A couple of weeks back, on a spur of a (foolish) moment, I asked on Twitter if anyone would like to read a blog post about querying.
I say “foolish” because there are already a ton of well-curated resources on what a query is, how to write one, and other basic guidelines a writer should follow. I started to wonder if I’d be bringing anything new to the table with my limited experience. Then a friend reminded me that since everyone's journey is different, maybe by sharing my personal thoughts, someone out there will find it helpful! I won't be going through basic things like query structure. If you do a search or look at the resources below, you'll see that there are many possible structures to a query. I suggest finding the one that suits your story best.
This is a great checklist both at the start of your process and before you hit the send button. https://katchowrites.wordpress.com/2016/06/27/querying-1-step-by-step-query-process/
A great easy-to-understand explanation of what should be in your query with an example. http://pitchwars.org/resources/the-query-simplified/
Susan Dennard’s spot-on 2-parter about her querying process. She also breaks down her query! http://susandennard.com/2010/11/how-i-got-my-agent-part-1-the-prep/
THE Queryshark herself, Janet Reid. Must read. http://queryshark.blogspot.com/
I found Gloria Chao’s post on common query mistakes especially insightful. https://gloriachao.wordpress.com/2016/06/20/post-wcnv-query-tips/
A great read from Amelie Zhao where she breaks down her very successful query. https://ameliezhao.com/2017/11/23/how-to-write-a-query-letter-a-la-wonder-woman/
Rae Chang created a thread to show her query evolution and it's glorious! https://storify.com/RaeAChang/writing-an-effective-query
My fellow Pitch Wars '17 mentee, Shelby Mahurin, has an incredible post detailing her query evolution. https://www.shelbymahurin.com/single-post/2017/12/13/The-Evolution-Of-My-Query
Like I said, there are a ton of resources online; I'll add to this list when I can. Also, Google is your friend! Use it.
My personal thoughts – bear in mind this is stuff I’ve learned through my own process. I write Young Adult SFF stories so that's what my query focus was. None of what I say is prescriptive. Not everyone will agree with what I’m saying. Take what works for you and your story. :)
This probably isn’t what you want to hear, but from my own (limited!) experience, I’ve concluded that queries are often subjective. Some people may love one query, but others won’t. Some agents will jump on a query, but maybe when you read it, you can’t quite figure out what’s so great about it. If you haven't already, try throwing your query at a group of writer friends, you’ll know what I mean.
That said, after researching and writing several test queries to get the hang of it, I realize that there was nothing stopping me from writing the best query for MY STORY. How? By adapting everything I learned from all the resources I studied. By listening to all the feedback I was receiving, examining it carefully, and figuring out what were the underlying issues in my query are before refining it. And refining it.
And refining it… ;p
3 things I kept in mind:
1. PURPOSE. What do I want my query to do?
I decided that the purpose of my query was to ENTICE. You know, like that warm chocolate lava cake that literally makes you salivate before even taking a bite – or that beautiful book cover of your favorite YA writer that makes you go *grabby hands gif*.
The most important thing I wanted my query to do was to push the agent to read my first 5-10 pages. I was aiming for a chance, an opportunity to be considered. That's basically it.
Coming from a film background, I think of queries as movie trailers. And what's the intent behind movie trailers? They ENTICE. They SELL. They drum up interest, but they NEVER give away too much.
A movie trailer pushes the viewer to take the first step to either looking up the film or buying the ticket. A query pushes the agent to take the first step of glancing down your email at your first pages.
NOTE: Ever watch a movie trailer and think, “Hey, I know the whole story, why would I pay $X to watch a 2hour version of this ?” That’s NOT the kind of movie trailer I wanted my query to be.
So, if you’re coming along with my movie trailer idea, then aim to be more like the Marvel ones – hint, entice, sell, stoke the imagination. OR, even better, aim to be like this movie trailer of THE LAST JEDI.
