If you’re a writer considering traditional publishing, you’ll probably want to land an agent. Which means you’ll need to write a query letter, the bane of all writers (other than the one-page synopsis). You may have heard of Query Shark, a blog run by literary agent Janet Reid, where she publicly critiques queries for free.
As of writing this post, the Query Shark archive contains 332 critiques (not including revisions, of which there are many). These days it’s pretty hard to get featured on QS, given the number of queries Janet gets sent. Thankfully, there’s so much you can learn from the archives that you shouldn’t need to send one in.
When seeking advice on querying, you might come across suggestions to read the entirety of the Query Shark archives. Listen to them. There’s so much to learn, more than I could possibly mention here. These are just the key things I noticed but are no substitute for the real thing. Ms Reid has put so much time and effort into her blog. Don’t let it go to waste!
That aside, here are twelve things I learned (or had reinforced) about writing queries.
1. Keep it brief.
The Shark suggests keeping your query letter to around 250 words (not including bio). You might be wondering how the hell you’re supposed to pitch your book in so few words, and the good news is that you don’t have to. All you have to do is entice the agent to read on. That’s it. And how do you do that? You just…
2. Find the stakes.
Where’s the conflict in your book? QS has received a lot of submissions that are clearly memoirs disguised as fiction (sometimes unbeknownst to the author). How can she tell? Because real stories often don’t have stakes. Without stakes, you don’t have a plot.
QS repeatedly gives a simple formula for getting your stakes on the page. Ask yourself:
1. Who is the main character?
2. What do they want?
3. What/who is stopping them from getting it?
4. What choice does the protagonist have to make to get what they want?
5. What bad thing happens if they make that choice?
6. What worse thing happens if they don’t?
It’s pretty simple. If your story doesn’t have stakes, it doesn’t have a plot, and there’s no tension. Sometimes the stakes don’t have to last the entire novel. What a character wants on page one might be different from what they want on page 50. But they must always want something, and something else needs to be in their way.
If you describe the stakes well enough, your query doesn’t need anything else. We’ll know who the protagonist and the antagonist are (whether the latter is a person or not doesn’t matter). Find the early stakes of your novel. Talk them up. Entice the agent to read pages. That’s all you have to do.
Here’s an example of the formula with my current work in progress, A Fate Entwined.
Andra (protagonist) has been dreaming of the day that she will fulfil an ancient prophecy with her twin brother and stop the end of the world (what she wants).
When the Magisters who have come to judge the first-ever twins deem Andra unworthy, she is cut from the prophecy and separated from her brother (what’s stopping her from getting it).
In order to reclaim her destiny, she will have to fight against the very religion that claimed she was special in the first place (the choice she has to make). If Andra fights, she might just be proving the Magisters right when they said she was too prideful (bad thing that happens if she makes the choice), but if Andra lets her brother go, she will risk losing him entirely (worse thing that happens if she doesn’t).
That’s only 100 words, which is 40% of what should be your maximum. I still have plenty of room to play with, but the main thing is on the page: Andra lost her place in the prophecy and she wants it back. Is it a good query? I honestly have no idea. I only just wrote it. But hopefully it gets the point across. Whether the book is actually about her reclaiming her place in the prophecy or not doesn’t actually matter. If the concept hooks the agent, they’ll request pages. That’s all you’ve got to do. Just don’t lie about the content of your book in the process.
3. Keep your paragraphs short and your sentences shorter.
QS suggests starting out with sentences shorter than ten words. Subject. Verb. Object. In that order. Over and over again. Your query doesn’t have to end up like this, but it’s recommended for the first draft. Just get the bones of the query onto the page. After that, you can add all of the fireworks and sparkles, the glamour and such. Just start simple. Even when you add the extra flair, try to keep your sentences under twenty words (although my previous example completely ignores this rule).
And make sure you leave lots of white space. You know that feeling when you’re reading a book and flip the page over only to find that it’s a single paragraph? Or when you’re reading an academic paper for university and see that it will take you ten minutes to read the next paragraph? Yeah. Avoid that at all costs. Agents are afraid of big paragraphs. Feel free to use single-sentence paragraphs. Single-word paragraphs will do.
I’m not kidding.
Plenty of white space. Make that agent’s day. Don’t leave them paralysed with fear at your two-paragraph queries. Agents are just like writers, except that they don’t dread phone calls quite as much as we do. Try not to scare them.
4. Take a break.
Just like when you finished each draft of your manuscript you took a break to distance yourself from the project (you did do that right?), you will take some time away from each version of your query. Not that long, but at least a few days so that you can begin dissecting it and cleaning up the damn thing.
The people on the QS blog that improved the most didn’t just implement the changes that the Shark had suggested. They took time away from their query and came back to it with fresh eyes. From there, they made all sorts of changes. You should be able to see issues with your queries and fix them. If you can’t, consider using some writer friends (or making some) that can help you.
