Query Writing Advice

There’s lots of advice out there on how to write a query, but I thought I’d throw out my two cents, focusing particularly on the most common mistakes I’ve seen as a slush pile reader and agent’s intern.

The first thing in your query should be your hook, a one to two–sentence paragraph that makes agents/interns/readers want to read the rest of your query. A hook can also be useful in stating what makes your book different from others out there.

Honestly, the hook should be the easiest part of your query. It’s the most interesting or most unique aspect of your manuscript condensed into one or two sentences.

I don’t have time to get permission to use other authors’ hooks, so I’ll give examples of hooks I’ve used in my queries. These queries got me manuscript requests from agents.

Hook example 1: “After spending four years believing herself to be the last half-demon on earth, 19-year-old demon hunter, Seph Morgan, is shocked to find out that she is merely the only female of her race, making her much sought after by demons, half-demons, and humans alike.”

Hook example 2: “In the empire of Rethvan, it is believed that the souls of those who are murdered must wander in endless torment until their deaths are avenged. Seventeen-year-old Jade must set her mother’s soul free by killing the man responsible for her murder, a man she has never laid eyes on: the emperor, her father.”

Not my best work, but you can see how the first hook points out how the story is unique—a half-demon girl is the only female of her entire race. And the second hook clearly points out the main conflict of the story—a girl is seeking revenge for her mother by attempting to kill her father.

Avoid hooks that could apply to lots of already published books.

Bad hook example: “A new boy enters Kayla’s life, and she finds herself instantly drawn to him.”

While I love a good romance, this hook doesn’t tell me how this story is unique. It could be the plot to Twilight or City of Bones or Hush, Hush or a thousand other books. That’s not to say that these books aren’t unique, just that this hook would be a terrible one to use for them because they have so many unique things about them that could be used instead.

The second part of your query is a description of the plot, main conflicts, and other fun details you want to include. In other words, a one to two–paragraph summary of your story that doesn’t contain any spoilers.

Now let me interrupt for a moment to say that some people have a hard time understanding what a main conflict is. It’s NOT a list of the themes found in your manuscript.

Bad summary example: “My novel is a heartwarming tale of friendship and love in which two souls must come together after a hardship has befallen them.”

Ick. I get this one all the time. Drives me nuts. First off, don’t tell me your story is heartwarming. I’ll decide that for myself. Second of all, that’s great that a hardship befalls them, but WHAT IS THE HARDSHIP? That’s the conflict, not that other crap that they listed. I don’t want to know the themes. I want to be able to tell the themes for myself by learning the actual conflicts of the story.

A main conflict is also NOT a description of the world you’ve made up or the creatures you’ve made up or whatever else you’ve made up unless you directly relate these elements to the conflict of the story.

Bad summary example: Welcome to the world of Eldyron, where magic and technology have reached their peaks. Some children ride broomsticks while others ride flying mechanical dragons. Some brandish wands while others use telekinetic devices called spingots.”

Obviously I just made that one up on the spot, but you see the point. It’s great that you’ve made up a new world, but what’s the conflict?! Is there an evil dude planning to use his magic to destroy the world? Is the main character an evil technological mastermind who plans to take control of the world? Whatever the actual conflict is, important people want to know it.

So what is the conflict then? It’s the problem. It’s what makes your story interesting, that thing that keeps everything from being happiness and giggles.

Conflict examples: bad guy trying to take over the world, obtaining revenge, people are disappearing, the class bully, etc.

It’s okay to include minor conflicts as well. It’s all right to describe your characters in more details if you show how their personalities lead to conflict. It’s perfectly fine to include interesting facts so long as they relate directly to the conflicts.

Also, your summary should focus the most time on the most important elements. Don’t spend a whole paragraph talking about the romance if it’s a very minor element. If your story has a strong romantic element, do mention it. A romance is always a conflict, and an exciting one at that.

Don’t forget to include in your summary the word count, title, and genre of your manuscript!

And if you want to see them, here are the summaries I wrote for the two hooks I used earlier.

Summary 1: “At 85,000 words, The Curse of Beauty is the first installment in a young adult fantasy trilogy following the life of Seph Morgan. When her parents were killed by demons, Seph dedicated her life to ridding the world of the nasties that lurk in the night. Having been trained to handle a sword at an early age and being half-demon herself, Seph is more than capable of taking out any demon unlucky enough to cross her path. While Seph appreciates some aspects of being half-demon (enhanced senses and agility, fast healing, impressive strength), others she finds extremely annoying (loneliness and an alluring, flawless beauty exceeding any human’s). For a girl who just wants to do her job and stay under the radar, drawing unwanted attention can be a huge inconvenience, sometimes a dangerous one.

