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How to Write a Query Letter for Short Stories

Updated on December 10, 2014

A Question from Rachael

Hi billybuc,

I wanted to ask you for one of your future "columns" if you could post three samples of query letters about one topic - short stories.

Perhaps one for a magazine who publishes several short stories per issue, one for an agent who just got done working with Madonna on a book of short stories, and one for a publisher who has published short story collections and anthologies in the past, but since we don't know any of those writers, this would be a cold call type of letter so to speak given we don't know the publisher either, but yet we know he publishes short stories.

I know the last one(publisher solicitation) is a no-no without an agent, but some people have just the right material and can get to a publisher's heart without an agent. So could you (maybe in the next week or two) dedicate an article (hub) to writing those 3 samples of query letters.

Maybe keep it on the one topic of fiction short story pieces for magazine, collection of 10 short stories for the agent and for the publisher, so the query letters are targeting something specific and you won't have to guess what the reader might be doing -- "if you are writing a proposal, write this query letter, or if you wrote a novel, write this query letter, etc." Just short stories, just ideas of how to phrase it, how long it should be, how much info to share, etc.”

Rachael Ohalloran, your wish is my command.

Source

The Basic Elements of a Query Letter

Before I give you an example, let’s talk, very briefly, about the basic elements, or components, of a successful query letter. I have mentioned before that, quite honestly and realistically, the query letter is as important as your book, short story, or article. Why? Because if you don’t sell the publisher with your query letter, you will never get your work published in a traditional way. In other words, the query letter is the all-important first step, and it is quite easy to trip, stumble, and fall with a poorly-written query letter.

So, what should be included in a query letter?

  • You must have a hook, and it should appear first-thing out of the gate. You need to convince a publisher in the first paragraph of your letter that your project is worth their time and effort.
  • Biographical information should also be included, but don’t overdo this. Keep your qualifications brief and pertinent.
  • Word count, genre, and a brief synopsis should also be included.
  • Address your query to a particular agent/publisher, using their name and not a generic “dear sir.”
  • The query letter should be one page in length, normal font, one-inch margins, and your contact information.

Now Let’s Look at an Example

Rather than give Rachael everything she asked for, which would require a much-longer article, I’m going to concentrate on the last part of her question/request, a query letter for a book of ten short stories. I think that will serve the purpose and give you a general idea of what you should be doing.

I’m going to use an attention-grabber from my own query letter for my recently completed novel, Resurrecting Tobias, to kick of this project.

Dear Ms. Rubenstein,

I once saw a woman stoned to death. That shit will stay with you once you see it. That shit will alter the course of your life, and put you on a path you never envisioned when you were a youngster playing Kick the Can. It did for me, and my writings today reflect those moments when mankind’s brutality overshadows all advancements made in the past two hundred thousand years.

I am looking for representation for my recently-completed collection of ten short stories entitled “Silent Screams.” These ten stories, totaling 60,000 words in length, all have the common theme of social injustice. They are a call of awakening, and they are a call for action. They take issues like homelessness, sex-trafficking, and abuse, and they slap readers alongside the head and demand attention. They are not for the squeamish, but they are for those who wish to see mankind elevate to a higher level.

I have published six ebooks and self-published two novels to date, and my articles have been featured in Iowa Living, Grit, and Family Living.

I know you have a fondness for short story anthologies, as shown by your publishing of “Take the Money and Run” by Eleanor Francis, and I believe my collection of short stories will stimulate and interest you. I have pasted one of my stories below my signature for your review.

Sincerely,

William D. Holland

360-878-1757

www.williamdhollandauthor.com

holland1145@yahoo.com

Did I Cover Everything?

I believe I did. The hook is definitely there. Book length, genre, all included, as are the biographical section and a brief synopsis. I accomplished my task in one page, and I have included a sample for the publisher to read. Mission accomplished!

And now some words of caution!

Buy yourself a copy of “The Writer’s Market.” This is an invaluable tool for those who are going to query publishers and/or agents. It includes information about the types of works that publishers will look for, and you most definitely need to know that. Never query a publisher about a project they are not interested in. A publisher that concentrates on romance novels is not interested in hearing about science fiction, and the same is true when we are talking about a collection of short stories.

Make that first paragraph pop! If you don’t sell the publisher on your idea in ten seconds, it’s never going to happen. The first paragraph of your query letter should take the majority of your time to write. The rest of the query letter is filler compared to that first dynamic paragraph.