I won't go into an analysis of this trailer, but I'll point out how the first 10 seconds pulls you in right away. Then, the rest of the trailer gives just enough to keep the viewer wondering: is Luke Skywalker really going to abandon Rey and her training? Is Kylo Ren attacking the ship his mother is on? Is Rey really asking Kylo for help or is there some sneaky film editing going on here? (OMG *CLAWS AT FACE*)
Yes, I know it's way easier to entice a reader/viewer with visuals, music, special effects, clever editing, etc., but you're a writer, you'll figure it out! *rooting for you gif*
Also, note that the questions we're asking here are possibility and imagination questions (is this going to happen or that? is this character going to do this or that? which way could the story go?). Not questions that stem from confusion. Your query needs to have clarity.
2. BE SUCCINCT BUT DETAILED (at first glance this may be contradictory but bear with me). Is this word/phrase/sentence essential? Does it add value to my query?
There’s no “extra, extra, read all about it” when it comes to your query. You have ~250 words to get the meat of it right. And if you do eat meat, think about a steak—overcook it, and it’s tough and dry. Over-season it, you lose the primal flavor of the beef. A query should be that perfect medium rare piece with the right amount of sear and the juicy pink center with just a light sprinkle of salt and pepper to bring out the nuances in taste…and okay I’m getting hungry writing this. (Also, sincere apologies for that analogy if you’re vegetarian or vegan.)
What I’m trying to say is this: cut the extraneous stuff. I took a query workshop with Kristin Nelson with an older query for an early version of my story and she hacked it to pieces (so painful but worth it). In my specific case, YA fantasy or not, I realized that an agent is not going to focus much on all the wonderful intricate bits of worldbuilding in my query—that’s what my story is for.
I’m not saying that an agent will not want to see any worldbuilding in your query. I’m saying they’re unlikely to want to know as much as a reader does. Hints of the world your story is set in are great and will suffice. There’s no need to go into details, especially when you have such a limited wordcount to play with. As a writer, I had the tendency to want to tell the agent EVERYTHING in my story because I’d worked so hard on it. It felt like every single thing was important. BUT. A query is not a lengthy summary. When in doubt, I suggest focusing on STAKES and CONFLICT.
Writers are readers. And as readers, we want all the details, too. I think this may be one of the reasons why when I was asking fellow writers for feedback on my query, there was a constant refrain of “give me more details”. I mention this because— and this is very important— there’s a need to make a distinction between “give me more details about the less important things” and “don’t be vague about the most important things”. Sometimes such feedback seem like the same thing, but they’re not. Figure that out, and you're more likely to write a succinct query that has enough of the right details.
A query doesn't need to tell the agent about the color of the protagonist's hair or delve too deeply into the setting—unless these are things truly vital to the plot.
However, stakes and conflicts need details. It’s the difference between “if the protagonist doesn’t do this, she will lose everything” (vague, who cares? What or who does she lose? Her shoes? her lunch?) and “if the protagonist does not steal the king’s crown jewels from his heavily guarded safe, her beloved sister will lose her head” (obstacles + omg her sister’s gonna die/personal stakes).
3. TARGETING THE TARGET. Who is reading my query? What do I want them to think when they’re reading my query?
Agents are busy. Some get 100 queries a week, some get 100 queries A DAY. Think about your busiest workday, or when you're running around the school campus from class to class, or when you're taking care of your kids, or when you're just freaking tired. That's likely to be the mindset of an agent pulled in so many directions. As querying writers, I think it helps us to understand an agent's mindset. This meant removing myself from the position of a writer and of a reader.
Also, I wanted to give myself the best chance of having my first pages read. That meant not only coming across as a competent writer, but also letting the agent know that I valued and respected their time. So, I made sure I researched each agent's submission guidelines, and I followed them. And I tried to make agents' lives easier by writing a query that was direct, succinct, purposeful.
I also wanted the agent to read my query in a targeted fashion. This meant that as far as possible, every word I used in my query had to be intentional. Hopefully, this point is clearer from my query analysis below.
NOTE: Some agents read first pages before they read the query. This only means that your first pages need to be strong (and you already know this). It doesn't make a difference to how you write your query. After reading your first pages, if the agent is interested, they're going to read your query anyway, and the same principles apply.
