Posted by: Kathy Temean | May 10, 2016

Foolproof, Never-Fail, Silver-Bullet Query Opening

johncusick200John M. Cusick is an agent with Folio Jr. / Folio Literary Management, representing picture books, middle-grade, and young adult novels. He also is very smart and knows his stuff. Here is a an excerpt from one of his presentations about writing a Foolproof, Never-Fail, Silver-Bullet Query Opening.

Here’s John:

It seems so difficult. Not only are you trying to put your best foot forward and stand out from the dozens— no, HUNDREDS UPON HUNDREDS— of other queriers, you’ve got to summarize your manuscript (impossible), make it sound exciting (huh?), comp it to other titles (um), talk a bit about yourself (embarrassing), and keep it all under half-a-page (yeah okay no).

As if writing the book wasn’t hard enough in the first place.

A lot has been written on strategies for great query letters. There are templates and forms online, webinars, talks, and even whole conferences dedicated to the subtle art of the pitch. I myself have gabbed on for hours about this subject without taking a breath. So how best to break down all this information, to actually put it to use?

Where, John (you might be heard to ask), does one *start*?

Though there are many paths up the mountain, for the sake of expediency, allow me to offer a…

blog jon cusick1

Where, John (you might be heard to ask), does one *start*?

Though there are many paths up the mountain, for the sake of expediency, allow me to offer a…

Firstly, and I can’t stress this enough (and believe me I’ve tried)— open your query:

Dear [Actual Name of Agent],

That is, the name of the agent you are querying, spelled correctly, as opposed to…

Dear Agent,

Dear Sirs,

Dear Ms. Cusick,

Dear Mr. Quetip,

Or just…


…which makes me feel like I’m being pursued by a creditor.

Some agents prefer last names, others are less formal. Me, I don’t mind “Dear John,” despite the connotations of heartbreak. But it’s hard to go wrong with a Mr. or Ms. followed by the agent’s surname.

Next, I recommend following a little formula. Ready? Don’t panic because it kind of sounds like math.

Here it is:

Screen Shot 2015-06-30 at 2.39.00 PM


Screen Shot 2015-06-30 at 2.39.40 PM

So, X (your main character or protagonist) is Y (in the general place, time, circumstances of the protagonist’s every day life when the novel begins) until Z (the thing that makes the story a story happens).

Here are some examples.

Blog John Cusick2

Harry is the main character. At the beginning of the novel he’s a sad British boy (as opposed to an awkward pale girl or rambunctious mouse). That is, until Z: the thing that makes the story a story (and not just a boring portrait of a sad British boy’s life) happens.

Reading the above, I already have a sense of the genre, style, and even the market for the manuscript proposed, and the querier has only written a *single line*. Now, the writer has room to go into more detail, offer comp titles, and give a short bio. He or she has hooked me right out of the gate, without preamble. And if this first line sounds good, I’ll be much more interested to read whatever comes next.

Here are a few more examples:

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Get the idea?

So, if you find yourself stuck with your query letter, try this formula.

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John M. Cusick is also the author of GIRL PARTS and CHERRY MONEY BABY (Candlewick Press), as well as a regular speaker at writers conferences. His clients include New York Times Bestselling Author Tommy Wallach (WE ALL LOOKED UP, Simon & Schuster), Courtney Alameda (SHUTTER, Feiwel & Friends) and Hannah Moskowitz (A HISTORY OF GLITTER AND BLOOD, Chronicle Books) You can find him online at and on twitter, @johnmcusick.

Talk tomorrow,



  1. great advice-


  2. LOVE this!! Thanks for posting.


  3. A perfect pitch delivered. Love “Dear John’s” sense of humor. 👍


  4. So simple and perfect. Thanks John!


  5. OMG. So simple but genius. Thank you!


  6. Wonderful so succinct, thanks John and Kathy!


  7. Oh my goodness. This is such a huge help! Just saw it took me about three lines to get to my “inciting event”, this should help me pair down the query.


  8. This is a terrific way of encapsulating a story for any purpose. Like when someone says ‘What’re you writing now, Sheryl?’ And I’m thinking – you’ll end up with glazed eyes because it’s so hard to tell you in one sentence what my 50,000 novel is about.’ Off to try this out. And it’s so simple too! Thank you, John.


  9. I love math and I love letters. So X is Y until Z works for me. Thank you.


    • I was an aspiring writer until I read this.


      • Dale,

        Are you saying you are giving up after reading this?



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