For best results, your collection of short stories should have a common theme, or belong to a common genre. Agents and publishers do not like guessing. They want focus, so give it to them.

Once you have completed your query letter, send it out to ten publishers and then stop and wait for replies. If you don’t get any bites from those ten publishers, then re-write your query letter, because obviously it is not doing the job.

What About Magazines?

The same principles mentioned above apply to query letters to magazine editors. You still need the hook, the mini-biography, the personal information, word count, genre, and a brief synopsis. Just take the example above and tweak it to fit one story and you are in business.

Regarding magazines, I have mentioned this before but let’s cover it one more time: most magazines ask that you pitch an idea to the editor before you write the article or short story, but there are a great number of magazines that will accept an already-completed article or short story. Look on the magazine website for submission requirements before you query.

Rachael, I hope that answered your question
Rachael, I hope that answered your question | Source

And That’s All There Is to It

Allow me to repeat a word of caution: if you use a query letter ten times and get no favorable results, rewrite your query letter because it obviously is not working. The number ten is a random figure I chose, but you understand the point I am making.

Now, all that is left for you to do, is write those short stories and then sell them.

So get busy!

Rachael, I hope that helps.

2014 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)

“Helping writers to spread their wings and fly.”

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    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I'm glad to hear it, Kalinin...good luck with it.

    • kalinin1158 profile image

      Lana ZK 2 years ago from California

      I'm actually writing a query letter at this time, so this hub couldn't be more helpful!

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you Glimmer. I have to do something to generate more income. That sounds like a viable plan.

      Our second Thanksgiving is today, so I need to rush. Thank you again.

    • Glimmer Twin Fan profile image

      Glimmer Twin Fan 2 years ago

      Another great letter example for writers looking for work or representation Bill. I see a totally new business venture for you, writing letters for people and charging them for it. You'd be really really good at it. Hope you and your family enjoyed your Thanksgiving.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      You are very welcome, Deb! Go get them my friend.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 2 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      This is superb material that I can certainly use for mags. Thanks so much!

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I'm gad, Hannah. Best wishes to you and thank you.

    • profile image

      Hannah Writes 2 years ago

      Your last piece of advice is so useful. There may be something in the letter that is not working for you.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      You are very welcome, Anna. Thank you for visiting me so often today.

    • Anna Haven profile image

      Anna Haven 2 years ago from Scotland

      Very useful Bill and it also helps to illustrate the point much better, because you included a sample letter. As always thank you for sharing your experience.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Very true, Carter. Give them what they ask for and nothing more. If they want more they will ask.

      Thanks...good to see you and I hope you are well.

    • carter06 profile image

      Mary 2 years ago from Cronulla NSW

      Hi Billy, great advice here..when I first began writing I didn't understand the important of a query letter or hook for that matter..but as you say if you can't convince a publisher that your story is worth their time in the first couple of lines, you loose them..I found too that it's just as important to include only the specifics that each publisher is asking in the query letter..

      Have a good day Billy..Cheers

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I'm glad you found it useful, Eddy. Thank you.

      Happy Friday to you dear friend

      billy

    • Eiddwen profile image

      Eiddwen 2 years ago from Wales

      This one was very useful for me so liked, voted up and saved.

      Enjoy your day.

      Eddy.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Genna, I'm just trying to save the rest of you a few rejection slips. I have enough for all of us. :) Thank you kind lady.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you mothersofnations...and God bless you!

    • Genna East profile image

      Genna East 2 years ago from Massachusetts, USA

      "You must have a hook, and it should appear first-thing out of the gate. You need to convince a publisher in the first paragraph of your letter that your project is worth their time and effort." So true! Especially when they get scores of these every day. As always, your articles are treasures.

    • mothersofnations profile image

      Mothers of Nations 2 years ago

      Great info!! So very useful. I hadn't realized this was required but now I know for future reference. Awesome!

      God bless you...

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Kim, I'm glad you found it useful. Thanks for the visit.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thanks Frank! Much-appreciated.

    • klidstone1970 profile image

      இڿڰۣ-- кιмвєяℓєу 2 years ago from Niagara Region, Canada

      This is what it all comes down to, isn't it? Putting your money where your mouth is and selling your writing skills. It is very insightful, Bill, and will help many of us on the road to success. Thank you. Kim

    • Frank Atanacio profile image

      Frank Atanacio 2 years ago from Shelton

      Creative writing 101 at work here in this hub.. up and useful my friend :)

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      You betcha, vkwok, and thank you.

