Queries Category Archive

Tips on Query Writing

I critique a lot of queries. Query writing is relatively easy to learn and hone, and it’s one I’ve enjoyed working on over the years. Though I have an agent, I still write a query-pitch for all of my manuscripts. It helps focus me while drafting and revising, and what’s especially cool, is if you write a particularly good query…your agent might use part (or all!) of it in submissions to editors.

While critiquing queries, I’ve noticed there are similar mistakes people seem to make. This post is designed to address some of them.

*It should be noted that the best query advice (IMO) is Lauren Spiellers’s Query Checklist. I use a verysimilar format below for my query suggestions. Please go check her post out! (She knows more than I do, because she’s…you know, a really good agent.)*

A few notes:
-I typically work with fiction queries for MG, YA, and A categories. This post doesn’t address queries that are specific to PBs, memoirs, or nonfiction books.
-I suggest below a pitch that’s broken into two parts, though I’ve often seen (and have used!) a three-part pitch.
-Place all titles (yours & comparison novels) in capital letters.
-Be wary of introducing too many characters.
-Be wary of listing things that happen (ie: Red Riding Hood must trick the wolf, save her granny, and not stray from the path…). This is telling and would be much more interesting if “shown” in longer form in the query itself.
-Be wary of getting “fancy”. Plain writing and sticking to the regular query format often works best.
-Keep the entirety of the query to around 250-400 words total (350 is a better max, truthfully).

1. Intro

Include: one agent with correctly spelled name & why you’re querying them. This paragraph is not always necessary. Jumping straight into the pitch is a good choice too. I believe Query Shark suggests this.

Some phrases that might be helpful in this paragraph:
“I understand from your website/Manuscript Wish List/Twitter that are interested in XXX, so I am excited to share my manuscript, TITLE, with you.”

2. 1st Half of Pitch

Include: main character’s name, normal life, deepest hopes, and inciting incident. The inciting incident is the event that kicks off your story and main conflict, ex: “Craving freedom (deepest hopes/needs) from her tedious chore-driven life (normal life), Red Riding Hood balks when her mother sends her to Granny’s house” and “testing the limits of her mother’s reach, Red Riding Hood strays from the path.”

Some phrases that might be helpful in this paragraph:

If you need help with the inciting incident sentence (“But…when…” sentences work well): “But when [exciting/terrible thing] happens, MC must [do something exciting/terrible that launches them into the story].” Ex: “But when Red Riding Hood strays from the path, she comes face-to-face with the legendary, terrifying Wolf.”

3. 2nd Half of Pitch

Include: “meat” conflict, aka: the main conflict your MC deals with; any other major characters; and stakes, aka: what horrible thing will happen if the MC doesn’t achieve their goal.

Some phrases that might be helpful in this paragraph:

If you need help with the stakes sentence (“If…then…” sentences work well): “If [MC cannot defeat/win goal], then [awful thing that will happen].” Ex: “If Red Riding Hood cannot defeat the Wolf, Granny won’t be the only one to perish.”

Also in terms of stakes, do keep them relevant to character arc to ensure that they are impactful—that it impacts more than just plot. One way to do this is to look back at your “inciting incident” sentence and the “deepest hopes/needs” sentence (Red craves freedom & strays from the path because of it, wherein she meets the Wolf) and make sure that your stakes is tied back to that (“Red must stop the Wolf or risk the destruction of everything she holds dear–her granny and any chance at freedom.”)

4. Book Details

Include: category, genre, word count, comparison novels, and other book details

Some phrases that might be helpful in this paragraph:

If you need help including book details succinctly: “Complete at xx,000 words, TITLE is a CATEGORY & GENRE novel that will appeal to readers of COMPARISON NOVEL and SECOND COMPARISON NOVEL.” [Note: Comparison novels are important; they show you’ve done your research and know the category and genre you’re writing in.]

If your book has series potential: “Complete at xx,000 words, TITLE is a standalone novel with series potential.”

If you write from multiple points-of-view: “Told from multiple points-of-view, TITLE is complete at xx,000 words.” OR “Told from xx and xx’s points-of-view, TITLE is…”

5. Bio

Include: publishing details and what you do besides writing (job, hobbies, etc). If you don’t have any publishing details, that’s okay! Don’t get too bogged down here. The most important part of your query is the pitch for your book. Feel free to add something short and fun. Ie: “When not writing, I can be found crocheting bookmarks and concocting magical stews.”

