Monday, February 4, 2013

How to Write a Good Query...Hopefully

After my last post, I was feeling pretty damn smug.

That thing about the high iron gates was mad deep, I thought. Now they'll totally be at ease because they'll know I'm that cool literary agent who's been there.

To which you might respond, "Right."

Because it's easy to be all tranquil and Zen and whatnot when you're the guy judging the queries. It's a whole different situation when you're the one waiting for judgement to be passed.

But oh, how the tables have turned. Now I'm the one behind the query. And boy am I scared.

Most uninitiated people (and I'm sure that includes none of us) tend to conflate agents and editors, which is why I have to routinely explain to my family and friends that I don't actually publish books. Someone else does that. If I can convince them to. Oh, and if I fail then I won't get paid and I'll wind up living up in a cardboard box.

There's a beautiful sort of poetic justice there; literary agents critique others for a living but have to pass muster themselves if they want to eat something other than Ramen noodles for the next six months. Even the most prestigious of us--and I definitely don't fall into that category--is reduced at routine intervals to repeatedly refreshing his inbox and agonizing over whether his query letter was rendered too cheeky by the use of the word "smorgasbord."

Sound familiar?

Seeing as that's where I am right now I figured now would be as good a time as any to review effective query letter writing. For, as my crazy Welshman father would say, "Presentation is half the battle."

He, of course, was referring to veal parmesan, scallops, and brussel sprouts--which need a hell of a lot of presentation to be palatable to anyone--but the principle still holds. You can have the best manuscript in the world, but if you can't market it effectively it's more than likely to go unread.

So how does one write an effective query? I really hope I know this, because I'm sending two of them out and will soon be the laughingstock of the entire publishing industry if I get it wrong.

The general formula is the Hook, Bait, and Switch. The Hook draws a reader's attention, the Bait provides them the meat of the story to sink their teeth into, and the Switch wraps things up with some very basic information about the author. This arrangement works well across genres but should, obviously, be tailored to fit manuscripts' individual style.

Let's discuss the clients whose work I'm submitting. Gerry Dodge and S.E. Smith are both phenomenal writers and I'm enthusiastic about both of their projects. S.E.'s book, however, is a zany YA tome that had me laughing out loud while Gerry's is a piece of serious literary fiction that, I kid you not, was still making me cry the fifth time I read it.

We'll start with Gerry's novel, Beneath the Weight of Sadness. It's the kind of story you will never forget reading. I believe, at the risk of sounding unbearably corny, that it has the makings of an American classic. The query for it was more difficult to write, though, because its complex message is not as easily encapsulated as a more lighthearted manuscript's might be.

Hook: Nothing prepares you for the loss of a child. Nothing.

Any parent would agree with that. The first sentence is immediate and visceral.

Bait: And when Ethan Engroff’s gay seventeen-year-old son Truman is savagely beaten to death by an unknown assailant, the murder is just the beginning of a long and painful odyssey. As Ethan’s wife Amy drifts further from reality, Ethan must face difficult truths about his marriage, his shortcomings as a father, and who his son really was—and could have been.

Beneath the Weight of Sadness is a heartrending story about a marriage shattered by grief, a town haunted by hate, and how one unlived life can touch countless others. 

This provides a glimpse into what the story is about but, notably, is not a synopsis. Synopses have their place, but it's not in the inbox of an agent who received fifty submissions that day (unless you attach it as a document). You want to keep the Bait part of your query brief; touch on the major conflict and then let the agent's curiosity do the rest. If you've set your Bait up the right way and the agent is searching for work in your genre, this will usually work.

Switch: This is where you reel 'em in with your dazzling life story. Your dazzling life story, by the way, is about three sentences long. Since I got my authors' permission to brag about them but not to reveal the locations of their secret lairs, we'll use my life as the Switch example.

Five Different Ways to Win an Albanian Moose Race is a 100,000-word non-fiction memoir and the debut work from Ethan Vaughan. Ethan is a journalist and literary agent whose work has appeared in The Most Awesome Newspaper Ever. He's been told he has very nice hair.   

Include the word count of your manuscript, its genre, and the two or three most salient facts about yourself. That's really all you need.

And now, let's switch gears. Ladies and gentlemen, we are entering the realm of YA.

YA is a party! Hopefully not a stripper party--I'm not sure what those two people are doing on stage--since we're talking about teenagers, but definitely a party! There's pretty lights, and disco balls, and fruit punch and CUPCAKES. This post has involved more food than it should. But, anyway.

YA is fun to write, fun to read, and fun to talk about, which is why the queries written for it tend to work with the Hook, Bait, and Switch method so nicely.

S.E.'s novel, The Transformation(s) of Tabitha Grey, is about a sixteen-year-old transgender witch who has to figure out why dark wizards are running amok in her town. I know you got to "transgender witch" and did a double take, but trust me, this works. The first chapter opens with the protagonist randomly getting turned into a deer. Does life get much better?