    • vkwok profile image

      Victor W. Kwok 2 years ago from Hawaii

      Thanks for the advice, as always, Bill!

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Iris, that's an interesting observation, and it is one I'm sure many writers share. Thanks for sharing that, and Happy Weekend to you.

    • Iris Draak profile image

      Cristen Iris 2 years ago from Boise, Idaho

      The writing projects don't scare me. It's the queries for sure! It's not even about the fear of rejection for my idea or writing skills; it's the fear of looking like I don't know what the hell I'm doing, of looking unprofessional. This really, really helps. Thank you for sharing your wisdom and experience so generously, Bill. I never feel like you hold anything back. Have a wonderful weekend, my friend! :)

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      My pleasure, Ann. :)

    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 2 years ago from SW England

      Thanks, bill:)!

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      What a coincidence, Ann. I'm always happy when you are home too. :) The weekend will be a good one for us, and I hope the same for you. Thank you my wandering friend.

      bill

    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 2 years ago from SW England

      Rachael is a great writer and asks great questions! You're a great writer and you have great answers!

      Query letters are so difficult but you've made me feel a lot happier about writing them; my query letter regarding my present draft is already in my head! Thanks, bill.

      I'm so happy to be home and 'properly' on line again. I feel happier when hubpages is within easy reach.

      Have a great evening and a great weekend, bill!

      Ann

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Mary, I'll take that kind of monotonous any day of the week. :) Thank you my friend.

    • tillsontitan profile image

      Mary Craig 2 years ago from New York

      It must get monotonous hearing how good your advice is ;) You've learned by practice and your sharing is to our advantage, and you provide us with many advantages.

      Voted up, useful, awesome, and interesting.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I agree with you, Michelle! Every advantage is helpful.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you very much DDE!

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thanks Bill! Yes, pulling it off is a super challenge. There are no guarantees in this business.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I'm glad you enjoyed it, Alicia. My best to you. Thank you!

    • midget38 profile image

      Michelle Liew 2 years ago from Singapore

      I think, particularly, addressing it to the publisher in question is important, rather than a 'dear sir:" It makes them feel as though you've put some thought into the company.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 2 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Greatly expressed and such a helpful hub.

    • DrBillSmithWriter profile image

      William Leverne Smith 2 years ago from Hollister, MO

      Excellent article, right on target. But, actually pulling it off is a super challenge. But, you have to start somewhere. I thought the "write ten and wait" was great advise… need the right ten… but, if the Writer's Market info was used correctly, they should be. Thanks for sharing, for sure! ;-)

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      You've given us some great ideas to help us write a query letter, Bill. Thank you for sharing them.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thanks, Jo! It should come in handy if you write a query letter. No guarantees, but it definitely won't hurt your chances.

      blessings my friend

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you Wayne. I appreciate you stopping by.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Not for free, Ruby. I get paid back in appreciation, and that is priceless. Thank you!

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Sheila, it's something I learned several years ago, but I forget periodically. I hope it helps you, and thanks for the visit.

    • tobusiness profile image

      Jo Alexis-Hagues 2 years ago from Bedfordshire, U.K

      Bill, this is exceedingly useful information. Many thanks to Rachael for this very practical and appropriate question, and of course, to you for the very interesting and helpful reply. Another exceptional share.

      My best.

    • wayne barrett profile image

      Wayne Barrett 2 years ago from Clearwater Florida

      Useful information. Great article as always my friend.

    • always exploring profile image

      Ruby Jean Fuller 2 years ago from Southern Illinois

      Now I know how to write a query letter. Thank you Bill for helping writers, and for free! Way to go..

    • profile image

      sheilamyers 2 years ago

      You added something in the query letter I never thought of writing in mine - you mentioned a particular book and named the author. This would definitely demonstrate to the agent that a person has taken the time to get familiar with the work the agent has done in the past and not just someone tossing out a generic query letter to any agent they can find listed. I'll have to remember this the next time I type up a query letter.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thanks, Melissa...now I'm wishing I had written some short stories. LOL

    • mpropp profile image

      Melissa Propp 2 years ago from Minnesota

      I was going to say...those sound like some really good short stories. Thank you so much for sharing the example query. It was excellent!