Some phrases that might be helpful in this paragraph:

If you are seeing new agent-representation: “After an amicable split with my previous agent, I am currently seeking new representation.”

6. Sign off

Be kind. Be courteous. Remember the agent you’re querying is flooded with work. They’re incredible human beings who deserve our respect. Include in the sign off what you’ve attached in the query showing that you’ve done your research. Agents can request a few pages attached IN THE BODY OF THE EMAIL to specific page amounts as an attachment, to the entire manuscript. They could also request synopsis. Be prepared for a variety and please follow their guidelines!

Some phrases that might be helpful in this paragraph:

“Per your submission guidelines, I’ve included XXX of my manuscript below, as well as XXX. Thank you for your time and consideration.”

Pitch Wars Blog Hop!

It’s finally time for Pitch Wars to start! Yippee! I’ve been looking forward to this for months and I know the other mentors have been too. For this contest, I’ll be mentoring Middle Grade books :D Below you’ll find the types of MG books I tend to enjoy most. Please feel free to post questions in the comments section or find me on twitter (@julianalbrandt)! I love making new friends and can’t wait to work with you :)

pitchwars

MG Wish List

I adore MG because it’s often extraordinarily clever and touches upon tough subjects (“…if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.”-Madeleine L’Engle). If your MS is a story with clever twists, whimsical turns of phrase, solid world building, and well developed relationships between characters, then I’m your mentor! [think HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE, CRESTOMANCI, & THE PECULIAR]

For more specifics:

-Genre wise, I’m most attracted to fantasy, sci-fi, and adventure stories.

-I’m a massive fan of mythology, whether it’s a retelling or it’s incorporated into the story (WHERE THE MOUNTAIN MEETS THE MOON, WATERSHIP DOWN)

-I love journey stories where MCs are set on a physical quest (LIESL & PO, THE SPINDLERS, PETER & THE STARCHASERS)

-And tales that use magic to help explain/tackle a serious subject (A MONSTER CALLS)

-I also prefer stories in which magic is already ingrained into the world (along the lines of magical realism) rather than stories where the MC “discovers” magic or comes to realize they have magical abilities (“chosen one” stories)

-Lastly, I adore a good adventure story. I still daydream about DOWN RIVER by Will Hobbs (which I think is technically YA, but I read it in early middle school and so have stuck it firmly in the MG category :P ) In general though, I might not the best fit for contemporary MG. I typically don’t enjoy contemp unless it’s full of heart–think WALK TWO MOONS or OKAY FOR NOW, or if it’s an adventure.

All of the above are merely stories I’ve loved in the past, which is just to say that I have no idea what I’ll love in the future. If your MS is a humorous, character-driven story, with an MC who goes on a physical journey that parallels their internal one, then I’m the mentor for you :D

 

Why You Should Choose Me!

-My writing is represented by the fiercely wonderful agent Emmanuelle Morgen of the Stonesong Literary Agency. While I mostly spend my time writing YA, I started out with MG and I always come back to it–it’s at the heart of my writing soul. I’ve written 8 books (whew) and am amazed at how much I’ve learned with each one. I can’t wait to share some of that with you.

-I love editing and critiquing! It’s one of my favorite parts of writing.

-I’ve had a lot of practice honing queries. In fact, I often do giveaways on twitter for them. It’s something I genuinely enjoy. Also, I know the query game. I know what it’s like to be in the trenches. We’ll make yours sparkle.

-I’m passionate about writing in all forms and will work so, so hard for you, if you’re willing to do the same.

-On a not-writing note, I’m currently in school for my Masters of Elementary Education, and I work full-time as a secretary. I spend the majority of my free-time in the mountains–rock climbing, hiking, running…pretty much anything that gets me outdoors.

Girls wanna have fun

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The Dreaded Query- Guest Post by Lauren Spieller

I have a very special treat for everyone today! Lauren Spieller is guest-posting today on the dreaded query! Lauren is an agent intern and has quite the eye for making a query shine. This past week, she began a query critiquing business and has already been flooded with requests (ie: pleas for help!).
 
She’s also offering a 10% discount if you contact her for a query critique and mention this blog post AND she’s graciously offered to give one lucky commenter a free query-critique. So, make sure you when you comment to post a way for her to get in touch. One week from today, random.org will choose a winner.
 
