Writing a query is a daunting task. When I was facing down the prospect of writing my very first one, it seemed impossible. How can I condense an 80k-word novel into one paragraph, in a way that’s engaging and meaningful? How can I convey the amount of heart and soul I put into my story in a trite marketing pitch? And how can I possibly make my query stand out amongst the dozens (or even hundreds) that an agent can get in a single day?
A lot of writers say that it’s more difficult to write a query than write the novel. I’m squarely in that camp. Knowing which elements to include, and which will just confuse things, can be seriously headache-inducing. It’s a completely different skill than writing a book. But it’s an important skill, because querying is how most authors find agents and publishers. If you can’t write a good query, it doesn’t matter how amazing your book is: agents will never know, because they’ll never read it.
Like any other skill, query-writing can be learned. There are lots of how-to articles out there. I always recommend the amazing Query Shark, which is a great way to learn the elements of a query, and get an idea of what works, and what doesn’t. You get to see how they’re pieced together, and see a reaction of a top agent to each element.
I thought I would also (gulp) use some of my own queries as examples, to dissect the elements.
So, here we go! This first one is for TRUE STORY, a YA contemp that I’m currently trying to find a home for. This query has gotten me quite a few full manuscript requests. My comments are in brackets.
Dear Ms. Mumblemumble [ALWAYS use their name. Never use the generic “Dear Agent” or “To Whom it May Concern”]:
I’m querying you because you indicated on Twitter that you’re seeking YA own voices books [Agents love to hear why you’re querying them specifically. They want you to be particularly interested in working with them, as well]. I am seeking representation for TRUE STORY, a YA contemporary romance, with elements of magical realism [genre], complete at 73,000 words [word count]. It’s an own voices book that deals with mental health issues [if you don’t know what an own voices book is, ask me. If your book is own voices, it’s a huge selling point, but if it’s not, don’t worry].
17-year-old Mike Charley is a girl, named after her grandfather by a bipolar mother who thought Mike was his reincarnation. Now Mike is in the foster system, and constantly in trouble: for running away from sketchy foster parents, for skipping school. The only safe place for her is in the fantasy worlds she writes about [This is an intro to my main character, and hints toward one of her goals: to overcome the things holding her back from happiness (stigma, hurtful past, bullying)].
Then she meets Vaughn, and is drawn against her will to the handsome, talented artist. There’s a connection between them that sets her spine tingling [intro to the secondary character. If it’s a romance, this is always the love interest. Also introduces another goal: get together with the guy she likes 😊].
When a car accident puts Mike in the hospital and Vaughn in a coma, Mike begins to have visions. Their fates are intertwined, and Vaughn’s life is now in Mike’s hands: she has ten days to complete the book she’s writing, or he’ll never wake up [This introduces the main conflict, and the stakes: “…or he’ll never wake up”].
This belief lands her in an institution, but Mike knows she’s not crazy [more conflict]. Trapped and helpless, not allowed to write, the day fast approaching when Vaughn’s father pulls him off life support, Mike has to find a way to finish her book…or a way to join her boyfriend in death [stakes: do it or die].
[The “meat” of my query is 176 words. That’s a good word count.]
I am an active writer, musician, and freelance editor. I have had five books published by Limitless Publishing: the romantic suspense Love or Money and four books in my magical realism Other Place series. I have two short horror stories set to come out in the 13: Déjà vu and 13: Night Terrors anthologies—an internationally bestselling series of anthologies. I am a neurodivergent person, and a neurodiverse rights activist who speaks at forums and events [My bio is long. It shouldn’t be longer than this, in most fiction queries, but most of this is relevant/interesting stuff. You want to let the agent/editor know that you’ll be a good person to work with, and you have attributes that are marketable—that you’re interesting as a person, and not just a great writer].
Thank you for your consideration.
[Always contain contact info].
This query certainly won’t be to everyone’s taste, but it is working for me, because it briefly introduces my characters, conflict, and stakes, with just enough specifics to help set it apart from other books without giving too much away.
Here is my query for THE OTHER PLACE, which got me multiple full requests, and an offer:
I am seeking representation for THE OTHER PLACE, a YA Contemporary novel with elements of magical realism. It is complete at 74,000 words, and is a stand-alone novel with series potential.
Justin just wants to draw and be left in peace, but when his mother takes up with a man who thinks his schizophrenia can be cured with prayer, he has to find a new home or risk involuntary commitment in a Christian mental institution.
He runs off to San Francisco, where he’s discovered by a gallery owner. His bizarre and beautiful drawings create a stir in the art world; people rave about his genius and flock to see his work. Meanwhile, Justin is homeless, couch surfing and battling his mental illness.
He reconnects with a girl named Liria, who has been appearing in his visions since they met back in his hometown. Liria, it turns out, has been sharing those visions. Compelled by their deep connection, she leaves her jealous girlfriend in order to be with him, supporting them both on her meagre income.
They discover that the gallery owner has been hiding something, and Justin realizes that being a genius can have a downside. Surrounded by people who want to exploit his talent, he must fight not only for his career and his freedom, but perhaps for his life.
I am a board member of the San Luis Obispo NightWriters association, assistant editor and columnist for their newsletter. I have recently had a short story published by Akashic Books.
Pursuant to your guidelines, I’m pasting the first 25 pages of The Other Place below.
I hope that seeing these is of some help to you in your own querying endeavors. After all, if I can write a successful query, so can you!