Tuesday, August 18, 2015

My Biggest Piece of Query Advice

The first query letter I ever sent out was snagged by my target publication and the piece bought shortly thereafter. That still blows my mind today because, at the time, I hadn't done much research on the infamous query letter and its tricks and traps. Now that I have years of research and trial and error behind me, I think I can safely target what I inadvertently did right with that first query and I'd like to pass on that info to you.

The first correct thing I did was target exactly the right publication. I was familiar with what they published, was a subscriber, and I knew my audience. Research is vital. Some agents have a great online presence and get flooded with queries because of that. They are familiar personalities, but personality aside, were they really the right fit for your project? I'm finding that the answer is often, no. I may like the advice or the charisma of one of these agents, but when I dig deeper into my research, I find that they aren't the perfect fit. Why? Sometimes what they say they want to find and what they are actually selling are very different beasts. I'm skeptical of agents who say they want epic fantasy but they haven't sold a single epic fantasy novel. Likewise with agents who generically say they want YA in any genre, but when you look through their client list and recent sales, find they gravitate to contemporary YA and not speculative. Another eye-opener is to notice which publishers the agent is selling to. Are they big publishers, mostly indies, or a mixture? How many times do you see publishers that are in your target bracket?

This type of research narrows down your query list, but it also strengthens your chances of not wasting either your time or that of the agent. After you know who's actually selling and reading your type of novel, then you can check out their online personality.

Okay, so the second big thing I've learned about querying deals with something much more close to home - your story, itself. That first query of mine not only went to the right publication but it showed a unique and different angle to the type of story I was telling. And that's what landed it.

Recently I decided to participate in a query critique contest, as a critiquer, something I'd not done before. What I really loved about the contest was that we had to think like a literary agent and we could only say yes to three queries. It made it more challenging, yet realistic. There were query letters in different genres and at different levels of polish. The ones I said yes to, without any hesitation, were the ones who showed their unique idea/point of view side. It didn't matter if the query letter was 100% perfection. They weren't generic sounding premises and that made me excited. It's the same deal when I go on Goodreads or browse at the library for something new to read. Generic premises make me skim or put down the book. If you show the unique twist, gimmick, voice, or angle to a story, you'll get more reader attention.

Once I had my obvious yes votes, I still wanted to critique the other queries to hopefully help out the writers. The next bracket of letter were the ones who had the right formatting, length, and sometimes even voice, but the premises fell flat or were too vague.

For example:
A girl (insert whatever cute name you like) has just discovered she has (a superpower, magic talisman, or hidden past) and the fate of the world rests in her hands. This has got to be the most common premise in modern literature. Okay, so sometimes the protag is a boy, but the rest of the premise runs the same. If that's all you're presenting in your query letter, you're shooting yourself in the foot because there are thousands (no exaggeration) of other writers using that exact same premise in their stories. And most of these aren't getting published.

Assuming that your actual story isn't just as generic sounding, you need to show that in your query letter. What's your fresh angle on that premise? What makes your version of this storyline unique and different from the thousands of other people. Type and personality of character isn't enough. If you've got an amazing piece of world building behind your story, show it in the query. If your protag is destined to be the savior of that world, please explain why her and not anybody else. Do you take this over-used premise and turn it on its side, or inside-out? Show it in the query letter.

Detail is your friend. And I don't mean by using strings of adjectives or explaining every plot point or nuance of the story. Instead of saying "she has to save the world" say "she must hack into Evil, LLC's computers to plant a virus, preventing them from delivering their new brainwashing toy to millions of children."

Be specific, be bold, be unique when explaining your story. Sometimes that's all you need to really stand out from the pack. Proper formatting and rhythm are important, too, but if you're being generic with your story description, technical brilliance won't make a difference.

Am I a genius at query letters? Ha! No. That first query letter was for a piece of non-fiction. I've toiled, struggled, and revised 'til I bled on fictional queries. A few of you may have seen one of my horrible earlier drafts. But regardless of whether it's fiction or non-fiction, the same two principles apply: know your target and show your story's unique angle. Now, let's all get back to work.


  1. Great advice. It does really help to read lots of query letters and see why certain ones stand out. The hard part is carrying that over to your own query. I find I got lost in the trees because I'm too close to the subject.

    1. I agree it's hard carrying what you observe to your own letter. I think reading other letters is good for learning the technical issues, seeing what grabs your attention, and even makes you think in terms of brevity (although Twitter is even better for that!) Discovering that extra special something that gives a query zing, that has to come from us and our stories. You can't learn it from anyone else.

  2. Good post. Sometimes, when we're lost in the trees (thanks, Michelle), it hard to see the unique, twisty ones. I know it became clearer and more enticing for me when I relieved my MC from having to save to world and showed more specifically who and what, in HIS world.

    Your generic plot point (Ha, that would be "generic-plot point" as opposed to "generic plot-point", though that could apply, too) is well taken. It should be posted daily, even set up as a banner. Just today I thought if I read one more "the last thing [name} expected..." It makes me want to say, "okay, what were the first several things?" Move aside, Ms. Snark.

    1. LOL! I agree. There are pet phrases that filter in to the average query letter as we attempt to sound as good as the best ones we read. The downside is lack of originality. Well put, Richard!

  3. I LOVED your critique of my query, it was a "no" and it should have been. I've trashed it and started over (although it has garnered several requests). I have a new bald spot. *sigh*

    But it's all good. Perhaps a new spin, a new angle will bring in more. And bald is beautiful. Or so I've heard...

    1. Oh my, I'm so glad it was helpful! I worry a lot about how my critiques are received. I'm not surprised that version of the letter snagged some requests, because some of the other participants in the contest loved it. =)

  4. Very helpful post that sends me back to revising MY query letter. Thanks!