If you’re having trouble getting your query letter right, one of my CPs once gave me some advice that was literally life-changing and dramatically improved my query-writing.
Below, I’ll take you through the step-by-step process of going from “boring, pretty much auto-reject query” to “DAMN, that’s a mighty fine gets-lots-of-requests query.”
(If you prefer to skip the examples and go straight to the method, go ahead and scroll down. I won’t be offended.)
In case you don’t know me, I write REALLY twisty books with a shit-ton of intrigue — not easy to distill into 250 words. I wrote okay queries, but they were all too detailed and over-twisty to really be effective.
My very first query looked something like this.
Why did this not work? Simple.
It doesn’t read like a query.
It reads like a synopsis — and not an interesting one either. A super dry, over-detailed synopsis with no real hook.
My second attempt wasn’t much better.
It’s different, but very much the same in that it lists events instead of setting the tone and making you, as the reader, care about those events.
By this point, neither the query nor the manuscript were working.
So I rewrote the entire book from scratch.
And, of course, a new book needs a new query.
There’s a little more snap-crackle-pop to it, but it’s still too heavy. Among other things, I was trying to balance two POVs. On top of that, it still mostly listed events. Some queries can get away with this if written well enough, but not mine. Not with this story.
Then my CP gave me this idea:
She had me write a letter in my MC’s voice that detailed . . .
- what my MC was up against
- what was happening
- how she’d move heaven and earth to get it
IMPORTANT NOTE: DO NOT USE THIS AS YOUR QUERY
(Seriously, don’t. Queries in the character’s voice/POV are almost always [I’m talking 99% of the time] poorly received. So please don’t do it.)
That letter clarified what was important to this character. Even though the book is packed with intrigue, my main character only needed to mention that there was intrigue. She didn’t need to go into detail. And from that letter, I wrote a pretty kick-ass query, if I do say so myself. I even used a few of the same phrases.
My agent liked it so much that she used it, almost word-for-word, as her pitch letter.
As you can see, this version abandons most of what the previous queries had tried to do.
It sets up the conflict and gives you a little backstory.
- This girl was banished
- She trained to be an assassin, a schemer, a seductress — whatever she needs to be.
- She wants to be queen
- She knows she’s being played
- She doesn’t care — that’s her world
- She wants her king back
It tells you what’s in the way.
- The king’s cousin
- The king’s taste for women and gold
- The dozens of other nobles playing the same game
- And the king himself
- Who Li is
- What she wants
- What she’s prepared to risk
- And everything standing in her way
There are almost no events. In fact, the only events are precise little details that set up the conflict. More specifically, the query is setting up a battle royale in which you’re the spectator. If you want to find out which of ALL these players come out on top, you have to read the book.
THAT IS A QUERY’S JOB — Get an agent to read the book
- Find that thing that makes your book stand out
- Write that letter to see how your MC feels about it
- And structure your query around that
Now go forth and conquer!
If you’d rather read this in tweet form, click here.