Using "Fighting Bob and the Grenadier in Petticoats" as an example of how to write a query letter that gets agents to ask for more information about your book!

This March marks the two-year anniversary of my exploration of the Web3 literary scene, where I have been writing, speaking, and yes, publishing since 2022.

I’ve published flash fiction and poetry, short stories and a lot of essays – I’ve had my face up in Times Square and spoken at NFT NYC, and have read NFT poetry aloud at open mics in America, Australia, and the Netherlands.

And all that time, I’ve also been working on my first traditionally-published book – the memoir of my year as a peacekeeper in South Sudan. During that time, I’ve earned a lot more money in Ethereum, Tezos, and USDC than I made in the advance that I got from my publishing house – and hundreds of people have read my Web3 writing. Meanwhile no one – yet – has read a copy of my hardcover book, which probably won’t hit the shelves until September.

That highlights one of the problems with the traditional publishing system - a problem that I'm hopeful that Web3 writing projects like t2 and Twigg and PageDAO will help to solve.

The traditional publishing process is lengthy and challenging to access – first you have to convince an agent to accept your writing project. Then they have to help you convince a publisher to offer you a contract – yet it still remains the ultimate goal of many writers, and for good reason.

Books published by the traditional big and small publishers of the world – in hardcover, paperback, e-book and audiobook – still command an audience that dwarfs self-publishing in Web2 (mainly e-books, print-on-demand paperbacks) and the still-tiny Web3 market.

About 70 percent of sales is still of traditionally-published books – so this is a market segment that cannot be ignored, and which is going to be around for a while.

That is why, although I’ve previously self-published in Web2 and currently spend a lot of my time working and writing in Web3, that I made the effort to succeed in the traditional publishing world as well – and in this piece, I want to share some of what I have learned with you.

First, it’s important to understand that there are two major kinds of traditional publishing project – fiction and non-fiction books, each of which commands about 50 percent of the market, but which have a very different “road to publication.”

A work of fiction – be it a novel or a short story collection has to be complete before an agent will consider it, whereas for non-fiction, it is usually written only after the writer has secured a contract, which they obtain on the basis not of a full manuscript (as in the case of fiction) but of a “book proposal” – a document which sketches out the concept of the proposed book, gives an outline of the chapter (usually with short summaries of what content is found in each chapter) and provides an assessment of the market for the book – what recent books on similar topics have been successful, how the proposed book is different, etc.

I will do a whole post at a later date that looks at how to construct a winning book proposal, but today I will focus on the key start point on the “road to publication” which both types of books share – the query letter.

This is a one-page letter sent out to agents (or sometimes directly to the acquisitions editor at a publishing house) which sketches out your story and is meant to spark enough curiosity that they respond by asking to see your full manuscript or your full book proposal.

I learned to craft these letters over the course of several classes in Harvard’s creative writing program – and the key to all such letters consists of four key elements:

  • Personalized opening line
    • The "Elevator Pitch"
      • The Synopsis
        • The Closing

          The first and last are pretty easy to write – and the hardest part about the second element is condensing the concept of your whole book into a single paragraph (there's a trick to it though, which I'll show you!)

          The third element – the synopsis – is the longest part of the letter, and it has to incorporate three essential items, known as the “3 Why’s” –

          • Why this book?
            • Why this author?
              • Why now?

                These three points need to be woven into the summary of the book itself – so, that’s what I’ll demonstrate here, using the case of Fighting Bob and the Grenadier in Petticoats as my example - since I needed to get it written, and what better reason than as part of a t2 contest?

                Dear [FIRST NAME],
                I recall from reading your [YEAR] interview in [JOURNAL] that you’re always on the hunt for manuscripts about topics that matter – and that one of your specific focus areas is military history.

                This personalized opening was found by Googling the name of the agent and the word “interview,” then reading one that came up, and paraphrasing their own answer about what they looked for and why - to create an opening line that would indicate that I wasn’t just randomly sending the same letter to everyone.

                And, yes, if you send out 10 letters to different agents or editors, you’d want to craft 10 different opening lines – everything else would stay the same!

                This element, which some people call an "elevator pitch" and others call a "log-line" - whatever you call it, it's a single paragraph that sums up your story - and it's got to be compelling enough to get the reader or the listener to mentally ask for more.

