Diving Headfirst Into the Query Trenches

Guys. Queries are hard. This is an undisputed fact of the agent-acquiring process. These days a lot of agents ask for the first 5-30 pages of your manuscript when you query, because it’s so much easier to tell if a story is good by reading, well, the actual story. But the query is the hook—the bait that gets the agent past that first page and into your story.

I read queries on the daily. A lot of them. As a literary assistant, it’s one of my many responsibilities. I need to be able to tell, just from that one page, if your book is something the agent and I will want to read. I need to see just how I would pitch it to an editor. And I need to see that you know your stuff. Have you done your research? Or did you scribble off a quick note and hit SEND ALL?

The queries that stand out are either very good, or very bad. But there are a lot of queries that get stuck in the middle—that strange wasteland of almost-there, but just not quite. Chances are, a lot of you are in that boat. Most of us, even those who have agents, have written blah query letters. And I know PubCrawlers are smart. You have done your research, much of it on this very website. I don’t need to tell you not to send attachments, or not to write your bio in the third person. I don’t need to tell you not to call your manuscript a future bestseller, the most unique piece of fiction ever written, a story that will apply to all of the audiences that ever existed!

So I’m not going to talk about the basics. You guys KNOW the basics. I’m going to talk about those little things that maybe don’t seem problematic at first glance. But fixing these can go a long way toward helping the viability of your query overall

1. Don’t start your letter with all the details about how you came to write this book.

Writing is exciting. How you came to be a writer is exciting. The fact that it’s your first, or second, or millionth novel ever is exciting. But they are most exciting to you—in a query, these things clog up your first paragraph and waste valuable space. Before he or she has ever met you or read your work, an agent doesn’t care how you got started writing. As much as it matters to you (and it does matter!), it’s best to leave it out. It will not change how he or she feels about your story.

2. Be careful creating “atmosphere” before launching into your hook.

It can feel gimmicky. Unless your setting is basically a character itself, it’s best to stay away from this method. For example:

Castle Pelimere is deep and dark, inhabited by angry spirits and on the verge of certain doom. For a hundred years it has stood, and now, thanks to the Everlasting Nothing that has circled its walls for centuries, it is all about to come crashing down.

Jody Brody is a teenage pickpocket with no other skills and no other prospects. When Castle Pelimere needs a hero, Jody steps up to the plate.

I know, I know—this is a very obvious example. But it serves the point—character is story, and when I’m scanning through queries, I’m more interested in Jody Brody the pickpocket than the plight of Castle Pelimere.

3. Don’t relate two unrelated ideas in your hook.

You would be shocked how often I see this. Shocked, I tell you. An example:

Marty Schmarty is not your typical jock—he’s been taking ballet since before he could walk, and he’s better than half the girls in his class. But when he’s offered a football scholarship to his dream school, he learns what it really means to be part of a team.

Again, another extreme example. But writing a good hook is a huge part of the battle when it comes to queries. A good hook can make me perk up and pay attention. In this case, the writer has written something that “sounds hooky” and “adds character”. It makes me pay attention—then has no pay-off. Marty’s a pro at ballet, and this is set up as a key quality—then is not mentioned again.

4. Be confident…to a point.

There is nothing wrong with being proud of the story you wrote. It takes a huge amount of confidence to query a book (we’re all writers here, we can admit this). But it’s not up to you to decide whether your writing is of the same caliber as authors you have emulated or been inspired by, or if it’s beautifully lyrical or powerful and gritty—that is for your readers, and that includes any agents you are querying, to decide.

5. Be wary of the false choice.

Technically, a false choice refers to a situation where two choices are given as the only possible option—even though more choices may be viable. In this case, I’m using to describe it as a situation given in a query, wherein a character has what appear to be two choices—but only one of those choices is actually viable. Still with me?

Okay, so you’ve laid out your hook, given a short synopsis, and now it’s time to present the dramatic question. Your character must do x or y. But when you present a false choice, it becomes clear right away which path your character will and must choose. At first glance, it isn’t always clear you’ve presented a false choice. For example:

Jake must choose between saving the woman he loves from the mob and escaping to the Bahamas, or turning himself in and confessing to his crimes, even if it means her death.

Maybe turning himself in might be the right thing to do, but unless this is a morality play, the choice here is not actually black and white. When questions like this are presented at the end of a query, I can’t help but roll my eyes—I know what Jake is going to do. He’s going to choose the Bahamas. And if he doesn’t, then you need to do a fantastic job of setting up the why within your query. Again, the above is extreme example, but I encourage you to take a look at the stakes in your own query and find out whether what you’ve presented is a real dilemma, or a false choice. I want the questions you present to make me go, “MUST READ AND FIND OUT THE ANSWER!”

So the gist of these suggestions comes out to: Make me want to read your book. Seriously, give me no other option. You wrote a whole book. You know how to put words together on a page—this is just a different kind of writing. One that forces you to think about how to condense what you’ve written, and lay it out in a way that is tight and enticing. I promise you—it is doable. It’s hard, it’s often confusing, and sometimes it can take multiple drafts to get right. But it can be done!

I hope this is useful, and I wish everyone who is currently writing their query, Good Luck!

There’s still time to enter the giveaway for a hardcover copy of Vengeance Road by our very own Erin Bowman!

6 Responses to Diving Headfirst Into the Query Trenches

  1. Marc Vun Kannon Sep 2 2015 at 8:58 am #

    “this is just a different kind of writing” There’s no ‘just’ here. The synopsis is wholly different from writing the book itself, non-fiction about fiction. I don’t write non-fiction to turn anyone on and make them salivate, I write non-fiction to convey information.
    Nor is it always ‘doable’. If that fiction has multiple plotlines all contributing to the overall resolution of the story, it’s not ‘doable’ to write that synopsis. Synopsis implies one vision. Trying to synopsize a multi-tiered, multi-character, multi-plot story can only gut the story to have any hope of being successful, and with a gutted storyline I doubt it would be successful.

    • Hannah Sep 2 2015 at 11:51 am #

      Thanks for your comment, Marc. I’m sorry if these tips were not useful for you – they are simply things I have learned to look out for while working at an agency, and as a writer myself. Thanks for reading!

      • Marc Vun Kannon Sep 2 2015 at 1:38 pm #

        I’m sorry if I gave the impression that your tips weren’t helpful. They definitely are, but to me the hardest part of any query letter is the synopsis, and I’ve not found much advice to help me with those. Lots of advice, little of it helpful. I could go on at length on the subject, but I’m not going to.

  2. Julie Sep 2 2015 at 11:24 am #

    This is such helpful advice!!! Thank you for sharing a fresh take on queries–it’s so helpful to know what you see that works/doesn’t work. Your warning about “the false choice” really made me think–I know I’ve written pitches that end in terms of a choice before–“Will she do this, or will she do this?” or even “Can she do this while also doing this???” You’re so right to emphasize that the choice needs to make logical sense. Thanks so much for this!

  3. Hannah Sep 2 2015 at 11:52 am #

    I’m so glad, Julie! The false choice is definitely something I’ve tripped on more than once. It took me a long time to realize that’s basically what that format is. Easy to fall into, but easy to fix, too.

    Thank you for commenting!!

    • Richard Meier Sep 9 2015 at 2:17 pm #

      I wrote a Children’s book and the title says it all: Jasper and the Snot Weevil. So it seems to me the query letter is not the problem, it is finding the agent with a warped sense of humor. Any suggestions?

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