Querying (2): Writing a Query Letter

I already wrote a step-by-step querying guide HERE. But I left out the biggest piece of the puzzle: Writing the query letter.

So here you go, my attempt at a query letter guide.

First and most important piece of advice I can give is to read successful queries!

Query Letter Success

Query Tracker Success Stories

Writer’s Digest Successful Queries

Also, reading sites that give query advice is very helpful. A great one is Janet Reid’s Query Shark.

 Okay, so let’s get to the meat of a query. I’ll again start out with a link to someone else, because I do not think I’m an expert at this. I loved Susan Dennard’s explanation on “The Parts of a Good Query.”

Here is what I kept in mind while I was starting my query writing:

1. Keep it brief

(think back jacket summary but less tropey. AKA don’t say “in a world where…”).

 Word count should probably land comfortably between 200-300 words.

If it’s longer then consider why (did you include too many characters or subplots?).

If it’s shorter then consider why (did you not explain the world enough? The conflict? The character?)

2. Include the three biggies: World, Character, Conflict

The world can be a quickie explanation (especially if it’s a world we know already. e.g. contemporary). But if it’s a made-up or fantasy world, ensure the only facts you include are the ones relevant to the MC’s character and conflict.

I’ll use Hunger Games as an example since most people have probably read/watched it:

In the ruins of a place once known as North America lies the nation of Panem, the shining Capitol surrounded by twelve outlying districts. The Capitol is harsh and keeps the districts in line by forcing them all to send one boy and one girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen to participate in the annual Hunger Games, a fight to the death on live TV. (WC = 67)

This shows what has happened to the world and why each district must give up two children to the games each year. Nothing more and nothing less.

The Characters named in a query should probably be restricted to 2 (3 if there’s an MC, a main love and an antagonist). I’d only put names if the person is a POV character or they are actively influencing the story in a way that you need to reference them by name in order to explain the main conflict.

Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen regards it as a death sentence when she steps forward to take her sister’s place in the Games. But Katniss has been close to dead before– and survival, for her, is second nature. (WC = 36)

This explains how Katniss feels about the games and a bit of her personal history to reveal her character.

The key word with the conflict is main. Don’t include sub-plots or sub-conflicts.

Without really meaning to, she becomes a contender. But if she is to win, she will have to start making choices that weigh survival against humanity and life against love. (WC = 30)

In the Hunger Games the main conflict is that Katniss volunteers for a game that makes her fight to the death and only one can survive. The subplot is that she is trying to protect her little sister and that she can’t figure out if Peeta is on her side or against her.

NOTE: This is actually the back-jacket summary of HG which is why it is shorter than an average query. Hopefully you get the idea of what I mean by the main points to hit to summarize the story.

3. Ensure that it is specific to your story and world.

This is where I’ll repeat not to use tropes or vague wording. If you say something like “MC must decide between love and family before time runs out” then I can find that in the summary of dozens of books. Be specific about why it’s a decision and how it’s bad if they choose one over the other and vice versa.
Note that in the above back-jacket summary everything is SPECIFIC to the story of Hunger Games. They say exactly what the world is and what Katniss’s conflict is.

Individual parts of a query:

 

So, I don’t think every query can use the exact same formula. But if you’d like a general outline to follow here’s one that can potentially work for about 85% of queries.

 

Personalization:

I like to personalize my queries because it explains why I chose that agent to query. I like to include it at the top but some people like to put it at the bottom along with their personal bio and other information. I also chose to include my word count, Age category (PB/MG/YA/NA/A), and genre (fantasy, sci-fi, contemporary, etc)

Opening/Hook

Not every query needs a hook, but if you want to include one it should be one sentence long and be specific about your story.

Paragraph 1:

Introduce world and character. Show specific motivations for the character when the story opens and how they fit (or don’t fit) into the greater world you’ve created. Introduce the inciting incident.