Without further ado, help me to welcome Lauren to the blog! (also, if you have other questions, post them in the comment section and either Lauren or I will try to respond!)
***

Queries are hard. It’s a fact of life, of nature. Queries are really, really hard.

But why? They’re just short summaries of a novel, right? You wrote the book, so summarizing it should be a piece of cake! Right? Wrong.

Queries force you to creep inside your novel, to learn how its internal mechanisms function, to grasp at its still-beating heart. To write a truly spectacular query letter, you need to know your book from the inside out—what makes the characters tick? What conflict drives the plot? And what, for the sake of all that is holy, is at STAKE?

Juliana has been kind enough to put together a bunch of excellent questions about queries and querying. I hope you find my answers helpful! I’ll be checking in for the next week to see if you’ve added any of your own questions, so don’t be shy!

How do I open a query? What should the first line be? – ImJustCasey

Dear NAME,

You’d be surprised how many people don’t address their queries to a specific agent (or spell the agents name wrong!)

Once you’ve done that, you have a couple of options. Some people choose to jump straight into their novel summary, while others feel more comfortable giving a short introduction to their manuscript first. Both options are perfectly fine, but if you’d like to open with something, you have a few options.

If the manuscript was requested (either during a contest, on a blog, or at a conference), feel free to reference this fact. Something as simple as “Thank you so much for requesting my query via #PitMad (or at the Writer’s Digest West Conference, etc.) Below you’ll find….” And then whatever it is that you’re including (query, pages, synopsis, etc.)

If you’re querying without having been requested (which is totally fine…no shame in being discovered in the slush!), then you can start with something as simple as “I am seeking representation for TITLE, my WORD COUNT + GENRE. Below I have included…” and then whatever it is they ask for in their submission guidelines (found on the agency website).

What are the vital elements of a query: ie, format, biography, stakes?

A good query will include THREE ELEMENTS:

  1. a brief summary (2 paragraphs or so) of your book
  2. info about the title/word count/genre.
  3. a short bio containing information that is RELEVANT to your novel.  Are you writing a non-fiction book about water skiing? You better mention that you have an Olympic medal in aquatic sports. Or whatever. Shut Up.

That’s it. But! I also recommend including a tailored message to the agent (ie I’m querying you because you said you were interested in Dragon tales, and by jove, I’ve written one!). 

Is it true that your query should be personalized for each agent?

Yes. ;)

How do you write a query when your book has multiple POVs? – similar to @RebeccaEnzor’s question

This is so tricky, isn’t it? I’m going to admit to you guys that I have yet to do this. In fact, my current ms SIGHTLESS is told from the pov of a 16yo, but the novel is interspersed with chapters from her mother’s pov. And yet, I chose not to write a multi pov query. I decided that since the 16yo dominated the majority of the novel, it was unnecessary to include her mother’s pov in the query.

However, if you’re writing a novel that is split evenly between two characters (or even 70%, 30%), you may not be able to do that. Juliana and I were discussing this very issue, and she showed me a great query that was written from a single pov, but managed to make it clear that there were many POVs in the novel.  You can check it out here.

If that doesn’t appeal to you, then you can include both points of view. Again, you have options. Some people like to write their query from the pov of an actual character. If this is your style, then you’re going to have to dedicate one paragraph to each character, and make sure that  a) both characters have distinctive voices, and b) your paragraphs aren’t repetitive. Honestly, this is so difficult to do well, that I think you might want to skip it unless you think it’s ABSOLUTELY necessary for your novel.

The other option is to address what’s happening to both characters from an omniscient pov, focusing on the MAIN CONFLICT to organize events. It’s tricky, and I highly encourage you to make sure your final product makes sense by showing it to critique partners (or to me!)

Ultimately, it’s a balancing act, and you have to decide which option works best for your novel and your voice.

What’s the ideal word count range for a query? And the max number of sentences allowed in a query (does it matter?) – @ifeomadennis

I’ve heard it said that the ideal word count is 250 words, but I think this is, once again, dependent on you and your query. Less is always more in terms of word count, but don’t freak out if you’re at 300 words or even 225. Just make sure you’ve said everything you need to say, and not a word more.

