It's a Query Life for Us: How to Write a Query
Updated: Sep 17, 2019
Queries are intimidating. They are a whole new skill, and no matter the great author you can be, chances are, queries are still confounding. But there's a way to make them just a little easier, and that's if you follow a few rules.
The first rule is:
Follow a basic structure. Each paragraph should be no more than 3-4 sentences, and the overall length of the entire query (including metadata, personalization, and bio) should be no more than 350 words.
For this, I'll give two examples. One a Single POV Structure. One a Dual POV Structure.
Single POV Structure
Metadata & Personalization
Paragraph 1: Introduce the main character, and hint at the main conflict.
Paragraph 2: Introduce the main conflict.
Paragraph 3: Deepen the conflict and close with a stakes statement.
Dual POV Structure
Paragraph 1: Introduce character x, and introduce their main conflict.
Paragraph 2: Introduce character y, and introduce their main conflict.
Paragraph 3: Sentence 1, deepen x's conflict. Sentence 2, deepen y's conflict. Sentence 3, share x's and y's conflict. Sentence 4, shared stakes statement.
The stakes statement follows a STRUCTURE as well. There are several ways to write them, but my two super easy favorites are the IF/THEN Statement and the Imperative Action Statement.
If the main character doesn't/characters x and y don't face the main conflict, then this dire consequence happens.
Imperative Action Statement
Main character/characters x and y must face the main conflict, or this dire consequence happens.
The trick is to replace "face the main conflict" and "this dire consequence happens" with whatever your main conflict and dire consequence is. Also, it's good to remember that not all dire consequences are literally world ending. In fact, it's better if the consequences are personal and specific to your main character(s). We'll relate better to a low-income student fighting monsters at a private school who just wants to pass his final exam and not lose his scholarship than him saving the world.
The second rule is:
USE SPECIFICS and SPECIFIC ACTION.
You want to tell your story using the first quarter to third of your book. Generally you'll give the details of the first act. You want to be specific and action oriented.
THIS DOES NOT MEAN LOTS OF EXPLOSIONS. (Though I'm a big fan of 'splosions! LOL!)
What "action oriented" means is that you want your main characters to have agency. You want them doing things. This is what creates tension and illustrates your conflict. Show us the conflict between two witches doing battle with their wands, don't just tell us they are having a battle. Action verbs are much more engaging than "to be" verbs.
You also want specific details about your world. HOWEVER, you don't want to get too specific. We don't need to know the name of every planet, and unless your character is a botanist, grass can just be grass. Keep your specifics simple and understandable. It's a balance between illustrating your world and confusing the query reader with things so specific they don't know what you're talking about unless they have some kind of primer from the author.
The third rule is:
Put METADATA at the top.
This inevitably comes up because I've noticed a change in the way I've received professional critiques and critiques from agents. Most now want the metadata and comps, at the top with the personalization.
What is metadata? It's the vital statistics of your book including category (adult, young adult), genre (too many to list), and word count (rounded to the nearest thousand).
I have a theory that this is so agents, mentors, and editors can quickly parse whether the query is about a novel in a genre and/or category that they deal with or represent, as well as to know if it is an appropriate length for the given genre and category... All of which can be instant disqualifiers if you query an agent who doesn't rep the genre you write, or wrote a 300k word women's fiction book. (In other words, know your appropriate lengths by genre and age category as well as pay attention to who you submit to! Follow instructions!)
Also, comps belong with the metadata. And they seem to be increasingly important as per my experience. Certain books by problematic authors will get certain agents attention in the wrong way, so be aware of the comps you use, especially if you are using older comps. Which is why it's almost always better to use more recent comps anyway. Not to mention, it shows that you know the market, what you are trying to compete with, and sell into. Comps also give your query readers a place to begin connecting with your novel.
But, yes, comps are hard. Don't just think about them as Book X meets Book Y. Comps can be movies, TV shows, anime, video games, manga, graphic novels, anything you can think of. And they don't have to match precisely. You can use character, theme, voice, style, any part of the craft of something that works to your advantage to show a parallel to your novel.
The fourth rule is the final, and most important, rule:
BE GRACIOUS and BUSINESS-LIKE.
It seems like every week one of the agents whom I follow posts some kind of horror that someone has visited on them. Some kind of terrible response to a rejection or an inappropriate personalization. Mostly, this happens to the women I follow... But it is not exclusive. I've seen the male agents post some terrible reactions to rejections.
First, personalizations. They should be no longer than TWO short sentences. Keep them focused on what the agent/editor/mentor has on their MSWL, what they rep or work with, who they rep or work with, their editing/agenting/mentoring style, other BUSINESS related topics, and/or why you may be a good fit.
1) Compliment them on their appearance. (Creepy.)
2) Say you've been referred by another author. (Unless that author is one of the agent's represented authors and you have their express permission to do so.)
3) Say you are the next JK Rowling, Steven King, or any other multi-million copy selling author. (You may be, but hubris bad.)
4) Talk about your body. (Again. Creepy.)
5) Tell an agent/editor/mentor that you should catch coffee, drinks, dinner, etc. (Aaand super creepy.)
6) Be otherwise inappropriate. (So many levels of creepy.)
Second. And this is just a general rule. Just don't respond to rejections. I've responded to two in my nearly 500 rejections. One for being super encouraging and giving me feedback, and another for being super quick, very kind, and responsive. Both responses I gave were kind, gracious, and short. But really, ultimately, unnecessary. Honestly, you just shouldn't respond. Most reactions to getting told "no" aren't that great and the last thing you want to do is be the "hashtag querytip" DON'T of the week in the Twitter-verse.
With that, you should be able to eek out a query for your CPs and Betas to read and help you polish. Remember, when in doubt, nothing beats a few extra eyes!
*** And the requisite disclaimer that all writing advice is just advice and never to be taken as the end-all of techniques. This is just one of many ways to write a query, and shouldn't be taken as the one-and-only way.***