Publishing Talk: Query Letter Transformation, by Melissa West

Today for Publishing Talk I thought it would be fun to show the transformation of a query letter from one that was not gaining requests to one that led to offers. Sound fun?

The first letter is the very first query that I sent out for my debut, Gravity. You’ll notice immediately that it has one major problem–it’s boring! Boring does not equal requests.

First query letter:

Dear _____,

Sixteen-year-old Ari Alexander falls for an alien…and elicits a war.

Ari enjoys a privileged life: posh clothes, political dad, and a future planned for her the moment she was born. But amid the fancy lifestyle lies the true control over human existence—the Ancients, an alien group living below the Earth’s surface. Their existence is forgotten among most, feared by others, and irrelevant to Ari. Until she discovers the most popular boy in school, Jackson Locke, is an Ancient spy.

Now, her disregard turns to obsession. Obsession with his world and his mission and the out-of-this-universe feeling she gets around him. But as she dives deeper into the secrets of his kind, she learns horrifying truths about her own. Then again, he’s an alien spy, not someone to trust and certainly not someone to love. So when she discovers he needs information she possesses, her first instinct is to stay quiet. Little did she know a single word could make the difference between negotiations and genocide.

I read you were interested in YA sci-fi and hope you will consider, Gravity, my YA sci-fi romance. It is complete at xx,xxx words and a finalist in Utah’s RWA Great Beginnings contest.

This query wasn’t getting the job done, so I rewrote it–several times. I went through countless drafts, posted the query on several forums, and bugged my CPs to death to read it over and over. Why? Because I understood that I needed my query letter to hook the agent/editor into reading my sample pages. In other words, it’s important. Very important. So after many revisions, I finally had a workable query with a request rate around 70 percent.

Query 2:

Dear ______,

In the future U.S. capital, there is only one rule that matters: Don’t. Ever. Peek. And sixteen-year-old Ari Alexander just broke it. She expects instant execution or some kind of freak Ancient punishment, but instead she finds Jackson, the most popular boy in school, asking for her help.
Because Ari isn’t just any girl. She’s a military legacy, trained by her father, and exposed to war strategies and societal information that no one can know—especially an Ancient spy, like Jackson.

Ari knows she should turn him in, but forever curious, she keeps his secret. Now her curiosity has turned to obsession, and against her instincts, she’s falling for him. But Jackson wants more than Ari’s attention. He needs information that she possesses. Revealing the information would betray her father, but keeping it risks a war.

Gravity is complete at xx,xxx words and a finalist in Utah’s RWA Great Beginnings contest. It’s Matched meets Avatar to the beat of Katy Perry’s “E.T.” Please find the first five pages below per your guidelines.

Is this query letter perfect? No way. I see TONS of things I would like to fix. Did it work? You betcha. ☺ And that’s all that matters. You don’t need a perfect query letter. You need a query letter that works.

And just to make this fun, I am offering up one query critique (by me, of course). If you’re interested, respond in the comments and I’ll choose one winner. Happy querying! ☺

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9 Replies on Publishing Talk: Query Letter Transformation, by Melissa West

  • Oh querying . . . the bane of us all, haha. So needless to say, I’ll use any help I can get. 🙂 Thanks for doing this!

  • Oooh, I always find it helpful when authors share these types of things because it’s definitely insightful to the pre-publication process. I have to say, though, that your first query totally would have caught my attention, but I love the tone of urgency in the edited version. Thanks for sharing the two versions of your query and I would love a chance for you to look over mine! 🙂

  • Hi Melissa,
    Thank you so much (and Entangled) for offering this awesome contest! I would love to have this opportunity! I am an aspiring YA writer, who has completed a few YA novels, but can’t seem to get a bite from my query. I do get bites from my quick pitch, so obviously it’s the query that needs work! I’ve revised, revised, revised, but I’m not sure what else to change.

    One is YA contemporary romantic comedy, another is YA urban fantasy, and the last is YA thriller / mystery. I’d be happy to present any that peak your interest.

    Either way, thanks for the chance and good luck everyone!!

  • Well, I would never say no to a query critique! I have an upper MG (or possibly lower YA?) commercial contemporary with a hook and I’d love some eyes on my query. Thanks and fingers crossed!

  • Hi Melissa,

    Thanks so much for sharing your before and after query. I seriously suck at query letters and just can’t manage to make them sound interesting. Much like you first attempt. They often sounds boring and confusing. I must have written this one a million times over already and I think I’ve edited the life out of it.
    I have a YA Spec Fic that I’m ready to start querying – well as soon as I have the perfect query letter. 🙂
    Thanks for this opportunity.

  • Thank you so much for all the comments and I’m so glad this post was helpful! I did a random drawing of the names and the winner of the query critique is…

    Heidi Vanlandingham!

    Please send your query to melissa (at) melissawestauthor (dot) com. 🙂

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