People think I’m crazy when I say this, but I LOVE query letters. I love writing them, I love editing them, I love reading them. When I worked for a publisher, reading queries was my favorite part! With #pitchwars coming up and the workshop on query writing I just taught at my local library, I’ve been thinking a lot about queries lately.
My fellow YAtopian Lori covered the 10 basics to writing a query in her March post. Once you’ve mastered the basics, here are some of my tips for making your query letter really zing.
1: Infuse Voice
If your book is funny or voice-y in any way, a dry query is not going to do your book justice. It can sometimes be hard to do this without seeming gimmicky or cheesy, but a few well-chosen words or phrases can breathe true life into your query.
Author Elana Johnson presents one method that will help you infuse voice into your query. (Read that post! It’s a great trick!)
One of the lines in my query for Dragons are People, Too was: “…the Commander In Chief himself has the balls to ask her to launch a secret rescue mission…” Anyone who has read DAPT can tell you that certainly sounds exactly the way Kitty would paraphrase the situation.
2: Your MC Must Act
… in every sentence of the query. You use maybe ten sentences to describe your book, right? If your character is a passenger in any of those sentences, she is seen as passive, just letting things happen to her. Your character should drive the story, not the other way around – and this needs to be true in the query as well.
Speaking of action…
3: Use Strong, Specific Verbs
List the verbs in your query separate from everything else. If you spot any “to be” verbs or any other word that kinda bores you, see what you can do to eliminate those. See how I said “eliminate” instead of “get rid of?” The latter was in my first draft. See how much fiercer of a verb “eliminate” is?
Some recent edits I’ve made in queries (mine and others’):
“gives him his power” –> “imbues him with power”
“when she finds out the truth” –> “when she uncovers the truth”
4: Cut the Cliches
“His world will never be the same again.”
“She must make the most difficult decision of her life.”
“He gets more than he bargained for.”
These phrases can describe thousands of books. Find the sentences that can describe only your book. What makes your book unique?
Rule of thumb: If you have ever heard a phrase or sentence used to describe another book or a movie, see if you can re-word to make it more specific. Sometimes you can’t, but most of the time you can.
5: Conflict and Stakes
The two most important questions a query answers are: What (specifically) is standing in the way of your character getting what he wants? What (specifically) happens if he doesn’t get it? Do not let your query end without showing us the answers to these questions.
6: Keep Your Ego in Check
Chip MacGregor just posted on Facebook that he received a query with the sentence, “This is the most important book that can ever be written for the benefit of everyone.” This is a bit of an extreme example, but you’d be surprised how many queries contain similar statements.
Look, your book is probably not going to be as successful as Harry Potter. Maybe you will, you never know. But saying that in a query is a red flag that we’re dealing with either erroneously high expectations or a egomaniac.
And if you say that your book is better than all the other books in your genre/subgenre, an agent is just going to assume you either haven’t read widely in your genre or you have no respect for it. Either way, it’s not a good sign for the quality of your work.
7: Raise Questions without Asking Them
We all know rhetorical questions are big no-no in querying.
But you can raise questions without putting a question mark to paper.
A line from my query: “Kitty soon discovers that no one’s loyalties lay where they should – or at least where she wants them to.”
Questions this line raises in the reader’s mind: Who betrays Kitty? Everyone? In what way? How do Kitty’s priorities differ from what “should” be?
Even though I would never actually ask those questions on paper, I am guiding the reader towards asking herself those questions. And the only way to get those questions answered? Read the book. (Cue evil laugh!)
8: Know What to Omit
Sub-plots. Characters that don’t drive the plot. Weird words/concepts that slow the reader down. Exclamation points. “Fiction novel.”
Self-deprecation. Irrelevant personal information. Politics. Religion (unless for a religious book). Jokes. Your age. Comments about the state of the industry or market. Agent’s personal information or comments on their appearance. How long it took you to write the book. Your query history. Editorializing. Attachments (unless requested).
Leave it out.
9: Emulate the Greats
Go to a bookstore and read the back cover copy of many books and pick the five that most appeal to you. Study them, pick them apart. Take a close look at word choice, especially, and tone and sentence structure. Try to figure out what, exactly grabbed you and how it was crafted. Then, copy those techniques (not the words!).
10: Remember the Purpose of a Query
I think too many writers overthink queries because we focus so much on The Rules and the “Dos and Don’ts” and lose focus on the one and only thing a query is supposed to do.
The only thing your query has to do, the whole reason for its very existence is this:
To make the reader want to read the book.
That’s it. That’s all you have to do.
I know, I know. Easier said than done.
If you are ready to query, make sure to check out Pitch Wars, coming soon!