Four Steps to a Winning Query

by Gabriela Pereira
published in Community

One of the many great things about the Backspace Agent-Author Seminar was that the agents really dug into the nitty-gritty details of how to write a query. The second day of the conference included three Query Letter Bootcamps in which a panel of agents would dissect query letters submitted by conference attendees. Here’s an inside look at the agents’ advice.

Four Steps to a Winning Query

Query letters come down to four components: the hook, the book, the look and the cook. Jason Allen Ashlock, president of Movable Type Management and moderator of these sessions, shared this excellent method for composing a query. I’ll walk you through these four query components but first, let’s talk about some basic do’s and don’ts.

Do:

  • Use the query to pique the agent’s interest and entice him or her to read more.
  • Keep it short and sweet. You’ve got 250 words so make them count.
  • Use your character’s name and show why your character is compelling.
  • Emphasize the conflict your character must face or the decision that character must make.
  • Get feedback on your query from friends who haven’t read your book. The query must make sense to someone who’s coming to your book for the first time.
  • Follow directions. If an agent specifies no attachments, don’t send an attachment.

Don’t:

  • Open with a rhetorical question. It wastes precious words and it doesn’t help your query.
  • Talk about your story in vague terms. Be specific.
  • Use huge chunks of text that are impenetrable. Remember, the agents may be reading your query on their computer or smartphone, so keep it easy on the eyes.
  • Focus on the idea or message behind your story. Emphasize the action and the conflict. Show that  your character must do something, not just grapple with ideas.
  • Address your query “Dear Agent.” Do your research and make sure you send the right material to the right agent.

Now that we’ve covered some of the basics, let’s take look at the four key components of the query.

 Hook

The hook is that first gripping sentence that makes the reader want to know more. Remember when we talked about loglines last week? This is where knowing your logline can really help you with your query because a logline is a lot like the hook part of the query: it gives us the character, the main action and the central conflict. One great exercise is to tighten your hook until it’s short enough to fit in one tweet. If you don’t know your book, you won’t be able to capture the character, action and conflict in 140 characters.

Book

This section is the “meat” of your query so make sure you get it right. This is where you pitch your book so really sell the story here. It should be one paragraph–no more, no less–and you have to make the characters compelling so that the person reading your query cares about them. Refer to your protagonist by name and focus on the choice he or she has to make. Put the story front and center and make sure there’s a central conflict. A story is not just about following characters around, a story is about characters making decisions and doing things that have consequences.

Remember that you only get one paragraph here so make those words count. Don’t waste precious real estate on backstory. This section is your pitch and it must get to the heart of the story right away. Start where the story gets interesting. A query is not a synopsis so don’t get bogged down on “this happened, then this happened, then this happened.” Instead, focus on making in immediate, compelling, emotional connection between the reader and your character.

The best way to get yourself in the mindset for writing this part of your query is to read back copy or flap copy of similar books. Go to a bookstore and browse for books similar to yours. See how the flap copy of those books sells the story and how that copy entices you to want to read more. That is precisely what you must do in your query: make the agent hungry for more.

Look

In this section, you give a quick overview of what your book actually is. Keep it simple: title, word count and genre. Use this formula as a starting point: [TITLE OF BOOK] is a [genre] novel, complete at [number] words. If you don’t know what genre category is the best fit for your book, keep it simple and call it commercial fiction. If relevant, mention one or two competitive books, but only if the comparison is specific and makes sense.

Cook

This is where you add a little bit of information about yourself. This section is what humanizes your query and makes you come across as a person. It’s also a way to show that you approach your writing in a professional manner. Mention previous publications, but if your CV is long, avoid giving a laundry list. Keep it simple with something like: “My fiction has appeared in several literary magazines, including _________, ___________ and _________.” If you don’t have publications to include, there are certainly other ways to convey that you take your writing seriously. For example, you can mention conferences you’ve attended or writing associations where you’re a member.

You can mention your professional background if it is related to your novel in some way. This can be especially useful if  your novel requires some special expertise that your professional background provides. For instance, if you’re writing a police procedural novel and you also happened to be a police detective for the past ten years, that experience will show that you know that world and can get those police details right. Remember, you only get a short paragraph for this section (3-4 sentences) so don’t dwell on details. Your goal in this section is to show that you’re a professional and you’re serious about your writing.

So there you have it: the hook, book, look cook method.

  • Kris Mehigan

    Love this approach!!!
    Quick question- Is 250 words industry standard? My query draft is 334 words. How imortant is it for me to shave it down to 250? Thanks!

    • DIYMFA

      Kris – 250 words was the recommended number that the agents stressed at the conference, but it’s not like the query police will come after you if your query is a few words over the limit, so take it with a grain of salt.

      Here’s the thing, though: 334 words is a good bit over the 250 word guideline. Maybe your query really needs those extra words, but more likely if you take a good hard look, you’ll probably find a few places where you can pare things down. The query word count isn’t so much a hard-and-fast rule as it is a barometer that lets you know when you need to be more ruthless and kill some darlings.

      Suggestion: let the query draft marinate for a few days or a
      week, then come back to it with fresh eyes and see where you can tighten
      it. Sometimes taking a little time away can help you get the distance you need to brandish your red pen and start cutting.

  • Kris Mehigan

    Appreciate the insight! This was new to me.
    I will definitely take you up on your advice. Happy blogging & writing!

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