Thursday, October 13, 2011

Query Me This: How to Write a Query

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

There are lots of ways to write a query, but this is one approach that has never let me down. It's also a really good test to see if your book has all the right pieces. It helps identify your protag, antagonist, core conflict, and stakes.

So, ready? Let's go.

Step One: Choosing What to Say

Before you write anything, identify the elements you want to include. This is what's going to be turned into your hook, or the paragraphs that describe your novel and show why it's so awesome.

WHO: Who is the book about? This is your protagonist. It can be a single person, or a group of people if it's an ensemble cast. You also want to say a little about them, something that is important to the overall story. This detail is the reason you chose them to be the protag. So you might have Bob, a man caught in a love triangle during the zombie apocalypse, or five guys from Jersey who all need a lot of cash fast.

WHAT: What problem do they face? This is the core conflict of your novel. What the book is about. In most stories, this will be an external problem. (Literary novels are different, as the conflict is often internal growth instead of external conflict). So you might have survive the zombie apocalypse or rob a bank. In quieter novels, you might have get over son's death, or find the courage to leave her husband.

WHERE: Where does this story take place? This is your setting. So you might have a post-apocalyptic Buffalo, the Kingdom of Gizat, or a small town in Minnesota. You might even have something tighter, like the prison block on a space freighter, or a cabin in the woods.

WHEN: When does this story take place? This is the time frame of the story. Since stories often happen during an important event in the world (or the character's life), don't just think chronologically here. It could be during a major historical point, a critical turning point, or a specific time of year. So you might have just after the zombies rose from the dead, the month the US invaded Iraq, or the summer a girl turns sixteen. The thing to remember here is to look for a when that bears on the story.

WHY: Why does it matter? This is your stakes. If your story is worth being told, there's a reason. It's important to a character in some way, and will have long lasting effects on someone or something if the protag fails. So you might have because Bob will die and never tell Sally he loves her, because the princess will be sacrificed to the demon god, Zithnit and the world will be enslaved, or because if Lisa doesn't get past her son's death she'll spiral down to depression and kill herself.

HOW: How does it end? This is your resolution, and often the big thing standing in the way of the protag. The protag has to do what to win? So you might have defeat the zombies and confess his love, start volunteering at a children's center and remember that life is worth living after all, or take a self defense class and kick the abusive bum out of the house. You don't have to give away the actual ending in the query, but some suggestion of what the protag has to do to win is good.What constitutes a win for your protag? As strange at this sounds, the how (the end) is often the inciting event that triggers the novel.

Now that you have this list and what to look for, answer the questions for your own novel. One sentence is usually enough, but if you need more, go ahead and write what you need. Don't try to be fancy yet, since this isn't the actual query, just the key elements you'll need to write it. The best way to do that is to just answer the questions simply.

To give you an example, I'm going to use one of my trunk novels, a YA science fiction adventure.

WHO: Five teens with various views on starting a colony with their parents.

WHAT: Five teens must catch a killer and find a way to survive after an extremist sabotages their colony ship and it explodes in orbit around their new planet.

WHERE: On Tellus, a new colony world.

WHEN: In the week that follows an extremist attack that leaves most of the colonists dead, and the rest stranded on an alien planet.

HOW: They band together, using the skills they learned from their families, and the few supplies that made it to the planet to catch the extremist and build a makeshift colony until the resupply ship arrives in five years.

WHY: Because if they don't catch the bad guy and find a way to survive, they all die.

Okies. You now have something similar that outlines all the pieces of your novel. It's okay if some of the information is repeated (you'll see I did that, too). This way you can really zero in on the key elements if they show up more than once.

Step Two: Putting it All Together

Next comes the fun part. Take these six elements, and put them into a basic paragraph. If you're not sure where to start, here's a template to use as a jumping off point. You can shift these things around and make the query your own. You don't have to follow this exact format, it's just to give you ideas of what important elements go into the query.

[WHO] has to [WHAT] on [WHERE] during [WHEN] because if they don't [HOW], [WHY] will happen.

While this is all one sentence, yours probably won't be (though it's possible it will, and that's okay). This is the general flow of how the story goes. You might be able to take your sentences verbatim and plop them in, but it's okay to add some information here as well to give it that query feel. (key subplots might come in a little here) Say what you need to get the details in, but don't worry about how they sound just yet. It's going to be ugly, and it's going to sound cheesy. The goal is to end up with something that sounds queryish and captures the key details of your novel so you can turn them into something that hooks agents. (And possibly readers if this becomes the book jacket copy later)

Taking my list, I end up with:
Five teens with various views on starting a colony must find a way to survive after their colony ship explodes in orbit around Tellus, their new planet. After discovering that a religion extremist is responsible for the attack that left most of the colonists dead, and the rest stranded on an alien planet, the teens band together to catch him. But he's not their only problem. The resupply ship isn't due to arrive for five years, and in order to survive alone on the planet, they must use the skills they learned from their families and the few supplies that made it to the planet, to build a makeshift colony on their own.