BONUS: If you have more than one POV then you can introduce each character that has one. I had a dual POV book, so I gave each of them their own intro (complete with their personal conflicts and motivations)

Paragraph 2 (&3):

Explain how the MC(s) react to the inciting incident and how it starts to change them/their world. Explain how the MC(s) plan to overcome or adjust to the conflict. Be specific to your world and your character. Do not use vague language like “or her world will be torn apart” or “A greater threat looms.”

Final Paragraph/Bio

If you want to include comps, you can put them here. Put a quick bio and any writing credits. If you didn’t already include it in the first paragraph, be sure to put Age category (PB/MG/YA/NA/A), word count, and genre (fantasy, sci-fi, contemporary, etc). And any final salutations.

BONUS: Suggestions for overcoming 
Query Letter Writer’s Block

1. Try to write the query summarizing ONLY the first 50 pages of the book. This is a suggestion given to me by many and it helps to focus the query (in the first 50, you should have already introduced world, character, main conflict/inciting incident).

2. Have someone who’s NEVER READ your MS read the query letter, then ask them what they think your story is about. If they can’t give you the main gist then consider re-writing.

3. Ask someone who HAS READ your MS how they’d summarize your book. (Obviously, they can’t write your whole query for you, but they can tell you what they think the main point of your story was from an outside perspective. We are often too close to our stories to see them clearly)

4. Take some time, write the 1-2 page summary instead. Maybe this’ll help you see what is important in your story.

5. Read your whole MS as a READER and see how the story flows.

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Querying (1): Step by Step Query Process

So, I just went through the journey we call querying and I thought I’d write about it since I love step-by-step guides.

This post probably won’t be completely comprehensive, but I did try to include everything I personally had questions about. And if you have any additional questions, feel free to ask them in the comments and I’ll try to use my resources, friends, CPs, etc. to answer them.

Step 1: Write your query 

(This will be a separate post. Just need to compile querying advice from my own trusted sources to share with you happy people)

UPDATE: Query Letter post is HERE

Step 2: Research Agents

This step can be done at any time during the writing and querying process. In all likelihood it WILL happen before you’re done writing your MS. Because we all like to look ahead a million steps and dream (If we didn’t dream, we probably wouldn’t be writers).

Here’s a sample of a spreadsheet I compiled with data points I thought were important for agents.

You can include as many or as few data points as you want. This is just what I did because I like to compile data (I’m a clinical researcher by day).

This helps because you can write up a query letter that includes detailed reasons why you are querying the agent. Doesn’t need to be much. It can be as simple as “I am querying you because you expressed an interest in Urban Fantasy with diverse characters. I am hoping to interest you in my diverse fantasy set in the city of Bangkok.”

Sites I used to research agents:

– Agency Sites (I always start there, they have the basics such as genre they rep and how to submit)

Query Tracker

MSWL (which stands for Manuscript Wishlist)

– You can also search Twitter for #MSWL

-Speaking of Twitter, you can follow your fave editors and agents

Writer’s Digest

Publisher’s Marketplace

– Also, lots of great interviews on blogs (I just googled [Agent Name + Interview])

Step 3: Make sure you pick the proper genre:

Genre is NOT MG, YA, NA, Adult.

Those are your audiences. You cannot just say you are writing YA and think the agent will think, “Great, that’s what I represent.” Some agents do represent all YA, but even they will think something is fishy if you don’t include a genre. So a genre is:

Fantasy: This is magic! Elves, wizards, mermaids, dragons. There is high fantasy (Lord of the Rings style) and low fantasy (Daughter of Smoke and Bone Style). There are subgenres in fantasy such as Paranormal, Magical Realism (to be discussed later,) and urban fantasy (to be discussed later).

Fantasy YA books: The Star-Touched Queen, The Wrath and the Dawn, Graceling, Throne of Glass, Prophecy, and Serpentine

Science Fiction: Also easy to define. This is taking something that is rooted in science and stretching it and expanding it into something fantastical. But it is not magic. So something like The Matrix is Sci-Fi because they do live in a world without the true laws of physics, but they’re ruled by machines and computer code. This includes sub genres like: dystopian and space operas.

