Querying: the Do’s and Don’ts and a worksheet

Hi, guys! Erin here.

Last month I asked what we could do to make PubCrawl a better, stronger, more useful resource for our readers. Over a hundred fifty of you took the time to fill out our survey and give us some feedback. We’re still in the process of sifting through all your comments and implementing changes, but in the meantime, as a thank you for sharing your thoughts, I want to offer up a query giveaway.

One trend that was immediately apparent in our survey was that we still have a lot of aspiring writers reading Pub Crawl, so posts on craft, querying, and breaking into the industry are always welcome. With that in mind, here’s a quick recap on queries.

DO:

  • DO personalize your query. (“I saw on on twitter you’re looking for X and thought you might like…”)
  • DO keep it around 250-350 words.
  • DO be professional and succinct.
  • DO include your bio and relevant references, such as major literary awards or writing organization memberships. (It’s okay if you don’t have any. I didn’t! Just sign off with your name, address, phone/email)
  • DO mention genre, word count, and (if applicable) comp titles.
  • DO polish the query until it shines. Every word should be necessary and purposeful.
  • DO proof it carefully (several times!) and read it aloud before sending. You only have one chance at a first impression.

DON’T:

  • DON’T tell the agent how great the book is. Let the query speak for itself.
  • DON’T open with hypothetical questions, use first person narration, or experiment with other unique approaches.
  • DON’T spell out the ending. That’s for a synopsis. The query should be the premise and hook. (Read the flap copy of your favorite books for inspiration.)
  • DON’T submit to multiple agents within the same agency at once. (If agent #1 passes, then you can query agent #2 at that agency. Unless they have a “no from one means no from all” policy.)
  • DON’T give up. Remember that every published writer has been through rejection—every last one—and it only takes one “yes.”

 

Basic Query Format

In my opinion, Nathan Bransford still has the best “fill in the blanks” query worksheet. It looks like this:

Dear [Agent name],

I chose to submit to you because of your wonderful taste in [genre], and because you [personalized tidbit about agent].

[protagonist name] is a [description of protagonist] living in [setting]. But when [complicating incident], [protagonist name] must [protagonist’s quest] and [verb] [villain] in order to [protagonist’s goal].

[title] is a [word count] work of [genre]. I am the author of [author’s credits (optional)], and this is my first novel.

Thank you for your time, and I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Best wishes,
[your name]

For reference, here’s my query for Taken (then titled The Laicos Project), which landed me my agent in 2011. Please note there are a few slight Taken spoilers ahead.

Dear Sara Crowe,

Happy New Year! I read on your Publishers Marketplace profile that you are seeking strong, original new voices, and given your representation of a variety of  YA subgenres, I thought you might enjoy my YA science fiction thriller THE LAICOS PROJECT.

Gray Weathersby is counting down the days until his eighteenth birthday with dread, for in the primitive and isolated town of Claysoot, a boy’s eighteenth is marked not by celebration, but by his disappearance. When his older brother meets this mysterious fate, vanishing in the phenomenon the villagers have come to call the Heist, Gray begins to question everything about the place he’s called home. It all feels wrong: The Wall that no one can cross without dying, the Council leaders and their secrets, the nature of the Heist itself.

Desperate for answers, Gray climbs the Wall. But Emma follows him. Emma, who Gray has admired since the day he first stole a wooden toy from her hands as a child. The two are surprised to find a modern city beyond their Wall, not to mention the Franconian Order—a mysterious group of black-suited soldiers that hold the two hostage and then call for Gray’s execution. Running for his life, Gray takes to the forests. These woods are rumored to hold hostile Rebels amongst their trees, violent civilians banding together in opposition of the Order. But the Rebels also have answers. Answers Gray has long searched for, and answers he may soon wish he never unearthed.

THE LAICOS PROJECT tells the tale of a boy caught in events far greater than himself, as in Philip Reeve’s MORTAL ENGINES, and I believe it will appeal to readers who enjoyed the fast-paced and mysterious elements of James Dashner’s THE MAZE RUNNER. Complete at 83,000 words, THE LAICOS PROJECT is the first in a trilogy, although it also works as a stand-alone.

Thank you, in advance, for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,
Erin Bowman
[contact info redacted]

This comes in at 325 words total and looking back on it now, I think it could be streamlined a bit farther. Even still, you can see that my query follows the basic intro > premise + hook > summary format.

Please keep in mind that like every aspect of writing, there are always reasons to break rules, but I do think it’s especially risky with queries. The query is a tool. Agents receive hundreds of them a week. Going outside the box is unlikely to make you stand out to an agent in a good way. What will make you stand out is a professional, well-polished query with a fantastic hook and some killer sample pages to back you up.

Getting back to that giveaway I promised you…
As a thank you for helping us out with our survey, I’m giving away three query crits to Pub Crawl readers! Simply fill out the widget below for a chance to win. I’ll draw winners a week from today.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

  

32 Responses to Querying: the Do’s and Don’ts and a worksheet

  1. Lara Martin Aug 14 2015 at 4:47 am #

    Thank you for a great and very helpful post. I always remember the saying I heard from an agent: the synopsis TELLS the story, but your blurb (query) SELLS the story

  2. Andrea Aug 14 2015 at 7:16 am #

    While my WIPs aren’t at a stage where I could query, yet, I’ve found that writing a synopsis for my personal reference is tough – very helpful post and I love the worksheet! I can’t wait to get back to work on my synopsis.

  3. Ellie M Aug 14 2015 at 8:16 am #

    Some really good advice here! I’m deep in the query trenches right now, so this was really helpful. Thanks so much for the Critique giveaway!

