The Query that Landed Me a NY Agent and Big Five Publisher

Arena

You asked for it.

By popular demand, here it is: the query for my novel ARENA. Look, I’ll be the first to admit it’s not perfect, but it still bagged me several requests from agents, an offer of representation, and a two-book deal with Ace (Penguin).

In less than six months.

That’s right. I started querying and entering contests in April 2013. By August I had an agent and by September I had a book deal on the table. In the industry, it can take up to a year to land an agent, and another year to find a publisher, if at all. In other words, this is lightning fast.

​​So, how did I do it?

Some luck, good timing, and a query that stood out from the pile.

(FYI – If you’re new to query writing, you might want to check out my Starting Guide to Query Letters and my advanced guide 5 Reasons Why Your Query Gets Rejected.)

Okay, here we go. We’ll do one straight read-through, and then we’ll break it down line-by-line and discuss why it works.

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The Original Query

The warrior. It’s a title 20-year-old Kali Ling earned bringing her opponents to their knees — inside video games.

As an athletic avatar for the Virtual Gaming League, Kali’s living a better life than any college kid in 2054: ultimate fame, zero responsibility, and nonstop partying in L.A.’s hottest clubs. But when her teammate Nathan overdoses and Kali is named captain — the first female one in history — it’s time to level up to adulthood.

Objectives for Quest “Grow Up and Kick Ass” include embracing her Taoist beliefs and training with her team’s latest recruit (whom she can’t help picturing in nothing but a strategically placed controller). But just as she’s ready to lead, Kali uncovers a sickening fact behind the sport she loves. Too many hours inside a realer-than-life virtual world drives gamers to drug addiction and insanity, and the industry has been whitewashing the truth for the sake of ratings.

For ratings? Oh, it’s on like Donkey Kong.

Furious, Kali tackles a new kind of end boss: the venality of electronic sports. But the VGL threatens to expel her from the league if she doesn’t back down. As leader of her team, it’s not just her future on the line, and as a female captain, thousands of female gamers are counting on her to be the first in history to claim a championship. But when the industry erases Nathan from its database and spits on his memory, Kali’s not sure she can back down. Role model or rebel. Either way, it’s game over. Permanently.

ARENA is a 102,000 word new adult sci-fi novel. It will appeal to fans of Tron and Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One.

​​Again, it’s not perfect. But it worked.

Here’s why:

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The Opening Line

“The warrior. It’s a title 20-year-old Kali Ling earned bringing her opponents to their knees — inside video games.”

The opening line. Okay, technically, it’s two lines, but the first is so short you automatically go into the next one. In less than 20 words, we are introduced to the main character and her life. Notice how I highlight what’s most unique about Kali. She fights people inside video games — literally inside them — and has earned the name “The Warrior” by doing so. An intriguing character? I’d say so.

While mentoring and judging some query contests, I’ve read way too many queries where the writer starts out with: “This is Scott. Scott is boring. And Scott’s life is boring.” Uh, then why would I want to read about Scott? Typically, the writer is (mistakenly) trying to make the protagonist’s life come across as low-key just so the initiating incident seems that much more exciting.

Please don’t do this. It hurts.

facepalm link

Even if your protagonist’s life is mundane before the initiating event, you can still hook the reader by stating the most unique thing about them or their world, like so:

“Scott never thought living on a spaceship would be boring.”

BAM!

You’ve just hooked me. Even if Scott is ordinary and bored with his life, the mention of a spaceship immediately grabs my attention. Why is he on a spaceship? Is this the future, or was he abducted by aliens? To know, I have to read on.

(For more suggestions on hooking an agent with the first line (or two) of your query, check out my advanced query guide here.)

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The Setup

“As an athletic avatar for the Virtual Gaming League, Kali’s living a better life than any college kid in 2054: ultimate fame, zero responsibility, and nonstop partying in L.A.’s hottest clubs. But when her teammate Nathan overdoses and Kali is named captain — the first female one in history — it’s time to level up to adulthood.”

Okay, let’s expand on some of these points:

“Athletic avatar” and “Virtual Gaming League” — These are specific terms to emphasize the world-building of the novel. It hints at the unique setup the reader is about to enter. Always give the specific names of your people, places, and things in your query. Don’t just say “a shadowy agency”; say the S.H.A.D.O.W. Corporation.

“Kali’s living a better life than any college kid” — By comparing Kali to typical people her age highlights how her life is different/unique than theirs, therefore emphasizing how the book itself is unique/different.

“Ultimate fame, zero responsibility, and nonstop partying in L.A.’s hottest clubs” — This sets up Kali’s lifestyle before she’s hit with the initiating incident.

“L.A.” and “2054” — These details ground the reader in the time and place. It’s always good to give the when and the where as early in the query as you can, especially if you’re writing fantasy, sci-fi, or historical fiction.

“Her teammate Nathan overdoses and Kali is named captain” — This is the initiating incident. See how it directly follows the line about Kali’s current lifestyle (“ultimate fame, zero responsibility”). This juxtaposes what her life was, and what it will be.

Also, notice how I spell out Nathan’s overdose and blatantly tell the reader what’s what, instead of saying “something tragic happened.” Why? Because something tragic happens in nearly every novel (and nearly every five minutes on Game of Thrones). Agents love specifics, and this detail helps my query stand out from the pile.

