The Key to the Competent Query

Today we continue our Publishing 101 series with a look at writing a Competent Query – by which I mean the one that hooks an agent enough to spark a request for pages.

Many authors feel great angst about queries. There’s so much talk of perfection, and many authors fear the process because they worry that “the perfect query” lies beyond their grasp. Don’t fear – you do not have to be perfect. You simply have to write a query that does (and does not do) a few specific things – I call it a COMPETENT query.

Let’s look at what a competent query does and does not do.

A Competent Query Letter DOES:

1. Give the reader a compelling desire to read the manuscript. This is the query’s primary goal. If your query doesn’t make a reader want to read your book, it fails. End of story. Keep this goal in mind and don’t lose sight of it. At the end of the day, a competent query is — first and foremost — interesting to read.

2. Using approximately 100 words, tell the reader what your story is about. The 100 word-limit is flexible, but not by much. Like an elevator pitch or logline pitch, the description of your novel in the query must be short.  The query summary must explain the story itself – not the backstory, not the setup, & not just a character list. However, unlike a synopsis, the query summary does NOT give away the ending.

If you’re struggling with understanding the 100-word summary, go to a bookstore and read the jacket copy of several books in your genre. That may help.

3. Explain, in 1-2 personalized sentences, why you and your story are a good fit for the agent’s client list. Remember the agent research we talked about last week? You use it not only to build your list but also to write your queries. Yes, it takes longer to write an individual, personalized query for every agent. And yes, you still need to do it. Agents know when you’ve written a personalized query letter and when you’ve simply cut and pasted a form, and it makes a difference.

You can re-use the story summary, but the “why I believe we’re a good fit” portion of the query needs to be tailored.

4.  Match the agent’s submission guidelines EXACTLY. Agents post guidelines for a reason, and this is not the place to get yourself noticed by standing out. Yes, this requires work on your part, because you have to tailor your query (and submission pages) to comply with the agent’s rules. But consider this: your query is asking an agent to do work too–to read (hopefully) your entire novel, without pay. (Even if the agent offers representation, (s)he has no guarantees that you will sign.) If you expect someone else to invest a personal effort in your work, be willing to invest in them personally too.

Now let’s talk about what the Competent Query DOES NOT DO:

1. Ramble, either in summary or in length. A competent query runs approximately 200-300 words and gives an intriguing, succinct description of the story. Competent queries do not devolve into detailed subplot analysis or “character name soup.”

2. Forget to include the book’s title, word count, and genre. Every query must contain the title (or working title), word count, and genre of the manuscript in question. The agent needs this information — as well as the summary — to determine whether or not to ask for pages.

3. Insult the agent, the publishing industry, the manuscript or the author. This should be obvious, but I’ve heard enough horror stories to know that courtesy isn’t as common as you might think. For the record, arrogance in a query is insulting, too. The query should be professional in tone. Remember: you’re not an unworthy peon begging for the agent’s time, but neither are you a god granting a favor.

Write a query letter you would want to receive, if you were in the agent’s shoes – a letter to a prospective business partner.

When it comes to actually writing your query letter, the Internet offers many great resources. The best, in my opinion is Query Shark, written by literary agent (and query guru) Janet Reid. If you read the entire blog (including the archives) and follow Janet’s advice, you should end up with a competent query that follows the rules I’ve set out here.

Research agents, make your list, and write a personalized query that follows each agent’s submission guidelines. With practice, and a good story behind you, a competent query will lead to requests for pages, requests for fulls, and–hopefully–also THE CALL.

Next week’s post will look at what happens after the Query – handling requests for partials, fulls, and also the inevitable rejections – and the week after that, we’ll look at handling The Call.

Do you have other good resources for learning to write a query letter? I’d love to hear them – or about your experiences querying – in the comments!

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