Query Writing 101
There are a million different blogs, articles, etc. on writing a proper query, so I’m sure you’re thinking, “Here we go…yet another supposed expert on writing queries is going to tell me what I already know.” True, maybe some of what I’m about to tell you may be repetitive, but I wanted to give you my own personal experience and tell you what worked/works for me, as well as try to simplify the process for you. Yes, these are merely suggestions and my opinions, but they are based on not only experience, but the success I’ve had not only with my own queries, but with other writers I’ve helped get requests from their queries. My queries have garnered over a hundred requests, landed me an agent, and secured publishing deals for six of my novels so far. Plus, I worked for two years as an intern at a major literary agency in New York. So, if you’ll indulge me…
Let’s start with the format for a proper query. It should look like this:
Query Letter Format
Dear Agent’s Name (not Sir, Madam, or, worst of all, Agent!)
This is where you’ll typically put your title, genre, and word count. Some people say to put this info at the very bottom, but I disagree. I’ve been told personally by more than one agent that they prefer to see right out of the gate what kind of book you are offering them. Because if they don’t rep sci-fi, for example, they want to know upfront that’s what you’ve written so they can pass without “wasting” their time. Alternatively, it can get them interested right away. If they’re specifically on the lookout for a thriller, then you’ll get their attention immediately. But leave it at that. DO NOT talk about why you wrote the book or why you think it’s the next bestseller. This is an absolute turnoff to agents. Also, do not do what I used to, which is tell the agent “I am sending you this query because you are seeking…” I was originally told to do this (not sure by whom) but when I spoke to several agents at a recent conference, I was told this is pointless. They already assume that if you’re querying them, you’ve researched them and know what they want. They don’t need to be told they’re seeking fantasy…they know what they want. Just keep it simple and only one or two sentences (including title, genre, word count). Then move on. Caveat – if you met them at a conference, or was referred to them by one of their other authors, do tell them this.
To me, this is essential. Again, there are different schools of thought on whether a hook is necessary, but I truly, 100% believe it is. It tells the agent not only what your book is going to be about in a nutshell, but it is a chance for you to show off your clever and unique writing talent. If you can come up with one (two at most) really cool sentence(s) that sum up your book and make it not only interesting but unique at the same time, you’re likely going to snag the agent’s attention and force them to continue reading. While I don’t think a query that doesn’t have a hook is an automatic reject, I do think that if you DO have one, and it’s good, it can really boost your chances, big time. But, be careful. Do not, I repeat, DO NOT use a logline. A logline is a summary of the book that sounds like this: “When ______ happens to Main Character, she must ___________ in order to ___________.” This is a no-no. It may summarize your story well, but it doesn’t show off your super awesome writing skills, nor does it show that you would know how to market your novel. Instead, use a tagline. A great example of a tagline comes from the query for my novel, The Confession of Ruth Weaver. It reads: “Schlepping bed pans for smell, wrinkled, old people at a nursing home was not Avery Cooper’s idea of a perfect summer. But an elderly woman with a secret past could have her rethinking the way she behaves.” Now, that’s one of my longer hooks, but it worked and I think it’s a good example of how to write a clever, unique hook that is not a logline or simple regurgitation of the facts. Basically, I do believe a hook is not only necessary, but can push your query over the edge and snag an agent’s attention from the start. If you have a really good (again, unique) hook, I can almost guarantee you the agent will continue reading. While, if your hook isn’t done correctly, or if you leave it out altogether, I think the odds that the agent will quit reading and pass/reject are too high. So don’t risk it. Take some time and come up with a great hook!
This paragraph is where you set up the story. It usually begins something like “When 16-year-old Avery Cooper….” Or “In a small town on the edge of nowhere, a 16-year-old girl…” Tell the agent a bit of background on your MC and her story, without info-dumping or giving way too much or irrelevant information. For example, unless it’s absolutely crucial to your storyline, do not tell me where she grew up, how many people are in her family, what she loves to do for a hobby, etc. This is all totally unimportant and you’ll lose the agent’s interest immediately. Dive right into the story.