This is almost the same query I used for DVPit querying, applying for Pitch Wars, and post Pitch Wars cold-querying. I tweaked a sentence or two for each round.
DVPit: 86% of agents requested to read my full MS.
Pitch Wars: I was accepted.
Post Pitch Wars: 100% of agents I cold-queried requested for my full MS
NOTE: My stats are not normal. I repeat, my stats are not normal. This is an outlier situation. It doesn’t mean my query was perfect. Far from it as you'll see. It just means it worked for my story. When you read it below, you may think, “meh, it’s not that great.” And I agree. I can think of ways to improve it right now as I read it. But when I was querying, I felt it did what I needed it to do for my particular story—push an agent to read my first pages.
Everyone’s querying journey is different. Every request you receive is a WIN.
Here's my query for A SWORD OF JADE AND FIRE, a YA Fantasy inspired by Chinese mythology. This is a Dual-POV story, and the query reflects that. I’ve read advice about focusing on 1 MC in dual/multi-pov stories; I chose to focus on both my MCs because they had their own story arcs.
To save her grandmother, a soul thief must play a game of thrones between a secretive exiled prince, a vicious cult of priests, and an ambitious Empress Dowager.
You might have come across some advice on using an “elevator-pitch” type of hook to start off your query. In my case, something like this would have worked. I ended up not including it since it was phrased close to my DVpit pitches, and I didn’t see the need. I’m leaving it here to show that even though it’s horribly difficult to do so, it’s quite possible to distill a 100k story to a one sentence pitch.
Here's the actual start...
In a far-flung desert outpost of the turbulent Shi Empire, sixteen-year-old Ahn ekes out a living as a dishwasher and petty thief. Shunned for her unexplained appearance, she longs for a better life for herself and her adoptive grandmother. When a theft goes awry, her latent powers manifest, making her the most powerful weapon in the country.
I start with a brief sketch of my setting. Words like “far-flung”, “desert”, “outpost” conjure up images of sand, blue skies, the lack of water, inaccessibility, etc. “outpost” says that it’s a place nobody cares about. “turbulent Shi Empire” implies chaos, maybe war. I introduce a new name “Shi”, but I anchor it with “Empire” which is familiar and has the connotations I want. This is more or less the extent of my worldbuilding.
I move on to MC1. I state her name and age, and with phrases like “ekes out a living” and “petty thief”, I provide an idea of Ahn’s backstory. She’s impoverished, she has to steal because her dishwashing job doesn’t pay enough. What does she steal? Petty things. Whoever or wherever she’s stealing from isn’t exactly rich either, which shows the state of her village/town. I mentioned earlier that a detailed description of the MC’s appearance isn’t needed in a query. But here, I do mention it because it’s plot-related. Still, I use a short phrase “Shunned for her unexplained appearance”. I don’t describe how Ahn actually looks – I hope to pique the agent’s curiosity enough to find out more.
Then I move right away to what Ahn wants. One of my favorite pieces of writing advice is from Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. who said, "Make your characters want something right away even if it's only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.” I think it's helpful to apply this to queries. Here, Ahn doesn’t want to be poor, but she’s not thinking of only herself. That’s where “adoptive grandmother” comes in. It sheds some light on their relationship, and I establish that MC1 is an orphan or an abandoned child with a possibly tragic childhood.
The next sentence starting with “When a theft goes awry” is my inciting incident. I should not have used “powers” and “powerful” in the same sentence. LOL. I completely missed that repetition. #fail
She is the Life Stealer – a thief of souls.
I add an impactful one-liner after a chunk of text. This helps the eye to focus, and it also elevates the importance of this one line because of the white space. I throw in a new term, “The Life Stealer”, but I'm vague about it. I don’t want to overexplain, I want it to be a mystery so there’s something to stir curiosity: how does Ahn steal life? How does she steal souls? Is this literal? WTF is a life stealer?
His family murdered and his birthright hijacked, Altan has three things on his to-do list: take back the Dragon Throne, free the empire from the clutches of a vicious cult of priests, and undo the ravages of dark power lying deep within the land. But for the exiled prince to get what he wants, he must put his faith in a girl. A girl who is the tool for his vengeance, but who will either be his salvation or the damnation of the entire world.
