Writing a Query: It's All in the Details
Oh man. There are so many big events happening right now for writers (i.e., Pitch Wars and pitmad and conferences with pitch opportunities). Events that mean we writers must be on our A game when it comes to queries. Which is enough to make my head spin. And then I get dizzy, and I have to self-soothe with chocolate and wine . . .
Anyway, QUERIES! The single most terrifying part of being a writer. Plotting, outlining, drafting, writing a whole 90,000-word book. No problem.
But writing two paragraphs about said book? Um, yeah, I’m with the Roadrunner on this one.
Okay, okay. Writing a query isn’t THAT scary. It’s just taking your hard-earned 90,000 words and succinctly boiling them down to 250 words that hook an agent enough to make her want to request your full manuscript. Not so bad, right?
Here’s the deal: there are so many great articles already written about how to write a good query. On top of that, there are websites like Query Shark and Successful Queries by Writer’s Digest, that I don’t think there needs to be another detailed article about the mechanics of writing a query.
But here’s what I’ll do. I will give a short formula, followed by links to a ton of queries written by Pitch Wars mentors—the same queries that got them agents. Why? Because you can read all day about what to put in a query. But the best way to learn how to write a good query is to read good queries. It’s important to study successful queries because that’s the only way you’ll learn how to improve your query writing.
Ready? Here we GOOOOOOO (I’m trying to get you pumped up, here. But I totally get it if you’re not. Only so much excitement can be mustered for query writing.).
Query Writing Formula
What does your main character want?
Why does he want it?
What’s standing in his way (i.e., what are the stakes)?
What will happen if he doesn’t meet his goal?
See? I told you it was short. That’s it. But here’s the deal, while you’re answering those questions, you want to pepper in details. Small details that make your world unique make it stand out to the agent. Otherwise, your story will sound like a million other stories, and it’ll get thrown in the slush pile.
Spot the differences here:
An orphan boy living with his horrible aunt and uncle is rescued and taken to a mysterious school. He discovers his parents were murdered by an evil villain and is suddenly thrust into the role of a hero who must defeat the villain before he destroys their world.
That’s pretty bland. And is full of tropes we’ve seen time and time again. Orphan child, living with horrible relatives, learns about parents’ secret past, discovers he’s actually pretty special, you get the point. It doesn’t sound original. Let’s try again with details.
An orphan boy lives with his aunt and uncle who force him to sleep in a closet. A loner, he dreams of escaping his life. One night, a bearded half-giant appears and whisks the boy away to a secret school for wizards—hidden from humans—where he gets to fly on the Nimbus 2000 broom, drink delicious butterbeer, and use his phoenix-feather wand to cast all sorts of spells. As he adjusts to this magical life, he discovers his parents were murdered by a powerful wizard. Suddenly, he’s thrust into the role of a savior who must defeat this wizard before he destroys the wizarding world the boy's come to love.
Just to be clear, the above is not a query. What it is, however, is an example of how details make a difference. The same stories get told over and over again. Whether yours is the tale of a princess looking for love, an assassin with a dangerous mission, a teenager who wants to belong, or a detective trying to solve a murder, the bones of the story probably aren’t unique. What is unique are the details.
That’s why writing queries and synopses becomes difficult when the advice is to strip your story down to the bare bones. Yes, you need to do that, but you need to do that while still providing the details of what makes your story stand out from all the others. I can’t say it enough: it’s all in the details, folks. When describing your plot, weave in those unique details about your world and characters.
Okay, that’s all I’ll say on queries. And honestly, I think that’s enough. Here’s the really good stuff: a huge list of queries, all written by authors who now have agents from those queries. Read, study, take notes, and learn from these examples as you embark on your query writing. And if you really want to be an A+ student, take notes on the details that make these queries stand out.
Adalyn Grace, YA Fantasy
Kellye Garrett, A Mystery
Jennifer L. Brown, MG Contemporary
Victoria Lee, Fantasy & Science-Fiction
Michelle Hauck, MG Fantasy
Fallon Demornary, YA Fantasy
K.A. Doore, Adventure-Fantasy
Abigail Johnson, YA Contemporary
Sarah Remy, Urban Fantasy
Kim Chance, YA Contemporary Fantasy (if you click on her link, she provides a few examples of queries as well)
So, moral of today’s story: think in details, read lots of query letters, study them, think about what worked in all of them, or what got the agent’s attention, and then get working on yours! If you’re still having trouble, Writers Untapped offers query/synopsis critiques! Happy querying everyone!