Query Advice Corner

This is a redundant post because if you want to learn how to write a great query:

Read Query Shark. Keep reading it. Read it some more. You’re not done yet. I know you’re cheating because you wouldn’t be looking here for a quick fix if you’d really read the query shark archives.

But I’ll continue on anyway. I hope I’m talking to nobody since you’ve all figured it out over on Query Shark.

The next step in learning to write a great query is:

Critique other queries. Critique a lot of them. It’s easier to see what’s failing in a query for a book you’ve never read than your own. Yes – it is even easier to WRITE a query for a book you’ve never read than your own. Try writing a fakety fake query for a book that never existed. You can write a pretty fantastic fake query. And then, you’ll want to write that book because it will sound AWESOME.

But you want some tips and pointers the easy way. *shakes head* Fine. Here are some things that won’t mean anything to you in an experience void, but it’s your life. I can lead you to the shark, but I can’t make you … get eaten?

1. Don’t write a synopsis. This seems obvious, but it’s not. Many people tell what happens first, what happens next, what happens last as if that’s sufficient to get the job done. A query is not a recitation of events that occur sequentially in your novel. A query is this ineffable promise to entertain, enthrall, thrill, and wow. It says, “Step right up! Step right up! See the wonders inside!” You’re the carnival barker. Your book is the ride.

Or here’s a visual:


2. Pitch your book. You think I’m being facetious or obvious or both — facevious, obcetious? Actually, many fall victim to one of the classic blunders – talking about themselves instead of the book. Or even talking ABOUT the book instead of pitching it.

Pitching the book looks like this:
Hank never expected to become his own third cousin.

Talking about the book looks like this:
This book is a hilarious romp filled with family, love, and family love.

3. Beware the bio. Yes you want to strike a positive note. If you have awards, publications, experience relevant to the book, by all means share it. But share it professionally and humbly. It’s okay to put a little something personal, but unnecessary. If you do decide to take us into the world of you, do so quickly. Your bio really shouldn’t be longer than your pitch unless you’re, like, Stephen King. In which case, why are you querying?

4. The actual query (yes, THAT) needs to make us want to read the book. To do this, you want to introduce your characters, show us what they want, what they REALLY, REALLY want. You want to introduce the conflict: what’s standing in the way of your characters’ goals? And what’s at stake: what happens if your characters succeed or fail?

And this is where I send you back to query shark, because to understand how this works, you have to see it. Again and again. And watching someone with a mediocre query go through the evolution from “So I wrote this query” to “Oh! I get it!” is enlightening. You might say, “Wow!”

5. Hone. Your first stab at a query will be stupid long. (Or maybe stupid short — in which case keep writing, sport.) Most of us will try to jam everything in – (see above in re: synopsis). Focus on as few characters as possible. Aim for somewhere between 250-350 max words. Tighten it up. You shouldn’t need more than 2-3 paragraphs to get it all in.

6. Follow standard query conventions. If you want to break the rules because you’re *that* confident it needs doing, go for it. But most of the time, it won’t work. Write in third person. Write in present tense. Use standard fonts and colors. Don’t attach files if not requested. Don’t add background textures or funny pictures. It’s a professional correspondence. Keep it business-like.

7. Pay attention to details. Get the agent’s name right. Don’t send to more than one agent at a time. Add your contact info. Proofread for spelling errors. Shine that sucker up.

8. Personalize. Not every agent cares if you personalize, but I think most would like to know why you picked them specifically beyond “Saw your name on Query Tracker.” If you have an in, use it. If you met at a conference, saw a tweet about MSWL, or have a referral, don’t forget to include all that. It might not get you a request, but it could change a form reject into something more personable. And it might just get your stuff read with a more lenient eye. Agents are people too.

Querying is an art of its own, but it can be learned with practice. It helps to start writing a query early on in the book’s life, before you know so much about the nitty gritty awesome details of your book you want to cram them into the pitch. Then you can come back and hone and polish.

Bear in mind though – the best query in the world won’t land an agent if the book doesn’t follow through. And conversely a terrible query won’t always kill your chances. But you should give your book the best fighting chance, right?

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