In the summer of 2014, it began.
When I first started drafting my query letter, I set myself on the most epic of all quests: discovering what it would take to get an agent drooling to read my book. Every spare minute I had was spent hunched over the computer, reading blog after blog.
At first, all I could find was basic information about writing a three part book summary for your query letter: Character, Conflict, and Stakes.
Is this all it really takes to impress an agent? Write a three-part summary and you’re in?
In a word: No.
Really, really no.
That’s a 1.9% request rate.
Pretty abysmal chances for the hopeful author, right?
Okay, yes. Some of those queries probably failed to follow the submission guidelines or said nothing about the actual book, and got an auto-reject. Agents auto-reject queries every day because people do stuff like this…
But a lot of queries do follow the agency’s guidelines and are technically fine. So, of the dozens (if not hundreds) of queries that make it past auto-reject, how can you make yours stand out from the pile?
Instead of sending you on the same virtual expedition, I’m going to share some hidden gems I discovered from participating in query contests, devouring the Manuscript Wish List website, and twitter stalking… er — following agents and their assistants.
I’m no expert. But when I fixed these problems within my own query, something magical happened…
I got requests.
Between querying and pitching contests, I sent out fourteen letters:
- Six agents requested material.
- Three passed.
- Five hadn’t responded before I had an offer of representation
- That’s fourteen, right? Wait. 6+3+5=14. Yes. Fourteen.
That’s a 42% request rate.
And honestly, some of the remaining five agents told me they would have come back with a request if they’d gotten to the query in time.
Side Note: For anyone wondering why I closed out my queries before all agents had the chance to read — I had an offer from my dream agent and knew it was the right fit.
Here are some advanced query problems, and how to fix them.
Problem One: You’re Not Hooking Them Fast Enough
When you’re one in a pile of a thousand queries, you’re not going to have much time to grab an agent’s attention. Let’s be honest here. Agents don’t read every query all the way through. Frankly, they don’t have time. Sometimes they skim. Sometimes they stop after the first few lines.
Pretend you only have one line to grab the agent’s attention. What is the most interesting thing you could say about your story or its main character?
Here are the opening lines to the query that landed me an agent.
“The warrior. It’s a title 20-year-old Kali Ling earned
bringing men to their knees… inside video games.”
Is it perfect? No. But it does the job. It’s short, simple, and ends in a twist. As the reader, you’re probably left wondering: how is she doing it inside video games? Like, literally inside them? What’s going on here? The only way for anyone — agent included — to find out is to continue reading the query.
Here are some other ways to hook an agent with a single opening sentence (or two).
- An unexpected twist: “When Cate Benson was twelve, her sister died. Two hours after the funeral, they picked up Violet’s replacement, and the family made it home in time for dinner and a game of cards.” — Falls the Shadow by Stefanie Gaither: feature query on Writer’s Digest.
- Make them laugh: “You’d have to be drunk or crazy to hire Dahlia Moss as a detective, and her client was conveniently both.”– The Unfortunate Decisions of Dahlia Moss by Max Wirestone on Query Kombat 2014.
- Something shocking: “Shawn knows he’s going to die on his 18th birthday.” — Query #260 on Query Shark.
- Pull at the heartstrings: “She had the talent, she had the drive, and she had the opportunity. Only one thing stood between Penelope Sparrow and the dance career of her dreams: her imperfect body.” — The Art of Falling from Kathryn Croft: feature query from Writer’s Digest.
Remember to take into consideration your genre. Something mysterious and unexpected might work well for sci-fi, while an emotional edge might bode well for contemporary. Don’t bore the agent with a bland opening line. Instead, start with a bang. Throw the biggest bait you can out there. Trust me, it’s what an agent wants most. Well… an assistant is really what an agent wants most, but a great opening line is up there. Top five, I swear.
Problem Two: Your Concept Isn’t Unique
Don’t panic. This doesn’t mean your book isn’t unique enough. But your summary paragraphs? Those probably need some work.
The key to having a memorable query is:
The majority of queries received by agents are generic and boring, and don’t really describe the plot of the story. Instead, they contain word-phrases and clichés that could be used to describe every B-rated movie ever made.
Here’s an example…
(Your query should be more than two sentences long, but for the sake of simplicity, here are two quick summaries describing the same story.)
Bland and Generic:
Mandy loves scuba diving. But when someone mysterious
starts killing those who love the water, she must uncover who
before it’s too late.
Now with Specifics:
16-year-old scuba diver Mandy lives for the water.
But when a psychopath starts killing members of the local marina,
she must uncover the murderer before more than
her tank runs out of oxygen.
Which one are you more likely to remember tomorrow?
My bet is on the second one. A “psychopath” is much more chilling than “someone mysterious.” And “before her tank runs out of oxygen” is hilarious and incredibly unique compared to “before it’s too late.” See how the specifics add more emotion, create concrete imagery, and make the story memorable?
Go through your query and on every line ask yourself, could this line apply to other queries out there? If yes, is there a way to describe this so that only applies to my story?
Here are some examples of generic, overused phrases in queries:
- Things will never be the same again.
- Changed forever.
- Everyone will die.
- Before time runs out.
- Something unexpected happens.
- All of sudden.
- He is the chosen one.
- It’s the end of the world as she knows it.
- Something unexpected happens. (That’s twice! Annoying, isn’t it?)
- Discovers they have superpowers!
- Someone mysterious starts school. Or moves to town. Or does anything, really.
Your story is unique to you and only you. Make sure that uniqueness is reflected in your query paragraphs. Remember: the more distinct you are from everyone else, the more likely your query is to stand out in the slush pile. Otherwise, the response you’ll get from an agent will be just as generic:
Followed shortly by a form rejection letter. But not before: Head. Desk.