Books that are Sci-fi: Legend, ZeroboxerHunger Games, These Broken Stars

Urban Fantasy: This is magical elements in a kick-butt urban world. So, Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments series is Urban Fantasy.

Other Urban Fantasy books: Vampire Academy, White Cat, Shadowshaper, Labyrinth Lost

Contemporary: These books are set in a realistic, contemporary setting (thus the name). They can be issue driven, but don’t have to be. They are often quieter in nature, but are most times coming of age stories within the realm of YA. (Think John Green, Jenny Han, Katie McGarry). Tiny Pretty Things, Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda, Perks of Being a Wallflower

Thriller: This is like the action movie, suspense genre. It’s more contemporary in setting (so no magic), but it has faster pace. I don’t read much of thriller genre in YA so I’d defer to other sites and their definitions, but some books in YA Thriller are The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer, We Were LiarsAfter the Woods

Horror: Just like it sounds. It’s horror. I don’t write this genre a lot, so I defer to other sites on deeper definitions, but some books that are YA horror are Anna Dressed in BloodThe Madman’s Daughter, A Monster Calls

Magical Realism: This one is harder for me to define because I can see how a book would be Magical Realism one way, and then fantasy another. So I like THIS post to explain it. It’s pretty much a contemporary world with a magical element that is treated as a reality of life (I often think of Miyazaki films for this). The Weight of FeathersThe Raven Boys (The Raven Cycle, #1)Bone Gap

Historical: This is how it sounds. A book that is set in the past. Usually doesn’t have fantastical elements, but there have been some good historical with light magic (magical realism books).

Under a Painted Sky, Code Name Verity, The Book Thief

At the end of the day genre is definitely fluid. Some people would say their book is Science Fantasy because it’s a space opera with magical wizards on Mars.

I personally called my current MS Contemporary Fantasy because it is based on Mythology with a mythical creature, but it is in modern day Seoul and the characters deal with a lot of contemporary issues.

Step 4: Check on your word count 

(this actually could be a “pre-step” since it comes about in writing and revision stage.

THIS is a great guide written in detail about word count for all genres by Chuck Sambuchino at Writer’s Digest

But in general, these are the guidelines I follow (keep in mind these are just my rules for myself and I only write MG and YA):

YA Contemporary: 50,000-70,000 (Sweet spot ~55,000 to 65,000)

YA Fantasy/Sci-Fi: 60,000 – 100,000 (Sweet spot ~75,000 to 85,000)

MG (I tend to write “upper MG”): 40,000 – 60,000 (Sweet spot ~45,000 – 55,000)

Step 5: Make sure you FOLLOW SUBMISSION GUIDELINES

I cannot stress this enough. I have friends who work or worked at Literary Agencies. They say that the biggest reason for auto-reject  is that the person did not follow submission guidelines. I think “auto-reject” is the saddest thing ever because it happens before your pitch or work can speak for itself.

Things to make sure you double check:

– Does the agent represent your genre?

– Does your MS follow word count guidelines for your genre?

– Do you have the proper submission email? (This could be different from an email found on an agent’s blog. Go directly to the agency website to get the right email address for submissions)

– Did you address the agent in a formal way? (Mr. or Ms. LAST NAME)

– Did you write a personal blurb about WHY you’re submitting to them? Many agents like to know why you’re querying them. They want to know that you did your research.

Additionally, my critique group (and specifically the wonderful David Slayton @davidrslayton) created this sweet flow-chart of do’s and don’ts

Step 6: Headers/Subject lines/Attachments/Body of email

This is something I had A LOT of questions about. So I will just say what I did. This will definitely vary depending on the agent you send to, so please check their requirements before you send the same email to everyone (also, this should NEVER happen, you should personalize your emails for the agent you’re sending to):

SUBJECT LINE: Query [Agent Name]: TITLE OF BOOK

(the reason I put Agent Name is that a lot of submission emails are agency wide. It just helps to name the agent in the subject line)

BODY OF EMAIL:

1. Query letter

2. PASTE sample pages

3. PASTE synopsis (if requested).

(I personally liked to put synopsis last because the synopsis is kind of dry, language-wise. I want their first impression to be my voice. Now there is nothing I found that said what the order of sample pages and synopsis were. But if you do find that then follow those rules. Just know that query letter will ALWAYS come first. It’s your opener).

