A Lesson in Exactness: The Query Letter

Sharpen your knife. You’re going to need it.

I’m going to keep this post brief and to the point, but I feel it needs to be prefaced by something I would have loved to hear when I was beginning my querying journey:

  • You don’t need a big social media presence to get an agent.
  • You don’t need to win writing contests to get an agent (though entering them can be extremely useful in honing your craft and meeting other writers!)
  • The slush pile is not a myth—agents DO get their clients from cold querying.

My query got me where I am today.

But not before I took a knife to it and cut it down again and again until each sentence held an edge.

I started my process by CONSUMING every sample query letter I could get my hands on, especially if that author was in my genre. I read professional blogs about pitches. With sample queries, I looked at structure, but also at effect—what stood out? What drew me in? What packed a punch?

Research. Read. Repeat.

Then, when I was finally ready to start my own query, I cried.

I kid. Mostly. But I was deeply overwhelmed by the idea of condensing 90,000 words into a grabby, single page cover letter. Brevity and I have a wrought disregard for one another. We’re getting better. But it’s an uphill battle.

Screw it, I needed to start big. So I started big. I took pieces—favorite lines and notions from my manuscript that jumped out and pasted them into a new doc. I brought in my synopsis. I created a pitch. I hacked it apart and sewed it back together.

Then I walked away. Which was hard. I’m impatient. I had my list of agents ready. But like all things book related, there are drafts. And the first one is just the beginning.

Then came the conscription. I highly suggest you find someone to read your query. Particularly someone who has NOT read your book. My darling husband is the most supportive human in the world. And he does not read gothic fantasy. Bada-bing, bada-boom. He proofed my query with zero context—just like an agent would. And he had some great clarifying questions. Back I went with the knife, cutting away.

The next bit is difficult to explain, especially because writing never feels “perfect.” Or even complete. But for me, there is always a point when something feels right. A knowing. A flow. A gut feeling. And I’ve written long enough to recognize that feeling when it comes. After a solid two weeks of reworking my query, the moment came. It was ready.

Off to the trenches. I had a master query. But for each I sent out, I fine-tuned my intro to the agent’s specific wishlist. And, to reiterated, I was selective about who I queried. (DO THIS! Be purposeful. Use agency websites, MSWL, Twitter. Know your genre.)  

Here she is. The query.

Dear Ms. Ross,

I am currently seeking representation for my gothic fantasy novel, ONE DARK WINDOW. Given your interest in retellings and read-between-the-lines romance, I thought it might be a good fit for your list. 

Elspeth Spindle needs more than luck to stay safe in the eerie, mist-locked kingdom of Blunder—she needs a monster. She calls him the Nightmare, an ancient, mercurial spirit trapped in her head. He protects her. He keeps her secrets. But in ONE DARK WINDOW, nothing comes for free, especially magic.

When Elspeth meets a mysterious highwayman on the forest road, her life takes a drastic turn. Thrust into a world of shadow and deception, she decides to join the dangerous quest to cure Blunder from the dark magic infecting it. And the highwayman? He just so happens to be Ravyn Yew, the King’s nephew, Captain of the most dangerous men in Blunder…and guilty of high treason. 

Together with a party of loyal companions, Ravyn and Elspeth have until Solstice to gather twelve Providence Cards—the keys to the cure. But as the stakes heighten and the undeniable attraction between Ravyn and Elspeth intensifies, Elspeth is forced to face her darkest secret yet: the Nightmare is slowly, darkly, taking over her mind. And she might not be able to stop him.

I have a B.A. in English Literature and Literary Criticism. I am a teacher and book lover, with a passion for gothic stories. ONE DARK WINDOW is a YA novel of 89,000 words that blends romance with subtle horror. It is a loose retelling of Alfred Noyes’ poem, “The Highwayman,” and is intended as the first installment of a duology. My completed manuscript is available at your request. I’ve included the first ten pages below, followed by a short synopsis and bio. 

Thank you for your time and consideration, I look forward to hearing from you.

Rachel Gillig 

For those who are familiar with my book, this query might look a slightly familiar. That’s because my publisher used my pitch in its acquisition announcement. It is currently the official One Dark Window synopsis. It is also the pitch my agent used on submission to get me a two-book deal with Orbit/Hachette.

Querying is not easy. For me, it was a deep labor. But like all things One Dark Window, a labor of love. I look back at this query I penned in 2018 and I can still feel that gut feeling—that knowing. And I am so proud of it.

Thank you for reading! Don’t forget to preorder your copy of One Dark Window!

Published by Rachel Gillig

Fantasy Author

One thought on “A Lesson in Exactness: The Query Letter

  1. I’m so excited to read this! I’m an English teacher, and The Highwayman is a great poem for the classroom – the story always connects.

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