This is where you will outline or synopsize the conflict. You need to tell us here who the villain is (if there is one), and what is the major challenge your MC is going to face throughout his/her journey. Only use 3-4 sentences to do this (and not run-ons, either…keep your sentences 30 words or less). And, most importantly, this is where you will put your stakes. Personally, I believe they should be the very last sentence of your second synopsis paragraph. I can’t tell you how many people’s queries I’ve read that don’t even attempt to write the stakes. Every single agent I’ve ever heard or read talk about queries say that stakes are probably the most important part of your novel. Even if you have a very good synopsis, if you don’t give the agent the stakes at the end, they will likely pass/reject. They HAVE to know what is at stake for the MC in this novel. For example, stakes usually sound something like this: “If Main Character doesn’t stop the Villain by the time the clock strikes midnight, all humans on earth will turn into zombies.” That is not a very creative example, but the formula is there. If MC doesn’t do X, Y will happen. Trust me on this folks. This is make or break for your query!
Comp Title Paragraph
I say a paragraph, but it’s really only one or two sentences. Again, this is crucial. Here is where you’ll say exactly this: “TITLE will appeal to fans of Author’s Title and Author’s Title.” That’s it. Period. End of story. This is where a lot of people try to add a sentence that says why they wrote the book, what is so great about it, why it’s the next best seller…do not do that! Just give them two titles that are either current or classics and relevant/comparable to your title. This will show the agent where your book would go on the bookshelf and that you know how to market your novel and who your target audience will be. Nowadays, it’s even acceptable for ONE of the titles to be a movie, but only if it’s a well-known movie and only if it really is comparable to your book. Also, agents love to hear “Goonies meets Lord of the Rings,” or whatever. If you can say “X meets Y” then you’re golden. Just make sure the books you choose are books that the agent has likely heard of, or better yet, read. If you can find out the title of one of the books they’ve repped and it’s relevant to yours, I would absolutely do that. It shows you’ve done your research and you know what kind of books they are selling currently.
This is important, too. This is where you’ll add any writing credits you may have. Include anything you’ve written that’s been published in any way, regardless of the success level. (Side note, do not say how many books you sold or how much money you made UNLESS it’s been a best seller and sold millions of copies…even then, I’d still stick with just “bestseller”) Even if you’ve only been published online or in a magazine, still put that and put the title. For example, “My short story, The Many Hats of a Paralegal was published in AIEG magazine in 2013.” If you do not have any writing credits, which is most common, then do not say “I’ve been writing for ten years” or “I’ve written ten novels.” Don’t say “I’ve been working on this book for ten years.” None of that is relevant and in fact, these things can work against you. It will make an agent wonder why you’ve never been published and they might assume you must not be very good if you’ve been writing ten years or written ten books and still haven’t been published. So again, if you have no writing credits, just say something like “I live in Kentucky with my husband and two teenage daughters.” OR, if you can somehow relate your profession and/or hobbies to the plot or characters in your novel, do that. Since I’m a paralegal, most of my novels have either a legal professional character or there’s at least some legal subplot, so I always say something about how I used my years of experience in the legal field to create my main character or something like that. I promise it will help. If you don’t have anything at all to say, still at least tell the agent something about yourself. Say “I teach middle school, so I drew on my experience with twelve-year-olds to write this novel.” Basically, this is your chance to get the agent to like you and relate to you and see how you’re the perfect author to write this novel.
This one is simple. Just do this:
Thank you for your time and consideration.
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Query Writing Do’s and Don’ts
- Do keep your query as close to 350 words as possible.
- Do not say this is the next best seller
- Do not try to be cute or too familiar with the agent. It creeps them out.
- Don’t be too verbose or wordy. Keep it simple but well-written.
- Do talk about your platform/marketing plan (if you have one).
- Do your homework and only query agents seeking your genre.
- Do check for any spelling, grammar, or punctuation mistakes.
- Don’t address it to “Dear Agent.” Big turn-off.
- Do not name more than 2-3 characters at most (protagonist, villain only)
Sending out your Query Letter
The main thing to remember is to research and learn all you can about queries before you send even one out. As far as who/how many agents to send your query to, hold on to your horses…you’re gonna love this. I send mine out to 100-200 agents each time. Why? Some people may disagree, but I firmly believe in increasing your odds. If you go fishing in a pond that has ten fish in it, you’re less likely to catch one than if you fish in a pond that has 100 fish in it. Right? So my advice is to create a spreadsheet and find all agents who accept your genre and send, send, send. Keep track of who you sent it to, what you sent (i.e., query and first chapter), and their response. This not only helps me monitor my responses, but it also helps for the next round of queries I do for the next book. It saves me time and tells me who I want to continue querying and who I don’t.
That’s all I can think of folks.
If you need help with your query, synopsis or both, email me directly at email@example.com and type “Query Help” in the subject line. And don’t forget to check out my website at http://www.topshelfedits.com, which features all our services, clearly-posted rates, success stories, and how you can get your FREE sample manuscript evaluation.