Tah-dah! Clearly this is a bad paragraph that won't get anyone's attention, but it's a good start for something I can polish. I know who my protags are, I know what their problem is, I know who the antagonist is, I know where it takes place, and I know why all this matters.

Step Three: Polish Unit it Shines

This is where it gets harder. Take your rough paragraph and turn it into a strong hook. This will probably take a while, so don't get frustrated if it doesn't just fall into place in an hour (and if it does, rejoice that it was that easy). One thing I've found helpful here is to read the cover copy from as many books in my genre as I could to get a feel for how they sound. While cover copy will be more vague than a query (you don't want want to give away anything on a cover), they have the same basic format. So instead of "he learns a dark secret that changes his life," you'd have, "he learns his mother was a werewolf who killed the Queen of England."

Another thing to think about as you polish is your voice and the tone of the book. If your story is dark and gritty, having a query that is light and funny is going to mislead agents. It's also not going to represent your book in the best way. Show your writing skills by making the query read like your book. Get your voice in there, any turns of phrases or interesting language. While you don't want to flat out quote your novel, it's okay to pull phrases if your protag describes themselves in a colorful way or something.

Step Four: The Stuff Besides the Hook

The hook isn't the only thing in a query. You also have your "why I'm querying you" portion and the "all about me" portion, and those three elements make up your letter. Agent Nathan Bransford says the sweet spot for query letter is between 250 and 350 words, so this is a good target to aim for. Traditionally, queries are one page, 12 point type, one inch margins, and a readable serif font like Times Roman. (A serif font is one that has the little tails on the ends. It's not just straight lines, as they can be hard to read). If it doesn't fit, keep editing. Don't fudge the size or the margins. (though this isn't such a big deal anymore with electronic submissions)

Why I'm Querying You

This is often the intro paragraph of your query, but it can also be after the hook part. It gives the title (and sometimes word count) of your book and why you chose that agent to send it to. Something like, "I'm a fan of your blog and read you like fantasies about werewolves, so here's my 85,000-word novel, Wolves of London, Ohio." (but better of course). If you have a personal connection, like you met them at a conference, mention that. If you have no connection and got their name from, just do a general hello. While a specific reason why you chose that agent is nice, it's not a deal breaker and won't hurt you if you don't have it. Don't make stuff up, don't force it, just be professional and basic if that's all you have.

All About Me

This is a paragraph about you, and you can also put the title and word count here if it doesn't fit well in the WIQY paragraph. This is where you'd mention any past publishing credits and any relevant information about you or your book. If you have nothing of note, don't stress. Credits are nice, but the book is what matters and the agent won't care if you've never published anything if the book is great. Some folks like to say "this is my first novel," but it's not necessary. Some even recommend against this as first novels can carry a stigma or being "not yet ready." It doesn't matter much either way, so do what feels right to you here.

Some folks like to start out with the WIQY para and end with the AAM para, but you can mix and match. You can start with the hook right away and put the other two at the bottom if you'd like. Though I would suggest not opening with both the WIQY and the AAM paras, as that leaves you talking a lot at the start and not getting to the book right away. Of course if these are really short and consist of one of two lines total between them, then you're probably fine. The most important part is the hook, so don't wait too long to get to that.

Once your query is done, show it to your trusted readers and make sure it's the best it can be. It's pretty common for queries to be sent out before they're ready, so don't rush this part of it. There is no "good enough" for a query. Make it rock. You'll be happy you took them time when those requests start coming in.

But most of all, make sure you're comfortable with what you have in your query. If something is bugging you, fix it before it goes out. A little uncertainty is normal, but you want to avoid anything that you'll second guess yourself on if you get rejected. "Oh, if I'd only done X, I wouldn't have gotten a form reject." Make it shine, make sure it makes you happy, and send it out there.

Other helpful links:

Query Shark The best way to see what makes a good query is to see what others did and how they're critiqued. This is a great site to see what an agent thinks.

Pub Rants Pitch Workshop There are a few of these so check the links on the bottom right for the others. Very good advice of developing your hook.

Evil Editor Evil things are done to queries, but it's all in the name of fun and learning. You can learn a lot by seeing the mistakes other makes.

Do you have any questions about queries? What's your take on them? Love them? Hate them? 

