Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Writing Effective Queries

I've spent ten years talking about writing effective queries.

The number of INeffective queries that arrive in my mailbox, DAILY, is perplexingly high.

When you think about a query, it's pretty simple really.
A good query is like the answer to the question: Have you read any good books lately?

When someone asks you that, what do you say?

Agent: So, read any good books lately?
Author 1:YES! It was 75,408 words long, and it's historical fiction, and it's set in Boring, Oregon!

Agent: So, read any good books lately?
Author 2: YES! I'm an unpublished writer with no writing credits, but I've loved to write since I was little.

Agent: So, read any good books lately?
Author 3: YES! It starts with Jack Reacher being arrested for a crime he could not have committed, and when he's cleared of that, the guy who framed him turns up dead, and Reacher has to decide whether to stay and figure out what happened or just get the hell out of this crazy pants town.

A good query is a handsome beast!

I did a round of query replies this morning and at least 30% of them didn't get to "what's the story" until the third paragraph.

Look at your query. Look at the first line. If I ask you "So, read any good books lately?" are you going to tell me what you've written in that first line?

The most compelling thing you're going to tell me in your query is the plot.
Start with that.


french sojourn said...

And for heavens sake read Query Shark...the Archives before even thinking of send out a query...capiche?

french sojourn said...

and read it thoroughly...edit it....

..thinking of SENDING out a....jeeesh!

just as an example.

Lucie Witt said...

Good morning, y'all.

Thing I've discovered helps me with honing in on my plot for queries:

Before I start on a new WIP, I write a query draft. It essentially reads like back cover copy.

As I draft, I return to my query several times and tweak it. Sometimes this means adjusting to match new plot points that come up as I write. Sometimes it also helps me remember to stay on my main plot when I'm drafting and subplots start tempting me to go a million different directions.

I've found that when I can't make the query work as I draft, it usually means somethings wrong with my plotting.

Lucie Witt said...

Ugh, typos in the morning.

**pours more coffee**

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

I follow a number of agent, writer, publishing, etc. blogs (as you might imagine) and the other day, one of them did one of those "this query was super effective and now the author has X contract" sort of deals. If I remember right, format-wise it read backwards of how queries are discussed in these waters. As in, the paragraphs went "I am querying you because Z, I am Y, this novel is X genre at W words, V are my comp titles" and then it went into what the book is actually about.

So I guess there's two schools of thought, one which thinks a query should be set up VWXYZ, and the other one being perfectly fine with ZYXVW. I mean, if it's a good query it's a good query, I guess, it's just odd to the eye to see a reversal after reading so many the other way.

(and we don't need to talk about my personal query writing process. It always feels as though I've put on those Hulk Smash gloves they sell nowadays and then try to reach for the delicate, precise words to best and most magically describe my stories)

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Ah yes, the query letter conundrum - it is your bait. Putting a limp rag on your hook by stuttering through 200 words before getting around to story won't work out well as Janet tells us.

We are hunting sharks here. Red wigglers might catch you a lovely brim in shallow waters, but that is not what we're looking for. So dig deep, use some live bait, a fat tuna at the end of the hook and pray the shark doesn't bite through your line when you're reeling it in. Now all I must do is translate my red wiggler of a query into a hearty tuna.

That's all I got. Now I'm going fishing.

Susan Bonifant said...

Lucie Witt, a while back, I kinda sorta joked about writing the query first. Then I did it with my current WIP. I followed a path like yours, back and forth from query to changing story and back again to keep the query from sprawling.

I thought it would be more organized, and it is. But I very much like the idea that after two years of writing my heart out, the query won't loom (or will loom less) like a big scary pass/fail guard at the end of it all.

For me, and maybe you and others, this kinda sorta really works.

Unknown said...

I used to read a few how-to blogs, but it was time consuming. So I found the one I liked the best, that made the most sense, and then I stuck with it. Some days I don't even get to it.

Set the hook, catch the fish. Bore the fish, away it goes.

Lucie Witt said...

Susan - I also found it made things less stressful once the book was finished. If I get really ambitious I'll trying writing the dreaded synopsis as I go. **shudders**

Mister Furkles said...

Janet, this just cannot be.

