The Adventures of a Query Queen

By Sarah Pinneo

Today it is finally true. After years of work, two manuscripts, and who knows how many queries, my novel hits bookstore shelves, published by Plume, an imprint of Penguin USA.

Julia's Child is a Cinderella story about a mom who wants very much to see her product, a line of organic toddler foods, on the shelves at Whole Foods. It doesn't take a genius to notice how closely that dream resembles that of a writer who wants to see her book published.

I've been a member of SheWrites since the summer of 2009, when my adventure was just beginning. And hands down, my most satisfying SheWrites experience has been helping to critique other writers' query letters in the Query Critique v 2.0 Forum.

Even though today is my publication date, and though I have a bookstore event to prepare and a new manuscript that needs my attention, I'll still swing by the query forum to see who's feeling stuck.

Because I love queries.

I wrote my first query letter in 2005. First, I read a book on the subject, its edges quickly filling with colorful flags as I bookmarked the most crucial bits. That query, for The Ski House Cookbook was ultimately successful, and the book was published in 2007. It was very exciting to see my name on that shiny dust cover in the Cooking section. But the truth was, I had used the cookbook as procrastination. What I really wanted to write was a novel.

Although it took a lot of time and a couple of false starts, I did it. And then came the query writing again. There were a couple of books which really helped me learn the art of the query, and take the fear away. More about those in a minute. 

But first I want to say this: if you're querying for an agent right this minute, even if you've racked up 100 rejections already, I'm more than a little bit nostalgic for your plight. Because you have a finished manuscript in hand, and a crystal clear mission. I understand that this might not feel like a blessing of while your desk is papered over with rejection letters. I've been there. But the query process is, at least, a common bottleneck on the way to success. That means you will find compatriots along the path. And there's a structure to it--there are rules. No other part of the publication journey is nearly as orderly.

There are lots of great query resources on the web, and I'm happy to point you in their direction. But there were a couple of books that helped me on the long slog from the slush pile to the bookstore. And now I want to pass them on. Please raise your hand if you could benefit from these:

  1. Making the Perfect Pitch: How to Catch a Literary Agent's Eye, edited by Katherine Sands. This book, now out of print, was invaluable to me. It is an anthology of 40 essays and interviews, each one by a different agent. That is, between two covers, 40 different literary agents tell you, in their own words, what they want to see in a query. It wasn't until after I read this book that I finally understood query writing. The book is good for both fiction and non-fiction writers.
  2. The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman. Lukeman is a successful agent, and the book is subtitled: A Writer's Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile. 
  3. The Sell Your Novel Tool Kit by Elizabeth Lyons

These books are like old friends now. But I'm betting they'll be more useful to someone else. If you would like to enter yourself in the Great Query Book Giveaway, and you live in the US, please leave a comment below. On Tuesday February 6th, I will choose one comment at random. The winner will receive all three books.

Lastly, I want to say thank you. I find SheWrites to be a terrific, supportive community of women writers. If there's anything I can do to help you figure out your own query path, please don't hesitate to shoot me a note. I'm happy to help.

Sarah Pinneo is the newly minted author of Julia's Child (Plume 2012) and the co-author of The Ski House Cookbook (Clarkson Potter 2007). She edits the book publicity blog Blurb is a Verb. Visit her at

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Comment by Sakki selznick on April 4, 2013 at 11:57am

This is fabulous, Sarah. I can't wait to read it! It looks so good. I am thrilled for you. I had no idea your book had come out, which makes me feel like a doofus. 

Hey, how come I never get emails telling me about query critique postings? I forget to go on She Writes unless somebody nudges me. 

Comment by Susan on February 6, 2012 at 7:35pm

Congratulations! Looking forward to reading your book.

Comment by Kat Ward on February 4, 2012 at 1:17pm

Can't wait to pick up your book, Sarah. What a brilliant time for you. Congratulations. And, yes, thank you for all the tips. I haven't commented much, but I'm reading and taking notes!

Comment by D. L. Cocchio on February 4, 2012 at 12:49pm

Dear Sarah,

I am in awe of your accomplishment. Congratulations fellow author! You have given me some excellent feedback on She Writes and love your style and guiding hand. Please consider me for the book giveaway, as I still need that little push to get it right. Hope I win!


Comment by Mary Krakow on February 4, 2012 at 8:31am

I'm ready! I have a finished ms in a file drawer. It has been critiqued, reworked, and rewritten. Thanks for the opportunity to win these three books. If I am selected, I will pass on your good deed by sharing with my critique group. Cheers!

Comment by Andi Gregory Pearson on February 3, 2012 at 3:14pm

Thanks, Sarah.  This is really helpful.  I may be a 'novel writing rookie' but I don't want to make a rookie mistake.  I'll start writing the query now - it may help me crystalize my writing/thinking even more.

Comment by Sarah Pinneo on February 3, 2012 at 11:53am

Hi Andi! You should start writing the query now. Writing the query will help crystallize your book's hook / premise / mission as you go forward. But you should not send it until the manuscript is really and truly complete. Querying too soon is a common rookie mistake, and the risk is that an agent will respond positively: "your book sounds great--shoot it over!" If you're not ready to quickly and proudly respond with a manuscript, it will be a wasted opportunity.

Comment by Andi Gregory Pearson on February 3, 2012 at 10:25am

Wonderful encouragement for those of us who will send out queries.  My question is:  when do you start this process?  I have just about completed the first edition of my novel - do I start now with the idea that it will take some time?  Do I wait till I have an absolute-final-revised edition?  Any guidance on this timing would be great...thanks.

Comment by Heidi Lee Munson on February 2, 2012 at 4:28pm

I'm thrilled to read - Congratulations. I'm not quite ready to start querying agents, so I know I have a lon road in front of me. Encouraging to hear your success.


Comment by Jolene Hart on February 2, 2012 at 7:46am

Sarah, congratulations on your novel! Julia's Child sounds lovely and am thrilled to hear that your long-awaited publication day has arrived. And thank you for motivating others with your energy and support. It's so kind of you to pass on your tools so that they may be used again and again. I'm writing a book proposal now, and I'd love to use your books as a guide and give them a good home, until I pass them along to the next writer in need!


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