“It’s time to level up to adulthood” — “Level up” is specific gamer terminology used to emphasize the voice of the story. I could have just as easily said: it’s time to grow up. But there are a lot of coming-of-age stories and by saying “level up” instead, it shows the reader how this will be a common story inside an uncommon setting (a videogame-obsessed future).

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The Conflict

“Objectives for Quest “Grow Up and Kick Ass” include embracing her Taoist beliefs and training with her team’s latest recruit (whom she can’t help picturing in nothing but a strategically placed controller). But just as she’s ready to lead, Kali uncovers a sickening fact behind the sport she loves. Too many hours inside a realer-than-life virtual world drives gamers to drug addiction and insanity, and the industry has been whitewashing the truth for the sake of ratings.”

The breakdown:

“Objectives for Quest ‘Grow Up and Kick Ass’ ” — Adds more videogame specific terms to emphasize the voice and world-building of the novel.

“Taoist beliefs” — Emphasizes the novel’s inclusion of diverse religious beliefs, and shows the unique way the character will strive to achieve her goals.

“Training with her team’s latest recruit (whom she can’t help picturing in nothing but a strategically placed controller” — AGAIN, uniqueness. Whether you’re writing fantasy so grim it makes GRRM cower, or a romance so steamy you have to fan yourself off with pages of the book, nearly every story has a love interest. But here, I’ve introduced mine through wording specific to my videogame-heavy future. A hot guy holding nothing but a joystick (maybe his own?). I’m intrigued!

“But just as she’s ready to lead, Kali uncovers a sickening fact behind the sport she loves.” — A complication for the main character. Never make things too easy for them, even in the query.

“Too many hours inside a realer-than-life virtual world drives gamers to drug addiction and insanity, and the industry has been whitewashing the truth for the sake of ratings.” — Just like spelling out Nathan’s drug overdose, notice how I directly tell the reader what’s going on. I don’t just say “Kali uncovers something terrible.” Why? You know the answer. Most books have something terrible that happens, but gamers reverting to drug addiction and mental illness is a much more distinct plot point.

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The Voice

“For ratings? Oh, it’s on like Donkey Kong.”

What does this line add?

VOICE.

Technically, the voice of your novel should be reflected through your entire query, but this line is a great example. It gives your query spunk. It secretly says: I have attitude, and you’re going to like it.

Remember, it’s okay to have a line or two that does nothing but add voice as long as you don’t stray too far away from conveying your story’s plot and consequences. After all, that’s the whole point and without those, no one’s going to care about how snarky your protagonist is.

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The Stakes

“Furious, Kali tackles a new kind of end boss: the venality of electronic sports. But the VGL threatens to expel her from the league if she doesn’t back down. As leader of her team, it’s not just her future on the line, and as a female captain, thousands of female gamers are counting on her to be the first in history to claim a championship. But when the industry erases Nathan from its database and spits on his memory, Kali’s not sure she can back down. Role model or rebel. Either way, it’s game over. Permanently.”

The breakdown:

“Furious, Kali tackles a new kind of end boss: the venality of electronic sports. But the VGL threatens to expel her from the league if she doesn’t back down.” — This clearly spells out the choice/central struggle the protagonist will have to face.

“As leader of her team, it’s not just her future on the line, and as a female captain, thousands of female gamers are counting on her to be the first in history to claim a championship.” — This is risk if she doesn’t back down. If she’s kicked out of the league, she loses her chance at making history as the first female captain.

“But when the industry erases Nathan from its database and spits on his memory, Kali’s not sure she can back down.” — This is the risk if she does back down. If she shuts up about Nathan and the corruption in electric sports, she loses the chance to honor him and make things better for other players. (See how the main character is now in a no-win scenario?)

“Role model or rebel.” — Emphasizing the choice the MC has to make.

“Either way, it’s game over. Permanently.” — The consequences of her choice expressed through another videogame analogy.

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The Conclusion

ARENA is a 102,000-word new adult sci-fi novel. It will appeal to fans of Tron and Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One.

The breakdown: You don’t have to get too fancy here, but it is important to include all the vital information about your novel in the proper format.

“ARENA” — title in all caps.

“102,000-word” — word count rounded to the nearest thousand.

“new adult” — age category.

“sci-fi” — genre.

“It will appeal to fans of Tron — one non-book comp title in italics. Tron is a well-known movie but not a billion dollar franchise. Comparing your book to something insanely popular can make you seem amateurish. For help picking out the right comp title for your novel, refer to my query guide here.

“and Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One — book comp title in italics; again, well-known but not a “phenomenon-level” seller — i.e. “My book is the next Harry Potter.”

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Summing Up

Like your novel, don’t be afraid to make a mess of the first draft of your query and revise later. Just get the basics down, and cut, mold, shape, and jazz it up from there. I can’t remember how many times I revised mine, but the number is somewhere over thirty. Yes, thirty.

There’s no such thing as a perfect query letter, and everything I’ve mentioned above is my best advice only. Take everything I’ve said it, or nothing. You know what’s right for your novel. Either way, go out there and kick ass. The process is long and full of unexpected twists and turns, but it’s completely worth the ride.

ARENA is available now.

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