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The Evolution of a Query (and how I got my agent!)

Disclaimer: If you’re like me and you gobble up other people’s writing journeys, then read below! If not, and you’re just here for the queries, scroll down until you see Query 1.

I’m just going to come out and say it: querying sucks, but it’s a necessity if you want to get an agent. 

Queries are so tricky because the truth is there’s no one formula that works. Some agents prefer metadata in the front. Other agents prefer metadata at the end. Some agents love comps; others agents are fine with you not having them. Some agents want personalization and to know why you’re querying them; other agents prefer you just skip that (especially if it’s something obvious like off their MSWL) and get to the story. Like I said, it’s so subjective, which can also make query writing really frustrating. While there’s no one formula to writing the perfect query, there are tips and tricks you can employ to make sure you’re on the right track!  

Below, I’m going to take you through the different stages my query went through. I’ll explain what I felt was wrong with each draft and why I ultimately changed it, and *hopefully* there will be something to learn from this. 

I’ve been a writer my entire life; I got my B.A. in screenwriting, and despite having a lot of positive writing-related things happen for me, I still felt discouraged and disillusioned by the writer’s life. I had been living in LA for six years, waitressed during the day, interned at big productions companies to “network,” and I lived in a tiny apartment with four other people just to be able to make end’s meet. Adulting sucked. My twenty-two-year-old self couldn’t handle it. I told myself I would always love writing, it would always be my hobby, but maybe for right then, it wouldn’t be my career. I went back to school to get my master’s in education and became a history and English teacher.

I wouldn’t trade those years for the world. I traveled everywhere, read a ton of books, lived in three different countries, met amazing people, and met my husband. But something was missing. Something was always missing.

I was twenty-nine years old when I decided to take my writing seriously. It wasn’t until I finally let my husband read one of my screenplays that I actually thought about writing again. He read it, took one look at me, and said this is what you were meant to do. He suggested I turn my screenplay into a book. A book, you say? I didn’t know how to write books, and my screenplay-turned-book was a disaster. Of course, I didn’t know it was a disaster. I thought it was the best thing I’d ever written. 

Oh yeah. It was bad. But I only realized it was bad after I’d queried it to at least thirty agents and got all form rejections. So what did I do? I learned. I immersed myself in the Twitter and Instagram writing communities. I connected with other writers and found betas and CPs, and I learned from them. I also started studying the books I read. What made them work or not work? 

I wrote another manuscript, which I pitched to three agents and got all form rejections. I ended up shelving that manuscript because it needed more work, but it was decidedly better than my first book, and I was excited by everything I’d learned after writing it (no writing is EVER a waste).

I wrote another manuscript, and guess what? I finished writing it and didn’t even send it to betas because I realized I was missing a huge component and the entire thing would need to be rewritten. So that manuscript got shelved. 

I think this is why it’s so important to not put all of your hopes and dreams into one story. Sometimes, stories just don’t work for whatever reason, and you need to know when to move on and work on something new. Does that mean you should give up easily? No! Just know that you have so many stories to tell—not just one. 

Okay, back to my journey. At that point, I was TIRED.

I’d written five manuscripts (three full-length and two novellas) in a year. It was a lot, and my brain was understandably fried.

So I decided to take time off of writing to read, beta-read, learn craft, and plot out my next story. I also was in the process of opening my own editing business, and I was taking copyediting and developmental editing classes—all of which helped me to become a better writer, as well as a better editor. I had a lot going on! 

The next story I decided to write during Nano. It was a new genre, since I’d previously only written fantasy, and this was contemporary. I love reading contemporary, and I love the fresh voices and knew I wanted to write a book with a really strong voice. I drafted it during the month of Nanowrimo. It felt solid, and I had a feeling I wouldn’t have to shelve this manuscript like I had my previous three. 

I’ll admit, my journey was much faster than I ever expected it would be. I sent my manuscript to betas by mid-December, they gave me great feedback that I implemented by mid-January, and I was ready to query by February. 

