The query is the letter authors send to agents or editors when the book is “ready to go.” Based on that one page, agents will decide whether or not to read the book. It isn’t a perfect system, but it actually works pretty well. Keep in mind—agents are busy and they get hundreds of “books/reading requests” each month. It would be impossible for anyone to read all the books from would-be authors (like myself). Agents need something short—something that gives them the basic information about the book, a sense of the story & author’s style, etc. If the query catches their interest, they will request the book (or a few sample chapters).
Your query has one goal: to ENTICE the agent so that he/she will request your book.
For now, let’s look at the “meat” of your query—writing about your novel. I will give tips about what to do/write in the greeting, farewell, and all other matters in a later post.
But before we begin, let’s make sure you’re in the right mindset. You must be patient. Take your time. Don’t rush the query out the door. This one page will determine if an agent reads your book. You’ve spent a ridiculous amount of time on the novel, but it all comes down to this—this one little page. Have some intelligent, honest, and critical people read it. Then revise. Repeat as often as necessary until it is great.
You might start by reading my earlier post on “Pitching to an Agent.” The verbal pitch contains most of the same elements as a query (I used my query hook in my verbal pitch and it worked quite well). I also recommend reading as many articles from agents or interviews with agents as possible. Find out what they want and tailor your query to that agent.
Break up your novel pitch into a few brief paragraphs, but don’t go over 250 words. It is probably best to write the query in the 3rd person, but if your novel is in 1st, you could try it. You do want to give a taste of your voice, so 1st person could certainly do that—it’s just harder to write the query in 1st because of all the other elements you need to include. 3rd seems to be the norm, even for books written in 1st.
You start with a 1-2 sentence HOOK. This is the line that gives the agents a sense of the conflict & characters and makes them say, “Oh! Well, that’s new and sounds awesome!” You can think of it as the “tag line” on the front or back cover of a book. Here’s mine: “When sixteen-year-old fantasy enthusiast Alanna O’Connor sees Vikings, medieval knights, and mythological creatures appear in her hometown of Edinburgh, Scotland, she thinks it’s a miracle . . . until they try to kill her.” This one sentence tells us a bit about the protagonist, sets up the genre, provides the setting and basic plot (or at least the inciting incident) and has a catchy end. I wrestled with that one sentence for weeks.
Why not take a trip to the library or bookstore? Read the back cover copy of books in your genre. What you see there is similar to what you want in your query. After all, the goal is the same: to get someone to read the book. After you’ve read several, you’ll be ready to try writing your own.
After the hook, you flesh out the story a bit. This is a kind of “less is more” thing, though. Don’t overload the query with subplots and themes and do not give away the ending (actually, I did hear one agent say she likes having the ending spoiled as it tells her whether the end is satisfying). You need to use a few specific details to paint a picture (and give some evidence of your writing style/ability), but these need to be carefully chosen so as to set the correct tone or provide the necessary information.
Vague queries get ignored. That’s one reason NOT to write about your theme. If you write, “It’s a story about an unpredictable journey that teaches the protagonist that life __,” you have entered vague (and cliché) territory. The query should be about character and plot. Queries are about what happens, not what it all means.
Every word counts. Choose the right word—not its synonym. Cut all needless words. Make sure each word does exactly what you want it to do.
Mix up your sentence structure. I have a natural tendency to write compound sentences. It is only while editing that I break them up. Watch for that kind of thing. Too many of the same sentence type or sentence length is monotonous.
Query Checklist. Your query needs to:
- Explain the premise and main conflict.
- Show the protagonist’s role in the main conflict.
- Explain the choice your protagonist has to make.
- Clarify the stakes.
- Give a “telling detail” about the protagonist so that we have some sense of him/her and know that he/she is unique.
- Provide the inciting incident that propels the story forward.
- Establish the tone and genre (perhaps mentioning the setting).
Some people recommend stopping the query with the story’s inciting incident. I did not. I went a bit further (you can read my full query by clicking the “About my Novel” tag at the top). The point is, your job is to make the agent want more. Once you are certain you have your hook in good and deep, end the letter. End on a strong note so that the agent must request the story.
Do yourself a favor: write several versions of your query. Try different hooks and approaches. Figure out what you need in the query VS what you want in it. Play with your query. After you have several query versions, pick the best parts from each. Can they be incorporated into one awesome one (maybe with some work, but maybe not)? Does your query make sense? Has it satisfied all the above requirements? Have you gotten a lot of constructive and critical feedback on your query? If so, then you are ready . . . to enter a pitch contest. Find some online ones (like GUTGAA, Pitch Mad, etc.) so that you can get writers and editors to help you with it. Then, once you’re sure it is the best it could possibly be, send it to a few agents.
Remember, you only get one shot with each agent—so be a marksman and make the shot count.