I recently did another round of Hook Me, an exercise I do with my followers where they send in fake query letters and I critique them.
A query letter is a short summary of your novel (a “hook”) that is used to pitch a novel to an agent or editor. Anyone who wants to get published needs to know how to write one.
So here are problems I saw in the majority, though not all, of the query letters I received.
1. My Story Is About…
Don’t use any of the following phrases in your query letter:
My story is about…
My story features…
This story is…
The main character is…
Throughout the story these characters encounter…
This story features themes such as…
This story has characters who are…
In a world where…
When writing a query letter, every word counts. Just jump right into it. Instead of starting with:
My story is about a spiteful, long-haired kitchen manager named Abbie who must track down the vampire who bit her and kill him to avoid becoming one herself.
Abbie was just bitten by a vampire. To remain human, she must track down the one that bit her and kill him before the seven-day transformation can be completed.
And let the story speak for itself. Don’t just tell me that your story features the trials of friendship or that you have three lgbt characters or that it deals with heavy themes. Show me. In the manuscript.
2. Unnecessary Character Descriptions
I don’t need to know that the main character is a red-haired spunky teenager with three piercings and freckles and a knack for math. I don’t need to know these useless details.
Only tell me what I need to know about this character. What is relevant to the plot? To their motive? One of the few descriptors that you can add that may not be entirely relevant would be the age of the main character.
3. Comparing Your Story to The Wrong Thing
Your story is not like Star Wars or Harry Potter or Twilight or The Hunger Games. Nor will your story appeal to any of those audiences.
Those audiences have millions of people. Many of those people fall outside of the initial target audiences. Many of those people don’t particularly like fantasy or sci-fi or vampires or anything like that, but when something gets as popular as the series above, it draws all kinds of people.
Don’t compare your story to some of the biggest franchises in the world. This doesn’t tell agents or editors anything about your target audience. It can also show you don’t really know your genre. If you write a sci-fi and only compare it to Star Trek and Star Wars, then it’s likely you haven’t read a lot of sci-fi.
4. Vague Blurbs
I don’t need a blurb or a vague logline. I’m not sure why you would include one. Unless you’re writing a screenplay, you really do not need one at this stage.
5. Too Much
I need the protagonist and the main conflict. That’s it. Don’t give me the back story of every major character. Don’t tell me about subplots. Don’t tell me ¾ of the book.
And do not tell me the ending. Never tell the ending in a query. The point is to hook someone. You’re trying to get someone to read your story. You’re trying to intrigue them. Telling me the ending does not do that.
Also falling into this category is too many details. You need to learn how to cut down that background information into succinct sentences. Only give what is necessary. You shouldn’t spend a whole paragraph describing your protagonist and their world before you even mention the main conflict.
6. Too Little
In contrast with #5, some of you did not give me enough information. Or, at least, the information you gave was vague.
I need to know the plot. Describing the protagonist and the themes and some of the other characters and how their friendships might be in danger does not tell me anything. I don’t care about their relationships yet. I need to know the actual conflict.
7. Did Not Follow Directions
When writing a query letter or when submitting your writing, you have to follow directions.
If you wanted a private critique, I asked you to put “private” in the title. I didn’t say to put it in the body. I also asked you to keep your submissions open so I could reply. Few people followed these directions.
It may seem nitpicky to complain about this, but you have to follow directions when submitting something.
Some people ignore anything that ignores directions because they have a lot of submissions to get through and it’s an easy way to filter out people they don’t want a business relationship with.
Some people need certain words in the subject line so that submissions don’t end up in the spam folder or so the interns know which submissions to open.
Follow the directions. Show that you’re serious enough about writing that you took the time to read the directions.
8. Lack of Voice
Your letters need to have a strong voice. The mood and pacing needs to match the book. If you’re writing a query letter for a murder mystery, the voice should be suspenseful.
1. Always address the agent by name. “Dear Agent” is a rookie’s mistake, it shows a lack of interest, research as well as effort. It’s akin to addressing someone as “Dear person”. They have a name, let’s show courtesy and use it.
2. Do your research. Make sure you know what a query implies (hook, summary, author bio), what each agent asks for in their query, and your work’s details (word length, genre, target audience, to readers of what books/writers it would appeal to) which you add in the query. Know your genre and target audience so you can target the right agents that rep those categories, otherwise you’re wasting everybody’s time including your own.
