By Lynn Vroman
You’ve finished writing a novel. Well done! Not many people can say they’ve accomplished something so extraordinary. And after you’ve revised, had critique partners and beta readers look it over, and then revised some more, you’re now ready to get it out there for the world to see.
If only it were that easy.
Your next step is to enter the query battle where the walls are thick and the gate is made of iron.
Sending queries to agents or editors is stressful. We’re creative people, right? Not business people. If you’re anything like me, you’d rather spend time writing more stories instead of dipping in the crowded pool of queriers. But for those who have decided to go the traditional route, writing a strong query is crucial. Treat it as your résumé, your chance to show off your skills as a professional writer.
Here’s the tricky part. You have to—HAVE TO—make that fantastic novel you’ve worked on for months or years sound like the best thing since the first date between chocolate and peanut butter. And you have to do it in one page, preferably 250-300 words. Yes, there have been exceptions to the rule, but don’t count on joining that small percentage. Stick with the formula, and you’ll do fine.
The formula has three parts: the hook, the book, and the cook.
Hook– This is where you need to wow agents and editors. One sentence, that’s all it takes for an agent/editor to decide whether they’re going to read the rest or send the auto-rejection. Make it sharp and concise. Introduce the main character, and show what makes that particular person unique enough to carry an entire book.
Book– Now, here is where you’re going to give a super exciting overview of the entire plot in one paragraph. The ingredients in this super exciting overview need to consist of the answers to the following questions. Who is the main character? What does he/she want? What stands in the way? And finally, what will happen if the main character can’t overcome whatever is preventing him/her from reaching said goal? That’s it. Answer those questions. Don’t skip over any of them and don’t answer anything else. You want to entice people to read more, not give them so much detail they don’t need to.
After you’ve answered those questions, you need to answer a few more in another short paragraph. What’s the title and genre of the book and in which age category are you writing? What’s the word count? Can you think of comparables that aren’t Harry Potter, Hunger Games, Twilight, or some other insanely popular book? If so, use them. If not, don’t. A little personalization here wouldn’t hurt either. Agents and editors want to know why you chose them. They don’t want to be a part of some mass email. Seriously, don’t do that. Research each and every agent or editor to find out exactly what they’re looking for. Don’t send an agent who represents erotica your middle grade fantasy.
Cook- This is all you, but don’t go overboard. Give any relevant publishing credits and education. If you have no writing credentials, don’t sweat it. But don’t replace that info with a cute tale about your cats unless cats are the driving force behind your plot. I mean, if cats are taking over the world definitely tell them you have twenty cats. The point being, the story is what’s important in this letter, not you.
Now that the basics are covered, here are some things to avoid:
- If writing fiction, don’t call it a fiction novel.
- Don’t write your query through the perspective of your main character. Yes, it’s been done, but this falls into the rare exception category when that technique actually works.
- Show the plot overview, don’t tell. That means no laundry lists. Make sure the voice in the query matches the voice of your book. Think back of book blurb.
- Don’t bog down the query with a bunch of characters. Stick to the main character, and maybe even add a second character if absolutely necessary. Avoid character soup.
- Don’t address the query to the wrong agent/editor. Make sure you have names spelled correctly, too.
- Don’t ever send your query off without having it viewed by others. Use as many people to critique your query as you did your book.
- Don’t query until you’re positive your book is ready. I’ve made this mistake in my eagerness to get my work out there, and the only thing that accomplished was rejection. Critique partners are as valuable as gold.
- Don’t get too overwhelmed with the process. Easier said than done, but there’s some great advice right here on the SCBWI’s site. Take advantage of it. Also, check out http://queryshark.blogspot.com/, and if you’re on twitter, follow the hashtags, #tenqueries and #querytip. Agents and editors use these hashtags when going through their slush.
And finally, what you must never do is give up. Ever. You will get rejections, lots of them. Don’t let that deter you from putting yourself and your work out there. Make a collage, or hang them on the walls in your office. Consider them battle wounds, and display them with pride. And always, always remember why you’re doing it in the first place—your words are your passion.
In the meantime, while you’re fighting in the trenches, getting hit with rejections and dodging disappointment, don’t forget that all it takes is one person to love your story enough to say “Yes!”