Sooner or later, as much as you like to work on your stories, you will have to send them out into the cruel world where they will have to war with other stories, Gladiator-style, for that coveted place in an editor’s heart. So you write a query, which is basically a single-paged letter introducing your novel to some jaded, bleary-eyed reader who has seen way too many of these things. You want your letter to pique her interest so she’ll request pages, or even your full MS.
The best way to learn to write a query is to read slush — the unsolicited queries and MSS that pour by the thousands into literary agencies and publishing houses. If you ever have the chance to work for a literary magazine, an editor, or an agent, then do it. You soon see for yourself how many of these letters sink into a mind-numbing morass of sameness — and how one good query just blows the other letters away.
If you can’t read slush, then do the next best thing and go to Query Shark and read the many, many queries agent Janet Reid critiques. In fact, read the whole blog and learn from her critiques! It’s the best education in query writing you’ll get.
Okay: So let’s set up a query.
Now, these guidelines I’m giving you applies to e-queries, which is how most agents are taking their queries these days. Some agents prefer snail-mail queries, and for those, you’d add your contact info and date at the top as you would a regular business letter. (In e-queries, contact info works best at the end of the letter, not at the top.)
The first paragraph of the query lays out why you chose this agent/editor. “I’m sending you this because you rep YA fantasy with brawling raccoons, which is what my story is about.” Because we hate getting mass-produced letters written by robots. (P.S. I’ll cover agent research in my next post.)
The second (and sometimes third) paragraph is the synopsis of your book. A lot of us groan and whine and reach for the bourbon when it comes to synops, but it’s important to put in the extra work. You want the synop to be understandable and awesome.
Make the synopsis into a puzzle, a Rubik’s Cube that you’re playing with just for fun. Keep some scrap paper handy and, in odd moments, slap a synopsis down on it. Then when you’ve written it, throw it away. The next day, write another synopsis, just off the top of your head, and throw that one away. If you mess with the synopsis over a series of days, you’re keeping it simmering on the stove, metaphorically speaking. Pretty soon you get a synopsis you think is worth keeping. Revise that one.
|When you’re a whiz-bang astrophysicist who’s demoted Pluto, all other puzzles are easy.|
The last paragraph is your bio. Keep it short and sweet. If you’re published, mention your very awesome books. If you’re unpublished, it’s no biggie, just say something short and sweet about yourself. “I’m a chicken wrangler who graduated with an MFA for writing for children from Hamline University. My articles have appeared in Czar Times, Ming Vase Monthly, and Gum Chewer Aficionado, and I won the National Yodeling Championship three years in a row.” That oughter get their interest.
Then thank the agent for their time and interest, put on the closer, and follow that with contact info — mail, phone, and email. Then follow that with your sample pages, pasted in the body of the email — NO ATTACHMENTS because viruses are scary.
I adjure you, I beseech you: Start working on the query, and especially the synopsis, BEFORE the novel is finished. (Writing the query also helps you tighten your novel’s focus.) Write the query, revise it, then send it to critique buddies everywhere. Listen to their advice and revise it a couple more times. When it’s in decent shape, enter it in a few query critique contests. (Keep an eye out for these around the internets — they are super-helpful.) Persistence (and revision) wins the game.
Next up: Researching and submitting queries to agents!
Further reading: How to Write a Query Letter from Nathan Bransford, former agent; “How to Write a Query Letter” from AgentQuery; Miss Snark, who is no longer blogging there but she is still awesome; and the Snarkives, which are Miss Snark’s posts topically sorted.