Posted in Writing, Writing: Help

The Query Conundrum: Tips for Creating the Perfect Query

During my entire agent search, I visited writing forums and writer blogs on pretty much a daily basis to get tips on how to get my book out there. (Also to distract myself from all of the waiting that’s unavoidable in this business!) One topic I saw discussed time and time again was the query. Some people claimed to spend weeks on crafting the perfect query–and sometimes even then, they’d go back and do a second or third version of the query for the same book. They’d post queries for other writers to critique and compete in agent-sponsored contests for professional feedback on their queries. It’s clearly a major source of frustration.

Me? I wrote my query in about half an hour and never revised it. I did ask one vague question on a forum before I began, though, having to do with how to phrase the “it’s a stand-alone story with series potential” aspect and if I should mention the unsatisfying (?) but still conclusive (?) ending I hoped would cause people to want more but not scare away anyone who wanted a stand-alone book. I also sought feedback from my beta readers, but they both thought it was fine. Of everything in the writing process, I spent the least amount of time on writing the query. (And don’t worry, not everything went so smoothly for me–my multiple stabs at the dreaded synopsis took weeks and weeks… A story for another day!)

The query resulted in about a 10% interest from agents (i.e., requests for partials/fulls), although of course it obviously wasn’t to every agent’s taste (which accounts for the other 90%!). Still, I was pretty confident in the query, especially since pre-major revision to the beginning of the book (which inevitably changed the first 5/10/30 pages a chunk of agents ask for with the query) I was pretty sure my query was getting more response than my pages, since almost all of the requests pre-revision were from the agents who only got the query with no sample pages (their preference).

..But I’m not going to post the query. Sorry! The manuscript’s being prepped for the submission stage, and I’m not yet comfortable sharing the details online. (Not that anyone’s going to steal it, but even so!) But I will share some tips I hope can help you nail that perfect query:

  • Read the back/inside dust jacket teasers for your favorite books. This is essentially what you’re trying to recreate for your book. Break down what those writers (not necessarily the authors themselves) did to get you to pick up the book with just a few sentences. They didn’t give away the ending, of course, but they set up the conflict, introduce the main character (and a central secondary character or two) and hint at the major problem behind the plot of the book.
  • Think of yourself as a salesperson. Maybe one reason I enjoyed writing my query was because my other hat as a writer tends to lean towards salesmanship. (Whatever my clients’ clients have to sell, be it product or service, I spend hours writing to try to convince the random web visitor they can’t do without it, even if I’d never heard of it until I got the assignment… Without being too knock-you-over-the-head about it!) The few sentences in a query need to “sell” the book; they need to be so dripping with voice, danger, conflict, and/or some form of drama, they scream, “Pick me up and read me to find out more!”
  • Get critiqued. If you’re struggling, there’s nothing wrong with reaching out to your beta readers, writing forums, and agent-sponsored contests for help! That’s what they’re there for.
  • Query in batches. Test to see if your query is getting any response. If you query 10-15 agents and not a single one requests material, it may be time to re-write the query from scratch. (Or your problem may lie in the sample pages. Try a few agents who ask for the query only at the start to see if it’s the query or the pages that’s the culprit!)
  • Double-check the individual agent’s preferences. This involves more than just knowing whether or not the agent reps works in your genre or wants samples pages/a synopsis from the start (although paying attention to these points is essential, too!). Some agents–although they’re rare from what I saw–actually do want the whole story spoiled in a query. Others are very strict about the length of the query or want to know whether or not you’re sending the query out to other agents at the same time. (Tip: DO send it out to multiple agents. The process takes too long to limit yourself to one agent at a time!)
  • Break it into manageable chunks. My query was probably a tad longer than what I’d seen in all of the advice–which sometimes says the thing ought not to be more than three or four sentences or so. But don’t make it too long. (The whole query letter ought to be no longer than a page–and that includes the bio, info about word count and genre, and introduction as well as the book teaser.) The actual book teaser part doesn’t have to stick to three or four sentences, but it should fit into these four categories:
  1. The hook. Most places say one-sentence. Mine was four (albeit very small sentences, intentionally chopped up for the effect of “voice”). Let this opening line (or lines) especially drip with the voice of your work. Let it say something unexpected–or better yet, twist something expected into something unexpected. It may be the furthest an agent reads into your query, so it better work to grab their attention! For example (totally made up story here), which is the better hook? “15-year-old Andy just found out he’s a fairy” or something like “Most 15-year-olds are looking forward to getting their learner’s permit so they can learn how to drive. Andy’s got to worry about learning how to control the glistening fairy wings that just sprouted from his back so he can stop floating in front of his friends.”
  2. The world. Not every story necessarily needs this part in the query, but mine did since it’s a fantasy. Explain briefly what kind of world your story takes place in, so the drama you’re going to allude to makes sense.
  3. The set-up. Explain where your main character finds him or herself at the beginning of the story and what kind of problems he or she faces before the big drama/action of the book kicks into gear. (Hint, a lot of times your main character will evolve from the person he or she was at the beginning by the end of the book; explain how he or she starts out in the query.)
  4. The conflict. Here’s the juicy part. Explain the main conflict of the book in one to three sentences and take us up to just before the big climax–without spoiling us about what that big climax may be. Leave it open-ended!

Do you struggle with queries? What are some tips that work for you?

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Author:

YA author of THE NEVER VEIL SERIES (NOBODY'S GODDESS, NOBODY'S LADY, NOBODY'S PAWN), FALL FAR FROM THE TREE, BALLAD OF THE BEANSTALK, JOSIE'S COAT, and DROWNED SILENCE.

7 thoughts on “The Query Conundrum: Tips for Creating the Perfect Query

  1. The first and second points are extremely important, in my opinion. Selling a book is a lot like selling a product, so what better way to improve it than to study the “competition” and learn from it? Thanks to that I was able to do a better query for my second book; I also improved the interior design.

    As for being a salesperson, no one can toot your horn better than yourself. If you act like a charity case with no spine and no ambition, you will either get peanuts or absolutely nothing. You have to demonstrate confidence in your work before anyone else does.

  2. I thought you were a genius with the query. If anyone ever asks me for query advice, I’m sending them straight to you! Definitely my least favorite part (well, after the rejections) of the process! 🙂

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