3. Stay professional. This means be yourself, but don’t exaggerate with gimmicks, jokes, getting too cozy with the agent (for all intents and purposes you’re a stranger so it’s creepy), being humble to the point of begging (my friend give yourself some credit), or being confident to the point of arrogance (“this is the best thing since sliced bread”, you know what I mean). We’re all human, just doing our best, but remember this is first impressions. You can be your witty and wildly enthusiastic self afterwards.
4. Be calculated. Is this your dream, and are determined to spend as many months or years necessary to get your book out there? If you just nodded, I applaud you. Or is it just a hobby and you’d enjoy seeing your name in print, but would give up after a couple of rejections? (If you just want to be famous, the world needs a better motive.) Furthermore, what’s your querying strategy? Do you want a small or major publishing company? Print or e-book (or both)? What’s your back-up plan, if any?
In short, just make sure you know what you want and how much effort and time you’re willing to invest in this.
In order to get a publisher, you need to find an agent. A few publishers will consider writers with no agents, but the typical submission route sees an agent pitching your work to publishers.
Who are agents?
Agents are experts in the book business. They consider hundreds of books a day, choose a few promising clients a year and try to pitch their work to publishers. If you did get an agent he/she is your best bookish friend! Agents are experts who believe in your book. Treat them fairly and don’t expect them to be you biatch. Their job is pitching to publishers, not advertise your book (nor edit or listen to you whine). Know what to expect.
What do agents do?
They select authors as clients and try to get them good deals with publishers. They are paid when the writer is paid. Never give money to anyone to read your work! A serious agent would never ask for money.What don’t agents do? They don’t advertise your book, they don’t edit, they don’t cook for you, nor look after your children.
How do I get an agent?
To get an agent you have to write a query letter. In fact, on average, you have to write about 100 queries to find an agent, and that is only if your book is prime stuff. An alternative is to take part in “pitching competitions” like PitMad on twitter or attending a writers’ pitch conference.
How do I select which agent is right for me?
Don’t flood all the literary agents of the world at once. Choose two or three who published books you liked and are similar to yours. If you can’t think of any, you should probably be spending more time reading before you consider publishing. Check AgentQuery to find agents open to submissions in your genre. Do some research on them, make sure they are a good fit and be ready for rejection.
How do I deal with rejection?
Dismiss it. It’s part of the job and it’s good for big egos. Finding an agent is like finding a soulmate, all you need is one. BUT, if after ten queries nobody asked for a partial of your manuscript, you might want to question if there is something wrong with your query or if you’re pitching for the wrong genres. Alternatively, it could be that your project is “high risk” or not “mainstream” enough, in which case most agents will not take a chance. I personally think that high risk projects are awesome: go indie and publish yourself!
So, how do I write a query?
This is a quick guide on what is a query letter and how to write one to successfully pitch your novel to a literary agent or, less commonly, to a publisher.
Before I say anything about query letters let me disclaim that most of what I learnt comes from the infinite wisdom of Her Holiness the Query Shark, a successful agent dedicated to help hapless, unexperienced writers. Study her website and see plenty examples of failure and success, rejoicing at her snarky sense of humor.
What is a query letter?
A query letter is a short missive (typically an e-mail) that pitches your book in 200-300 words. Don’t go over 400 words, it should fit in one page. A query letter will be likely the hardest thing you will ever write.
What elements should be in a query letter?
A query should answer the following questions:
1-Why did you select this agent?
Successful agents receive about 100 queries a day. Never write “Dear Agent” (guaranteed click-delete response). Agents want to know why you think they are a good fit for you. If you are thinking this is not your job but theirs, you’re better off indie publishing. Ask yourself how many agents are banging on your door right now and how many writers are banging at any one agent’s door. Got the picture? Good. Now do research on your agent. Good lines would be: “you represent this other book (pertinent book similar in style or genre to yours) so I thought…” or “You are seeking books in this genre so…” To find information about your agent of choice, start with AgentQuery, then check the specific agent’s website and any interviews online. Sometimes you might want to go as far as to check their twitter feed or search for videos. Yes, it is a lot of work and a time drain.
2- What is your book about?
You are a writer. SHOW, DON’T TELL! Never say “this is a great story” or “this is the best book you will ever read”, “this is the next bestseller” etc… SHOW THEM! Start with the conflict. Don’t tell them everything, just enough for them to want to read more, possibly getting a feel for your voice.
