Guest Post: When is the Best Time to Write a Query Letter?

by W. E. Larson

clock (Erik)Writing a query letter is hard. I did a lot of research when I made one for my first novel. I visited many a website that provided examples, and dug deep into Query Shark. Then I got to work writing and re-writing that query. In the end, I didn’t end up querying the manuscript because it wasn’t really what I wanted it to be yet. Writing the query and synopsis helped me to decide that.

During that research, I came across a query critique on Query Shark that haunted me. The query wasn’t criticized only for its content, but the underlying manuscript was criticized as well. Now that would be tough. It’s one thing to change the query, but another to need to change the manuscript significantly.

That got me thinking that maybe the best time to write a query letter isn’t after writing the manuscript, but before. I’m not talking about writing the whole query, just the most important part, i.e., the pitch that tells the agent about the manuscript.

So I got to work, taking the manuscript idea in my head and trying to write a pitch. It was still hard, but I had the luxury of not having the manuscript set in stone. I took the pitch to a few people to read over, and it didn’t go over great. The pitch didn’t pop. I went back to the drawing board, made some significant changes to the story idea, and made a new pitch that did much better.

Armed with my query pitch and the story idea, I went on to write the manuscript. In my case, that means synopsis, outline, and then the writing. When I finally finished the writing and revising, I already had most of the query letter done. A few tweaks and I was good to go. The resulting query did a great job for me, getting requests and an offer of representation.

Like almost anything in writing, there’s no right way to do things, but writing the query first sure worked great for my second novel.

Erik LarsonW.E. Larson is a life-time midwesterner living in the Kansas City area with his wife, daughter, son, and two dogs.  He earned a degree in physics from Trinity University along with minors in computer science and mathematics.  He went on to pursue a career in software engineering.  He always enjoyed telling stories and decided to finally put some to paper—especially stories that his kids might like.

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9 responses to “Guest Post: When is the Best Time to Write a Query Letter?

  1. Kevin A. Lewis

    No offense, but this seems like putting the cart before the horse-and never mind all the happy fairytales about 7-figure Bologna deals based on partials-not everyone is connected to publishing figures who live in the Hamptons. If you know your craft, sharpen up and complete your project and do your query pitch afterwards; too much can happen before then unless you storyboard so strictly all sponteneity is suppressed. It also helps to remember that this business is entirely whim-driven on the acquistions end, (Exhibit A.: all the agencies who passed on THE BOOK THIEF) and that if you send in a large amount of gold bullion, there’s plenty of people who’ll find a reason to whine about the way the bars are stacked. This is anything but an exact science, folks, so don’t over think it……….

  2. Lisa

    Fiction University website also offered this suggestion. I finally finished my first ms, very rough. I scrolled through Query Shark too as I tried to write a letter and create a plot with more stakes. I’m still tweaking that query letter as I re-write the conflict scenes that lead through to the resolution. It’s encouraging to have others who have gone before and left a trail.

  3. Thanks for sharing your idea about working on your query pitch BEFORE cranking out a manuscript. A couple months ago, one of my critique partners provided feedback on a manuscript, and along with giving me an idea for a pretty major plot tweak, she provided a sample of what the pitch might then look like. Her sample pitch for my own story immediately made me see the power in her suggested revision (and helped me see how much less compelling my storyline had been). I’m definitely trying your idea with my next manuscript. Thanks again for sharing!

  4. Thank you for this tip. Drafting a “pre” writing query letter would help to ensure I produce what I say I’m going to deliver. (At least I hope so.)

  5. This makes a lot of sense. It also helps to assure that what you plan to deliver is actually what you produce. Thanks for the tip!

  6. Great post! This is how I start all of my manuscripts- I work out a pitch and then I send it to my agent and get her feedback. In one instance, it saved me a lot of time and effort because she knew of a similar manuscript on the same real life topic that had been making it to acquisitions a lot and not gotten acquired because sales and marketing thought the topic wasn’t marketable. But more importantly, it lets me know that I have the hook and conflict in place before I start and it really keeps me on track when I start drafting.

  7. Pingback: Guest Post: When is the Best Time to Write a Query Letter? | Joan Leotta

  8. Lesley C

    This is an interesting perspective, Erik. I’ve never thought about using a query as a guideline to develop a manuscript and in a way, it makes a lot of sense! Happy to hear that this strategy worked out for you so well! I might steal this idea some time!