SIGN OFF: I put my signature at the end of the query letter. Because that was my formal opening and then the sample pages were like an attachment that I just copy pasted into the body of the email. 

I used a simple “Sincerely, Kat Cho”

BONUS:

 If you are submitting to an agent because of a request or a contest then the SUBJECT LINE should include that fact!

I did both a conference and an online pitch contest they looked like this:

RT Con Request for [AGENT NAME]: GUMIHO

#DVPit Request for [AGENT NAME]: GUMIHO

Step 7: Send the query!

Okay, now you’re ready to send the query! So press send!

Step 8: Step away!

Okay, so, if you’re anything like me, you’re going to FREAK OUT as soon as you press “send.” Try as hard as you can NOT to do that! It will only end in stressed sadness. So, this is the “waiting and distraction” phase.

Some suggestions of activities to distract yourself with:

1. Start another WiP

2. Read your whole TBR list

3. Watch everything you’ve ever wanted to watch on Netflix

4. Flee the country (and/or go on a reasonable trip)

5. Do…fun things? I don’t know, you’re lucky I came up with 4 things already.

Step 9: Submitting Requested Materials

You did it! You got an agent to request your materials! Whether it’s a 50 page partial or a full MS, this is a celebratory moment. I personally bought myself a little gift after my first request. (Then I drank heavily after I sent out the materials, but that’s…not a requirement)

I’ve heard varying advice for this. So, I’ll just say what I did.

I replied to the original email chain and changed the subject to “Requested Material: TITLE”

Then I put a little blurb into the body of the email. Not anything huge, just something simple like:

“Thank you so much for requesting my Full/Partial of TITLE. I have attached the requested material as a Word doc.
For your convenience, I’ve pasted the query letter below.
Thank you again, and I look forward to hearing from you.
Your Signature
PASTE QUERY HERE”

So, you don’t actually HAVE to paste your query letter again if you’re replying to the original thread. But I did it (and I’m not sorry!)

Step 10: Step away AGAIN! 

Yes! More waiting! So, see step 7 for my great suggestions on how to not worry about your MS being in the hands of agents.

Also, peppered in between each step should be halfway steps that I call CELEBRATE YOURSELF

Seriously! You did it! You rock. You are awesome. Even just sending ONE query means you’re putting yourself out there. That is huge. I know that I felt ridiculously accomplished after sending one query. And then I just rested for a while thinking “Yes, I did it. I pressed send.”

(I really spent time celebrating sending ONE query)

So, bask in your glory. And ask any questions you might have below. I’ll try to answer or provide links I’ve used.

Just as a final note, querying to find an agent might not be for everyone. I know people who have gone straight to a publishing house with their MS or have self-published to great success.
This post is merely for people who would like to find an agent as their next step on their writing/publishing journey.

The "Right" Kind of Hope

When I wrote about getting my agent and writing my current MS, I spoke a lot about hope.
Almost immediately after, I came across a wonderful post by Kristin Nelson, “What’s Your Magic Number,” about how many books most published authors write before they’re agented or published.
The reason these two things synced up in my mind was because they’re both about hope. But what I’m going to call “The ‘Right’ Kind of Hope.”
In writing and publishing there’s a lot of wishing, a lot of dreaming, and a lot of hoping. However, there is a big difference between hoping for things to just fall into your lap and knowing that hope needs to be mixed with a good amount of hard work and determination.
The wrong kind of hope can make you think that if you have an idea and get it down on paper, then you’re golden. The wrong kind of hope can make you think all of those “I wrote a book in a day and got a six-fig publishing deal” stories are the norm and that’s going to be you. The wrong kind of hope has you finishing your MS and then wondering how much you’ll get for the inevitable movie deal in such a way that distracts from much needed revision and honing.
This kind of hope can be debilitating. Because when you hope for something so grand and possibly misguided (such as writing a full book during NaNoWriMo, then querying in December, and getting a publishing deal in January) then any possible rejection will hurt that much more. It could potentially push you into a dark place that will be hard to climb back out of (and I say this because I experienced this. I wrote an MS for all the wrong reasons and thought I had it in the bag. And I failed miserably!).
As readers, we like to hear about how our favorite authors came up with their idea because they had a crazy dream, or saw a man save a girl from falling down the stairs in the subway, or read about a ghost ships in the harbors of Japan (this is an actual story I’ve read). But those stories gloss over the years it takes to go from idea to actual publishing. And it also never tells about the rejections that happened in between.