How should a writer detail expertise in a certain period, especially if a history buff who researched a lot, not a professor? – @ConniDowell

If you mean, how do you make it clear in your summary, then my answer is: just write the novel summary, and let the research shine through. If you’re writing historical fiction and you’re including a specific location and historical events/people, I think it’ll be self-explanatory that you’ve done your research.

However, if your question actually pertains to your bio paragraph, then you can include your interest in a given area of study. Don’t go on and on, though. Just mention that you’ve spent quite a lot of time researching Ancient Egypt, and that your research played a large part in the creation of your novel, in particular the characterization of the Pharaoh. Or whatever.

I’d love to hear about historical fiction queries. Should one detail whether certain places and events are real or imagined? – @ConniDowell

If a place is real, I think the agent will recognize it. Same goes for invented places—if the reader doesn’t recognize it, they’ll assume its imaginary. Obviously this isn’t a perfect solution, so if you’re still not sure it’s clear, you can always say the setting was “inspired by REAL CITY HERE” when you get to the penultimate paragraph of your query (you know, the one where you give the title, word count, and genre).

What’s a good way to go about researching agents and finding the agent that’s right for your book?

Ah, I love this question! Researching is one of my favorite parts of this process, after the writing itself. Here’s what I’ve found:

  1. Websites like agentquery.com and literaryrambles.com are GREAT resources for finding agents.
  2. I  found a bunch of agents via Twitter (you follow one agent, you get a suggestion to follow two more…etc).
  3. You can also buy books, but that’s really not necessary. Or cheap.
  4. You should also find out who represents books that are similar to your own. I’m working on a YA fantasy project, so I found out who reps J.K. Rowling (Harry Potter), Jennifer Bosworth (Struck), Leigh Bardugo (Shadow and Bone), Veronica Roth (Divergent), and on and on.
  5. Another way to get an agent is by entering contests on blogs. I found most of these through twitter. Even if all the agents ignore you, you’ll meet people who can be VERY helpful critique partners. I’ve made some great friends this way, and I rely on them a lot when it comes to feedback.
  6. Yet another way to get an agent is through twitter hashtags. Keep an eye on #pitchmaddness or #pitmad. Basically, you write your book pitch in 140 characters or less (this part sucks, take it from me) and if an agent likes it, they’ll ask you to send them a query. It’s still the query model, but you already have an “in” that way.

I found over 200 agents this way, all of whom represent YA Fantasy (which is what I’ve written most recently).

Pro Tip: If you plan on writing in more than one genre or for more than one age group, then make sure the agents you’re querying are open to this. No point is querying an agent who ONLY represents non-fiction if someday you plan on writing a novel for Middle Grade readers.

How important is it that [the agent] be located physically near you? Same coast? Same continent? Thanks! – @Swan Mountain

Not important at all. If it was, we’d all have to move to NYC (not that I’d mind…)

Last: give a quick and dirty tip for making a query shine!

 

Write it, then put it away in a deep dark corner of your computer and leave it there for AT LEAST a few days—a week if you can stomach it. You’ll be amazed how much more clearly you can see the query after some time apart from it.

***

Lastly, as Juliana mentioned, I’ve started my own query critique business at laurenspieller.com. Stop on by and see me sometime. I’m happy to help with all of your query-woes ;) 

What I learned at the SCBWI Conference

The first thing I learned was how very, very similar we all are! There are so many of us out there, taking the same journey. It was an incredible amount of fun to make new friends and meet old ones.

I stayed with my critique partner Janice Foy while in Atlanta.


A few more of the amazing people I met. Unfortunately, none of these ladies are bloggers! Get on it girls! :)

I also had the privileged of meeting Jaye and Mary Ann. It was crazy meeting people I blog and tweet with. It’s such a small world! (Hope you don’t mind I stole your picture, Jaye :)

From Kirby Larson, I learned: Don’t be afraid to take big risks. There is a certain amount of uncertainty we all must have when we’re writing and we can’t be afraid of where that might take us. Kirby was an amazing keynote speaker and this message stuck with me through the entire weekend

From picture books, I learned (from Mary Kole): -Cut what doesn’t fit in the heart of your book. This was stated for picture books since the word count is so low, but I’m finding it completely applicable for my own 80k MS. Cut what doesn’t fit.
-Never strike the reader over the head with the moral. I heard this and immediately went to cut a few paragraphs that had been bothering me. I finally figured out, they were bothering me because I was far too blunt. Delete. Delete.
-Have a rich emotional arch, emotions are the glue that hold plot together.