Next, I move on to MC2. I’ve a limited wordcount so I need to be efficient. Words like “murdered” and “hijacked” tell of the violent nature of Altan’s backstory. Then I use a laundry list of goals/motivations/wants, but I try to make it interesting and exciting. Take back the throne! Free the empire – from whom? A vicious cult! Of priests! Also, there’s dark magic attacking the land! AND LOOK, I used the word “power” again. #fail.
I describe Altan as an "exiled prince". Yes, he's royalty. But he didn't grow up with the luxury of the palace. That's an important titbit as a character's upbringing affects their personality, behavior, and motivations.
After setting up Altan’s goals, I throw in a spanner. He’ll have to trust Ahn in order to get what he wants. She becomes his obstacle. This means I've two MCs at loggerheads = delicious conflict. And if you remember Altan's backstory from the start of the paragraph, hopefully you’re thinking something long the lines of oooh…he’s not going to trust her, is he?
I want to further this conflict, and this leads to my favorite line in the query starting with “A girl…” Altan sees Ahn as only a “tool”, a means to an end. This shows what their relationship is going to be like, and gives more insight into his character. I add in a touch more conflict/another complication by hinting that there may be something wrong with Ahn (“damnation of the entire world”)...so, you know…maybe Altan shouldn’t trust her.
Their paths collide when the priests abduct Ahn’s grandmother. Forced to work together, the pair travel across the eternal desert and dangerous seas to seek an elusive sword with immense powers—one that only the Life Stealer can wield. Willing to do anything to save her grandmother, Ahn starts to embrace her dark power, while Altan begins to question his own motives.
Here’s my obstacle course paragraph where I offer up a bunch of things that stand in Ahn’s way to rescue her grandmother (stakes). Priests! Desert! Sea! A secret lost sword which only she can use! This also tells the agent that there’s a journey in my story. This can backfire as some agents don’t like long journeys in stories, but there's no point hiding it since it’s a big part of my story.
I also dig deeper into personal conflict and struggles – what happens to Ahn when she embraces her "dark power"? (omg so much “power”. #fail) Why is Altan questioning his own motives? What are his motives?
But when their search reveals a power struggle between the priests and the ambitious Empress Dowager, the pair quickly realize no one can be trusted—including each other.
To end the main part of my query, (and I’ve to thank my Pitch Wars mentor, Akemi Dawn Bowman for this), I add in even more conflict (yes, there's a pattern here). It works for my story because the relationship between the two MCs is vital. Hence, my query focused heavily on both characters and their conflict (external, internal, with each other) with a lighter touch when it comes to the stakes (Ahn has to save her grandmother, Altan wants vengeance for closure).
Maybe you noticed, but I want to point out that in the entire query, I only mentioned 2 character names, 1 place/country name (Shi Empire), and 1 fantasy jargon. This is intentional. I want the agent to remember my two main characters, and not get caught up in a name soup. The priests, Ahn's grandmother, and the Empress Dowager (and a other side characters who don't even come up in the query) don't get a name. I use the most important and hopefully the most intriguing fantasy jargon in my story – the Life Stealer. There's no need to confuse the agent with the name of the magical sword or the name of the cult or anything like that. Help the agent focus on the most important things in your query, and hence, your story.
After the above main part of my query, I’ve another paragraph with the wordcount and comps which I’m not including here because it varies so widely depending on each specific story. Then, a simple bio and a sign-off.
PHEW. If you have made it this far, you deserve all the treats. *hands you plate of cookies/chocolate/ice-cream/kale chips*
This is probably the most important thing I have to say about querying...
If you’ve learned nothing from this long rambling post so far, please try to absorb this one key lesson I learned:
That 86% hit rate for full requests during DVPit? It didn’t mean shit because my MS was not up to standard. I was rejected again and again. And again.
And again, and… T_T
So, write your query. Refine it. Make it work for the story you’re telling. But don’t forget that it’s not just your query at play here, and it’s not just your first pages or Chapter 1. It’s your entire manuscript. Don't forget to work on that.