A brief guide to queries

I’ve been diving back into the Sea of Slush these past few weeks, and I’ve noticed something interesting. Queries aren’t matching up, for the most part, with samples. I’ve had a few queries that were dynamite, but the samples that accompanied them were sadly disappointing – it’s as though the author used up all their mojo on writing that initial pitch. But then, last night, I got the opposite – a query that was stale, boring, humdrum, and made me nearly pass on opening up the sample. For whatever reason, though, I popped open that RTF and was rewarded with an immediately immersive SF world, with a main character who had a far more engaging voice than was hinted at in the totally blah query letter.

Go figure.

This got me thinking – what is it that makes a good query? What is it that gets an editor – or an agent, or any “gatekeeper” to take a look at the sample, instead of just moving on to the next thing in the queue?

This morning, I put some of that down in a quick #queriesin140 session on Twitter. Here’s the takeaway:

          • Pretend you’re writing the back-jacket copy for your book. Your query has to hook the agent/editor RIGHT NOW. Best tip I’ve got.
          • Don’t worry about telling the full story; that’s for the synopsis. Your query is more of a trailer/teaser. Why should I open this file?
          • Your query should reflect your writing style. Writing humour? Use a light tone. Lyrical? Be poetic. Don’t force it, but be yourself. Some of the best queries I’ve gotten are clever tie-ins to the “feel” of the novel, regardless of what that feel is. The query is my first look at how you write – make it pertain to what you’re doing.
          • Be excited by your query, and by your book. Let this carry over into your query. Let us feel your passion for this story.


To sum up: Be excited about your book. Your query should sound like your manuscript – don’t be informal and chatty if you’re writing a literary/magical realism opus, and don’t be dull and pretentious if you’re writing a rip-roaring action-adventure. Your SYNOPSIS can explain every plot point in boring prose. Your QUERY should get me hooked, eager to read on, and should let me see how you write. Pretend you’re writing jacket copy. Get ME excited.

Ready? Go!


8 Responses to “A brief guide to queries”

  1. Chrysoula Tzavelas September 13, 2011 at 10:04 pm #

    One of the most important things I figured out when writing my queries was that it really is supposed to be like back cover copy. And what does one notice about back cover copy? Often it _lies_, or at least is kind of deceptive (which can feel like lying to the author who spent a whole book writing details). Finicky details are subject to gross generalization. Eye-catching details are emphasized that maybe aren’t as important in the story. A query isn’t an honest description, it’s _bait_. It’s fried onions, not the whole meal.

  2. Rhonda September 13, 2011 at 11:26 pm #

    Hello, Kate. I found your site and your business through the comment you made supporting diversity in fiction on the PW article. I just wanted to thank you for your outlook. As a person of colour who writes both adult and YA spec fic that includes people of colour, gay characters and worlds built on less traditionally recognized cultures, it’s a relief to know there are publishers out there willing to give a chance to fiction like mine. Thanks also for the query tips. Your final lines made me think of posting my pitch here lol 🙂  


  3. Rhonda September 14, 2011 at 12:40 am #

    So true! I’ve had the same experience. That’s what I’ve tried to model my queries on, the back cover blurb. A great tip for sure.

  4. Candlemark & Gleam September 14, 2011 at 2:05 am #

    You know, that’s not a bad idea! Maybe we should do a “quicky query workshop,” either on Twitter or here on the blog. Hone your elevator pitch and/or snappy back-jacket-style query…

  5. Candlemark & Gleam September 14, 2011 at 2:07 am #

    For the record, you wrote a very good query. It certainly made me want to open the sample, and it WASN’T all sizzle and no steak, so to speak.

    The trick to enticing an editor, agent, or reader to open up a book really is to make that “back jacket” copy pop out, grab ’em by the collar, and shake ’em ’til they can’t help but read more. Yes, that can sometimes mean embellishing certain areas that aren’t necessarily key to the story, but you as the author know what makes your book different, and what gives you that “unique selling proposition,” as they say in business. You can pick up on that and get it across in your query, and that’s what gets the reader (whether editor, agent, or consumer) to want to read more.

  6. Rhonda September 19, 2011 at 12:39 am #

    I will be sure to do so. I like the fiction you’re interested in and I think I write it, so I look forward to querying you.

  7. ~Chris R. October 6, 2011 at 8:19 am #

    So you have a slush pile already?

    That’s awesome!  I’m keeping my fingers crossed for ya! >.<  ^_^

  8. Candlemark & Gleam October 6, 2011 at 1:43 pm #

    We do, actually! Not a very large one, but I’m usually looking at 2-3 manuscripts every month or so. I’d like to get more!

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