On Dialogue (from Kristin Daly Rens): -Edit out anything that isn’t essential to the plot. Don’t use dialogue as a crutch for info dumping, to lengthen a scene or say instead of show.
-Dialogue always needs to move the story forward in some way. It can contribute to characterization, be used as a plot device, or to set a scene, but it always must be significant.
-Don’t overuse dialogue tags (woops. Another delete. Delete. moment for me)

On the Slush Pile (from Mary Kole): -Query 10-20 agents in the 1st round. Fix anything that needs fixing and send out to another 10-20 in the second.
-Be sure to follow agencies guidelines
-Ask yourself these questions when doing your agent search: What is important to you for your relationship? Don’t just pick the first agent that offers, be sure they are the right fit for you.
-The goal of the query is to get an agent to take notice. The manuscript is infinitely more important- the query cannot break you. Use the query to get the agent to your (hopefully perfected) MS.
a)isolate your hook- it’s your selling point
b)who is your audience? Find the right comparitive titles
c) be brief and professional, have a short bio but mostly focus on the project
d)a good idea and good execution is enough
-Make the agent care
a)who is your character?
b)what is the inciting incident
c)who/what do they want most?
d)who/what is in their way? The Obstacle
e)What is at stake?

On Writing a Thriller (from Greg Ferguson): (Yep, I’m totally going to write a thriller after listening to this ;)
-Must have non-stop action, dangerous situations where the protagonist is in grave danger, hair-raising suspense and a heroic character

On the First Page: On Saturday night, Mary Kole, Greg Ferguson and Krisin Daly Rens read multiple first pages and gave their insights on if the first page worked, or not. Here’s what I learned:
-The first page must be grounded in the world
-It must have specific cues as to the world it’s in and the main character
-Do you have your opening line or a opening line?

On Plots (from Kristin Daly Rens): -The opening must grab the reader and must not let go. It must make a promise that is kept through to the end.
-Don’t do too much in the beginning. All you need is the hook to lead on.
-Introduce the MC, central conflict and know what is to come ->make that promise
-Your reader should be able to begin reading and understand what’s going on without dropping back story on them.
-Begin with action that moves the story forward with momentum and tension, but do not have action that confuses your reader.
-As you continue with your story, make every word, scene, dialogue count. Continuously up the ante. Test scenes with the question, “What purpose does this serve?”
-Make sure you keep the promise you made in the beginning scenes. Again, test each chapter and scene to see if tension is increased? How have things changed for your MC? Be ruthless :)

Massive TBR List (only titles, I haven’t looked up the authors)
I Heart Killers
Spanking Shakespeare
All Alone in the Universe
The Disenchantements
The Madman’s Daughter
Rampant
Fat Vampire
Through to You
13 Reasons Why
Bad Girls Don’t Die
Bliss
Rosebush
Blood on my Hands
Bzrk
The Butterfly Clues
Ashes
Everneath
Defiance
Dark Divine
Repossessed

p.s. I’m sorry this post took a week to get posted. It was a lot to soak in and I hope I’ve been able to pass on at least a little to you!

Ladies and Gentleman

I hate to admit it, but this post is all about housekeeping. Well, not housekeeping or cleaning and such, but it’s a post with random tidbits in it that I’ll do my best to keep interesting.

-I’m beyond happy that my excel spreadsheet for querying agents looks so great. I got some great ideas from you all for things to add/ things I might not need. Because you all are so fabulous and because I like sharing…if you need a way to organize yourselves, I am more than happy to send it to you! Shoot me an email if you’re interested.

-The conference is in FOUR DAYS!! YAY! I’m all sorts of nervous and all sorts of excited. It’s a great combination. I’ll be packing this week and trying to mentally prepare myself. If you have any suggestions for my preparations, I would very much appreciate hearing them.

-I’ll have an audiobook review up Thursday or Friday reviewing Thirteen Days to Midnight by Patrick Carman and am currently listening to The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien and The Good, The Bad, and the Undead by Kim Harrison. My drive to and from Atlanta for the conference should get me to the end of one or the other of these books (or both) and I’ll have that review up next week.