Last week we covered Part 1 – Purpose and When to Start. For today, we’ll cover: Elements of a Successful Query
External factors to keep in mind include querying an agent who represents your genre. Seriously. Please. Don’t machine-gun blast agents hoping one will hit. Show you’re a professional and have done your research and aren’t wasting their time. Yes, this takes more time, but the payoff is better.
Also, make sure you’ve read their submission guidelines. I know some writers suggest always appending the first 5 pages, but I didn’t do that. I sent exactly what the agent specified on their website and no more. I liked knowing it was my query they were rejecting (so I could polish it before my next round) and not my first 5 pages.
If you do these two, you’re already doing better than a majority of other writers querying right now. So take a deep breath and internalize that. Now we just need to up your chances even more by focusing on the query itself
The time you take to craft your query shows the agent you take your writing seriously. Here are some elements you need in the query itself to give you an advantage:
- Title (in CAPS), genre, word count somewhere
- Personalized to the agent, if possible, but don’t fake it.
- List two comps (and pick these well)
- Short bio. Short. And only keep it relevant to how it affects this book.
- Thank them
- Query tone matches the tone of your novel
- Only concentrate on the first quarter of your novel (up to your Act One Turning Point)
- Use paragraphs and white space effectively
In addition to these are the two ‘meats’ of the query: hook and story paragraph
What is a Hook?
A hook is one sentence, but no more than 40 words or so, that quickly conveys what your novel is about and makes an agent want to read more. It:
- Answers the question: What is your book about?
- Mimics tone of novel
- Weaves in the protagonist
- Bonus points if you can infuse it with irony.
Here was mine: Isabelle Rochon, a thoroughly modern American working at the British Museum, has finally met the man of her dreams. There’s one problem: he lives in another century
What is the Story Paragraph?
The Story Paragraph in your query should be only 250-300 words. And it contains:
- Protagonist, slip in age (if writing YA/NA) or occupation if you can
- Setting/Story World (essential if sci-fi/fantasy)
- Catalyst (Inciting Incident) that leads to the conflict
- What do they want? What’s their quest/goal? Sometimes this is a vague want/wish that then gets sharpened to a specific goal when the conflict comes onto the scene.
- Conflict (what/who stands in their way)
- Not all conflicts. What’s the central conflict? A lot of times this is introduced by “but when…”
- Who stands in the way of their goal/quest?
- This becomes the Story Question in your novel that propels the reader into Act Two—Will s/he overcome [obstacle] and get/find [goal]? This drives all your scenes in Act Two up until the Climax/Resolution, which then answers the question, i.e. “Yes” “Yes, but”, “No” etc. But all this doesn’t go in your query, I’m just explaining what I mean by Story Question. By correctly stating your main conflict, this Story Question will automatically form in the agent’s/editor’s head when they read the conflict. That’s what you want to have happen, you want this Story Question to form–boom!–right into their heads. But don’t actually state it, let it form mentally.
- What’s at Stake? (what happens if they don’t succeed?) “Now she must ___ or ___”
- You know you’ve got this nailed if you can pair it with your hook and it makes sense. For example, here was my Consequences statement: In the end, she must decide when her true home lies. So Hook + Consequences read like this:Isabelle Rochon, a thoroughly modern American working at the British Museum, has finally met the man of her dreams. There’s one problem: he lives in another century. In the end, she must decide when her true home lies.
I actually had a little more before my consequences that said what was at stake, but I summed it up with this final ‘hook’
- Address the query to Dear Sir/Madam, or Dear Agent
- Talk more about yourself than your book
- Tell the agent they’d be stupid not to represent you
- Misspell words (or the agent’s name!) or use poor grammar
- Make your hook a rhetorical question. Why? The answer is obvious to the agent and takes the mystery out of it.
- Send any email with an attachment unless asked
- Give away the ending!
- Talk about how much you’ve wanted to write or tell a cute story about your first story written in first grade. You’re querying, ergo you’re a writer. A trap some fall into if they feel their bio is skimpy.
- Forget to tell them your title, genre and word count.
Now, Polish Your Query
Spend time doing the same polishing techniques as you would do with your novel.
- Look for redundant words
- Look for throwaway words
- Look for vague/weasel words
- See if you can use stronger verbs (but don’t get too writerly)
- Tighten phrasing. Can you get away with one word there instead of two or three.
- Check your spelling and grammar
Why? If they see stuff like this in your query, they’re going to assume it’s in your MS!
What does this mean for you?
If you do what I talked about above, you’re in the top 10% already. Boom! Nice, huh? Disclaimer: that percentage is not scientific but what I’ve seen bandied about by agents. 9 times out of 10 a query that lands in their inbox is an automatic rejection before they’ve even read the whole query. Mainly, queries get rejected when it’s not a genre they represent, they have no clue what the story’s about (because the writer didn’t tell them), it’s obvious the query was sent out in bulk, poor writing, etc.
It means if you’ve been panicking about seeing statistics from agencies regarding number of requests vs number of queries, keep the previous point in mind! They’re throwing out 90% of queries right off the top, which puts you in a much smaller pool of candidates. Now you just need to find the agent that is a potential match for your book and you. It also means your query letter doesn’t have to be perfect. Get those essentials across in a professional, well-written way, and if it sounds up their alley, they’ll request. Feel better now?
And that’s it for this week. Next week I’ll talk about query strategies.
What about you? Are you querying yet? Do you feel there are other elements that should be in a query?