Recently I attended the Taos Summer Writers Conference. It was fabulous and I urge everyone to check it out. I taught a class in which the participants workshopped their query letters. Most of the queries were too long. The writers tended to delve into too much detail in the plot summaries. A number of people also wasted precious space – in the words of one of the students – “sucking up to the agent.”
A query letter is typically in three parts. The first paragraph should state the name of the book, the number of words, and the genre. You should try to use terms of art that are common in book publishing. It sends a message that you are serious and know the territory. In particular, avoid characterizing your book as “a fiction novel” and, for pete’s sake, don’t characterize it as “a non-fiction novel.”
The second part of the query is the so-called “elevator pitch.” You should briefly describe the story and why it is important or memorable.
The final section should be a short paragraph enumerating your qualifications to write the book. Be sure to mention previous publishing history, awards, and what you do in your real life. If your previous books are self-published, make that clear.
I get about twenty unsolicited queries every day. I try to look at them and get back to the writer in a timely manner. But that means I have a very limited time to think about each one. I prefer queries to be short, maybe 400 words or less. That means you need to make every word count.
As an exercise, I decided to compose the perfect query letter. I gave myself an almost insurmountable challenge, to create a query for the longest book in the western canon and to make the elevator pitch in six sentences. Here it is, my masterpiece (the query letter, not the novel):
I am submitting War and Peace, a 350,000 word work of historical fiction.
War and Peace is the epic story, written in a realistic style, of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and how 3 characters, members of the Russian nobility, live their lives or die in the course of the novel. In addition to the dramatic and interrelated stories of Pierre Bezukhov, Natasha Rostova, and Prince Andrei Bolkosky, I also bring in themes that try to explain how the events in the narrative help us to understand the inexorable truths of history. Some of the memorable secondary characters are real historical figures, notably Napoleon and the Russian general, Kutuzov. My description of the climactic Battle of Borodino is so realistic that the reader can almost smell the gun powder.
The book has received enthusiastic praise from some of the most distinguished novelists of all time. Thomas Mann said of War and Peace that it was “the greatest ever war novel in the history of literature.” John Galsworthy has called War and Peace “the best novel that had ever been written.”
I am a published novelist, author of the best selling novel, Anna Karenina that has been translated into every major language in the world and adapted for film multiple times, most recently in 2012 from a screenplay by Tom Stoppard starring Keira Knightly and Jude Law. I have also written works of short stories, philosophy and social criticism.
The manuscript is complete and available at your request.
Count Leo Tolstoy