And so, the query.

Hook: Tabitha Grey thought her life was weird enough. And not regular sixteen-year-old girl weird. More like, my-house-can-think-and-it-might-eat-you weird. Oh, and did she mention that her father is a warlock masquerading as an herbalist? Or that her pets are three centuries-old ravens? Or that she’s transgender? Yeah, life as Tabitha can be pretty awkward.

This is longer than the literary fiction hook, but S.E.'s book has more novel--if you'll pardon the pun--elements to latch on to. I just threw a whole plateful of weird at some editor's head, but because a lot of YA is based on teenagers wryly commenting on the craziness around them, it works (I think). 

Bait: But when someone unleashes powerful dark magic on her town and begins abducting residents, life goes from awkward to scary fast. Now Tabitha Grey has to help her father find the culprit and try to figure out what kind of power she and her twin brother will inherit when they turn seventeen, all while navigating her transgender transformation.

And she’d better be sharp. This dark plot is more than what it seems, and it just might take the person closest to her.

Duh duh duh. Not all ABBA remixes and ice cream floats now, is it? The Bait in this case shows that the unusual premise has some substance behind it. 

Switch: The Transformation(s) of Tabitha Grey is a 49,000-word young-adult fantasy with a sardonic twist. It is the first in a trilogy from S.E. Smith that follows the magical Grey family on their odyssey to stop an evil cohort of warlocks hell bent on taking over the world—with a zombie army at their backs.

S.E. Smith is a professional ass-kicker and can make cheesecake that has mystical powers. 

BAM. And I don't mean that like an editor's door being slammed in my face, I mean BAM like we just high-fived because we're so awesome. And stuff. 

And one last thing: even if you are not a grammar Nazi or a spelling fascist in your day-to-day life, make sure that your query letter is English-teacher worthy before you send it in. If an agent gets into a manuscript whose premise he likes and finds a few errors here and there, he's probably going to ignore them with the knowledge that he can do some editing later on if he decides to represent you. If your query letter has gaping errors in spelling, punctuation, or grammar, though, it can cast serious aspersions on your ability to execute a full-length book. That kind of submission will find its way quickly to the No box. 

I hope I've imparted something meaningful in between my tripe about Welshmen and disco balls. And if I haven't, well, then prepare to hear me openly mocked at the next conference you attend. Not worried too much, though. I'm like a solid sixty-five percent sure I did this right. 


  1. Sounds like awesome advice to me. Each of those queries hooked me, for obviously different reasons.

    Thanks, this is exactly what I'm working on right now. I am having a difficult time nailing down the genre. It's YA, but no party and definitely no cupcakes. It's kind of a 'coming of age, dark love story with a paranormal twist (it involves a ghost, but I want the reader to draw their own conclusions as to whether the ghost is real or the figment of a disturbed young woman's mind), all told from a male POV -- the very much alive young man who loves her. OK, a grammar Nazi probably needs to go over that sentence. Any suggestions on how to nail that one down. (A more specific genre, not the grammar.)

    Is that cheating? Asking a question like that? I hope not, but then I'm fairly shameless when it comes to looking for 'professional' advice for my work.

    1. Not cheating at all! I'd say paranormal YA, though I'd probably need to see it to be sure.

  2. Great advice! Queries are hard - it's sometimes tough to stop yourself telling the story you love so well & remember your job is to entice instead :)

  3. Thanks for the great advice. I don't like writing queries, but I couldn't imagine reading them for a living. Talk about painful. :P

    The hardest thing I find about query writing is when you get feedback from other people. Everyone wants to be helpful, and they end up causing you to strip your query of all it's voice, or worse yet, interject their own voice on it.

  4. Great post! And now I'm hungry from all your mentionings of food! :)

    Very helpful and entertaining ~ thnx!

  5. Great post! I run into issues when agents want a query letter and a synopsis. When I submit a synopsis, my query speaks more about the writing and themes than trying to hook, bait, and switch since every is revealed in the synopsis - to some extent. But if they don't ask for a synopsis, then I have the one line hook and a 2 paragraph summary of the major characters and plot points. What do you recommend when a synopsis is involved?

    Thanks for commenting on my blog. I appreciate it!! ^_^

  6. Insightful post. It was interesting to read your breakdown of the hook, bait, switch structure!

  7. Great post! I always thought it was easier for agents to write a query. I figured they had the advantage of not having written the novel and become emotionally attached to the beast. But now I realize, they ARE emotionally attached to the work (duh--otherwise why would they offer to represent it). I suppose a little corner of my mind knew that, but I just didn't "get" it until I read this.

    Best of luck on your queries! They sound amazing!

    And you're hilarious. I'd query you, but you don't represent MG fantasy.

    1. I do consider MG fantasy! I'm just VERY selective about it. Feel free to submit.