So you’ve just finished your first novel. You are full of sunshine and rainbows. Nothing feels better than typing “The End” and knowing you’ve accomplished something with your life. You’ve written A WHOLE NOVEL, created people and places and things with your brain and your brain alone. You open Google and type into the search bar how to get published. BAD NEWS, FRIEND. Your journey has just begun, and, unfortunately, writing the novel was the easy part.
Now you must move on to round two…
(Insert dramatic music.)
What the Hell is a Query?
A query is the sole means of communication between you and literary agents or publishers. A literary agent is the person who will offer you a contract, represent you, peddle your book to publishers, market for you (well, sort of), be your shoulder to cry on during the submission process, and do a whole bunch of other useful things. Some literary agents get hundreds of unsolicited queries per DAY—not week or month, but day.
An agent’s priority is to take care of the authors they already represent, but they also sift through the “slush pile” to find promising authors and novels. A query is the most effective way to present your novel to an agent or acquisitions editor.
…And Where the HELL Do I Start?
Queries follow a pretty strict format. Remember that you are writing a business letter, and business letters must always be professional.
You begin with Dear [agent’s name]:. Make sure to put a colon, not a comma after the agent’s name. And, please, make sure you spell their name right! You may put some personalization at the beginning, such as: I read in X interview that you are looking for Y, so I felt my novel would interest you. Some agents like personalization, some don’t. I encourage you to do all the research you can on an agent before submitting to them.
After that you will write a “hook” that grabs the agent’s interest and makes them want to keep reading. The hook should be a sentence or two that is attention-grabbing, interesting, and unique to your story. The main character should always be mentioned in the hook. For many people, the hook is the hardest part.
Below I will give some examples of good hooks that I’ve compiled from AgentQueryConnect’s successful queries forum:
“Lifelong skeptic Sarah Griffith doesn’t believe in ghosts, or ghouls, or things that go bump in the night. Imagine her surprise when she discovers her next-door neighbor is Death Incarnate.”—GRAVE INTENTIONS by Lori Sjoberg
“Sixteen-year-old Clementine wants to grow old and live in a place where the moon is a beautiful, glowing orb in the sky instead of an acid-bleeding menace to the planet.”—EXTRACTION by Stephanie Diaz
“16-year-old Dusty Everhart might make a regular habit of breaking into houses late at night, but she’s no criminal. She is a Nightmare, a magical being who must feed on the dreams of others, and in doing so experience those dreams, too.”—THE NIGHTMARE AFFAIR by Mindee Arnett
Do those hooks make you want to read more about the books?
Next come the body paragraphs of the query. The whole query should be no more than 250-300 words, so remember to keep it simple. This is not a synopsis, so there’s no need to list every single thing that happens in the novel. It’s similar to the blurb found on the back of a book. The gist of it is to tell the overall plot of the novel without giving too much away or being too vague. It’s a tricky balancing act. You do not give away all the ending in a query, only give enough information to make the agent want to request pages and find out what happens in your novel.
Be careful that your query doesn’t turn into “character soup”—no more than two or three characters should be introduced in the query to avoid confusion. Remember not to ask rhetorical questions. Clearly present the stakes within the query. The main questions you want to answer are: Who is the main character? What does the main character want to accomplish? What stands in their way? What must they do to overcome that obstacle? What will they lose if they can’t accomplish what they need to?
After the body paragraphs you will state the title, genre, and word count of the novel. TITLE is a (genre) novel complete at XX,000 words. Your title should always be in all caps. There is no need to state that this is your first completed novel. If this novel is the first in a series, simply state that it is the first in a potential series. If the book is a standalone with series potential, state that.
Most agents do like to see that an author won’t be a one hit wonder. They like to build an ongoing relationship with a client. However, sometimes it’s easier to sell a standalone to a publisher. If you have already begun to work on sequels to your novel, be aware that the plot of the novel may change so much during the editing process that the sequels no longer apply. It’s best to work on a new project when querying.
Be sure to research the proper word count for your genre. Having a very high or very low word count can make or break your chance of nabbing an agent or signing with a publisher.
Many authors use comparison titles in the logline. Make sure your novel lives up to the comp title (if it’s a well-known one) and make sure the comp title fits your novel. YA comp titles should be given for YA works, etc. It’s also better to list comp titles that have been released within the last few years.
Within the logline, you may also put any publishing experience or credentials you might have. This is not a place to spill your guts on why you wrote a novel, why you want to be published, nor to put your resume. This is where you list short stories or other novels that have been published, if you have an English degree, or any other credentials related to writing (such as if your novel is about OCD and you have OCD). If you have no experience, it is totally fine to omit the bio. If you have previously self-published your work, many agents want to know this up front.
After all that, simply put, “Thank you for your time and consideration.”
Doesn’t sound THAT hard, right?
Writing a query can be a frustrating and exhausting process. I mean, how do you condense all that down to just 250 words? Don’t let this process get the better of you. Above all else, guys, remember to have fun! Open your mind and think outside the box. If something doesn’t work, don’t be afraid to erase it and start from scratch at a different angle.
I Sent My Query and Got Rejected
Rejection means you’re a REAL author now! Time to make those rejection letters into confetti and party! But seriously, rejection is normal. Somewhere around three percent of authors will be offered representation. That’s not a lot at all.
Rejection and criticism are part of the life of a writer. Your work will always be judged by others. All you can do is make sure your novel is as polished as it can be and your skin is as thick as you can get it. If after sending out a few queries you’ve still received no interest, take a look at your query, synopsis, and first few chapters again. Do some revisions. You should receive a 10-20% request rate from your query.
Don’t give up, because you never know. Agents and publishers have differing tastes and what one loves another may not be interested in.
Jadah currently lives in Nashville, TN and works as a legal coordinator. When not babysitting attorneys, she can be found juicing her brain for creative ideas or fantasizing about her next trip out of the country (or about Tom HIddleston as Loki - it’s always a toss up when she fantasizes.)She grew up in rural Arkansas, yet can still write good and sometimes even wears shoes! She did date her first cousin for a while but they decided against marriage for the sake of the gene pool.
Her true loves are elephants, cursing, and sangria - in that order. If you find an elephant that curses like a sailor whilst drinking sangria, you’re dangerously close to becoming her next romantic victim - er, partner.
She cut her writing teeth on badly written, hormone-driven fanfiction (be glad that’s out of her system), and her one true dream is to have wildly erotic fanfiction with dubious grammar written about her own novels. Please make her dreams come true.