I read Query Shark and there have been very few queries lately. And I read Evil Editor's blog and he's only getting about one query a week. It must be because everybody who writes novels has studied the archives here, on Query Shark, at Evil Editor, and perhaps even Miss Snark's. Obviously, they are all writing brilliant queries and they are all getting six figure offers from publishing houses, and they are all going to be NYT best selling authors.

Well, perhaps not.

To paraphrase X-files, "The answers are out there." And those who pay no attention may not make the best clients.

Lisa Bodenheim said...

In other words...we're supposed to be excited about our book? Enthusiastic? Exhilarated? Okay. I'll climb back down now to be rational. Now the trick is how to be excited about my book without also sounding...boastful in a bad way or arrogant or worse yet, ignorant.

Lucie and Susan: yes, that's how I've working at it too for the past year. The query and the WiP inform each other.

Anonymous said...

I took Laurie McLean's master class on query writing and pitching at Surrey. She's one of the agents who likes the housekeeping stuff up front.

Second bit of advice, study Query Shark, Miss Snark, and QueryTracker. I think she also mentioned Absolute Write, I don't have my notes here. Not just read them, really sit down and study them, particularly Query Shark and Miss Snark.

Sit down and make a word cloud about your book. Write down every word that pops into your head when you think about it.

Who is your protagonist, what do they want, what's standing in their way, what happens if they don't get their goal?

Boil it down from weak chicken broth to a rich sauce.

Writing it like back copy doesn't always work because a lot of back copy isn't that compelling and doesn't answer the main questions. If I had depended on back copy in my decision to buy GAME OF THRONES, it would still be at the bookstore.

I didn't go to the panel on query letter writing, but a friend did. The panel was split on where they want the housekeeping stuff. Some want it up front so if the word count is off or it's the wrong genre they can stop reading right there. One agent refuses to read anything over 100,000 words regardless of genre.

All of them wanted to know who the protagonist is, what they want, what's standing in their way etc.

All of them said they don't care if you have credentials if you can write, but add them to housekeeping if you have them.

They were split on personalizing the letter. To some it's very important. Others said unless you're referred, met them at a conference, etc, don't waste valuable real estate trying to think of some clever reason why you're querying them.

Bottom line, read the agent's guidelines and follow directions.

Eileen Cook, an editor and author, read my query in a blue pencil session. On the second pass she said it had a good bio. On the third read through I figured I got everything but the bio wrong. She said it was a very good query. It tells her who the protag is, what she wants, what's in her way, what happens if she fails, and makes her want to know more about the story.

Then she said it's just getting the query to the right agent, as I've said before. Plus, I should be aware 50-100 rejections is normal. The biggest reason authors fail is because they give up. Persistence is the key to success.

When my oldest son started rodeoing in high school, he competed in all three rough stock events: bareback bronc riding, saddle bronc, and bullriding. The first year he was getting cow killed. If it could go wrong, it did. Horses fell with him, pickup men ran over him, he hung up several times, one saddle bronc kicked him in the head and we thought his neck was broken.

One of the mothers came up to him toward the end of the season and said, "I've been watching you all year. You've got to be made of iron. You're the toughest man I've ever met and we wish you well. You earned it."

I told him it was OK if he quit. He said, "If I quit, I'll never know. I'm not quitting."

That year he won the reserve champion buckle and went on to win two more champion buckles for the circuit.

Work on your queries and get them right, then don't give up.

Lon-winded again, sorry.

DLM said...

E.M. ... but red wigglers are the Cadillac of worms!

Janet's blog(s) make me want to get the WIP to the point it's an actual manuscript, so I can GET back to the point of querying again. An agent who can make a writer *want* to query is clearly going above and beyond.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Wait a minute, you mean books are supposed to have plots, like land, as in acre all your own or your final resting place. Let's hope it opens where life happens and not at the dead spot.

Craig F said...

In the dawning of time came a promise. After months of hard labor, skull sweat and bruised noggins a manuscript was borne.

Care and raising of that manuscript took research and the reading of obscure omens and portents. At last the stars aligned, somewhat. There were two stars in the sky. When the emanations of those stars were skryed they seemed to say opposite things. The one in the East said CCCCXYZ and the one in the West said XYZCCCC. In between were crickets.

