How-to: Crafting a Query for FICTION (a.k.a. your first impression)

So I've been open to submissions for about two weeks now (~200 and counting -- slow and steady FTW), and I thought it would be helpful to post about the very basics of a query.

I've already written two posts about query etiquette, which can be found here: Part I and Part II. But how about the actual construction of a query?


Before even starting your query, remember this: your query is the FIRST IMPRESSION an agent will have about you.
 
If you can keep that in your mind as you write your query, you should be good. But making a good first impression means being professional, informed and prepared.


 
Step 1: A Completed Manuscript = A Happy Agent
             Nothing (well ok, almost nothing) is more frustrating than reading a query, requesting pages, and then realizing the author had a case of the 'trigger finger' and queried prematurely. Always ensure your manuscript is complete, set aside for some time, edited, and repeated. If you query before finishing, then you may run the risk of having way too much backstory in the opening chapter, which is usually what an agent requests first. This leads to rejection, which both agent and author don't like. (Note that this also includes having a title picked out)

Step 2: Knowing Your Genre Shows That You Read (which is sort of required)
             I'd say at least 1/3 of queries I receive are pitched as the incorrect genre. Note: genre and age group are NOT the same thing (YA is not a genre. Sci-fi is.). If you're unsure which category your story falls under, check out agent Jennifer Laughran's Genre Glossary. If you pitch your story as "Paranormal Romance" and it's really "Cyberpunk", you might be risking a real opportunity to stand out in the slush pile. That being said, don't pitch it as something in hopes of standing out but then misrepresenting the work and ticking off the agent.

Step 3: Know Your Word Count
             Seems simple enough, but you'd be surprised how many people give the number of pages or just omit this part all together. Word count is really important, especially since it's difficult to sell a project if the word count is too high or too low. Unsure where you should be in the word count range? Colleen Lindsey has a fabulous post on Word Counts.

Step 4: Write Jacket Copy
             Pretend you've been asked to write the copy that will appear on the back of your book. Try to mimic that and write no more than two paragraphs (~200 words). Go through and be sure you have The Protagonist; A Short Description of the Journey; A Short Description of the Conflict. That's it. If you want to add a short description of a sub plot or minor character, that's fine. But we don't need to know lots of details about them.

Step 5: Write Your Bio -- if it relates to your writing career
             Are you previously published and have sold more than 2,000 copies? Do you have royalty statements proving so? Include the title, publisher and copies sold in your bio. Do you have professional memberships with Mystery Writers of America, Romance Writers of America or Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators? Include it. Did you meet the agent before? Include it. Did the agent previously request a partial or full? Include it.

What NOT to include: self-publishing credits without publisher info; awards not nationally recognized; your children's names; your degree (unless it's relevant to your work); how you see this being marketed; your dreams of a seven-figure deal; your thoughts on future book-to-movie adaptations.

Step 6: Put Steps 2-5 Together
            Now that you've written and edited steps 2-5, mush them together and tada! You have your query.


I asked client Sarah Fine if I could use hers as an example of a query I've received that caught my eye. There is a chunk missing because it's a spoiler alert (which I don't mind too much as long as you don't tell me the ending). My comments are in purple.



Dear Ms. Ortiz, (Kathleen or Ms. Ortiz is fine. Just show that you know my name. :) )

Eighteen-year-old Lela Santos scatters the ashes of her photos from a seaside cliff, hoping to end the nightmares she’s had since her best friend, Nadia, committed suicide. The farewell ritual works, sort of. But as she slips and plummets toward the rocks below, Lela realizes she probably shouldn’t have worn flip-flops. (Serious topic but with slight sarcasm at the end. In this instance, I totally got it and loved it. But be careful, because sometimes sarcasm doesn't translate well to people. I love this, though.)

She wakes up in a meadow, wondering why she isn’t pissed off about being dead. Then she recognizes the dark, walled city on the hill from her nightmares. Lela knows her friend is trapped there, stalked by armored guards and Mazikin, who’d love to hunt a cute ex-cheerleader like Nadia.


Lela decides to risk her afterlife and stage a rescue mission. Her plan: Sneak into the city. Steal a weapon. Find Nadia. Evade the guards (especially the hot one with wicked knife skills). Escape.

No problem … until she’s captured by the aforementioned hot guy. Malachi, the indentured human captain of the guard, has his own plan: get Lela out of the city whether she wants to go or not. It turns out she has an expiration date—if she doesn’t leave soon, she’ll die. Again. And the walled city isn’t the worst place she could end up. Just ask the Mazikin.

SUICIDE GATES, a YA urban fantasy/romance, is complete at 97,000 words. It can stand alone but is meant to be part of a trilogy
. I am a clinical child psychologist and have some publications in scholarly journals and edited books. I am querying you because I read of your interest in dark, edgy YA. Thank you for your time and consideration.



A few notes:
  • It's clear she read my submission guidelines AND what I'm looking to represent. Because I love me some dark and creepy and anything with a romantic twist.
  • Title? Check. Word count? Check. Protagonist? Check. Important side character? Check. Journey? Check. Conflict? Check. Short description of work (~200 words)? Check.
  • She included her profession and scholarly publications, which in this instance DID work since she also had a fabulous idea for a unique blog where YA meets psychology.
  • Little nitpicky things like, "How does she KNOW her friend is in there?" and "What are Mazikin?" and "How can romance evolve in HELL?" are all questions I had, but questions that I wanted answered by reading the manuscript.