Problem Three: Your Comp Titles Aren’t Up to Par.
A standard query letter should contain a few comparative titles that are similar to your book. This helps the agent to understand the tone and potential audience for your novel, while also letting them know you have an understanding of the market you’re writing in. Get your comp titles wrong, and your query could be toast.
Don’t believe me?
Agents are looking for a reason to say no. Don’t make it easy for them by choosing poorly — or none at all. Okay, if an agent was over-the-moon in love with your summary paragraphs, maaaaybe they’d overlook it. But if they’re on the fence about requesting material, the wrong comp title can send you to Camp Rejection.
So, how do you pick the right comp titles?
- Choose book titles that are in the upper-mid range of popularity. Enough that people reading the genre will be familiar, but not everyone in the world
- Make sure at least one of your titles was published in the last five years. Better yet, make it under three, if you can.
- If applicable, try a mashup of two titles that wouldn’t naturally go together. Writing a comedy horror? Try: “It’s Monster Island meets the Hangover.”
- If you feel your writing is similar to another author, go ahead and list that (ex. “My book should appeal to fans of Author ABC”). Just make sure you don’t compare yourself to Shakespeare or Mark Twain.
A few additional tips:
- Limit yourself to 2-3 titles. Listing more makes you seem amateurish. Listing only one implies you don’t know the genre/market.
- Strive for examples that match the tone of your novel. For example, if you’re writing is more upbeat and humorous, don’t list a comp that is dark and depressing.
- You can use movies, TV shows, or comic books, but limit yourself to one non-book title per query. In other words, only use one movie OR one TV show OR one comic — NOT all three.
- Avoid the super-big bestsellers (like Harry Potter or Twilight.)
- On the flip side, avoid super obscure titles that no one — not even an agent — has ever heard of.
Problem Four: Your Stakes Aren’t High Enough
Stakes are such drama queens.
This is a good thing. For your query, at least.
Stakes represent conflict and danger. They make the reader care about and root for your character. What happens if they win? What happens if they lose?
Let’s look at the stakes from my debut novel ARENA. The main character, Kali Ling, is stuck between becoming the first female captain to win a gaming tournament, and honoring her fallen teammate by exposing the corruption within virtual sports.
If she exposes the corruption, she risks losing her spot as captain, and there are thousands of young girl gamers counting on her to be the first woman to claim the title. But if she pursues becoming captain, then corruption in virtual sports lives on and her friend died in vain.
So, does she become a role model? Or a rebel?
See how there’s no clear choice here?
Worst of all, what if she can’t decide and accomplishes nothing? Or picks either one and fails miserably? OMG! THE DRAMA!
Without it, there’s not much of a point to your story…
Take careful note of Jessie’s tweet. The “world ending” or “everyone dying” doesn’t necessarily make for high stakes. Why? This goes back to Problem Two: Vagueness. Your main character can’t feel the pain of everyone in the world, but they can imagine what it’s like to lose their family and friends.
Even when superheroes really are saving the entire world, their thoughts aren’t about all of humanity. They’re about those closest to them. Ironman thinks of Pepper Potts. Superman thinks of Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, and his parents. Neo thinks of Trinity. Thor thinks of Jane Foster and his newfound earthling friends.
Stakes are what’s most important to the character and how they could lose it. So, ask yourself: what choices does your character make and what impacts will it have on them?
Problem Five: There’s No Voice
I love it. It’s hot chocolate in a winter storm. It’s also the hardest thing to cram into your query. But, if your query is constructed properly AND oozes with voice, you’ve got a good chance at getting a request.
Wondering what I’m talking about? Here’s a perfect example of query paragraphs just dripping with the right stuff:
In fourteen-year-old Anne’s opinion, there are two kinds of quests: the kind that lead to unicorns and lollipops, and the kind that get you and everyone you love killed, horribly and painfully (possibly by zombie sharks). She knows this because her budding magick abilities have accidentally entangled her in a quest, and so far she hasn’t encountered any lollipops.
She could opt out, but then as per Paragraph 5 Subparagraph 3 of the Official Questing Regulations she’d be exiled forever and all of her friends would be tossed into a dungeon. She’d rather kiss a Steam Troll than let that happen…
I’ll be honest here — middle grade fiction isn’t my usual cup of tea — AND I NEED TO READ THIS NOW.
(And yes, if you’re wondering, Wade’s book had multiple offers).
Notice how Wade names prizes of the quest as “unicorns and lollipops.” Maybe this isn’t what you or I would want to find at the end of a quest, but these examples are completely on tone for a middle grade novel. And as adults, we know there are things far worse in life than kissing a troll, but for the perspective of a grade-schooler? Ew, yuck.
Does voice really have that much impact on a query? Well…
Voice comes from knowing your point-of-view character and funneling the world through their perspective. A 10-year-old boy wouldn’t look at things the same way an 80-year-old woman would. Use it! Does your character have a favorite catchphrase? Put it in. Are they happy and optimistic or dark and snarky? Their personality should be reflected in the words they choose to describe their world.
I have two novels I’m currently working on. In one, the main character is a worldly, hardboiled detective. In the other, a gamer girl. Now, if someone in each of their respective stories died, one would say “he bit the hard goodbye” and the other would quip “he got a permanent game over.” Notice how I don’t have to tell you which one said which, because each statement is completely reflective of their individual lives.
This is voice.
Put it in your query. Trust me. Get all the other parts of your query right and voice becomes the whipped cream on a hot fudge sundae. And you can never have too much whipped cream. Well, maybe you can.
But not for me. Never me.
Dammit, now I’m hungry.
*Originally posted on my old blog on January 20, 2016. Also featured in Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents 2017.