3- Why are YOU qualified to tell this story?
Are you writing a book about the Vietnam war and you’re a fifteen-year-old Italian? Well, good luck pitching that. You will have to explain why you think you are qualified, and why you are in a unique, privileged position to tell that story.
In general: You only have 200-300 words, choose them well.
1. Avoid clichés; you are a word crafter. Still, don’t overdo it! Verbose queries are not good. Use your style.
2. No typos, you hear me? None.
3. Be professional. It’s really difficult to get the tone of an e-mail or letter sometimes. Avoid jokes and confusing double meanings.
4. Be respectful. Start with Dear Miss Amman (just an example, by golly, I’m not an agent!) Most agents don’t care if you call them by their first names, but some really hate it. They are professionals and they don’t know you. Play it safe.
5. Don’t beg. If you don’t think your book is awesome, nobody will. (Avoid things like “I have been sick” “I have fifteen children” “I barely sleep” “Forgive the typos”).
6. Don’t boast. Be confident, but professional. If you have some facts that can help you list them clearly.
7. Don’t state the obvious. “I would be glad to provide a full manuscript upon request.” Of course you would be. Finish with “Thank you for your time” or similar.Essential info to include: the title of your manuscript ALL CAPITALS, the word count (approximate to the closest 5,000), the genre, your signature with your full REAL name, address and phone number.
-Check for specific guidelines on each agent’s webpage! Some will go as far as to tell you what type to use. All will specify if they want a partial with the query (typically the first three chapters pasted in the body of the e-mail).
-Send no attachments unless specifically asked. It’s the fastest way to the garbage bin. They fear viruses and will never open an e-mail with unsolicited attachments (signatures, files, anything).-Separate your paragraphs, so that your e-mail is not a scary block of text. Happy querying :D
Are you finding yourself caught up in transition time between being a hopeful writer and a published author? Today, author and NaNoWriMo participant Katya de Becerra offers insight on what it’s like to put your novel through the publishing process:
So you’re finally done with your manuscript… What’s next?
Finally finishing your manuscript could be daunting. Is the book good enough? What to do next? All authors, emerging and established, are faced with these questions.
When I finished writing what became my debut, What The Woods Keep, I only had a vague idea about what I should be doing next. I’ve heard about critique partners, but I’ve never had one. My creative process is individualistic, and I require total isolation to think and write, so it was unnerving to reach out to friends and ask them to be my first readers.
I’m glad I did! Receiving insightful comments aside, friends reading my work (and loving it) gave me an enormous confidence boost that propelled me toward the next step: finding an agent.
Hi, uh, how do you write a query? Love the blog by the way 💕
How Do I Write A Query?
Okay, let’s begin by saying something - I wrote one (1) query letter in my life, therefore I am not a professional.
Now, what is a query? A query is basically a very short pitch about your novel. You will have to send it to agents, editors and sometimes it even gets to publishers (if you’d like to be published traditionally). Queries are divided into five (5) parts:
Adress the person: now, this is a big problem. Your first-ever query will probably go to a literary agent. Don’t start it with “to whom it may concern” or “dear agent”! I like to start it with “Dear Miss/Mr. [agent’s last name]”, it feels more polite.
State the subject of the letter: You came to seek representation for your novel, SAY IT. This is the part where you give technical facts about your novel: name, genre, word count. Also, let the agent know why you’re querying them specifically: whether it’s their active interest in some topics or you’ve met them at a conference, this is where you should point it out.
Summarize your novel: this part should be written in a third-person POV. Do not use a certain voice, just explain the plot. This part should be similar to the blurb at the end of books. Check those out and try to make yours similar. DO NOT SPOIL THE ENDING.
Author bio: Here you should write down a bit about your writer self. No one will care about your personal details - do not add those. Write down if you’ve ever been published, if you’ve ever won a prize. Write down any big blog you have about writing. Write down what qualify you to write this novel.
Finish your query: Do not brag and say “this will be the greatest novel you’ll ever read!”. I like to finish my queries with a quick “Thank you for your consideration, [author name]”
A query should be shorter than 250 words.
Pay attention to the format your agent seeks, it’s usually times new roman size 12.
NO ATTACHMENTS UNLESS THEY SAY SO
Your novel’s name should be writing in all caps (AZALEA)
Every new character should be in all caps (DAVE, JOSH)
Query more than one agent at a time, volume is your friend.