A lot of people ask me about writing queries. And not to brag, but I’ve been lucky enough to help quite a few writers perfect theirs with successful results. Not to mention (blushes) that the last three books I’ve queried have garnered me anywhere from five to twelve full requests from agents and publishers. The query for my latest novel, Like Father, Like Daughter (due out this fall by Limitless Publishing) earned me six full requests from publishers and ten full requests from agents, and ultimately, one major publishing deal for my entire Flesh & Blood Trilogy.
When trying to come up with a topic for my blog today, a friend recommended I post my query advice (not that I’m an expert, mind you) for anyone who might need a little inspiration or nudge in the right direction. If you’re wondering what makes me the authority on queries, the answers is…nothing at all. I’m just a regular, newbie author who seems to have a knack for writing successful queries. In fact, I’m beginning to think I might be better at those than novels!
So here goes…
For starters, regardless of what anyone tells you, there is absolutely a formula for queries that agents are looking for you to stick with. Are there exceptions? Oh, yes. There are exceptions to every rule in the book. But I’ve found that with the vast majority of agents/publishers, if you stick to this tried and true “formula,” you’ll reap more rewards for your efforts. The formula goes like this:
Intro paragraph – Start by personalizing each query to individual agents! I cannot emphasize this enough. Do not ever say “Dear Agent!” I also try (if possible) to plug in a little personal anecdote that applies specifically to that agent. For example: “I see you’re from Ohio. So am!” or “I see that you’re currently seeking (x genre).” Let them know that you took the time to research them, at least a little, instead of sending out a blanket form email that’s identical to hundreds of agents. Also, my opinion is that you do not put your genre and word count here. Save that for later. It can go either way, but based on my research and experience, they usually prefer it toward the bottom.
Hook – This is THE MOST IMPORTANT PART of your letter! Yes, there is some current debate as to whether they are still relevant, but I assure you…THEY ARE! Hooks are hard to write, trust me. It’s always the hardest part for me. They should be no more than one or two sentences, brief, concise, and, in my humble opinion, a bit witty, if possible. The goal here is to try to not only summarize your plot in one or two lines, but to grab the agent’s attention and force them to want to read on. Plus, this is a perfect spot to give them a sense of your personality and show them just how clever you are. I’ve received several kudos on most of my hooks, so I’m pretty sure I’m right about that.
Synopsis – This part is crucial. It should only be two (three at most) paragraphs and it should cover the entire plot of your novel (without giving away any twist or the ending). It should introduce your main character, your villain, the conflict and the stakes. If you’re not sure what conflict or stakes are, you have a lot to learn. Just go do some research and you’ll find plenty on the internet that explains these points. But basically, tell the agent who your MC is, what they are up against, what will happen if they don’t succeed/win/prosper. Also, one thing I’ve learned is not to try to cram all your secondary and tertiary characters in here. If there’s a supporting character who is critical to the plot line, you can introduce them, but that’s it. I learned this the hard way, too. And finally, in your last sentence, grab hold of the agent’s attention and make them completely incapable of passing! Meaning, leave them wanting more (but not clueless). It’s hard to explain, but you’ll know it when you do it right. The last sentence, in my opinion, should almost be like a second hook, at least, just as clever and creative.
Book Info – Here is where you’ll put your genre, word count, and comparison titles. Yes, comparison titles. These are important, too. It shows you are aware of the current market and your competition as well as telling them who your target audience would be.
Biography – I don’t know why, but a lot of writers don’t put this in their first draft until I tell them to. But this is critical. Not because the agent really cares what state you live in, or if you’re married or not, but because it gives them a quick sense of your personality and if you might be compatible with them. As for writing experience, how many of us actually have much when we’re in the querying stage? But DO NOT say anything like “this is my first novel” or “I’ve never been published, but…!” Just don’t say anything at all. If you do have any awards or writing credits, no matter how small, absolutely add these.
That’s about it, really. My advice is based on not only my own personal experience, but four years of reading every single website, blog post, agent profile, etc. out there. I didn’t just make this stuff up, folks. All of this came straight from the proverbial horses’ mouths.
What it really boils down to his this – if you’re a good writer, your query will be good. Stephen King once said something along the lines that a good writer can become a great writer and a great writer can become an amazing writer, but a bad writer is just a bad writer (not at all an exact quote). Some of us are gifted with writing ability, some aren’t. All you can do is do the best you can. But I truly believe that if you’re a good writer with any potential at all and you use this formula, you’ll at least get requests, and probably even offers.
Finally, I really do love helping people with their queries, so if you would like me to take a look at yours, contact me here through the website or on social media, and if I have time, I’ll be more than happy to give it a once-over and give you my opinion and some edits.
I’m going to post my query below. Not because I’m claiming to be an expert, or because I think this is THE BEST query ever written, but because it worked for me. It reflects the formula I’ve discussed and shows how I think a query letter should flow. It should be like a conversation with a friend over coffee. Of course, if you hate this query, well, keep it to yourself, thank you. Like I said, it worked for me. My “way” may not work for every writer, but it’s at least a nudge in the right direction. Best of luck!
Dear (Insert Name):
I am submitting my novel, LIKE FATHER, LIKE DAUGHTER, for your review. I noticed on your website profile that you are currently seeking dark thrillers with a domestic bend. Per your instructions, I am submitting the first chapter of my manuscript for your review. I look forward to hearing from you.
Libby is pretty sure she didn’t kill her husband. Maybe her serial killer father can help her figure out what really happened before she is found guilty and sent to prison for life, just like him.
Libby Carter grew up with a loving mother and father - the quintessential suburban family. But she is deposited onto an emotional tilt-a-whirl when her father confesses to being the infamous “I-75 Strangler”. Against all odds, Libby finds love and stability with her husband Ryan.
Waking up to find her husband in bed beside her with his head nearly blown off was a horrendous shock, and the fact that she escaped unscathed shoots her to the top of the suspect list. Libby is left to wonder if she is truly capable of murdering the man she loves. After all, she can’t remember anything after their big argument the night before. Plus, she’s the daughter of a serial killer, so there’s that. Perhaps it’s in her DNA.
Libby risks her life to clear herself and find Ryan’s killer. The story makes an abrupt twist when she discovers someone is out there…watching her every move. She unexpectedly finds herself face-to-face with her stalker and in a fight for her life.
LIKE FATHER, LIKE DAUGHTER is the first in a thrilling trilogy about love, family and redemption which fans of Dark Places, Every Secret Thing, and Girl on the Train will enjoy.
This is my eleventh completed novel. My short story, “Juggling the Many Hats of a Paralegal” was published in a national magazine for attorneys in 2013. Like the protagonist, I am a paralegal. I was able to relate to Libby and I possess first-hand knowledge of the legal process. I live in Kentucky with my husband, two teenage daughters, three dogs and one and a half cats (which I’ll gladly explain later.)