Pull back the curtain and see how a suspense writer puts the thrills and chills together.


Dear Author,

We regret to inform you that we must reject your submission on the basis that your query letter sucks.

Honest Agent

I’ve often boasted that I can write anything well. At least, that’s what I tell prospective freelance clients. But I have yet another confession (seems like it’s a week for confessing). My query letters suck. (If this wasn’t a PG-rated blog, I would be more descriptive and say they suck *ss.)

If you wrote a 500 page novel, some multi-genre epic about man’s inhumanity to man, I’m sure I could craft you a brilliant query letter. I’ve written cover letters for people that have actually resulted in them landing their dream job. But my own work? Forgetaboutit.

I’m a big fan of cliffhangers. My former editor used to call them “dun-dun-duh!” moments, and would make the appropriate sound whenever I read out one of my chapters. Turns out, cliffhangers don’t work so well in query letters. If you’re all mysterious about your book when describing it to an agent, you don’t peak his interest. He just figures you don’t have a clue what you’re talking about.

Thankfully, I’m well aware of this short coming, so I signed up for an online course about agents & editors that’s taught by a woman who really gets the publishing industry. The current recession ended up being a lucky break for me, because I’m her only student for this session. I need all the help I can get.

I sailed through Lesson One with ease, and maybe I was feeling cocky. No more. Part of Lesson Two was pitching my book in a quick sentence or two, and then in a paragraph meant to entice. This is just a small sample of my feedback:

You say she was “forced to go back”? Really? Does someone take her by the collar and make her move? Do the police come to her door? You can’t say that without explanation because it doesn’t seem plausible. Now you could say “compelled” but even that stinks. We have to know what drives her. Then this bleeds into the next question: if she is thirty why does she have to address a teenage or high school disappearance? Seems like everyone moved on. See what I mean? Two questions, the agent isn’t convinced. You planted some holes and the reader doesn’t have time to wonder because they don’t feel compelled to read more. And then this is followed by another question, really two questions: “…someone or something is determined that she figure it out.” Huh? that doesn’t make sense. When you send something to an editor, intriguing them is different from leaving holes open.

Yikes. I’m glad to know it, but I have even more work to do than I thought. And guess what this week’s assignment is? Yep, writing the query letter. I had an online chat with my instructor for over an hour, and she still wasn’t able to fix everything that needs fixing.

I definitely have the query letter blues.

Anyone else out there been through this? Or better yet, survived it and learned how to write the ultimate query letter? Share your secrets!

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  1. Kim

    I wish you had posted your “rotton” example that you sent to the instructor…..

    The once that I’ve gone through the process, I did fairly well with the query letter. But it took several writes to get it correct and I will agree it was the hardest thing I ever had to write. But it got me 4 or 5 agent peaks and 2 publisher requests so…. I did something right.

    But I can see the difficulty when you are writing in a “cliffhanger” genre — how do you intrigue an agent/editor or their screeners without revealing too much…. or worse… too little. A toughy.

  2. Story Teller

    Hi Kim,

    I don’t want to give too much away about the book’s plot right now, which is why I didn’t post my example. I didn’t realize you had so much success with your queries – that’s awesome! What project was that for, and what stage is it at now?

  3. TS

    Duly noted that your cover letter help has landed people dream jobs 🙂

  4. Mystic_Mom

    I am like you Holli, I can write about others whether it be features, cover letters, promos and bios. But about me? About my work? Even a short speaker’s bio for a conference? Nope it’s like shopping for clothes, frustrating because nothing seems to feel right, fit right or be what works for me…

    Keep on going with your query letter work and if you ever get totally stumped we could always write for each other those query letters and see if that works 🙂

  5. Story Teller

    @ TS – anytime, anytime! I got my friend Mike a job with an architectural firm about twelve years ago, and he’s still there, so I guess it worked out for him. 🙂

    @ Mystic – I think this is a common problem that many writers face, but I’m hoping that this course will teach me to get over the hurdle. Writing each other’s is a great idea, as long as we have time to read the book! 🙂

  6. Story Teller

    Hi Bob,

    Welcome to my blog! I hope you stay awhile. 🙂 Thanks for the resources. I will check them out. Like I said, I need all the help I can get!

    Have a nice weekend!

  7. Kim

    I just returned to this comment feed today. My query letter success came with my young adult novel, the one I went through the mentorship program with. The book at the moment is shelved I guess, for lack of a better term. One of the publishers has never gotten back to me — not with even a rejection letter. I’ve emailed them a dozen or so times.
    That book got tons of feedback it just fell a little between young adult and adult in terms of target audience. The most common feedback I got was they weren’t sure how they were going to market it.

    I’m thinking about e-publishing.

  8. Story Teller

    Hey Kim,

    Good for you for not giving up on it. But before you e-publish, how long ago was it out on submission? The market is desperate for YA novels right now, and the perception of how mature a book can be for that audience has drastically changed. Now could be the right time for your book to find its readers….

  9. Kim

    I really should try again. I agree. I should look into it. The turn over in those companies is so great, likely no one will remember the initial submission.


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