Then there was a voice from another agent. That voice remarked on how much harder the business had become "Once it was easy but then the Query Shark came to town. Now we have all these good queries to sort through."

The manuscript took that to heart and queried in the CCCCXYZ style that the Query Shark recommended.

Anonymous said...


In the Idol panel at Surrey, most of the openings that got shut down were because the story started in the wrong place. It's surprising how many people can't recognize that.


LynnRodz said...

If only life could be that simple, we could all follow Janet's advice and start with what the book is about. What could be more logical? Unfortunately, not all literary agents are as rational as the QOTKU, so we're obliged to research what each one wants.

I've seen agents who want to know why you're querying them before you tell them what your story is about. I've seen others say, they don't want to look for the word count and genre before you begin with your story, put it up front, etc.

Bottom line, give each agent what they want.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

LynnRodz, "give each agent what they want."
How about the keys to my brand new BMW and my villa in Tuscany?
Oh wait I drive a Subaru and live in the Connecticut woods.
How about my husband. He's a great handyman, cooks and does his own laundry.
Don't look for any funny stuff though, he falls asleep during David and the evening news.

DK said...

Well, really, all you have to do is say, "It starts with Jack Reacher," and Janet's hooked.

Mark Ellis said...

Ah yes, Boring, Oregon, I've spend many less-than-scintillating hours there. Great view of Mount Hood though.

The Sleepy One said...

I've always gone with the default of putting the meat of the query (the pitch portion) first unless there's a strong reason to personalize the query. Like "we met at X and you said to contact you when my manuscript was finished" or "you read a full manuscript of mine and declined, but praised my writing asked me to query you in the future," etc.

Note that if the agent has stated to put the personalization first, I'd go that route. But if I'm not sure of their preference, I'd rather lead with my strongest foot, aka the novel. I also assume that if I can't write a decent paragraph explaining the main conflict of the novel and what the stakes are for the protagonist, my novel is the problem, not the query. Writing an amazing query is hard, but writing a serviceable one should be easy.

Lance said...

What DLM says. They are ...

I believe in writing the query first. Modify as required, but use it to guide the process.

Do you think the agent who does not see word count and genre up front goes no further?

Thank you.

Colin Smith said...

This is a helpful approach to writing a query: describe your book as you would a novel you're trying to persuade someone else to read. Once again, genius stuff from Janet! I just hope people pay attention. Or not. Remember, the folks who don't do things properly are the competition... >:-D

(That was my Evil Colin face. I know, it looks a bit too smiley. I've been told before that I can't look mean. My kids may beg to differ...)

John Frain said...

Brilliantly simple. And accurate. Thank you.

While there are agents saying the exact opposite, I gotta believe it's for selfish reasons. In other words, give me the genre and word count up front so I can eliminate several of these immediately without even reading the rest of the query, much less pages.

So, be selfish yourself. Start with the story as Janet suggests. Get them hooked there. Maybe they'll look past the 96,000 words that would have stopped them otherwise.

Adib Khorram said...

It's interesting the number of people who write queries before they start the novel; I can't do that. I'm a total pantser, so I don't even know how the story will end until I've reached the end.

My last sojourn into the Queryanas Trench, the #1 piece of Sharkly Wisdom I leaned on was that, at the end of the day, a good query is a good query if it makes you want to read more.

I only have so much neurotic energy to go around. I can't squander it on whether any particular agent wants word count first or word count last, when I'm busy having nightmares involving horrific typos in agents' names.

angie Brooksby-Arcangioli said...

I've thought of all kinds of things to vomment today.

Writing the query before starting and rewriting during drafting keeps me on track. I've seven queries for my main WiP. Two for the roman à clef I'm drafting.

I wonder if those writers sending querys are ready to publish. Why do they write? What does it mean to them? I still haven't figured out what it means to me. I think I will query, when I'm happy with a manuscript. Seeing my name on a book title on a shelf would be cool but it's not my motive for writing. Otherwise I might have self published years ago.

Lucie Witt said...

Adib - I'm largely a panster but I still write the query first! You don't need to know the end at all, in my experience, since a query is just the hook - it introduces your MC and the conflict, but doesn't say how it's resolved.

S.D.King said...

I almost have my courage up to submit to Query Shark.