I queried twenty-seven agents and got five full requests (one from cold querying, one from pitching, and three from nudging after receiving an offer). Ultimately, I signed with Savannah Brooks from JD Lit. She blew me away with her passion and knowledge during our conversation, and I knew we would work great together and that she would be the perfect person to guide my career.

I think it’s so key to find an agent who is as passionate about your book as you are. It was amazing to hear all the things she loved about my story, and it gave me so much confidence that I’d found the perfect advocate for my writing career. 

So let’s rewind back to the beginning. The journey to getting my agent started with a query letter. A bad query letter. I rewrote this query probably seven or eight different times. I’m not going to show you all eight drafts, but I will show you four of them so you can learn from my mistakes and hopefully get a better idea of what works and what doesn’t work in a query. Before you read on, just remember that there is no one way to write a query; there’s no perfect formula. It’s also important to remember that you absolutely need other eyes on your query letter. Reach out to other writers who know what query letters are and ask them to do query swaps or ask if they’d be willing to give you feedback. I received a ton of feedback on my queries, and this feedback was instrumental in each draft my query went through. 

Lastly, remember that there are tips and tricks and ways to make your query better, but ultimately it is so subjective (as with everything in the writing industry). 

Query 1:

I saw on MSWL you are looking for _________ and thought you might be interested in my 69,000-word manuscript, THE REDEMPTION CURSE, a YA contemporary retelling of A Christmas Carol that’s reminiscent of the romance in Sweet Home Alabama.

Emerson won’t let anyone stand in the way of her winning pumpkin queen at Halloween Formal. So she planted drugs in a rival’s room and got her expelled from school? Whatever it takes. And of course, no pumpkin queen is complete without a king. Which is why, against her better judgement, Emerson tags along to a haunted house outing where she knows her crush will be.

Emerson’s counting on snagging her king, not enacting a curse after reciting some foreign words out of a dusty, old book. That night, the ghost of Emerson’s favorite spunky aunt appears. She warns her niece that in the week leading up to Halloween, she’ll receive visits from three ghosts. If she doesn’t heed the ghosts’ warnings, she’ll lose her soul

Emerson doesn’t remember much from the weird dream, but reality bites when she discovers her aunt has passed away. She decides to go back to Hallow Grove for the funeral—the hometown she hasn’t visited in two years. Hallow Grove exposes Emerson to a life she ditched, including an ex-best friend who’s grown sexier than he has any right to be, and her mom, who she hasn’t seen since she got a scholarship and moved to the boarding school. When ghosts begin popping up and whisking Emerson away to painful memories and harsh realities, she doesn’t want to face any of it. The more she interacts with the ghosts and people from her past, she begins to realize the error of her ways. If Emerson has any hope of saving her soul, she’ll have to choose between the life she worked so hard to build and the one she worked so hard to forget. 

I’m a former English teacher turned freelance book editor who’s obsessed with reading, game nights, and Sunday football. 

Thank you and I look forward to hearing from you,

TK White

This was one of my early attempts at a query. I actually wrote this query letter before I ever wrote my book, which I think is a great idea! Writing your query letter before you start your book can help you to make sure you have all the right elements in your story: character, goal, motivation, conflict, and stakes. 

The first problem is it’s way too wordy.  Three hundred and fifty-one words isn’t necessarily too long for a query, but generally, if you can use less words to say more, that’s always a good thing. My last paragraph looks monstrous, and it’s to the point where I really didn’t want to write much of a bio and add any more words. So I’m dinging points for length.

The second problem is I reveal too much of the story. Query Shark agent Janet Reid says your query letter should only be written up to the inciting incident, and that’s when you reveal the stakes. Now, that might not work for every query—because like I said above, there is no perfect formula. But for this particular story, I needed to heed that advice and reveal less.

The next problem is the comps. It’s A Christmas Carol retelling, so that needs to be mentioned, but Sweet Home Alabama is much much too outdated and not likely to resonate with teens (my target audience). In that case, I was better off using no comps. 

Another problem is clunky sentences that desperately needed a line edit.  

The last—and biggest problem—with this query are the stakes. She’s choosing between something she wants and something she doesn’t want. So what’s the problem? Why not just choose what she wants? It doesn’t pack any kind of punch and honestly didn’t even really represent the stakes of my story (or I would’ve had some bigger problems to deal with). 

