Happy Monday, happy writers! This week, we’re going to discuss one of the most dreaded topics for any writer day-dreaming about publication: the query.
Is your stomach getting queasy just thinking about it? I know mine is…
What is a query? A query is the sales pitch in which you try to condense 300 pages of delicious novel-ly goodness into two or three paragraphs that are polished and perfect and pithy enough to convince a complete stranger to read your work. It’s the letter you write to your potential literary agent, or editor, or publisher, to sell your story to them.
Is there anything more stressful in the world? I mean, probably dangling over a tank of snapping and slobbering sharks on a lengthening and fraying rope … but even then, I’d have to say, the experiences aren’t dissimilar.
So, let’s go into it. How do you write a query that isn’t a total mess??
Step One: Know Your Book
This advice sounds deceptively simply, but it’s really, really important, and harder than it seems. Just because you’ve been months, or even years, writing a book, doesn’t mean you actually understand the story you’ve spit out.
When someone asks you to describe your novel, do you find yourself delivering a lot of sentences that trail off into panicked mutterings? (“Well, it’s about a girl who … she has to go on this quest … and there are cabbages that … poison people … also there’s a dog … I don’t know, it’s hard to explain. Can I interest you in a change of topic to literally anything else in the world?”)
Your query will never sound quite right if you don’t honestly understand the story you’re trying to tell. Make sure you understand your book’s plot structure, its message, the main character’s motivations, false belief, and emotional arc. You have to know what makes your story work, and be able to explain why it’s amazing and readable and publishable in just a few paragraphs. Daunting? Sure. Doable?
Before sitting down to write your query, be sure that you can answer the following questions about your book:
- Who is my protagonist?
- What do they want?
- What is keeping them from this goal? (Personal and antagonist forces!)
- Where does my story take place?
- What is my Inciting Incident?
- What is the Point of No Return?
- What struggles define Act 2? Does Act 2 have a Mini-Climax, or a Midpoint Mirror Moment?
- What is my Dark Night of the Soul?
- What happens in the Climax?
- How is it all Resolved?
It’s not that you need to include every one of these elements in your query (this is a query, not a synopsis), but it is important that you understand how your own plot truly works. Then, you can break it down into smaller, digestible parts.
Your query doesn’t need to explain the inner workings of your novel’s magic or political system. It does need to mention your protagonist’s motivations, what compels them on this journey, the main conflict of the story. By focusing on these elements, you’ll be able to cut to the quick and craft a query that truly conveys the point of your project.
2. Sell Your Story Like You’re Writing a Back Cover Blurb.
It’s time to be a used car salesman (preferably without the sleaze) and write a pitch that sounds like your book is ready to jump off the shelf and into a reader’s pocket.
Here’s an activity for your afternoon: pull some books off your (I’m guessing overstuffed and only half-heartedly organized) shelves and read their back covers. Sort these books into piles: the blurbs that make you go “WOW, THIS BOOK SOUNDS AMAZING, I HAVE TO READ IT RIGHT NOW” and the ones that … don’t.
You want to study the good blurbs and the bad blurbs. Their pacing, the word choices, what elements of the plot they do and don’t describe. If you’ve read the book already, gauge how accurately the blurb describes the story, and how much of the story they’ve included on the back cover. Did they describe the whole plot, or only give you a taste of Act One? Take notes, and start thinking about how you can replicate this style for your own story.
3. Describe Your Story Succinctly, In Just A Few Paragraphs
Sounds easy, right?
No, no, wait, come back.
All You Really Need To Do Is Answer These Questions:
Who is the main character?
What do they want?
What is preventing them from getting it?
That’s it. Honestly. That’s the crux. Tell us who your main character is, the story’s main conflict, and the antagonistic forces preventing your character from achieving their goal. You don’t need to laboriously describe every subplot and side character, just the details that hit at the heart of your novel’s story.
If you’re familiar with plot structure, I would suggest — if you choose to include nothing else — to describe your plot up to the Point of No Return. This means, you’re describing your main character, their inciting incident that tugs them into the story, and describing that moment where they (or the circumstances propelling them) decide to throw themselves whole-hog into the novel’s conflict. That way, you’ve covered your character’s motivations, their conflict, and why they’re compelled to participate in whatever
horrors exciting challenges your story has laid out for them.
Include Your Buzz Words and Comps.
Be sure that your query mentions your genre (fantasy, contemporary, science fiction, horror, what have you), your intended audience (young adults, adults, middle grade, etc), your word count, and anything else that makes your story unique. LGBT characters, diverse characters, whether the book is the start of a series or a standalone, if you’re an #OwnVoices author, etc. Any agent skimming queries wants to see reasons your book is going to stand out.
Also, if you can, think of comparable works you can use to explain the plot or premise. It’s Star Wars meets Jaws will explain your novel about haunting down a vicious space shark. Harry Potter Meets Jaws will prepare an agent for your novel about magic-spewing wizard sharks. And any agent who sees the comp Pride and Prejudice Meets Jaws will instantly have their interest piqued for your period romance that takes place on a hunt for a monocle-wearing Regency Period shark.
It’s okay if you can’t think of any on-the-nose comparisons! Try something like: I was inspired by the parallel worlds in His Dark Materials… or With a writing style inspired by So-And-So Famous Author. The point of the comparisons is to give tactile, real-world examples of the kind of story you’re trying to sell, so prospective agents can decide if it’s going to be something they would like!
To recap: Sell your story like back cover copy, and include all the relevant details that explain why your story stands out. Describe your plot briefly and succinctly, and only include the essentials.
Bottom Line: Be Confident in Yourself, and Your Story.
Writing a query isn’t something meant to be accomplished in a single sitting. Play with your query for a few days or weeks; read it to other people; craft several versions; try to envision it as a real back cover blurb.
This is your chance to sell your book, so get EXCITED, get CONFIDENT. You’ve written an incredible story that other people ARE going to enjoy reading; first, you’ve just got to entice them to open it.
You can do this.
Get your book out there.
Happy Writing. 🙂