I keep hoping that I don't have a bad story, just that it has been bad timing so far (and it sure has been bad timing - had I found an agent earlier, I might have had to bail due to aging parent responsibilities. Now we are on an even keel (at least for now) and I am feeling hopeful again.

Actually, I think I have a great story, so my goal is to be a good enough writer to tell the story effectively.

Janet, thanks for this post - it is like an early Christmas gift.

angie Brooksby-Arcangioli said...

The Sleepy One
- What you said.
-problem may be the novel.

And Adib,
-what's the resolution?

Do these people know what they are writing?
Why isn't the question.

Do I dare restate QOTKU and risk a trip to Carkoon?
1 is I don't know what the fuck I just read. Agent cuts here
2 is who I am. Cut.
3 is how I want to write. Interesting.

Ardenwolfe said...

Absolutely awesome advice.

AJ Blythe said...

Julie - love your idea of a word cloud and have noted that for when I write my next query

Colin - you said what we're all thinking mwhahaha (evil laugh to go with Colin's evil look)

Animals can be so expressive. You always find awesome images to go with your points, JR. Thanks for another post filled with brilliant advice.

Pepper Smith said...

Ya know, that's the clearest explanation I've ever heard of what to write in a query. You really should put the link to this post in its own little box in the sidebar. It makes it jaw-droppingly simple to figure out what you should write.

Adib Khorram said...

Lucie: I totally get that. When I did write a query mid-novel, I ended up tossing it out after finishing, because what I thought the story was ended up being totally different than what the story actually was.

Angie: Uh, resolution to what?

Anonymous said...


I'm with you.

I can't write the query first. I usually know how it starts and how I think it will end. I can't even guarantee I know how it starts. With FAR RIDER, an agent's minion pointed out she thought it would be stronger if I started when the dead uncle arrives. She was completely right.

THE RAIN CROW has a beginning that isn't bad, but I'm not sure it will stay. COWGIRLS WANTED starts one place and flips back to the beginning of two of the women's start in rodeo. I think the beginning is right for that one and I know exactly when it ends down to the date and scene.

I usually don't know what comes until I write it. I certainly never planned to have a murder mystery in RAIN CROW, but there it is. One offhand remark by a POV character leads to a murder. I think it ends shortly after the first Battle of Manassas.

Writing a query when the story is so fluid would be a complete waste of time for me.

Donnaeve said...

I have nothing to offer about querying that's helpful after some of the advice out here. I simply remember the ONE query QOTKU used over on Query Shark, and in my opinion stands today as THE BEST QUERY EVER.

The novel was PREMEDITATED. All these years gone by and I still remember the rhythm of that query.


OFF TOPIC: The only red wiggly worms my hubby uses fly fishing are called San Juan Worms. I thought he was joking. But, that's not as bad as European Nymphing. Yes, that is a technique of fly fishing. So he says.

Susan said...

Look at that handsome devil in the last picture! I don't know...He has a smirk on him that looks like he's secretly up to no good...

"So, read any good books lately?"
"Yes. They were delicious."

I'm with those of you who wrote the query first. Have never done that before, but found it vital with this WIP to keep track of a complicated plot and multiple timelines. I'm more of a pantser, and most of my writing is character-driven, but this book is very plot-focused. Having that query/summary helped me maintain the structure it needed while hitting all the key points.

Thanks for the post!

AJ Blythe said...

Donna, I remember that query - blew my socks off. It was published (in 2013 I think) and I'm not surprised based on that query.

Donnaeve said...

AJ, I think you're right about the pub date. I don't read much in the YA category, but I would have read THAT book based on the query. And that's what most people who commented back in the day on QS said too. Everyone was either wanting to read it, or suffering from Query Jealousy.

For what it's worth, writing a synopsis before you write your book helps too. At least it did for me.

BJ Muntain said...

I don't write a query for a novel before I start it. Not because things change, but simply because I don't need it.

I save writing a query for when I'm a bit stuck. Boiling the novel down to it's main pieces (hero wants something, what is he risking, etc.) can help pin things down so I can figure out how to continue.

If that doesn't point me in exactly the right direction, I'll often write a bit of a synopsis (partial, because I won't know exactly how it ends), just to clarify where I am and where I need to go next.

Donna's link:

Donna's Best Query Ever on Queryshark

Donnaeve said...