Side note—the rhetorical question in the first paragraph is also a little iffy. Again, I’m not saying you can never use rhetorical questions, but agents aren’t huge fans, especially if you’re using more than one. Keep it to a minimum.

Query 2:

Emerson Charles sits on top of the social pyramid at her private boarding school—a status cemented by lying about her past and pulling stunts like planting weed in her rival’s dorm room. Nothing will secure Emerson’s popularity more than winning pumpkin queen at Halloween formal. Her scheming goes too far when she visits a haunted house, hoping to cozy up to the shoo-in for king. Instead, she unwittingly unleashes a curse by reciting a passage out of an old book. Oops.

 That night, her dead aunt appears in what Emerson believes is a dream, warning her that she’s awakened a curse that’s left no survivors. She tells her niece three ghosts will arrive in the next week to teach her a lesson about her self-absorbed ways.

 It’s not just the spirits who test her, but other parts of her past Emerson hoped to forget creep up: life before the boarding school, her broken relationship with her mom, and growing feelings for her ex-best friend turned heartthrob that threaten Emerson’s pumpkin queen campaign. If she’s to save her doomed soul, Emerson must do more than face her past; she must face the darkest parts of herself.

 THE REDEMPTION CURSE is a YA contemporary-romance retelling of A Christmas Carol, complete at 71,000 words. It embraces the same snark and romance as Pride, but with a spookier edge. I’m a former English teacher turned freelance editor who’s an eternal wanderluster, book nerd, and fan of game nights.

 Thank you and I look forward to hearing from you.

 Sincerely ,

Tiffany White

My query went through a few more drafts before getting to this one, and it still has a lot of issues.

First, the intro paragraph has a few sentences in a row that are similar length, and they read incredibly choppy. Sentence variety is so important!

Second, similar to the first one, there’s no voice in this query. It reads so robotically and doesn’t show off the tone of my manuscript at all. Some manuscripts won’t have as much voice, which is fine. But YA contemporary typically has a ton of voice, and that needs to shine through. Also, another note about voice, but if you’re writing YA or MG, then your query should be toned down to sound like YA or MG. This query reads way too adult, and I don’t use a good choice of words to show the YA voice.

Third, you’ll notice I put my metadata at the bottom. I’ll dive into that more in Query 3, but I really should’ve put it up front to give context that this is a retelling right away.

Fourth, my comps are all over the place, much like my first query letter, and again, at this point, I was really better off not using any comps at all than trying to reach for bad ones that didn’t actually relate well to my book. Also, I definitely misrepresented the genre of my story. That can happen sometimes when you set out thinking that you’re writing one story, but it turns into another. I thought I had a contemporary romance on my hands, but I most definitely did not—luckily, I had some great CPs who pointed this out to me so I could fix it in my next version.

Lastly, the stakes still aren’t feeling hook-y enough, though they are much better than in the previous query.

Query 3:

THE REDEMPTION CURSE is a YA paranormal retelling of A CHRISTMAS CAROL, complete at 70,000 words. Fans of Eleanor from THE GOOD PLACE will love Emerson’s snark, while fans of books like UNDEAD GIRL GANG will appreciate the combination of humor, romance, and spookiness. 

Seventeen-year-old Emerson is the reigning queen of mean at her boarding school—a crown built on lies and clawing down rivals. After being raised in a podunk town by her joke of a mom, she’d do anything to prove she belongs with the rich kids. But her dream of being crowned queen at formal turns into a nightmare after she accidentally unleashes a curse during a tour of a for-real haunted house. 

When her totally fab aunt shows up with a warning about three ghosts, Emerson brushes it off as a stress dream. That is, until her principal breaks the unbelievable news: her aunt’s died. The funeral forces her to return to the trashy hometown she’s kept secret from her classmates, and it only takes about five seconds with her strung-out mom to remember why she left. Tragic. The only bright spot is her childhood best friend has transformed into a major hottie. Too bad he hates her for abandoning their town. 

