In preparation for our QUERYPALOOZA next week, I (Jodi) dragged out an old how-to post written for WriteOnCon. It was originally posted about four years ago—ages ago in internet time! If you saw it then, wow! If you’re just seeing it for the first time, I hope it’s useful to you!
Next week, Kat and I will be discussing some of the queries we received specifically to post on Pub Crawl. We received a bunch of options (you guys rock!), but we could only choose five for this. We tried to pick the ones we thought would be the most useful for you all to see, which means our choices had nothing to with what we liked and didn’t like (there were so many cool ones!), and everything to do with what we thought would be educational.
So until next week, here’s a little about queries!
YOUR CHANCE TO SHINE
I like queries. No, I love them. They’re such short, humble things, but their importance is undeniable. Queries are the initial step to nabbing an agent. They’re your first impression, and your best chance at getting an agent to pay attention to you.
Considering how drastically queries can affect careers, it always shocks me when writers carelessly throw something together, assuming it will be adequate. Which is not to say I think people should get worked up over things like margins and which paragraph your wordcount/genre should be in. There’s also no point in trying to find magic offer-of-representation-words. They don’t exist. No, you must query responsibly and realistically.
The purpose of a query is to make someone so interested in reading your manuscript they can’t eat or sleep until they read it. And that’s the tricky part.
KNOWING WHAT TO INCLUDE
If you don’t already know how to format a query letter, get thee to Google. This post isn’t about what font you use. This post is about how to show the extreme awesomeness of your story.
Beginning a query description can be really intimidating! To get started, answer the following questions:
- Who is the protagonist and what is their goal? (Motivation.)
- What is keeping the protag from achieving that goal? (Conflict.)
- How will the protagonist overcome this problem? (Plot.)
- What happens if the protagonist fails/what choice does the protagonist have to make? (Stakes, and why the reader should care.)
I can’t give you these answers, but I can help you learn how to turn them into a clear, kick-butt query.
FILLING IN THE BLANKS
My favorite method of query-writing involves three paragraphs and modifying from there. Sometimes you may find you need four or two paragraphs for the best effect. Be open to change if necessary, but for the purpose of this example, I’m going to use my usual three paragraphs. While you’re reading this, keep in mind the questions above.
Paragraph one: This sentence introduces the character and a goal/problem in a hooky way. This sentence expands on that and explains why it’s so important. This one talks about the character’s great idea to solve their problem. This sentence presents a new problem that complicates their original problem and renders their other solution useless.
Paragraph two: This paragraph is more fluid. It might explain worldbuilding, or tell the reader about interesting situations the character gets into. It will use specific details strong enough to influence the reader’s perception of the story/character/world. It will keep the tension rising, and not veer from the problems introduced in paragraph one. It ends, perhaps, with the character deciding on yet another solution to their problems, or realizing something horrible. It will drag the reader into the final paragraph.
Paragraph three: This sentence introduces a big choice or complication that directly relates to the main problem. The final sentence makes the stakes clear and hooks the reader.
The most important thing is to make the reader care desperately about your character, their situation, and the choices the character will have to make.
A FEW POINTERS
- Agents are reading lots of queries very quickly. Make this easy for them. Minimal character and place names. Don’t list multiple plot twists and expect anyone to remember them; it’s a hook, not a synopsis.
- Focus. Your story may be filled with lots of subplots and secondary characters with their own agendas, and that’s cool, but focus. Main character, main plot. Again, hook. Not a synopsis.
- Action! Things move forward. Things get worse. Choices are difficult and emotional.
- Snip. Chop out all extra phrases and scaffolding. Make it fast and easy to read. Stay around 150-200 words.
THINGS YOUR QUERY REVEALS
Writers are often shocked to find out how much agents can tell about a book based on the query, but if you read a couple dozen of them, then peek at the sample pages, you’d be surprised how much the queries reveal.
1. One of the biggest, most obvious things agents see is an author’s writing skill. Not fair to judge an entire manuscript based on one 200-word description? Think about this: Would you want to read a manuscript if the query was filled with typos, scaffolding, and confusing sentences? I doubt it. But I bet you’d want to read something if the query had smart, snappy writing, or prose that made your heart melt.
And if the writing in your query doesn’t reflect the actual manuscript—see above about folks just whipping something together.
2. Plot—whether you’ve got any, whether it’s like everyone else’s, or whether it has the potential to be awesome.
A query for a manuscript with plot shows conflicts and choices; it will answer the questions above. The query does not list every event and give away the end—save that for the synopsis—but it gives enough specific details to show the agent there’s potential in this. A query without conflict and choices is most likely a query for a manuscript without plot.
As for a plot that’s like someone else’s, how would anyone know? Ah hah. But what is the first thing you think of when you see this: Mylight is about a teenage girl who’s fascinated by the boy who sits next to her in class. Unfortunately, he seems to hate her no matter how hard she tries to be nice. But when he saves her life, she begins to unravel his mystery. He’s a hot supernatural love interest and he’s smitten with her. While he fights the urge to kill her because of his nature, she must convince him that true love is more powerful.
3. Characters and their development. Same thing as above. Great characters stand out in queries. So do Mary Sues. Dull characters will have no motivation, no drive to do anything. Who wants to read about boring characters?
THIS SECTION WILL NOT INCLUDE A NUMBERED LIST
My favorite thing about queries is that they force you to see what your book is really about. You must look at your manuscript like an outsider, paring it down to its most basic—but biggest—elements. Queries can change how you look at your story, sometimes inspiring amazing revisions. (What if the book your query talks about is way better than the one you wrote?)
You may also find query descriptions useful when beginning a new story. Often queries reveal the most interesting things about a manuscript, and they can help writers focus on those things. If you don’t know where the story is heading, writing the query can help you figure out the stakes and choices your characters will face in the end, giving you somewhere to aim.
So there you have it. I know that’s a lot to take in, but with enough practice, it will be second nature. Read other people’s queries. Participate in different query critiques; there are lots available for free on the internet. Soon you’ll be hooking agents right and left.
Questions? Comments? The floor is yours.