-infected boy bond with a chimp. It's not until I find myself alone in a dangerous Malagasy bus station after midnight that I admit that traveling alone in a place so different from home is scarier than I expected. But this is what dreams look like up close: dirty, frustrating and uncomfortable. And facing obstacles helps me learn that leaning on others isn't a weakness – it makes me stronger.

I'm a professional journalist, a former reporter for the Houston Chronicle who has also contributed to The Christian Science Monitor, the Albany Times Union and the Colby Magazine. I tested the salability of much of this manuscript through my travel blog, Inkslinging in Africa, which garnered 50,000 hits in just six months. I also have a following on my writing blog, The Traveling Writer, where I've chronicled my experience writing this story.

Please let me know if you'd like to look over the completed 84,000-word manuscript or my proposal.

Thanks for your consideration,

Alexis Grant
[My cell number]
My blog: The Traveling Writer
Twitter: @alexisgrant

Wow. Now that I’m reading it again, there are some things I wish I’d done differently! There are, of course, a zillion ways to approach this — and every agent has her own preferences — but here’s a checklist of what I made an effort to include:

  • E-mail subject includes “query,” genre and working titles so the agent knows right away why I’m writing.
  • Genre and title again in first graph. Also said right away why I’m querying that specific agent. (While most agents seem to appreciate this, I’ve also seen some say they don’t want to read that in the first graph.)
  • Story pitch. I’m not one to advise on this, and you can find plenty of advice through Google. But I found my pitch worked best when I touched on why I took the trip, what motivated me to go to Africa. And also how my manuscript is different than other travel books already on shelves.
  • Graph on my credentials, including something that shows that I’m building my online presence. Includes blog link.
  • What I’ve got ready, a completed manuscript (with word count) and a proposal. Plenty of writers also pitch memoirs with only a proposal and sample chapters.
  • My contact information makes it easy to get in touch with me and check me out online. It also subtly says I’m on Twitter, which shows I’m building platform.

For the sake of others who are preparing to query, what could I have done better? What did I do well that others might imitate?

I’ll go first: It could stand to be shorter. Giving myself a D on length.

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