Topping off a craptastic week are the three spirits Emerson brushed off,, who force her into her past, present, and future. She witnesses her dad’s death, her best friend falling for her, and the vicious bullying that made her cruel. Terrified, she uncovers the truth about the curse, and it’s worse than a free makeover at a strip mall—no one’s ever survived. Emerson must choose between the crown she’s relentlessly chased and facing the darkest parts of herself—or she risks losing more than her reputation, she risks losing her soul.

As an English teacher, I taught A Christmas Carol to my students, but they couldn’t connect, which inspired me to write a modern YA version. 

Thank you, and I look forward to hearing from you!

Tiffany White

I’m fast forwarding a bit. After my previous query, I probably went through about three or four more drafts. So this is actually the query that got me a full request, but I still think even this one needed more work. 

So first, you’re going to notice that, like Query 1, I put the metadata up front. I struggled with whether to put the metadata in the front or the end, but a good friend (Clementine) brought up a great point: if you have a really nice hook (by way of comps or mentioning it’s a retelling or just a catchy logline), it’s better to put the metadata first because it gives context to the query. If it wasn’t important to understand that this is A Christmas Carol retelling, I probably would’ve moved the metadata to the end and just dove right into the story. 

I also think my first paragraph is clunky and too wordy, which I ended up fixing in my next version. 

What I do love about this query is the voice. I had a lot of people help me revise this, and one of my friends who beta read for me and knew my main character’s snarky voice gave my query a makeover and helped me insert more of that voice (thanks Britt!). 

What I don’t like about this query is that I still feel like it reveals too much information. I’m going way past the inciting incident and revealing quite a bit of the plot—though the stakes are certainly better.

This query proves that queries by no means have to be perfect to get an agent’s attention. I don’t think it’s a bad query; I do think it could’ve been better for the reasons I explained above.

Query 4:

THE REDEMPTION CURSE is a 70,000-word YA paranormal retelling of A Christmas Carol that combines the snark, humor, and otherworldly elements of The Good Place with Undead Girl Gang by Lily Anderson.

Seventeen-year-old Emerson is the reigning queen of mean at her boarding school—a title built on lies about her past and backstabbing her way up the social ladder. After being raised in podunk nowhere by her day-drinking mom, she’s determined to prove she belongs with the rich kids and goes on a spur-of-the-moment trip to a haunted house to impress the most popular guy in school. It’s just a harmless trip.

Until Emerson reads a phrase out of an ancient book. 

Suddenly, she’s got stalker ghosts forcing her into her past, present, and future, unearthing memories Emerson buried for a reason. Afraid for her life, she goes looking for answers and discovers that she unwittingly unleashed a curse that threatens to steal her soul. As it forces Emerson to confront painful and personal truths, she must show she can change her selfish ways before she loses her chance at redemption once and for all.

I taught English for six years before opening a freelance editing business, and I now edit for a local publisher and am a Revpit editor for the annual contest. I placed third in the RWA Fab Five contest for the opening chapter of this book. 

Thank you for your time!

Tiffany White

Twitter: https://twitter.com/tiffanykwhite

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/writersuntapped/

Website: www.writersuntapped.com

This is the final query I wrote before I got my offer of representation! This query got me three additional manuscript requests. I love this query. A lot. I think it’s simplified, less wordy, and cuts straight to the point while not giving away too much of the plot. Remember in queries, less is more. 

What I like about my query, other than it being less wordy, is that I actually had space to add to my bio. A friend (Shannon!) advised me to beef up my bio and mention the things I’ve accomplished, which I failed to do in my previous versions because they were already so long. I mean, I’m a #Revpit Editor, I own my own editing business, and the first chapter of this book placed in a competition. That’s all kind of a big deal. All of this to say, if you’ve got some writing-related creds, mention them! 

If you’re querying right now, believe me, I know how disheartening it can feel to get rejections. But also believe me when I tell you this industry is so subjective and the rejections are not a reflection of you or your writing skills.  Persistence really is key (easier said than done, I know). You don’t need to get a ton of full requests; all you need is that one yes and that one agent who loves your story as much as you do. Whatever you do, don’t give up! Your stories are worth telling.