Thursday, November 18, 2010

Query Letter Hell

I have query letters on the brain, so I’m going to share with you my personal experience with Query Letter Hell thus far.
We call it “hell” for a good reason. A query letter is a one-page letter that summarizes a novel (yes, all 50,000 – 100,000 words of it) that an author sends to an agent, and if an agent likes it, he/she reads the book. Sending queries is like applying for a job you’ll probably never get.
I completed a query I was excessively proud of. I was on the verge of sending it out when I heard about Absolute Write Water Cooler. This is the best forum for writers in existence. Their advice is both expert and brutal. At the last minute, I submitted my query letter for them to critique.
They unanimously hated it.
This is my old query.
Dear Agent:

Sacred Fire, an 87,000 word historical fiction, captures the true story of a young girl selected through lottery to become a priestess in Ancient Rome.

The goddess of the hearth, Vesta, was arguably the most important god in the Roman Pantheon. Six priestesses – called the Vestal Virgins – were charged with performing all of the rites and ceremonies for this particular goddess, including retaining their virginity and caring for a small fire that had to burn constantly. The Romans believed that failure to properly care for the goddess would bring about war, famine, disease, and possibly the complete annihilation of Rome.

Tuccia is brought into the priesthood at six-years old. As she grows up, she has to adjust to the extreme life of a Vestal Virgin: fame, fortune, constant labor for her religion, upholding the virtues of chastity and modesty, the responsibility for the safety of the entire Roman people, and the fear of being accused of the ultimate sin and facing the ultimate punishment – death.

This book is fascinating for anyone interested in women’s history. The story of the Vestal Virgins has never been told, making this book stand out from others in its genre. Each meticulously researched detail will captivate readers and pull them into a world they never knew existed.

After receiving a Bachelor’s in English with a Creative Writing emphasis from Brigham Young University, I have worked for six years as an editor, a technical writer, a freelance writer, and a ghostwriter. I traveled to Rome under an ORCA research grant and received first-hand experience with the area and the ruins of the ancient world. Portions of this book have been reviewed and critiqued by college writing groups and multiple professors.

Thank you for your time and for taking my novel into consideration. Please feel free to contact me for the complete manuscript.

You might ask, “What’s wrong with this letter?” My critiquers would have said, “What’s NOT wrong with this letter?” The biggest problem (of many) is I don’t tell the story. Wikipedia says everything I just said, and you wouldn’t sign a book contract with Wikipedia.
Querk Shark is a great site for reading good and bad queries. The biggest problem I’ve seen on the site is queries read like the back cover of the book. The back cover hardly ever tells the story. It might tell the genre and say, “This is a story about love, adventure, and bravery,” and so forth. A query letter should have as much of the story as possible, except for the ending. Agents should still want more.
It took no less than FIVE drafts before the critiquers said my query was good enough to send. By this time, my ego was pretty bruised, but I’m very grateful I found my critiquers before I sent out a failing query. Here’s what I have now.
Dear Theresa Park:
I am seeking representation for Sacred Fire, a historical fiction that is complete at 88,000 words. I am interested in your agency because you have a small number of clients and can give your authors personal attention. A synopsis and the first three chapters are included in this email.
Tuccia trembled during her trial as she waited to see if she would be executed for a crime she did not commit: losing her virginity. For other Roman women, this would not be an offense, but for a priestess of Vesta, such a sin could displease the gods and condemn Rome to ruin.
It is hard for her to believe this is not a nightmare, since she has had this nightmare over and over ever since she was a child – ever since another Vestal Virgin was executed for losing her virginity and was buried alive.
Tuccia refused to accept that her friend was guilty and cannot forgive Vesta for letting her die. Her anger with the gods became a defining feature of the past 30 years of her life, even though she always wanted to have unwavering faith in her religion. As she learned about the strenuous demands of being a Vestal Virgin, as she experienced the Second Punic War and the devastating battle of Cannae, as her strength was tested again and again, Tuccia’s doubt kept crippling her. She feels like she always comes up short.
When a priest tried to seduce her, she quickly spurned his advances, but now he wants revenge. Tuccia knows the only way to escape this is to prove the gods are on her side by performing some kind of miracle. Other Vestal Virgins have lit fires out of nothing and carried ships past impossible barriers. She wants to believe the gods will help her do something miraculous, but it is hard for her to trust them when they would not help her friend.
I received a Bachelor’s degree in English from Brigham Young University. I have worked for six years as an editor, a freelance writer, and a ghostwriter.
Thank you for your consideration. I look forward to hearing from you.
Teralyn Rose Pilgrim 

To read more about why the first query was bad, click here.


  1. The second letter was stronger, more confident, and gave an interesting overview of the story.

  2. Thanks! I definitely think it was an improvement. Nice thumnail photo, by the way.


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