Monday, June 27, 2011

Query Writing 101

by Calista Taylor

We've had some great posts written here at FTWA on queries and querying, but I thought it might be helpful to go back to the basics of a query. There are many formats out there, and the following is a good basic format, similar to that found on Agent Query. I've found it to be very successful, hooking the reader, and giving just enough information for them to want to request more.

I will preface this by saying the format below is for fiction queries you plan on sending via email. You can still use the query for snail mail, but you'll want to follow traditional letter writing guidelines for your format.

General Guidelines:
  • You want your letter to be at most one page in length, single spaced, with a hard return between paragraphs and no indentation at the start of each paragraph.
  • Make sure your letter is written in third person, present tense.
  • VOICE!!! The voice of your manuscript should be evident in your query letter—if your manuscript is funny and light or dark and mysterious, the voice of your query letter should reflect that. Your query MUST have voice, or you're putting yourself at a huge disadvantage.
  • Your query should be customized to each agent—no mass mailings unless you want to have your query letter deleted without ever being read.
  • Put your title in caps. You do not, however, put the character names in caps (that's your synopsis).

Format:
  • In the subject line, type: Query: Title of your manuscript (the title should be in all caps)
  • Address the agent in the following format—Dear Mr./Ms. (Insert agent's First and Last Name):
  • First Paragraph—Your Hook: Your hook should be one sentence—two at the most, and is essentially your pitch or tagline. The key is to really grab the reader and make them want to read the book. It should capture what makes your story unique. Do NOT use rhetorical questions! That's a big no-no.
  • Second Paragraph (or a BRIEF second and third paragraph)—This is a summary of the first third of your story. It should show the conflict and what's at stake for the main character. Only use two to three character names. Why just the first third of your story? You want to include enough to grab your reader's imagination, but only give them enough to hook them, so they want to request the manuscript in order to find out what happens. You do not want to include your ending (that's also your synopsis).
  • Third Paragraph (or fourth, depending on your summary)—Your bio. Only include writing related accomplishments. If you don't have any, don't worry—just skip the bio. And please don't tell the agent you've been writing since kindergarten.
  • Final Paragraph—Your closing. Include the title, genre and word count. If you're querying this agent for a specific reason (other than the obvious), I'd include that here. Also summarize what you've included, based on the agent's preferences (First chapter? First five pages and a synopsis?), and then a brief thank you.
  • Your closing information—End the letter with: Sincerely, (hard return) your first and last name. Use another hard return and then include your contact information (address, phone, email). Optional: include your pen name, blog, and/or website.

A few notes and helpful hints:
  • Test your query format by sending the email to yourself. Do not use italics—it will usually come across as jumbled nonsense once sent.
  • Save your query letter and any included pages as a draft in your email. When you're ready to query, copy the query (and pages if needed) and paste it into a new email. This will ensure you have fewer email formatting issues. Before you send, make sure to customize your query letter for the agent you are sending it to.
  • To avoid any mistakes, put the agent's email address in as the final step, only after you have double checked to make sure you've made all your changes.
  • When you do respond to a request, the first thing you should do is delete the "m" off of the ".com" on the agent's email address. Then you can make sure you've included and attached and double checked everything, without accidentally sending a response before you're ready. When you're good to go, just type the "m" back onto the end of the email address and hit send.

Querying is never easy, but I hope this helps clarify things. Do you have any favorite tricks that makes querying easier for you?

15 comments:

JeffO said...

Thanks for the tips -- I hope to put them to good use by the end of the summer.

Christopher Hudson said...

Good tips ... I'm probably like the guy who kept renaming his soda pop 1 UP, 2 UP, 3UP, etc. after each failure ... and finally gave up at 6 UP ... I quit sending out query letters.

Jean Oram said...

I like to save my query as a text (.txt) file on my desktop once it is ready to go. I find saving it as a .txt file instead of a Word file helps take out strange formatting that I can't see and are a hidden part of Word documents. Plus, having it on my desktop, it is easy to find to copy and paste into my email program.

I love your idea of taking the "m" out of the address. For me, I need a send delay. So, I hit send and then half an hour later for it to come back and ask, "Are you really sure?" Because if I am going to find/realize a flub up, it's always right after I hit send. Doh!

tamarapaulin said...

I thought I was being paranoid, the way I leave the email address blank until I'm sure I'm ready! Nice to hear it's a good habit, recommended by others. :-)

Calista Taylor said...

Jeff, best of luck when you start querying! And remember, always query in small batches in case something needs to be changed. : )

Christopher, I'll admit querying can be frustrating, but putting together the right query definitely helps improve the odds in your favor!

Calista Taylor said...

Jean, there's a send delay?!?! Never knew that!!! Thanks! And yes, saving as a .txt can definitely help cut down on formatting issues. Thanks for the tips!

Tamara, unfortunately I had to learn those little tricks through experience. lol.

Leslie Rose said...

I like to read book jackets to see how they've crisply summed up their plot and then measure the story piece in my query against those. I also BCC myself on every query I send out, and keep a spread sheet of results.

Jemi Fraser said...

Great query tips! I got caught once having a very different voice in the query and the ms - won't do that one again. I LOVE the tip about leaving the m out too - brilliant!

Mindy McGinnis said...

Great query tips Cali! As for tips that make it easier for me - I use QueryTracker.com to keep track of who I've sent to, and my rejections, requests, etc. It's well worth the yearly fee.

Suzanne Payne said...

Theses were great Cali! I had forgotten about only using info from the first 3rd of the book. Makes sense. I was reading over my query(Lucky7) I titled it, and I knew I was writing too much. I can go back and fix it now. :) I guess I'm going to bite the bullet and get an QueryTracker account. Sounds like a must have when you're querying.

Calista Taylor said...

Leslie, that's a great idea! Those jacket covers always do such a great job of making you want to read on-- the same thing a query should be doing.

Thanks, Jemi! Glad you liked the tip.

Mindy, I love Query Tracker! It's excellent for keeping track of your querying, even if you go with the free version.

Thanks, Suzanne! Glad you're still able to fix it-- nothing worse than figuring out a problem when you've gone through your query list. And you won't be dissappointed with QT-- I love the statistics and comments for each agent.

RSMellette said...

My query trick that is controvercial - I put my vital stats (Title, Word Count, Genre) in the subject line of an e-mail or the RE line of a letter. That saves me from having to work it into the text.

I would also track my submissions on Excel using all kinds of formulas for tracking days, % of passes to requests, etc.

Holly said...

RSMellette - I used to do the same thing on Excel. Until I found Query Tracker. querytracker.net is a great way to monitor your queries, keep track of submissions and see agent's tastes and hear about their updates.

Jean Oram said...

No, there's no send delay--I just wish there was!

Calista Taylor said...

RS, that's a great trick even if it is controversial. Gives the agent a feel for the manuscript going into the query.

Holly, I agree, QT is fantastic, and so easy to use.

Jean, damn!! lol.