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.
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,
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.
- 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."
Query questions? Leave 'em below!
All examples used above are based on actual queries / pitches. Including the nine figure guarantee. It was in person.