Ace Your Query Letter

Your submission, after all, is a test.

We’re gonna start with a rock ’n’ roll story.

If you’ve been living and breathing long enough, you’ve probably heard at least a rumor about Van Halen’s legendary rider.

On the surface, it sounds like your stereotypical rockstar bullshit.

A rider is basically the contract between the performers and the venue. It covers a whole range of details. The more famous you are, the more nitpicky you can be. Glee did a great take on this — an episode where Mercedes acted like a diva, demanding fluffy puppies backstage before she would perform, to be carried in to the venue. Sounds silly, right?

And then you hear that Van Halen had a provision in their rider:

“There will be no brown M&M’s in the backstage area, upon pain of forfeiture of the show, with full compensation.”

And you think “what a bunch of dickheads!”, right?

Except, no. As David Lee Roth wrote in his autobiography, Crazy from the Heat:

Van Halen was the first band to take huge productions into tertiary, third-level markets. We’d pull up with nine eighteen-wheeler trucks, full of gear, where the standard was three trucks, max. And there were many, many technical errors — whether it was the girders couldn’t support the weight, or the flooring would sink in, or the doors weren’t big enough to move the gear through. […]

So, when I would walk backstage, if I saw a brown M&M in that bowl … well, line-check the entire production. Guaranteed you’re going to arrive at a technical error. They didn’t read the contract. Guaranteed you’d run into a problem. Sometimes it would threaten to just destroy the whole show. Something like, literally, life-threatening.

Basically, the M&Ms were a test.

  • Can these people read directions?
  • Can these people follow directions?
  • Can these people work with me?

Your query letter is a test.

Let me say that again. Your query letter is a test.

It’s obviously not as life-and-death as a Van Halen concert, but it’s the same concept.

Every agent will have a page, either on their own website or on their agency website, that will tell you exactly how to submit to them. It will tell you how to submit (either through a form or to a specific email address), give you details on what your submission should entail (put the agent’s name/SUBMISSION in the subject line), how many pages of your manuscript should follow, whether they should be attached or pasted in to the message.

They want to see if you can write, yes. But they’re also seeing if you can follow directions. And if you can’t — you usually end up in the auto-reject pile.

It’s not that your using Comic Sans instead of Times New Roman is the end of the world, but Times New Roman is what was asked for. If you can’t follow that small detail, what other details are you ignoring? What other changes are you going to be unwilling to make? How big of a pain in the ass are you going to be to deal with?

I cannot think of a single time where I, as a query intern, requested something from people who didn’t follow Pam’s fairly simple simple guidelines. If you can’t be bothered, why should she? Why should any agent?

Publishing is a difficult industry. It’s exacting. And you’ll be expected to follow instructions from your agent and from your editor. You have to work with the system.

That starts with something as simple as your query letter and following the agent’s instructions. It means writing a query letter instead of making a query video on YouTube. It means sending 5 pages to the agents who ask for 5 pages, 10 pages to the agents who ask for 10 pages, and 3 chapters to the agents who ask for 3 chapters. It means using the fonts requested. It means not sending attachments until an attachment is requested.

Like David Lee Roth: if he found one brown M&M, there’s almost certainly a bigger problem down the line.

So get your M&Ms in a row.

(He/They) Ninja Writer. Thespian. Queer. Essayist, poet, novelist. “In Search of Sunflowers” available on Kindle now.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store