Sarah said she ran her query by a few friends, as well as received some assistance from writer message boards, which always helps. Nathan Bransford has a great board for queries, Query Shark is a must-stop-and-read part of the querying journey, and Absolute Write has some great boards where you can get query critiques.


So back to the first impression thing...if you don't take the time to put thought and time into your query, then there's no reason for me to do the same when I read it. Simply placing "TITLE -- GENRE" and then pasting sample pages isn't a way to catch my attention. Writing a query that takes up two whole pages, querying something I don't represent, stating this is the new NYT bestseller, are all ways to show me that you don't put care and time into a query -- so why would you put care and time into anything we work on together?

If you met me in person, would the first thing about your project be, "THIS IS A NYT BESTSELLER. It's fantastic. And it's going to get us NINE figures. It's 300,000 words and not quite done, but trust me, this thing is DOPE."

*cringe*


Query questions? Leave 'em below!

~KO




All examples used above are based on actual queries / pitches. Including the nine figure guarantee. It was in person.

20 Responses so far.

  1. I've read Sarah's book (and loved it), but I've never seen the query. Wow, no wonder you requested it. :D

  2. Great post, Kathleen. And thanks, Sarah, for sharing your query.

    My question is this:

    I had an agent for this book previously, however, the book never went on submission. Since I dropped the agency, I have had 2 requests from publishers (both reputable, one an imprint of a big 6 house). Should I include any of this information in a query?

    Thanks again, Kathleen.

  3. @Jaime --- YES! Definitely say you were previously represented by X; however, the book never went on submission. Since you left the agency, etc...

    This is also something you'd want to do quickly, especially if it was direct contact with an editor and not a general unsolicited submission to them...

    Good luck! :)

  4. @Jamie -- sorry. I'm used to spelling "Jaime" not "Jamie" Sorry for the misspelling!

  5. LOL It's okay. I get that all the time. ;) Thanks for the info!

  6. Erica says:

    I am so bad at math that I can't even tell you what nine figures equals. Maybe it's an imaginary number.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Kathleen,

    If you've sent a query and you know you've forgotten something important (like word count) is it better to send a quick follow-up email providing the necessary information, or just stay quiet and hope for the best?

  8. Will there be any neo-agent podcasts in the future? Has Elizabeth Jote left the industry?

  9. @Anonymous -- nah. Just wait for a reply.

  10. @Sarah -- yes, she's left the industry. NeoAgent is on hold for the moment.

  11. Thanks for this post, Kathleen. And *GO SARAH GO* Fingers crossed for you, girl!

  12. Anonymous says:

    This may sound completely nutty, but I'd love it if some lit agents would post sample query letters that were "correct" but that they still passed on. Sometimes I feel like a giant failure because my query doesn't get any traction. (Despite having tried several different versions AND having brought it to query workshops run by industry folks who gave it the thumbs-up.)

    Do any of you other writers sometimes feel, when you read yet another "How to write a query" post by an agent, that they're talking about the query you sent them last week? Do your ears burn a little?

    I mean, honestly, are we ALL doing it wrong? Is there a % of people who are writing correct-by-all-the-rules queries, that still don't get the agent's interest?

    Am I crazy? :-)

  13. Giora says:

    Hi Kathleen. About Ten months ago I sent you a query about my novel (for adults) and you declined. As an aspiring author, I didn't know much about queries and writing. I have now a diffrenet version (for young adults) with magical powers and forbidden love. Got two requests for partials (for the adult version) last month. Following your section "A few notes" everything check, except what is the "conflict". There are some conflicts, but I can't define "The Conflict". Can I send a re-query for the YA version? Thanks.

  14. @Anonymous Not necessarily. Perhaps it's just the story itself? I read plenty of well written queries that are simply not for me. I can't post queries that are well written and not for me, because...well...I wouldn't post without their permission :) Query Shark is good for this, though.

    @Giora -- if you can't define 'the conflict' then there's a problem...feel free to requery, though.

  15. Giora says:

    Thanks for responding and check your e-mail.

  16. Dana says:

    Great information - thanks for sharing these tips! I had no idea that adding a marketing plan was a no no. Do you consider that irrelevant/extra information, or is there another reason to exclude it? Just curious.

    Thanks again, and thanks for entertaining and informing us at Killer Nashville.

    Best wishes,

    Dana

  17. Fantastic advice, and thanks for the example. Those are always helpful.

    Sarah Allen
    (my creative writing blog)

  18. T. Wolfe says:

    This was good to know. I love that you know about cyberpunk but I didn't know it was a genre. I always kept genre's to what I see in bookstores like Barnes & Noble.

  19. Anonymous says:

    I stumbled upon this post rather late but I hope you'll notice the question:

    Doesn't the phrase "[The book] can stand alone but is meant to be part of a trilogy" scare off agents?

    I'm asking because I am also writing something that is *meant* to be a trilogy, and I found out that I had to shove in some things into the first volume that would create future conflicts. Things that are not important to the first volume's plot and therefore making it a weaker novel.

    I'm just saying this to point out the difference between standalones which have *series potential* vs. books that are *meant* to be part of something bigger.

    Oh, and thanks for the great post of course =)

  20. Chloe Kayne says:

    HAHA!!! "This thing is DOPE!" (I'll try my best to resist putting that in my query)

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