                To do that, just employ this basic framework - take you main storyline (which probably takes up tens of thousands of words in your book) and break it down like this:

                1. In an interesting world….

                In a harsh land far from home,

                2. A flawed protagonist…

                a jumped-up British Army officer and a sharp-tongued journalist

                3. A catalytic event happens…

                both find themselves under attack by one of the world’s most dangerous warlords.

                4. After taking stock of complications...

                Ordered to lead a suicidal rescue mission,

                5. The hero commits to action…

                the officer disobeys orders - while the writer publicly questions whether those instructions should have been given in the first place.

                6. The stakes get raised…

                As their judgment is questioned in the House of Lords

                7. The hero must do something dramatic...

                he must break the siege of Jalalabad and she must survive captivity in the Afghan mountains

                8. To stop the antagonist / win the day!

                to give England a “happy ending” to the nightmare playing out in the pages of the nation’s papers - and to gain the personal favor of Queen Victoria herself.

                If you take your story and break it down to fit fairly closely to that model, then add the little pieces into a single paragraph - as shown below - well, you've got your elevator pitch... easy!

                In a harsh land far from home, a jumped-up British Army officer and a sharp-tongued journalist both find themselves under attack by one of the world’s most dangerous warlords. Ordered to lead a suicidal rescue mission, the officer disobeys orders - while the writer publicly questions whether those instructions should have been given in the first place. As their judgment is questioned in the House of Lords, he must break the siege of Jalalabad and she must survive captivity in the Afghan mountains to give England a “happy ending” to the nightmare playing out in the pages of the nation’s papers - and to gain the personal favor of Queen Victoria herself.

                The longest part is the synopsis, which is going to expand a bit on the previous paragraph without actually reusing its contents. You've hooked the agent to get them to read this far - now you want to give them a bit more, and the "3 Whys" I mentioned before!

                See if you can find the "3 Whys" in this synopsis:

                Queen Victoria’s empire stretched across six continents and encompassed 100 million subjects in 1841 – and a great many of those people spent nine long months focused on a pair of stories playing out in the dry, mountainous terrain of distant Afghanistan. One was the tale of the valiant defense of a fortified city; the second was the account of a handful of women and children held captive by a ruthless warlord. And like a Netflix mini-series, these stories appeared on a regular basis in the pages of papers from Australia to South Africa, from London to Bombay. The two tales were intertwined due to the unique relationship between the hero of the first story and the heroine of the second. General Robert “Fighting Bob” Sale was married to Florentia – who was called “the diarist of Cabul,” by some and “the Grenadier in petticoats,” by others.
                The Sales were a unique and influential couple who were destined to play starring roles in salvaging something from one of the great debacles of British military adventurism on the Indian subcontinent – the First Anglo-Afghan War. Their story neither began nor ended in Afghanistan – a country where I too have fought – and although Lady Sale’s account of her captivity remains one of the best records of that conflict that exists, her life before and afterwards remains largely undocumented, as does that of her husband.
                This is unfortunate, as the two of them were parties to many of England’s expeditions within India, Burma, the Mauritius Islands and Afghanistan, and a biography of their lives would serve to shed light on many overlooked aspects of the Colonial experience in the British Raj, where the outcome of campaigns fought in the mid-1800s shaped the world we live in today. Additionally, they would serve as a focal point for the reader to see in more detail the lives that are often missed in the historical record; those of the ordinary soldiers and of the Indian servants.

                Notice that you are weaving in the "3 Whys" into an expanded summary of your book - this is where you tell the agent why you're the right person to write the story, why the story is important, and why now is a good time to bring it to market.

                Here's those elements extracted from my synopis above.

                Why This Book: Lady Sale’s life remains largely undocumented, as does that of her husband.

                Why Me: I have some experience with one of the key areas where the biography takes place, and military experience.

                Why This Book: Modern readers can learn about events that shaped their world and learn not just about the protagonists, but the details of the lives of ordinary people from an earlier time.

                Then you just need to close out your letter politely - and to make sure that you do have the full book proposal ready to send if the agent asks for it!

                Thank you for taking the time to review this query, and I would be delighted to send the full book proposal at your request.


                So, that's it!

                That's how to write a winning query letter!

                Feel free to share your thoughts or as me any questions in the comments!