As writers, we need to know that “overnight success” stories are not the norm, they’re just the magical outliers that we love to talk about because they’re so interesting and induce a WOW reaction in us.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have hope. I believe in it so deeply that it brought me out of times where I felt like my writing and my life were going nowhere. I believe that it is important in any life, not just a creative one. It was actually very hard for me to even think of the title for this post because I don’t think I always know what the “right” kind of hope is (and isn’t it a bit presumptuous to believe I can say what’s right and wrong?). I was going to call it the “good” kind of hope and my critique partner said,”Isn’t all hope good?” I couldn’t necessarily say “No” to that because I believe that hope is a good thing.

I’ve read countless posts about how the thing that got most people published is an unwillingness to give up. THAT’s the kind of hope writers need. Because the thing that drives you forward even as you get dozens of rejections is the hope that someone will love your work.
ALMOST EVERY agent that requested material this time around rejected me when I queried them with my previous MS. It took me years to get an MS that was query-able and then even more time to get it in shape for sending it out to agents.

So, what I’m saying is that everyone should have hope, but have the right kind of hope.

The hope that tells you that the work you’re doing is good.

The hope that says that your late nights or early mornings putting in writing hours to hone your craft are worth it.

The hope that says that if you can keep working and dreaming, then you’ll find the perfect person to champion your work.

I hope for that for everyone.
Now here’s a GIF of J-Hope from BTS:

Why I love Query Tracker

If you’re querying or about to query, then you probably know there are a lot of tools out there to help you in the process. For myself, I started out with an excel spreadsheet way too long for its own good.

I also had advice from critique partners and other writers.

But, in my need to be organized, I turned to Query Tracker 

(suggested to me by my lovely critique partner).

It. Is. Fabulous.

Here’s a blurb about QT by QT:

Why join QueryTracker?List of top literary agents and publishers.
Tools to keep your queries organized.
Benefit from the collective knowledge of thousands of other writers, all of which are enduring the query process just like you.
Export and backup your data at any time
The data compiled on agents and queries will give you special insight, such as:

  • The number of queries sent to each agent.
  • The number of queries each agent accepts.
  • The number of queries each agent rejects.
  • Response times of agents.
  • Plus much more…

Everyone who queries should use it! And here are a few reasons why:

  • Basic sign up is free
  • You can make agent lists for different projects
  • You can keep track of who you queried, what their response is, and if they requested.
  • You can look through your list based on convenient things like “outstanding queries” or “outstanding submissions” or, my personal favorite, “hide rejections.”
  • Also, it gives information about the agents: What they’re looking for, genres they represent, their clients, how to query them, how fast they’ve been replying
  • It makes epic pie-charts for you based on your responses and submissions (I love charts)

  • Within each agent profile, there’s a nice comments section where some people will put when they queried, when they got a response, the type of book they were querying, etc.

  • There’s a great community. In the aforementioned comment section, some people will ask about response times or if agents have auto-reply emails set up to acknowledge receipt. Sometimes it’s stressful when you don’t know if an agent got your query. So this community is a great place to turn to.
  • ALSO, best feature (in my mind) is the forums and the success stories. There are queries that worked! And they’re for individual agents. So you know what Steve liked because he requested it and then offered representation.