Queries: what they are, how to write them, and what to expect

The query letter…

Dreaded. Hated. Feared. Reviled. The query letter is a necessary requirement for getting your story in front of literary agents and editors.

More importantly, the query letter is what sells your books to readers.

Yup, that’s right, even indie authors write query letters.

Grab the nearest fiction book, flip it over, the blurb on the back? That’s a query letter.

In fact, if you look at the blurb on EVEN VILLAINS FALL IN LOVE, that is the query I sent out. That’s the query that got me pulled out a slush pile of a small press and put my first novella into print. If we changed anything it was probably a comma, but that’s it.

If you believe the rumors you know that Doctor Charm, the wickedly sexy super villain, retired in shame seven years ago after his last fight with the super hero Zephyr Girl. The fact that the charming Evan Smith-father of four and husband of the too-beautiful-to-be-real Tabitha-bears a resemblance to the defeated Doctor is pure coincidence. And, please, ignore the minions.

Everything is perfect in the Smith household, until Tabitha announces her return to work as a super hero. Evan was hoping to keep her distracted until after he rigged the presidential election, but – genius that he is – Evan has a backup plan.

In his basement lab, Evan has a machine whose sole purpose is keeping Tabitha hungry for him. But children and labs don’t mix. The machine is broken, and Tabitha storms out, claiming she no longer knows him.
World domination takes a back seat to meeting his daughters’ demands to get Mommy back right now. This time his genius isn’t going to be enough-he’s going to need both his evil alter-ego, and the blooming super abilities of his children to save his wife. But even his most charming self might not be enough to save their marriage.

 

“But, wait!” all the hopeful authors cry. “Isn’t there more to the query letter than this?”

You are correct, dear author! This is what a full query letter looks like. This one is one of about a dozen variants I sent out for THE DAY BEFORE.

YELLOW – the body of the query or the Back Of Book Blurb (BoBB)

RED – crucial data: genre/title/word count
– It’s word count not page count because page count will change with formatting and font choice. Everyone wants the word count.

BLUE – Writing credits. This is 100% optional. If you have no previous writing credits and no platform (I am a forensic scientist writing about a forensic scientist type ‘o thing) skip this part. I was querying THE DAY BEFORE after having established a working relationship with Breathless Press, so I listed them. If I hadn’t, I would have left this paragraph out entirely.

Open with the agent or editor’s name (properly spelled), and close with something polite.

 

HOW TO WRITE THE BODY OF A QUERY:
This is the actual difficult part. What do you put in a query? How much of the story do you tell? How do you keep the story interesting?

It’s easiest to write the query – or at least a rough draft of the query – before you write the book. That way you don’t have extra information cluttering up the blurb. This is a tease, a burlesque literary performance, not the full monty. Focus on the opening scenes of book leading to the call to action. The normal farm boy who pulls a sword from the stone, not the politics of Britain. The little girl finding a magic wardrobe, not the White Witch.

Here’s your formula:

– General Introduction Paragraph (Main character’s name and goals)
– Call to Action (What the character wants and why they can’t get it)
– The Stakes (What happens if they don’t get what they want)
– Word count and Title
– Biographical information including writing credits
– Close the letter

Let’s apply this to a story… For fun, let’s do ROMEO AND JULIET…

“In Verona, a city of blood feuds, corrupt politics, and grudges held for generations Romeo Montague’s only goal is to dodge his father’s enemies (and his father’s ambitions) long enough to meet the beautiful Rosaline. When his best friend wins an invitation to the hottest party of the summer, Romeo can’t pass up the chance to meet the woman of his dreams, even if it means sneaking into the Capulet’s turf.

While searching for Rosaline, Romeo finds Juliet, the heir to the Capulet fortune. She’s beautiful, intelligent, and everything his parents would love in a daughter-in-law, except for her name. If Romeo can win Juliet’s love he might bring peace to feuding Verona. If he can’t, there’s a shallow grave waiting for him in the Capulet’s backyard.

IN FAIR VERONA is a historical romance novel/historic novel with romantic elements complete at 80,000 words.

I have a degree in history, with an emphasis in Italian history and have lived in Verona for the past six years. This is my first novel.

Thank you for your time and interest,
A. Author

Okay… well… it’s something, right? It doesn’t hint at the murder or star-crossed lovers, or the tragic tone. But it gets the idea across. But, it’s only 175 words (a full query letter should be around 250 words) and it relies heavily on everyone knowing the story of Romeo and Juliet. This is a solid rough draft, but not enough to sell the book to a reader, and ultimately that’s all you are doing. It doesn’t matter if the query letter is going to an agent or an editor, you are targeting a reader.

What would make this query work? With the IN FAIR VERONA query I have two choices because of the genre. If my book has more emphasis on history, rather than the romance, I could focus on Verona: the year, the clothes, the politics… with enough research anyone could write a very realistic romantic thriller about the ill-fated lovers. (P.S. If you do, please let me know because I’d love to read it!)

The other option, and the one I’d pick if this was Genre Romance (with a happy ending) would be to give Juliet a paragraph of her own.

THINGS TO REMEMBER WHILE WRITING THE BLURB

– Tone
– Style
– Mood
– Plot 

One of the reasons that query for THE DAY BEFORE didn’t work well (less than 20% request rate) was because it didn’t capture the tone of the series well. It gives away too much information and makes the whole book sound pretty boring. Look at your copy of THE DAY BEFORE. See the blurb there? See how it reflects the tone, style, and mood of the book without giving away too much of the plot?

Agent Samantha Rose has been exiled to a backwater assignment for the Commonwealth Bureau of Investigation, a death knell for her career. But then Sam catches a break—a murder—that could give her the boost she needs to get her life back on track. There’s a snag, though: the body is a clone, and technically that means it’s not a homicide. And yet, something about the body raises questions, not only for her, but for coroner Linsey Mackenzie.

The more they dig, the more they realize nothing about this case is what it seems … and for Sam, nothing about Mac is what it seems, either.

This case might be the way out for her, but that way could be in a body bag.

What does this have?
1) Name of the main character – Agent Sam Rose (her rank lets readers know even more about her)
2) What the main character wants – To get her career back on track
3) A major obstacle for the main character – The questions
4) The stakes –  The threat of her going home in a body bag

 

Notice that one thing these queries don’t do is give away the ending. Authors are often tempted to do this (especially when writing Genre Romance where the Happily Ever After is required) but you don’t want to do that. If the reader can get the whole book from the blurb they aren’t going to spend money on it. And, at the end of the day, it’s really nice to get paid for all your hard work.

QUERY DO’S AND DONT’S
– Do read the blurbs for your comp titles (similar titles in your genre)
– Do read the blurbs for bestsellers in your genre
– Do research agents, editors, and publishers before sending your work out
– Do follow the query guidelines on the submission page
Don’t query before your book is finished, edited and polished
Don’t CC multiple agents/editors on a single email thread
Don’t call, text, or stalk an agent/editor who you sent a query to
Don’t worry about rejections – all you need is one yes

 

 

Want More? The expanded version of this post with examples and more information is available to Patreon supporters.
Want help with your query? I do query critique for Indie and Traditional authors for $25.

 

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