Query Letter Tips – Advice from Writer’s Digest’s Chuck Sambuchino

Chuck Sambuchino,
Query Letter Guru

I’ve been subscribing to Chuck Sambuchino’s “Guide to Literary Agents” blog for Writer’s Digest for a while now, especially saving the posts that spotlight agents looking for middle grade fiction.  But it wasn’t until I met him at the Midwest Writers Workshop last weekend that I learned how to get my query letter right.

Chuck gave the first evening session at Midwest Writers, on perfecting your in-person agent pitch, but what you say in your pitch is basically the same as what you put at the beginning of your query.  And then I had an actual query critique with him.

I was surprised that he wanted us to use more lines and tell more about the story than other query tips have suggested.  Each agent’s preference varies, but in Chuck’s experience, a query letter opening should include at least six elements:

  1. Introduce the main character
  2. Something unique about the main character, what he/she wants, or both
  3. The Inciting Incident
  4. The main conflict – what’s it about
  5. Complications
  6. Unclear wrap-up.

Chuck said if you can also include a character arc and the stakes, that’s even better.

So, for all of you on the edge of your seats (as well as those who are just reading along because it’s better than playing Minesweeper), here’s what I had started with:

Twelve-year-old Jim ditches his family to go exploring during a history park visit and finds himself zapped back in time.  In pioneer Indiana, he discovers a haunted cabin, gets accused of being a thief, and grows desperate to find a way home.  Hannah is the spunky girl who guides him through 19th century pitfalls, but follows Jim through the portal to the 21st century.  Can they use modern technology to solve olden-day crimes?  And can they catch both a thief and a murderer in Hannah’s time, plus lay a ghost to rest?

Sounds pretty good, right?  Well, at least I thought so.  But after listening to Chuck’s talk, revising, having my one-on-one query critique with him and revising again, here’s what I ended up with:

Twelve-year-old Jim would rather mess around with his model rockets than be stuck with his little sister at a living history museum. He goes exploring where he shouldn’t and gets zapped back in time to 1836, where the townspeople are suspicious of him, he meets a man he thinks he’s seen before, and a spunky farm-girl named Hannah takes him home to her family. Jim and Hannah finally discover the pottery shard that brought him through time just as the townspeople are coming to arrest him for thievery.

Hannah grabs him at the last second and goes with him to 2012, but the real thief (the guy Jim thought he had seen, who is another time-traveler) steals Jim’s shard and Hannah has no way to get home.  Jim has to hide Hannah from his family while they outwit the thief and steal the shard back.  But when he realizes she can’t go back and resolve the problems herself, he has to give up the rocket festival he’s competing at.  It will take all of Jim’s wits, plus the rocket motors in his pocket, just to stay alive.


It’s much longer than I ever thought I was “allowed,” but it works.  And Chuck gave kudos for the fact that it didn’t end with a question like my first try (it’s a much over-used technique).  Can you go back and find the six elements, plus the two optional ones, in my final version?

The other elements of a query letter you need to include are:

  • A line with the title, genre, length, and that it is complete.  (For fiction, you shouldn’t be querying until the manuscript is finished.)
  • A simple line of why you chose that agent.  If you met him or her at a conference, or if you’ve been referred, put that at the top.  (And don’t lie about a reference – they’ll check!)
  • Your bio, if you have relevant publishing credits.  If not, leave that paragraph out.
  • It should all fit on one page.  Even my two-paragraph opening plus the rest of the letter is still a one-page query

Does it work?  Well, the advice was to adjust it to be conversational tone and then use it to pitch an agent.  I did, and I now have a request for a partial – hurray!  So, yeah, in my opinion, it works.

No, this isn’t actually Chuck playing!

Chuck was great, and if you have a chance to see him at a conference, I strongly encourage you to do so.  He’s straightforward, sometimes even blunt, but can answer just about any question you have.  And he might even play the piano for your group, too – what more could you ask?

What query tips do you have?  Have you had a successful query?  Will you be changing anything now in yours? 

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