5. Revise, revise, revise.
You may have worked it out by now, but this process isn’t as simple as slapping together 250 words with some glue and duct tape and hoping it does the job. You’re going to have multiple versions of your query, and each won’t always be better than your last.
After your break, you need to be critical and brutal, but in less of a “Hulk smash” way, and more with a surgical ruthlessness that saves lives. Take out every word that isn’t completely necessary. Avoid all adjectives and adverbs. They add nothing to your query. Kill. Your. Darlings. When it’s as polished and perfect as you can make it, take another break. Then come back and start cutting the thing up again. Re-write it entirely if you have to. Review the stakes formula. Get someone else to look at it. Find a new angle. Find a new angel. Do whatever it takes to get that query as good as you can make it.
6. A query is not a synopsis.
This one is noticeable almost straight away. When a query comes in at 500+ words, it’s no longer a query. It’s a synopsis. That is a completely separate thing, one that many agents will request along with the query letter. The query letter covers, at most, the first third of your novel. The synopsis describes the whole thing, including the ending. Mastering the synopsis is a different beast entirely (the one page, or short, synopsis is the bane of all writers), but we’re not here to learn about synopsises. We’re here to learn about queries. So, let’s just move on.
7. Don’t use rhetorical questions.
For some reason, we writers seem to think that people will connect with our story more if we pitch it with a rhetorical question. What would you do if you learned you had magic? Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be cut from your own prophecy? Do you know what you would do if trusted to destroy a piece of jewellery in order to defeat the dark lord?
Here’s the thing: nobody cares.
Not one bit.
Agents don’t want to wonder or think about the premise of your novel. They want to be told why it’s awesome. It’s a bit contradictory because the entire point of the query letter is to entice them with your premise. The thing is, you have 250 words to do that. Don’t try (and fail) to woo them in the first sentence with a rhetorical question. If you have a killer hook, that’s great. Use it. But falling back on a rhetorical question comes across as lazy, and also tells the agent that you haven’t done any research on writing queries, because, in all honesty, this could be point number one of the list.
8. Don’t use comp titles unless they are recent and relevant.
Oftentimes, an agent will request comparison titles. That is, books which are similar to your own. Not all agents request this, and my personal opinion is that if they don’t ask, don’t include them. Why? Because an agent might not like the same books that you like, so freely giving comp titles gives the agent a chance to judge your book further before reading any pages. But that’s just my take on it.
When you are asked to include comparison titles, make sure they are as recent as possible. QS suggests using books published within the last three years. This is because the agent isn’t wanting to know about your book’s tone, characters or plot from the comp titles. What they’re looking for is where your book sits within the current market. Hence, it is completely useless to say that your book will appeal to fans of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings or Tolstoy’s War and Peace.
“But there are so many books out there! How can I be expected to keep up with all the current ones?” you might be asking. That’s a great question. Truthfully, reading current books is something I need to get better at. I read slowly, so that makes it difficult, but I’m trying to read more recent releases these days. If you’re ready to query and you haven’t read anything released in the last three years, here’s what I would suggest you do:
- Identify your target audience and research recently-published books that appeal to the same market.
- Stick to your genre.
- Download previews of those books on your phone (or go to a library) and see if they’re similar to your own.
- As an extreme option, read a synopsis of it on Wikipedia.
- Don’t try to mislead an agent, but remember that they’re not going to read your manuscript and say, “Hey, this is nothing like Starsight by Brandon Sanderson.” Don’t stress too much.
As a final note on this, try not to use books that are mega-successful. It makes you seem like you have delusions of grandeur. If you’re writing fantasy, don’t use comparison titles like The Winds of Winter (if it’s ever released), Oathbringer or The Stone Sky. If you write horror, no Stephen King, okay?
9. Avoid soup of all kinds.
Like all people, agents hate soup. Not real soup, mind you. Who doesn’t like a nice hot bowl of chowder in the middle of winter? Agents might be the modern gatekeepers between you and traditional publishing, but they’re not psychopaths!
What Query Shark means when she refers to soup is a dump of ‘stuff’ at once. You can have character soup, place soup, etc. You only have 250 words here, so don’t stuff it with proper nouns and other things we won’t be able to remember. If your query has more than two or three character names, chances are you have too many. Protagonist. Antagonist. Maybe a third character if it’s absolutely essential. Ideally, you shouldn’t have to give any location names in a query letter.
Basically, don’t give the agent several things to remember, because they absolutely won’t. It’s confusing and one of the fastest ways to earn yourself a form rejection. Nobody wants that, so avoid soup at all costs!
10. Don’t splat.
Splatting is when you start your query off great, you’ve got an awesome hook and the agent is completely sucked in. Then within a paragraph or two, you’ve crashed into a tree on the side of the road so hard that your query goes up in flames. At this point, all that’s left for the agent to form reject is the ashes, sent back to you promptly by email or just ignored entirely.
I’m not entirely sure how this happens, but I imagine it’s the result of a query’s beginning being polished to perfection, then the author looking at the rest, shrugging and saying, “Well I guess that’s good enough.”