Thanks BJ!

Donnaeve said...

Oops. One thing I would like to add if click on the link to read The Query Above All Queries (only my opinion of course) Also pay special attention to the Shark's final paragraph.

Anonymous said...


One thing to keep in mind, just because you see something on the internet doesn't always mean it's good information. It's best to stick with sources you know you can trust for information such as Query Shark and this blog.

Susan, I'm keeping a timeline on the two books I'm working on now because so much is connected to history. Jack Whyte suggested doing a timeline with historical events in one color and fictional events in another on a detailed timeline to keep your story straight. This is important for historicals and especially series books.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

The book I'm working on now came to me during a ten minute ride home from the supermarket. After I put the meltables in the freezer I left the rest of the groceries on the counter, sat down at my computer and wrote the query. Then I put the groceries away, returned to my computer and wrote the synopsis. I have never done that before but for this WIP it has been my focus.
The whole experience was like scrambling to write down a dream so I would'nt forget it. Now it's the story that won't go away.
The query?
Funny how the query I wrote to snag an agent, reeled me in first.

Adib Khorram said...

I read PREMEDITATED and it was excellent.

Though I was disappointed the final back flap copy didn't retain her query. If memory serves, the ARCs did.

BJ Muntain said...

Julie's link: https://www.facebook.com/867371926689177/videos/921172871309082

I know a really good tool for timelines - robust with a lot of really great features. It does cost money, though, so I won't link to it here. It's called Aeon Timeline. It has a 20 day free trial - which is 20 days you've used it, not 20 consecutive days. I really liked it, so I did buy it. I recommend the 20 day trial, to make sure it's what you want. (No, I have no investment in the company.)

John Frain said...

Oh My God. Donna and BJ,thanks for setting us a link to that query for Premeditated.

Wow, talk about query envy. That was textbook for how NOT to do a textbook query. And I love that Janet went ahead and explained (thinking about it, I'm not at all surprised) how you can break the rules by following the rules first. Like so many things in life, including writing a novel. Understand the rules so that you'll know how to break them.

I'm inspired to write a query!

John Frain said...

Oh Julie, I'm rolling on the floor at your video link. That's the funniest thing I've seen since I can remember.


That's my third comment. Please, nobody post another link until after midnight. I'm still laughing.

angie Brooksby-Arcangioli said...

Resolution to the story. How can you finish the query if you don't know the end. Not to put it in the query.

angie Brooksby-Arcangioli said...

OOps, I read Lucie's comment and thought it was Adib's. I've lost my brain.

I didn't read Premeditated but I remember Josin McQuein's query and when she announced she'd found an agent. If your interested here is her blog: http://josinlmcquein.blogspot.fr/

Lucie Witt said...

I remember the PREMEDITATED query, too! I read it when it went live and still, today, could probably half way recite it from memory.

Angie - I usually have a vague sense of how I want my stories to end, but at least half the time don't know exactly what direction I'll go until I'm done writing. I wish I was more of a plotter, but as it is I mostly just know big points I want to reach as I write (I think Chuck Wendig calls this the tentpole method). It's never stopped me from writing the query first, since all I have to do is frame the conflict and the choice the MC has to make (generally speaking). And what Adib mentioned has definitely happened to me - sometimes what I start with isn't usable by the end.

I also like BJ's idea of going to the query when you get a bit stuck - that's actually the approach I'm using now for a R&R, since my original query no longer works.

Susan said...

Julie: That's a good idea. The timelines for this WIP are made up of my MC's present storyline (when she arrives to town), the journey she took to get there, and the events that led up to that journey (with alternating chapters between the present and the past). Right now, I have separate documents for each timeline to help get the ideas out of my head without worrying about structure, but I'm going to have to piece this thing together eventually, and at the moment, that thought is overwhelming. I know how it's supposed to go, but I can't fully visualize it.

Though the above is set in the 50s, The Damn Novel (the WWII story) is more historically focused, and like your books, the characters' stories have to align with those events. All of my books, though standalone, are interconnected, too, so I feel like I need to create a system that helps me link everything together smoothly. Still trying to figure that system out, but something like this might help.

BJ: That program looks awesome and might be a great companion to what Julie is suggesting--offering that visual to help the structure.