ANATOMY AND SCIENCE Of The Query
January 3rd, 2015
Believe it or not, there is an actual anatomy and science to the query. And you won’t learn this in college. I learned it in Hollywood. Never tell anyone you’ve written a novel unless you can pitch it because the next question they inevitably ask is “What is it about?” In my case the people asking were producers, actors, models, production managers, film financiers, and I really sucked at pitching it. I could see it when their eyes sort of flicked over my shoulder at something more interesting. You’ve got to keep the pitch short and sweet. Hook ‘em and leave ‘em wanting more. Not drifting toward the coffee machine. Same goes for the written query. You must grab your readers attention because they have hundreds of other queries in their inbox. And donuts in the breakroom.
I spent two years learning how to pitch. It started with a podcast on the Nerdist Writers Panel when writer/actor Tom Lennon was promoting his book “How to Write Movies for Fun and Profit”. He said one must master the pitch. I was terrified. Writing a query/pitch was hard. Learning how to pitch in person sounded even scarier. So, of course, I bought his book. I read every synopsis I could on every book jacket, movie, and website. Then I read pages 1-11 of “Save the Cat” by Blake Snyder. This is your homework.
Your query must consist of the following: the protagonist, setting, conflict/villain. It must display the title in all CAPS (not italics), provide the genre, word count, and an author bio. And all of this must be done in or around 300 words. Ok, bye.
The best queries also have a hook. A 25-words or less sentence that sums up the book. Kind of like the logline you see on movie posters. The very best of ‘em include irony. Many say irony is lost on most Americans, so spend some time on this.
After figuring all of this out, I started teaching this and selling it as a service for authors on fiverr. My goals was to get better for myself. It took hours per query. Now I am top ranked in my category with 5-stars and often appear in the monthly newsletters. Most importantly, several writers have had their work requested based on the queries I coached them with. Yay!
Additionally, proof these tips work: I sent out 20 or so queries the year before I learned the science behind the query and got zero responses from agents aside from rejection. After I learned all this, I threw my query out and wrote a new one in 20 minutes. I left it until the next morning, changed a few words to tighten it and sent it to 11 agents. Within 12 hours four of them requested the entire manuscript. And these were all agents I would love to have represent my career.
Ok, enough testimonial-voice.
- Spend the majority of your hours/days/months/years on the hook. It’s the first impression a reader/agent has of your work. It should beckon them into the body of the query.
- End your query with questions. Questions that pull the reader right back to the central conflicts of the story. This will make them want to read the first 10 pages you pasted into your email. And if that’s good, they’ll ask for more.
- Write in present tense just like you would for an English paper on Thoreau.
- Use an active voice. If you can end a sentence with the words: by zombies, it is passive. Change it.
- SHOW don’t TELL. I see people telling a lot, especially when it comes to the conflict. They glaze right over it. Example: “Lola is reluctant to tell her family her secret.” WHY is she reluctant? This is the conflict! I encourage you to list 3 reasons why she isn’t close to her family, make one sentence out of those reasons and write that down instead.
- Bio: If you have education and/or experience related to writing, include it. If you have a BS degree in Engineering and your book is a romance (where none of the characters are engineers) cut it. If you have no previous freelance jobs, writing gigs, or publications—no sweat. Just say “this is my first novel.” End it there.
- Never write from the perspective of your protagonist. Yuck. If you’ve ever been on the interwebs and into the blogs of your favorite agents, they say this is unprofessional. I have only seen one agent who—reluctantly she says—asked for more pages after reading a query in the “I”. But that person was a literary genius. You are never the exception. Just the rule.
- Never include a ton of character names. We need the “A” story line only. Not the B and C. Only the protagonist name and their conflict, enemy, or lover. But not their mother, best friend, dog, neighbor. Too many characters names in a query will push the reader/agent out of your story. They’ll forget who your protagonist is. They don’t care about any of these characters yet. They just want the quick pitch. Example: If your protagonist has fallen in love with someone and that person is the main interest, say their name. BUT if this love interest is causing a problem with her friends and family—say friends and family—do NOT say her best friend Kelsey, her mother Mary and Father Jordan. They are those that must not be named.
- Never ever editorialize. This is when you say “It’s a breathtaking glimpse into the heart of Chernobyl.” Or “This novel sheds light on the difficulties endured during the reunification of Germany.” Or “This is for anyone who’s ever had their heart broken.” Ew. Ew. Ew. I just threw up in your mouth. Editorializing the grossest form of telling. Let OTHER people do that for you when you are published.
- Never tell the agent where your inspiration to write this book came from. Save that for the callback, and then a little longer once they’ve represented you, papers signed. Now you’re besties. It doesn’t go in the query. This is a business and your inspiration shows your heart. It’s sort of an assumption that if you are emotional you suck as a writer. They wonder if you haven’t stepped back, edited, and treated this like a job if you’re caught up in the muse. Hide the muse. For now.
- Don’t write anything in italics—remember that emails don’t hold formatting. It’s become standard even in snail mail queries to type your title in CAPS. Since this is one of the first rules you learn if you’ve ever read an agents blog about queries, you don’t want to make this mistake. If you haven’t done the research to write a polished, professional query, the agent may not believe you put a lot of thought into who you’re querying as well.
- If you know a similar writer out there with the same readership you’re aiming to reach, mention that your work may appeal to fans of whatever that is. It shows you know your market. It’s even better if that author is represented by the agent you are querying—if your book does it different. But adding this info is not a big deal, either way.
You’re now free to go stalk literary agents!
If you have questions, please paste them into the comments section below. If you want me to aid you in your query journey then check out my gig here.Share on Facebook