  4. Sarah Wolf Aug 14 2015 at 8:17 am #

    Thanks for these great tips, Erin!

  5. Nancy Tandon Aug 14 2015 at 9:07 am #

    It’s always great to see an example of “one that worked.” Thanks for sharing!

  6. Heather Aug 14 2015 at 12:01 pm #

    Thank you so much for the template and the example from your own book. Very helpful! I’m now revising my Query for the 14,700th time… I’m halfway through the query process, but we’ll just call it A/B testing.

  7. Abby Aug 14 2015 at 12:02 pm #

    Great examples and tips! Made me think of another one: when I read submissions at a literary agency, I also looked out for personal or professional connections that showed the author really knew what he/she was doing. Mentioning you’re a member of SCBWI, that you have an MFA, or that you contribute regularly to a writing blog (for example) can show that you take your writing seriously.

  8. Anna Lindsey Aug 14 2015 at 12:26 pm #

    Thanks so much for this handy list! And for sharing Nathan’s template! Super helpful.

  9. Jennie Aug 14 2015 at 1:20 pm #

    I love seeing successful queries! It’s hard to squish down an entire book into a tiny letter, but seeing queries that landed agents are always helpful examples of what to do. Thanks!

  10. CJ @ Sarcasm&Lemons Aug 14 2015 at 5:26 pm #

    Not an expert here, but I’ve heard that the hook part should sort of show off your writerly voice–WITHOUT being overly weird, of course. True? Thoughts?

    C.J.

  11. Katy Pool Aug 14 2015 at 5:37 pm #

    Currently on my fourth revision of my query (that’s fourth AFTER I started querying in May…) so these tips are really coming in handy! I’m often surprised by how LITTLE is actually said in the query letter…we sort of expect them to tell us the story of the book, but in fact what I see mostly in successful queries is a really well-worded summary of what the book is ABOUT — i.e. just the main characters and their primary conflicts. Ann Leckie and Zen Cho both recently posted their own successful queries on their blogs (here: http://www.annleckie.com/2015/08/12/my-query-letter-for-ancillary-justice/ and here: http://zencho.org/my-publishing-journey-my-query-letter-for-sorcerer-to-the-crown/) and I realized how well the query sucks me in and makes me want to keep reading without really even touching on any major plot points.

    Thanks for sharing your own successful letter! Looking forward to reading Vengeance Road soon =)

  12. Lori T Aug 14 2015 at 6:33 pm #

    This is wonderful, easy to understand advice. And as someone who is terrified of queries, I appreciate all the query advice I can get. It’s that time again 🙂

  13. Anita Aug 14 2015 at 6:58 pm #

    Thanks for the tips, the examples are a nice resource.

  14. Vania Aug 15 2015 at 12:15 am #

    This was so helpful. Just what I needed.

  15. Kathleen S. Allen (@kathleea) Aug 15 2015 at 12:18 am #

    Another query tip is to keep it to the hook, the book and the cook. I love that and always use it when I write mine.

  16. Kara Aug 15 2015 at 1:21 am #

    Great advice! I’m just getting ready to query, and even though I’ve read a bunch of posts on the subject, it never helps to recap the basics. I especially like the idea of reading some favorite book jacket blurbs for inspiration.

    • Kara Aug 15 2015 at 1:22 am #

      *never hurts, I mean! That’s what I get for commenting at 1 AM 🙂

  17. Celia Aug 15 2015 at 1:05 pm #

    Great advice here. Thanks for sharing your own successful query. It’s helpful to have an actual example to model.

  18. Kira Brighton Aug 15 2015 at 8:50 pm #

    I always heard that you shouldn’t include that “first novel” bit from Nathan’s form query — but other than that, it looks like a great help. Thanks for this post!

  19. Erica Aug 16 2015 at 3:58 pm #

    This is a great post! Thanks so much Erin 🙂 Insanely helpful!

  20. Bea Walker Aug 17 2015 at 10:10 am #

    Great post! I am currently knee deep in revisions and found trying to write a query letter has really helped me focus on the major plot lines of my story. Super helpful!

  21. Laura Aug 17 2015 at 2:37 pm #

    Thanks for a great post! I have bookmarked it so I can keep coming back to it. I really appreciate you sharing your example.

  22. Sandra Rice Aug 17 2015 at 2:46 pm #

    SUPER helpful, Erin! Thanks.

  23. Nicole Lynn Hoefs Aug 17 2015 at 8:48 pm #

    Just worked on my first query, so I can’t think of anything else to include for dos and donts. It was a really helpful to look over and make sure my query was okay. Thanks Erin!

  24. Sarah Aug 17 2015 at 10:12 pm #

    An amazing and much needed post.
    I would say DO make your query awesome, but DON’T stop yourself from submitting because it’s not absolutely perfect!

  25. Tara Day Aug 19 2015 at 9:09 am #

    This is such a great post and I enjoyed seeing the original query to such a fantastic series. Thanks for sharing!

  26. cass newbould Aug 19 2015 at 9:18 am #

    Thank you for all the info, it’s always great to see examples of a query that works. 🙂

  27. Derick Aug 19 2015 at 11:48 am #

    As someone who sweats over every word of a query before pressing Send, having a checklist is wonderful… and helps ease the nerves!

  28. Brandon Aug 19 2015 at 12:02 pm #

    I wish I would have had this post in my back pocket when I first began querying. Fantastic. Bookmarked and will send to other writing friends!

  29. Jason Andrew Aug 19 2015 at 4:17 pm #

    This was very helpful. Queries have always felt very difficult for me. Thanks!

  30. Julia Aug 19 2015 at 7:51 pm #

    Thanks Erin, it’s great to read your original query (and what you might change now!)

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