When taken captive by a group of hunters who are neither human nor demon, Seph is furious until she learns something that changes her life. She isn’t the last of her race; she is simply the only female, which puts her hot on the market. Seph’s invited to attend the Jansen, a school that prepares half-demons for their future careers as demon hunters. Life changes dramatically for Seph at the Jansen. Whispers and catcalls follow her wherever she goes. She is now a teaching assistant for the sword training classes—where she deals with delinquent students who would rather check her out than pay attention to her instructions—under the direction of the extremely rude, hot, and mysterious Luke. But unruly boys aren’t Seph’s biggest concern. There’s another person out for her, someone more dangerous than anything Seph has ever fought against, and he won’t stop until he has her. The Curse of Beauty is equal parts action, mystery, and romance.”

Just FYI, that second to last line there, THAT would be the main conflict.

Summary 2: “Getting close to the most protected man in the world seems impossible, but Jade has an advantage that she doesn’t even know about. She has spent her life far from the Imperial City, living in the mountains—where her mother, the emperor’s twelfth wife, has kept them hidden from her father’s abusive habits. But after Jade finds her mother’s dead body and vows to avenge her death, she meets 23-year-old Tyrian, who plans to use her to gain his own political aspirations. He tells Jade about her previously unknown lineage, that as one of the emperor’s eligible children she can compete for the throne, and about his intent to help her do it. Tyrian might be conceited and dealing with his own tortured past, but Jade recognizes in him the same relentless determination that drives her. They both are willing to do whatever it takes to get what they want. Jade has no intention of ruling an empire, but she has no problem using Tyrian. She’ll go with him to the Imperial City and pretend to play this political game to try to win the emperor’s favor. How else is she supposed to get close enough to kill him?

Divine Vengeance is a young adult fantasy that combines the revenge plot of The Count of Monte Cristo with the royal sibling rivalry found in Stardust. Full of romance, political intrigue, adventure, and mystery, the manuscript is complete at 100,000 words. It is a standalone with series potential.”

And lastly, you’ll want to include your author bio in your query. Very little needs to be said about this. If you’ve got writing credentials, include them, if you don’t, don’t lie. It really doesn’t matter. Unless you’re a New York Times’ bestselling author looking for a new agent, the big guys really don’t care about your credentials.

So there, now you have no excuse NOT to include the plot of your manuscript in your query.

The Sole Qualification for Becoming an Author

About a week ago, I read a query in which the author made the following statement: “I possess the sole qualification for becoming an author: reading and writing is my passion.” He also described his book as being “the perfect fusion of modern, myth, and the unknown.” At the end he proceeded to inform me that he was in high school. He also told me that he had a “brilliant marketing strategy” which he assured me I would like.

Alright, before I get into this, I’m going to give this kid a fake name. Let’s call this cocky teenager John.

While I gave John the form rejection, you all get to hear in detail why this type of query letter is full of major suckage.

First off, it’s okay to be passionate about your work, but never, ever use the word “perfect” to describe it. Nothing in this world is perfect. Coming off as cocky is not going to impress an intern, let alone a literary agent.

Second, I don’t care how old you are. No one is going to give you special consideration because you’re younger. That’s great that you’ve discovered writing at a young age. And if you do get picked up at an early age, that’s awesome. But honestly, wouldn’t you feel better about yourself if you didn’t give your age? Then you would know that you were picked up out of all of the older, more experienced writers. And saying that you’re really young can also be a bad thing. It can scream “inexperienced!”

And now for the last thing I would like to tackle, this so-called sole qualification for becoming an author. (And, John, reading and writing are TWO things, so that would be two qualifications, not one. Anyway…) This was what really got me. First of all, sure, maybe those are the only things you need to be an author. Nowadays, anyone can publish something on the internet. But if you want to be a SUCCESSFUL author, there are many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many more qualifications. Like being able to take critique, knowing how to revise, being capable of researching, establishing an online presence, working professionally with others. And those are things outside of actually writing the story. When it comes to writing, you can’t just write (see my first blog post, Writers Don’t Just Write). You also plot, develop characters, write satisfying endings, pace the story, find your voice, develop setting. And many authors do these things wrong the first few tries. Yes! I do believe these things can be done wrong. Some people will think that there is no right or wrong when it comes to writing. To that, I say FALSE. This is why we have writing excuses. (www.writingexcuses.com) And this is why we blog.

And because I feel like I didn’t include enough manys earlier, here are some more:

Many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many.