For more help on plotting or writing a novel check out my Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

Go step-by-step through plotting and writing a novel. Learn how to find and develop ideas, brainstorm stories from that first spark of inspiration, develop the right characters, setting, plots and subplots, as well as teach you how to identify where your novel fits in the market, and if your idea has what it takes to be a series.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure offers ten self-guided workshops with more than 100 different exercises to help you craft a solid novel. Learn how to:
  • Create compelling characters readers will love
  • Choose the right point of view for your story
  • Determine the conflicts that will drive your plot (and hook readers!)
  • Find the best writing process for your writing style
  • Create a solid plot from the spark of your idea
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure also helps you develop the critical elements for submitting and selling your novel once it’s finished. You’ll find exercises on how to:
  • Craft your one-sentence pitch
  • Create your summary hook blurb
  • Develop a solid working synopsis And so much more!
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is an easy-to-follow guide to writing your novel or fixing a novel that isn’t quite working. 

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Hey, this is handy. :) I already used your query workshop to form the query for a WiP, and I was a bit startled at how it helped me pin down the thrust of the parallel plot in two paragraphs.

    Is it bad that my narrator fails at her primary goal?

    Thanks for taking the type to post this helpful input!

  2. Thanks for tackling this topic. I think it's harder than writing the book to create a hook and tell the essence of your story in so few words. I've been working on mine and found Kristen Nelson's blog posts where she critiqued your query and a few others very helpful. I printed them out and studied them before writing mine. Also Elana Johnson has a great e-book with examples of queries she dissects that really helped me get a grip on this. The link is

  3. Most welcome. Carradee, it's all situational, so I can't say if it's bad or not without knowing the whole story. If you're writing horror, protags failing isn't unusual for the genre. Epic fantasy, reader expect the big win. You just have to look to see if the ending is satisfying to the reader or if they're going to feel cheated. If the failure allows them to gain something else that is really more important or something the reader wants to happen more than the win, you might be fine. If not, you might need to re-think.

    Thanks for the extra link, Natalie. Queries are so brutal sometimes. I wish I still had my original drafts for Shifter to show ya'll. They were terrible! I do a pre-query now for every book before I write it, so I can make sure I have all the key components figured out (even on a basic level). When I can't write a query for it, I know I'm still missing a piece. A helpful tool.

  4. Great post and timely for me -- I'm attempting to polish my query letter to sparkly perfection. Thanks!

  5. Thanks for taking the time to answer my question, Ms. Janice. It's urban fantasy, so it's in that borderland between epic fantasy and horror.

    And I like your note about writing a pre-query before you write a book. I'm mostly a pantster, but that sounds like a really good idea! (…Now that I think about it, I think you've mentioned that before, but this is the first time it's sunk through my thick skull.)

    If you have a Mac, try the program Scrivener. It has a nice "snapshot" function you can use before you slaughter a writing tidbit. Among a myriad of other features that I use constantly. *grin*

    Thanks, again!

  6. Most welcome. I mention lots of stuff multiple times. You never know what will click for someone. I've had stuff banged into my head over and over and it didn't click until someone said it in just the right way for me.

    Not on a Mac anymore, but I do hear good things about Scrivener. That would have come in handy yesterday. I cut a chunk and then decided it would work somewhere else, but it was gone. Oh well!

    1. I don't have a Mac and I have Scrivener. I haven't used it a lot, yet, because I was finishing a novel. I have used it for some planning and it has amazing uses for planning and for keeping pieces of information. All in addition to writing the story.

  7. Why not keep a Scraps file? That's what I did, before Scrivener. Whenever I cut something, I'd copy it (with the context) and copy it into another file specifically for the cut pieces for that story.

    Even if you end up not needing any of the snippets, I've found that reading some of the old tidbits can sometimes help trigger ideas for a stuck point.

  8. I do for some things, like finished scenes, but I'll often write 200-300 words or so, not like where it's going and just delete it. Then I find a spot where that little but would have worked and I have to remember what I did. It's usually in the same scene or the next. It's not a big deal really. Just part of my process. I make liberal use of my delete key :)

  9. Query writing certain is an art! One I haven't quite perfected yet. ;)

  10. Hi Janice -- surfing around some of your older posts today. I'm in query-prep mode, so this was very helpful. Many thanks!

  11. Most welcome. :) Best of luck on the query.

  12. Perfect! Just what I needed today.

  13. Thanks, Janice. I've started to think about querying and seeing it broken down like this is awesome!

  14. Kathryn & Lady Gwen, awesome, I love when a post hit a reader at the right time :)

  15. Excellent post, though I'm not 100% sure about the "why I'm querying you" part. If you have a personal connection to the agent, then that's a necessary part of the letter. But if you don't, it seems to me this may be redundant (and a bit transparent). Just my opinion from my own experience querying.

  16. Joshua, if you have nothing to say for that part, then don't use it. Same as if you have no prior publications. And it's also a personal taste thing. Some people (agent and writers) like to start with an intro, others like to jump right into the hook. I like to see if the agent has even mentioned a preference and do that.