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Marlene, we all have our own style. Yours is developing before our eyes and it's fun to watch the growth. Thank you for your kind words my friend.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Well, Heidi, then I succeeded on several levels. Too bad I don't have a short story to go with it. LOL Thanks and Happy Wednesday to you.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      K. Burns, you are not alone, but part of being a writer is dealing with rejection...just jump into the fire and the anxiety will leave. :)

    • MarleneB profile image

      Marlene Bertrand 2 years ago from Northern California, USA

      If you were a fisherman, you would catch a lot of fish. You have a powerful way to hook the reader's attention and then reel them in tightly with the dynamics of your writing style. I want to write like that. And, I feel like I'm learning from the best. Thank you very much for the time you give freely to help writers who want to write.

    • heidithorne profile image

      Heidi Thorne 2 years ago from Chicago Area

      Hell, I'd read your query letter and submission with an opener like that and no fear of using MA-rated language. Tells me a lot about the audience you're trying to reach. That's what a sales letter (aka query letter) is supposed to do!

    • K. Burns Darling profile image

      Kristen Burns-Darling 2 years ago from Orange County, California

      Thank you for another insightful and useful hub. The writing of query letters often overwhelms me, perhaps this hub will calm my anxiety.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Mari, it only takes one. :) I hope you continue to try.

      Thanks my friend.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Lori, you were not alone, and in all honesty, writers should be intimidated by the process....only a few are chosen, and our egos are quite often fragile. Well, now you know how to do it. :) Thank you!

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      dragonflycolor 2 years ago

      I'm not sure if I'll ever be successful at writing a query letter, but I'm glad I have your experiences to help me along the way. ;) Thanks, Bill!

    • lambservant profile image

      Lori Colbo 2 years ago from Pacific Northwest

      This is very helpful. Years ago I tried to submit some articles to magazines and was totally inept and intimidated by query letters. Great topic.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you Eric...I wish I had a story to go along with that paragraph. LOL

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 2 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Fantastic direction and example -- I will publish your story just based on the letter. Thanks for all you do!

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Brian, those are great examples. I used flaps as inspiration for my letters. I'm not into reinventing the wheel, and I have no problem using the inspirations of others to guide me. Thanks for sharing those....exactly what this article is about.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Sha, that is a huge first step. Now, like you said, the rest if up to you and your writing abilities...and I have no doubt you'll come through in flying colors. You go, girl!

    • B. Leekley profile image

      Brian Leekley 2 years ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA

      Up, Useful, and Interesting. This is very helpful.

      What the woman said in the video about using the writer's pitch in the query letter to in turn pitch to a book editor and down the line to editor, sellers, retailers, to what is on the jacket or cover of the book to pitch it to a potential reader got me thinking that dust jacket panels and back covers of paperbacks are good places to find examples of what would make good query letter openers.

      From the back cover of CROOKED LITTLE HEART by Anne Lamont: "Rosie Ferguson, in the first bloom of young womanhood, is obsessed with tournament tennis. Her mother is a recovering alcoholic still grieving the death of her first husband; her stepfather, a struggling writer, is wrestling with his own demons. And now Rosie finds that her athletic gifts, once a source of triumph and escape, place her in peril, as a shadowy man stalks her...."

      From the front dj flap of START WITH WHY by Simon Sinek: "Why are some people and organizations more innovative, more influential, and more profitable than others? Why do some command greater loyalty from customers and employees alike? Even among the successful, why are so few able to repeat their success over and over?"

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Awww, Randi, thank you so much. I always appreciate you, except when you are killing me in Words with Friends. LOL

    • bravewarrior profile image

      Shauna L Bowling 2 years ago from Central Florida

      I think the query letter is where most writers get hung up. At least I do. Your examples are very helpful.

      A couple of weeks ago, I started looking into environmental blogs to follow so I can comment and become known to the blog owners. (The marketing guy that's mentoring me for free suggested I approach 3 blogs and offer to do a guest post for free. However, I need to get my name out there first. Up until now my name is known in blogger circles that blog about writing.) Upon checking out the website of one of the environmental newsletters I subscribe to I discovered they actually pay people to blog for their site. I've been receiving their newsletter for a while now, so I'm familiar with the types of stories they post. So, I sent an email query and some samples (per their guidelines) and heard back from them yesterday. The editor has given me a topic to write for them as a test post. Naturally, I was thrilled to hear back from the editor. Now it's up to me to do a stellar job on the post so I can secure a spot on their team.

    • btrbell profile image

      Randi Benlulu 2 years ago from Mesa, AZ

      Bill, your query letter is a work of art in itself!