Point is, make sure your query is good in the start, middle and end. How do you do that? Well, I don’t really know how to answer that. But hey, I never claimed to have the solution to all of these potential mistakes. This is just a list of things I learned. And I definitely learned not to go splat. So I dunno, bring a parachute or something.
11. No gimmicks.
Gimmicks cover a wide variety of things that agents don’t like. This includes: not using the present tense, writing in the first-person perspective of your protagonist (even if your entire book is in the first-person), using different fonts and colours, including images, stating that you know where the agent lives, etc. These are things which will generally get you auto-rejected. There’s not a whole lot more to say on this since there’s no exact definition of what a gimmick in a query is. Most of the time, you’ll know it when you see it.
That is to say, gimmicks in a query are like an aluminium baseball bat. When one hits you in the face, it really sucks.
12. Taste is subjective.
One of the most important lessons from Query Shark is that taste is subjective. I’m obviously not an agent, but there were many queries that Janet Ried loved that I couldn’t really see the big deal about. The story didn’t grip me, and that’s because I have a totally different taste in books than the Shark does. It’s also entirely possible that several queries which didn’t work for her would have worked for another agent.
The only things you can do to improve your chances are: polish your query and get it as good as possible, research the agent to make sure they represent your genre/target audience and do some cyberstalking to get a feel for your agent of choice’s taste. Don’t be too discouraged by a rejection letter. Maybe your book just wasn’t for them. But after a while, make sure you take a long look at your work and make sure it’s as good as possible. And always keep writing. Don’t go all-in on one book, because you can always write something better.
Bonus: Don’t break the rules. It will go horribly wrong. Except when it doesn’t.
Sometimes breaking the rules works. Over the 332 post Query Shark archives, there are a handful of queries that break several of the rules but work anyway. Queries featuring first-person and other gimmicks, queries that are extremely short or a little too long. There’s an exception to every rule.
That doesn’t mean you should try to be the exception.
How these authors got away with their rule-breaking queries, it’s hard to tell. Maybe they got lucky, and the writing just worked for Janet. As a general rule, don’t try to replicate these lucky people. They are the 1%. But like all rules, this one was also made to be broken. If you want to try something different, go ahead. But don’t come crying to me if it completely fails.
There is, however, one rule that must not be broken. Never, ever say “fiction novel”. All novels are fiction. This will earn you an instant rejection from almost any agent. It’s the exception to the exception to the rule.
A Query: Horrible Edition
Your task: tell me at least five things wrong with this query letter, which I’ve written based on a previous draft of Incarnate, along with
some many complete fabrications about it.
To who it may concern,
What would you do if your brother kicked you out of home? Just yesterday Kitt decided he’d had enough of my stealing—because I want to be just like Arkon, our father—but that would never convince me to stop, as I still had a place to lay my head at knight, a tavern named the Dancing Donkey run by a kindly man named Botto, who had become somewhat of a father figure for me since my brother and I moved to Florynn after our parents were killed by pirates that had a bright orb of azure blue.
I love stealing, and I’m really good at it, so I broke into the house of the most powerful man in town, Cyan Tresshold, an old scholar. Tresshold caught me but it turns out he’s really nice and took me on as an apprentice, and together we’re reading the story of Prince Calis, who lived a thousand years ago in the Kingdom of Prosperity. I got a job with my friend Kethra, at the bakery, and it turns out I actually enjoyed it more than stealing. Life is going well for me, that is until a crazy old man called Kyazmus showed up and tells me that my father is still alive! He also kicked my but at CONSPIRACY OF KINGS and took my money, but that’s another story. So without so much as a backwards glance, I left town in search of my long lost father.
My journey lead me to the Nero Asylo, a labyrinth that goes way underground. There I was captured and forced to fight Champion, who was actually turned out to be Prince Calis! We met Kyazmus again and were teleported to the city of Majestic, where wacky adventures followed.
INCARNATE is a gripping tale of two heroes brought together from different times, Dale and Calis. Other characters include Princess Scarlett, Dale’s love interest, and David, Calis’s younger brother. The fiction novel is 500,000 words and comparable to epics like A Song of Ice and Fire, The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars. It is the first of an eight-book series, which already has the first three books completed. Incarnate is full of plot twists and will leave the reader on the edge of their seat, gripping for a box of tissues. It is a guaranteed best-seller and came fifteenth in my town’s novel competition. Readers of Brandon Sanderson and Charles Dickens will love this book.
I graduated from RMIT University in 2019 with a GPA of 3.2 without even trying that hard. My degree is a Bachelor of Arts (Creative Writing) and in it I learned how to right books good. One of my peers said I write like Steven King, and although I have never met him, I know that Steven King would love this book. He is yet to respond to my emails.
I know that you cannot respond to all queries but I would really appreciate a response within three days, as this is a exclusive submission.
Looking forward to your quick response!
– Bad Righter
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