When I tell people that I’ve never written a query that didn’t result in a request for pages, they can’t believe it. When I tell them I ever sent out three (or six if you count the random assignments I was given to pitch to at conferences) queries, they are shocked.
But here’s the thing: I researched before I sent out my original set of queries. I looked not only at who represented what (which you can generally find on websites) but who sold what (which you can find out on Publishers Marketplace). I don’t care if an agent loves historical romance, if every sale she’s ever made is paranormal, she is probably not going to have the right set of contacts.
Because I belong to RWA, MWA, and Sisters in Crime, I am involved in a lot of discussions about queries. And I can also say that any query I’ve ever edited for someone has also resulted in a request for pages.
Your query is a super-important piece of writing. If you’re looking for an agent or editor, it may be the only piece of writing the people you want to take you on ever see. If you’re self-publishing, think of it as your cover copy—it’s the thing that’s going to make readers pick up your book.
A query letter has some basic pieces, but the one most people get wrong is the part that is like cover copy, the part that hooks an agent or editor and makes them want to find out more. Because that’s the trick—it’s not a synopsis that gives away everything in your book, it’s just a taste, a tease, a tempt.
This section needs to have three things and virtually nothing else:
- What keeps the characters apart
- What keeps the characters together
I’ve included setting here because setting often has bearing on not only the goals and conflicts, but also on the subgenre. Someone who is looking for a small-town contemporary romance is not looking for an urban werewolf romance. You don’t need to describe the setting, just let me know where and when this takes place. The one exception to this is paranormal: in paranormal, you need a bit more world background. If your world has demons crawling up from the sewers, I need to know whether people are aware of them or not. Your world is a character, and it needs the bones sketched in.
What keeps the characters apart is vital, but I don’t have to know the details. For example, “When Molly’s fiance left her for his paralegal, she decided to stick with battery-operated boyfriends for the rest of her life.” Fine. I don’t need more. I don’t need her ex’s name or any of the details of their breakup. I don’t need to know that her father also left her mother—it will add character depth in the story, but it doesn’t need to be in the query. But let’s put Molly somewhere:
When Molly France’s fiance left her for his paralegal, she moved out of his Seattle apartment and back to the home where she grew up on Vashon Island with a chip on her shoulder and a suitcase full of battery-operated boyfriends to remind her not to trust any man. The old farmhouse, however, is in a bad way, and if she intends to use it as a home base for her new app-designing business, it’s going to need a lot of work. [OK, it’s not elegant, but I am making up as I go along, here.]
Now we have to give her a guy. He can either want her or not. Doesn’t matter, because her trust issues are enough to keep them apart.
Patrick Green has been trying to get off Vashon Island forever. Carpentry is all he knows, and saving sufficient funds to get a business off the ground in the city isn’t easy.
OK. Now, look, these two have nothing in common except that they live on the same island. If I am reading along in your query, I can see the conflict, but I don’t see any reason why he wouldn’t just ignore her completely, or why she wouldn’t just hole up in the farmhouse and nurse her wounds while looking for a job.
So we need to get them together, and keep them together. So…
Patrick Green has been trying to get off Vashon Island forever. Carpentry is all he knows, and saving sufficient funds to get a business off the ground in the city isn’t easy. When Molly first hires him to work on her house, all he sees is a path of dollar signs leading to freedom. But as passion flares between them he faces a difficult decision: will he give up the future he’s always wanted for the woman he’s beginning to love?
OK, like I said, it’s rough. But see how it sets up the situation without too many details? I don’t need to know that Molly has been working out of her boyfriend’s apartment in downtown Seattle for three years. I don’t need to know that Patrick’s parents died when he was nineteen and he’s had to take care of his siblings until this year. I don’t need the flesh of the story, just the bones. The bit that makes me go “yeah, let me see whether I want to read a few pages and see if I like the author’s voice and style.”
This is NOT a particularly good query, as far as I am concerned. Because it sounds to me as if the story is a bit empty. That’s because I haven’t written it yet and I am a pantser so I can’t write a query until after I’ve at least started the story.
Anyway, if you’re editing your own query, check and see whether you’ve hit those three points…and good luck!