Rules and Tips for Writing Good Queries

If there’s one thing I’m asked over and over again, it’s How do you write a good query? Because there is an endless array of blogs and workshops (and even some posts here at PubCrawl) dedicated to just this very topic, I am sometimes baffled by how often I receive this question.

But at other times, I understand. Querying is the first step in the traditional publishing process, the first step in getting your work in front of professionals. It’s also one of the few steps in the entire process over which you have (a modicum of) control. So naturally writers stress about this, wanting to get it right, wanting to get it perfect, unsure of whose advice they should take, etc.

All right, if you want me to add my voice to the chorus of people dispensing query tips, I can certainly oblige. But be forewarned: my advice will be a combination of practical tips and a tiny bit of emotional counseling by way of tough love.

1. You don’t have to write a “perfect” query letter.

Repeat after me: There is no such thing as a perfect query letter. Repeat it until you believe it, or at least until you trick yourself into believing it’s true. Because it is. When I first started in publishing, I interned at Writers House, where one of my duties included going through the slush everyday. I learned very quickly during my time as slushmonkey that it didn’t matter if a query was too long, too short, too anything: what mattered was whether or not the writer got to the heart of their story as quickly and engagingly as possible. All else was moot.

2. No amount of “getting it right” will salvage an uninteresting premise or an oversaturated market.

One of the myths I had to unlearn once I graduated from school was that following the “rules” would earn me my just rewards. I was a straight-A student my entire life, not because I was smart, but because I knew how to follow rules. Querying is not like this. Business is not like this. You do not earn points for showing your work. If you got a wrong answer on an algebra problem, it didn’t matter if you showed every step of your calculation if the underlying formula was wrong.

This is probably the hardest truth to accept and come to terms with for most writers. That maybe the book they’ve worked on for so long is simply not a viable manuscript from a business standpoint. Writing is an art, publishing is a business, and sometimes your book just doesn’t encompass both.

3. Treat your query letter like a resume cover letter.

Continuing in the “publishing is a business” vein, if a completed manuscript is your resume, then your query is what gets the attention of HR department. Don’t be clever, don’t be smart, don’t be “quirky” or “wacky” or “out-of-the-box.” In my first post-college job, I was explicitly told personality might have mattered in school, but not here. (Ouch.) In the same way hiring managers don’t care about antics, only qualifications, an agent only cares about a good story, not querying trickery.

4. Keep it short and sweet.

Ideally, your query should be about 250 to 400 words, not including your bio and any introductory statements. Why? Because 250 to 400 words is just long enough to expand upon a pitch without going into details. 250 to 400 words is also the average length of the copy you find on the backs of books in stores. I’ve written more about copy here, including a handy “formula” you can follow when assembling your query. The point is to entice, not explain. If you have to explain why your book is interesting or different, then maybe have a long, hard think about why you feel compelled to do so. The query should stand alone.

5. Target your book to the correct audience.

I don’t necessarily mean that you should target the agents who would be interested in your work (although that’s certainly something you should do). What I mean by the “correct audience” is a bit complicated: it’s a combination of agent taste, market, and reader sensibility. Basically, you must know which section of the bookstore your book would be in, or in our digital day and age, what “tags” your book will have. Specificity is good. Comparative titles are good, and the more specific the better. Do not target your book to the audience of Harry Potter, Twilight, or The Hunger Games because that’s too general to be of any use.

And lastly, just to show you that query letters don’t have to be perfect, I present to you a query letter for my forthcoming novel (the title is still a work-in-progress). Including the salutation and bio, it is under 350 words.

Dear [Agent]:

Beware the goblin men and the wares they sell.

All her life, nineteen-year-old Liesl has heard tales of the beautiful, mysterious Goblin King. He is the Lord of Mischief, the Ruler Underground, and the muse around which her music is composed. Yet, as Liesl helps shoulder the burden of running her family’s inn, her dreams of composition and childish fancies about the Goblin King must be set aside in favor of more practical concerns.

But if Liesl has forgotten the Underground, the Underground has not forgotten her. When her sister Käthe is taken by the goblins, Liesl journeys to their realm to rescue her and return her to the world above. The Goblin King agrees to let Käthe go—for a price. The life of a maiden must be given to the land, in accordance with the old laws. A life for a life, he says. Without sacrifice, nothing good can grow. Without death, there can be no rebirth. In exchange for her sister’s freedom, Liesl offers her hand in marriage to the Goblin King. He accepts.

Down in the Underground, Liesl discovers that the Goblin King still inspires her—musically, physically, emotionally. Yet even as her talent blossoms, Liesl’s life is slowly fading away, the price she paid for becoming the Goblin King’s bride. As the two of them grow closer, they must learn just what it is they are each willing to sacrifice: her life, her music, or the end of the world.

Inspired by the movies Labyrinth and Amadeus, The Goblin King is a gothic romance in the vein of Robin McKinley’s Beauty, Martine Leavitt’s Keturah and Lord Death, and Juliet Marillier’s Heart’s Blood.

Before moving down to North Carolina, I worked as an editor at St. Martin’s Press, where I worked with Dan Weiss on developing New Adult, as well as reading and acquiring YA. I am also a member of Pub(lishing) Crawl, where I blog about the writing and editing process.

There you have it. As you can see, it ain’t perfect, original, or even that great. But what it did is get the job done, and really, that’s all you can ask of a query letter.

What about you? Any tips or suggestions for writing good queries? What are your favourite resources for query-writing help?


One Response to Rules and Tips for Writing Good Queries

  1. Maria Jun 27 2015 at 4:13 am #

    Thanks so much for posting this, JJ! It’s really helpful to read a successful query and see how it flows. 🙂

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