Starting this Wednesday, I will be jumping in to help judge the next round of Query Kombat. If you’re not familiar with this writing contest, it’s a great event hosted by Michelle Hauck, Laura Heffernan, and Michael Anthony. In the contest, two queries are put together and they “battle” via judges’ comments. The more successful, compelling query moves on to the next round for the chance to eventually be the overall winner.
This will be my third year of judging and I’m always struck by how clever and interesting writers can make their queries. This had me thinking about the total structure of a query and how daunting at times it can be to put one together. Summarize your entire story in three paragraphs? Add voice, characterization, and an amazing hook? The idea alone can be downright frightening at times.
So today, I want to go back and share a post from my QUERY 101 series about structure. In this post I share the overall basics of putting a query together, as well as discuss the definition of a hook, and share examples from some of my favorite stories.
In reposting, I hope to make the difficult process of putting together a query a bit easier. If you have any questions or comments, I’m always happy to help!
Here is the original post…
In the first post in the Query 101 series, we talked about query basics. Today, we are going to talk specifics of structure: greeting, hook, book & cook.
Let’s start at the beginning:
1) Always begin with addressing the literary agent by name. Do not address your query as “Dear Agent.” Be courteous. Do your research and find out the correct spelling of the agent’s name.
2) Address one agent at a time in the heading. There may be many people in that particular literary agency who take your category/genre, but each should get their own individual email or letter. The last things agents want to see is they are part of one long email chain.
note: Check submission guidelines. Some agencies ask that you query agents one at a time. Others have a policy that a “no” from one is a “no” from all. Make sure you respect the agency’s individual submission guidelines.
There is plenty of debate on the internet as to whether or not you need to personalize your query. Some say just get to the “meat” of your story. Others say personalization means you have researched the agent and know your manuscript would be a good fit for their list.
I stand firmly in the “personalization” camp. Now, that does not mean your greeting has to be flowery and over-the-top. Simply stating that you are familiar with their client list, mentioning a comment they made in an interview, or explaining that your manuscript would be a fit for their #MSWL (Manuscript Wish List) is enough.
After personalization, some people add title, category/genre and word count of their manuscript. Again, there is debate about where this information should go. Some say at the beginning. Others say leave it at the end. My advice is to put it where it flows best with your query. No matter where you place, it is MANDATORY you include this information as the agent needs to know they rep. your type of manuscript.
This is the intriguing portion of your story. It’s a one-liner that pulls the agent in and encourages them to read on.
Some great examples of hooks from successful queries:
Mindee Arnett’s THE NIGHTMARE AFFAIR:
16-year-old Dusty Everhart might make a regular habit of breaking into houses late at night, but she’s no criminal.
Mindy McGinnis’ NOT A DROP TO DRINK:
Lynn was nine the first time she killed to defend the pond.
Mary Elizabeth Summer’s TRUST ME, I’M LYING:
Julep Dupree is not a real person. In fact, Julep isn’t even her real name.
This is 4-6 sentences that summarizes your manuscript. It hints at the main plot, introduces your protagonist and antagonist. Your sinker (final line) leaves the agent wanting for more – but DOES NOT reveal the ending.
A few notes about “The Book”
– Try not to introduce more than 2-3 characters. More than that and the information gets confusing.
– Be specific about the stakes. Remember agent is looking for character, conflict, and cost.
– When possible, try to insert a touch of voice – this helps bring the story to life and gives agent an idea of what to expect in sample pages.
– Query should be written in third person, present tense. I would also highly recommend you stay away from gimmicks like beginning with a question or writing your query in the voice of your main character. I’ve talked to many agents who say this approach immediately turns them off.
This is your bio. If you have publishing credits include them. If you have education or internships that are pertinent to creative writing or publishing, mention them. Writing contest wins? Include those too. If you don’t have any publishing credits, that is OK. Plenty of agents say they have signed debut authors without any publishing history. A simple line about who you are, and what you do, is fine.
Thank agent for their time. I would also use the space underneath signature to include info about your social media presence: website, Twitter handle, Facebook page, etc.
This is merely a structured outline of a query. It is up to you as the writer to fill it in as you see fit. Whether you want to include voice, or a certain type of personalization, that is entirely up to you. The main thing is to keep it professional and one page. Follow submission guidelines and agents will see you are not only serious about your book, but about your writing career too.