Querying: the Do's and Don'ts and a worksheet
Hi, guys! Erin here.
Last month I asked what we could do to make PubCrawl a better, stronger, more useful resource for our readers. Over a hundred fifty of you took the time to fill out our survey and give us some feedback. We're still in the process of sifting through all your comments and implementing changes, but in the meantime, as a thank you for sharing your thoughts, I want to offer up a query giveaway.
One trend that was immediately apparent in our survey was that we still have a lot of aspiring writers reading Pub Crawl, so posts on craft, querying, and breaking into the industry are always welcome. With that in mind, here's a quick recap on queries.
DO personalize your query. ("I saw on on twitter you're looking for X and thought you might like...")
DO keep it around 250-350 words.
DO be professional and succinct.
DO include your bio and relevant references, such as major literary awards or writing organization memberships. (It's okay if you don't have any. I didn't! Just sign off with your name, address, phone/email)
DO mention genre, word count, and (if applicable) comp titles.
DO polish the query until it shines. Every word should be necessary and purposeful.
DO proof it carefully (several times!) and read it aloud before sending. You only have one chance at a first impression.
DON'T tell the agent how great the book is. Let the query speak for itself.
DON'T open with hypothetical questions, use first person narration, or experiment with other unique approaches.
DON'T spell out the ending. That's for a synopsis. The query should be the premise and hook. (Read the flap copy of your favorite books for inspiration.)
DON'T submit to multiple agents within the same agency at once. (If agent #1 passes, then you can query agent #2 at that agency. Unless they have a "no from one means no from all" policy.)
DON'T give up. Remember that every published writer has been through rejection—every last one—and it only takes one "yes."
Basic Query Format
In my opinion, Nathan Bransford still has the best "fill in the blanks" query worksheet. It looks like this:
Dear [Agent name],
I chose to submit to you because of your wonderful taste in [genre], and because you [personalized tidbit about agent].
[protagonist name] is a [description of protagonist] living in [setting]. But when [complicating incident], [protagonist name] must [protagonist's quest] and [verb] [villain] in order to [protagonist's goal].
[title] is a [word count] work of [genre]. I am the author of [author's credits (optional)], and this is my first novel.
Thank you for your time, and I look forward to hearing from you soon.
Best wishes, [your name]
For reference, here's my query for Taken (then titled The Laicos Project), which landed me my agent in 2011. Please note there are a few slight Taken spoilers ahead.
Dear Sara Crowe,
Happy New Year! I read on your Publishers Marketplace profile that you are seeking strong, original new voices, and given your representation of a variety of YA subgenres, I thought you might enjoy my YA science fiction thriller THE LAICOS PROJECT.
Gray Weathersby is counting down the days until his eighteenth birthday with dread, for in the primitive and isolated town of Claysoot, a boy’s eighteenth is marked not by celebration, but by his disappearance. When his older brother meets this mysterious fate, vanishing in the phenomenon the villagers have come to call the Heist, Gray begins to question everything about the place he’s called home. It all feels wrong: The Wall that no one can cross without dying, the Council leaders and their secrets, the nature of the Heist itself.
Desperate for answers, Gray climbs the Wall. But Emma follows him. Emma, who Gray has admired since the day he first stole a wooden toy from her hands as a child. The two are surprised to find a modern city beyond their Wall, not to mention the Franconian Order—a mysterious group of black-suited soldiers that hold the two hostage and then call for Gray’s execution. Running for his life, Gray takes to the forests. These woods are rumored to hold hostile Rebels amongst their trees, violent civilians banding together in opposition of the Order. But the Rebels also have answers. Answers Gray has long searched for, and answers he may soon wish he never unearthed.
THE LAICOS PROJECT tells the tale of a boy caught in events far greater than himself, as in Philip Reeve’s MORTAL ENGINES, and I believe it will appeal to readers who enjoyed the fast-paced and mysterious elements of James Dashner’s THE MAZE RUNNER. Complete at 83,000 words, THE LAICOS PROJECT is the first in a trilogy, although it also works as a stand-alone.
Thank you, in advance, for your time and consideration.
Sincerely, Erin Bowman [contact info redacted]
This comes in at 325 words total and looking back on it now, I think it could be streamlined a bit farther. Even still, you can see that my query follows the basic intro > premise + hook > summary format.
Please keep in mind that like every aspect of writing, there are always reasons to break rules, but I do think it's especially risky with queries. The query is a tool. Agents receive hundreds of them a week. Going outside the box is unlikely to make you stand out to an agent in a good way. What will make you stand out is a professional, well-polished query with a fantastic hook and some killer sample pages to back you up.
Getting back to that giveaway I promised you... As a thank you for helping us out with our survey, I'm giving away three query crits to Pub Crawl readers! Simply fill out the widget below for a chance to win. I'll draw winners a week from today.