NOTE: I wrote this last year, but wanted to repost it to share with those doing #PitchWars
The lovely interwebs if filled with article upon article telling eager unpublished authors how to format their queries for agents and editors. The hard part is figuring out which article to pay attention to. Query Shark is probably one of the best places you could start. Realize that all agents and editors are subjective (ugh, I know. I throw up a little bit in my mouth every time someone in the publishing world says that word). But it ‘s true. One person might love your query and another hate it. One author might break all the rules with their query, and get an agent, but when you try it, you fail. In the end, what you come up with and send off to agents/editors is up to you, but what I’ve discovered is that writing a query is somewhat formulaic. As someone rooted in science, that puts my brain at ease. Here are some suggestions on how to make the perfect query, based on what I’ve read.
In general you need to be able to summarize your novel in two maybe three paragraphs, give a paragraph explaining all the novel details, followed by personal info (if you choose to use it), and closing.
Whatever you do, DO NOT write a query and then submit it right away to someone for consideration. You’re likely going to be rejected. Pull out your favorite novels and read the blurbs. Read them again. Flip open the inside covers of other novels. Read them. Get eyes that don’t know anything about your novel and let them offer suggestions. Go to QueryTracker Forums, Scribophile, etc. Go to twitter and find others in the querying process. See if they want to swap and you help each other out. Most importantly, don’t get upset at their feedback. They are doing what you need them to do: help you make your query the BEST IT CAN BE.
The days of requiring queries be mailed have passed with the digital age, but there are a few agents that still ONLY take snail mail queries. I once had to submit a paper query and mail in my partial. It completely threw me for a loop. Either way, most agents/editors look for your query to be between 200 and 300 words. Many blog contests thrown by published authors, agents, and editors will put word limits on your query, making sure you can explain your book within that word count. Take advantage of these opportunities.
PARAGRAPH 1: HOOK. You must hook your audience right away. They receive hundreds of these a day and have a million things to do on top of reading queries. If you can keep their attention long enough to read to paragraph 2, you’ve accomplished something. Include an introduction to the world, the main character (who they are and what they want), and inciting incident. Convey the voice of your main character so we aren’t left guessing.
PARAGRAPH 2: MAJOR PLOT. This is the meat of the book. After the inciting incident, what are the major plot points? Introduce your secondary character. Be sure you don’t introduce too many characters in your query.
PARAGRAPH 3: HIGH STAKES. Here is where the character must make a decision. What are the stakes of that decision? High stakes are a must otherwise the power delivered in P1 & P2 will fizzle with P3. If the stakes aren’t high enough, the agent/editor might think the ending is weak. Why would they want to publish something with a weak ending? When necessary, paragraphs two and 3 can be combined.
NOVEL DETAILS: Include the full title IN ALL CAPS, followed by the word count (rounded to the nearest thousand) and genre/category. If you aren’t sure what category you fall into, try to sum it up briefly. For example: paranormal mystery with romantic elements (I’ve seen that several times on posted queries). Give a comparison for the agent/editor, but don’t use worlds like I BELIEVE. Use a recently published book and if you can’t, refer to something on TV or XZY meets ABC. There is a lot of debate about making comparisons. When I queried before I did it and then I stopped when I read agents didn’t like it. Now, I’m gathering it’s back on the side of TEAM QUERY, so give one, but watch the wording. Acceptable queries I’ve seen online with a comparison look like this: Fans of Author TITLE will like YOUR NOVEL TITLE. Some agents/editors want this to be the introduction. Check each site for their preference and then DO WHAT THEY SAY. If they tell you to give the details of the novel first and you don’t do it, don’t be surprised to receive a rejection letter. If I were an agent or editor, I’m not sure I’d want a client that can’t follow my directions.
PERSONAL INFO: This is also something that’s up for discussion. Some agents/editors say include it, others only say include it if it’s relative to your novel. I am not published, so I don’t have information to include about earlier works, but if you are, this is where you would put it. If you’ve self-published and you have decent profits, you should include it. If you’ve self-published and never seen a penny, don’t. If you have a large social media presence, mention this, but if you don’t, leave it out. Authors can build one easily after they are signed, so mentioning you are all over the interwebs isn’t necessary. Instead, put it in your closing. Right now, I have a one liner I use for my personal information that I hope conveys my ability to write in the YA genre (former middle school & high school teacher). If an agent/editor has a requirement that you submit materials with your query, mention it after your blurb about yourself. It shows them you researched them and know a bit about their guidelines and didn’t throw darts at the Agent/Editor Phone Book. Something as easy as: Below (or attached) is XYZ per your submission guidelines.
CLOSING: It’s really simple and there is no need for you to skew from this as Query Shark pointed out. All you need to say is:
Thank you for your time and consideration.