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Author Topic: Some basics, before you post your query  (Read 39359 times)
Patrick
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« on: August 15, 2010, 05:33:05 PM »

Before you post your query here for critique, or send it off to an agent, read these basic guidelines.

GETTING YOUR QUERY CRITIQUED: Decorum on the forum:
- If you post here for critique, expect to be critiqued. Expect suggestions about areas to improve your query. You should not take every suggestion, but if several people suggest the same thing, please consider that they may have a point.

-Remember: Every time you have to explain something in your query to a critiquer, that is something you won’t be able to do with an agent reading your query.  If you are explaining your choices, explaining your content or trying to debate someone’s critique, your time would be better spent figuring out how to work with your query letter instead.  If an agent reads your query letter and doesn’t "get it," you can't email them back to debate.

-You do not have to take all the suggestions you get.  Ultimately, you are the one who knows your manuscript. The best thing you can do is listen to everything (REALLY listen) and from that use what works and ignore what doesn't.


QUERY BASICS:

First, the MUST-HAVES:

-Title. And yes, that means find a title if you don’t have one.  The playwriting book SAVE THE CAT has a section on titles if you need major help.

-Word-count. Round to the nearest thousand or five thousand.

-Genre. Think of it like where they’re going to shelve it in the bookstore.  So, your genre cannot be Romantic Horrific Sci-Fi-Western.  The bookstore isn’t going to build a new shelf for you, so figure out where the best fit is.  Tip: If you're on the fence about it, you can always query it as romance to romance agents and UF to UF agents.

-The agent's name.  That means no, “Dear Agent” or “To Whom It May Concern.”  Find the agent's name, spell it correctly.  If you don’t know the gender in order to use "Ms." or "Mr.", just use the full agent's name.

-Your contact information, including your phone number and email address (put this information under your name in your sign-off).

-Tip: In an email query you start with the date, then the "Dear Ms. Agent's Name, then your query.  In a snail mail query, you use business letter format which is different and is worth looking up.

Now for the body of the query.  There are two basic approaches to writing a query.

The Five Component Approach.  If you communicate these five points clearly, you’re ahead of the game.  Some can be combined, some are inherent in the problem, but it's a good checklist to make sure your query covers these important bases:

1. Character--Who your MC is personality-wise.  The best way to express this is to show how they respond to events in your query.
2. Problem--What problem or choice or goal your MC faces.  Find the main problem and focus there.  Don't get bogged down with subplots and set-up.
3. Conflict--What obstacles are preventing the MC from reaching his goal or fixing his problem?  The more impossible-seeming you make it for your MC to reach that goal, the more curious the reader is to find out how he does it.
4. Stakes--What happens if your MC doesn't reach his goal?  If he can just go back to his normal life and be perfectly happy, then what happens doesn't matter.  Show why he can't turn back.  Note: Stakes CAN be inherent.  If a serial killer is stalking the MC, the stakes are pretty much built in.  Also, if the MC is facing a choice, such as, "She must decide between saving the world or saving her sister," stakes are built in there too because when you ask, "What happens if she doesn't save the world?" it's right there that she's going to lose her sister, and vice versa.
5. Cliffhanger⎯End your query on a tantalizing note.

The Teaser Query:

The short, premise-based query that is so intriguing, it works without laying out much information at all.  These are rarer and often harder to get right.  These will ALWAYS have character and voice.  They may forgo some of the others, but they make up for it by somehow answering the "Why do I care" question in a big way.

Neither of these are inherently better than the other.  There are great ones and awful ones of both varieties.  Find what fits YOUR story.

In either one, VOICE is extremely important.  Don't get too clinical in your query. Use the word choice and phrasing your narrator would use, so that reading the query letter has a similar feel to reading the manuscript.  If you catch yourself saying, "16-year-old Tina must face the unspeakable and insurmountable task of hunting her best friend," ask yourself: Would Tina say that?  Or would she say, "Okay, I'm sitting here thinking my biggest problem is the SAT and my best friend has turned into a smooth-talking, popular-boy-eating, fang-sporting vampire!"  Which you would translate into query terms as, "Tina thinks her biggest problem is the upcoming SAT, until her best friend is turned into a smooth-talking, popular-boy-eating, fang-sporting vampire.  And Tina is apparently the only vampire hunter in the zip code."

QUERY DOS AND DON'TS:

Do:
-Show instead of tell.  Focus on what the story is instead of telling us.
-Keep it short.  Nathan Bransford says the sweet spot for queries is 250-350 words.  At a recent conference, another agent lowered this to 150-250.
-Study other queries (links below) and cover blurbs on books to get a feel for how much information to give in your query and where to put your cliffhanger.

Don't:
-Don’t use hypothetical questions in your query.  Things like, "What if you woke up one day in a different body?" or ending with, "Will Cam save the school in time or is it the end of Cromwell High?"  In fact, if you can get away with no questions, that's probably for the best.  Agents tend to comment on these sorts of questions with heavy sarcasm.
-Don't reveal the full plot of your book.  The synopsis will cover this.  The query usually brings you to the point where your story's journey begins and tantalizes the reader with what comes next.  Once again, you can get the feel for this by reading blurbs on books and by perusing the links below.
-Don't try to tell the agent how great your book is.  That means no, "This is a sensational, powerful tale." Don't talk about it becoming a bestseller, and no bringing up how much people love it, even if they're your target audience or your critique group. 

Disclaimer: You will always be able to find exceptions out there.  Ones that raved about their own story, that were 600 words long, etc.  This doesn't mean those are good techniques that will increase your chances.  If you feel strongly about it, ultimately this is your query and you can give it a chance out there.  If things aren't working out, just refer back to these things as possible reasons.


TIME TO QUERY:

Read each agent's guidelines for querying and what they are looking to represent.  Just as you don't want to waste everyone's time (including yours) by sending a sci-fi query to an agent who only reps romance. And you don't want your query bounced back to you because you didn't add the requested synopsis.

There are many ways to research an agent (and you can use this information to personalize a query if you choose).  Check their profiles on the main QT site or on www.agentquery.com.  Check their agency websites.  Google their names and look for interviews.  See if they blog.

Tip: If you choose to personalize your queries, it's always best to find a way to connect their interests with your ms. For instance, "I chose to query you because in an interview with X, you mentioned your passion for sassy female protagonists," not only tells them you did your homework, but tells them something about your ms. On the other hand, saying something like, "I'm sending you this query because I saw your profile on QueryTracker," does not count as personalizing a query. If anything, it tells the agent that you put very little effort into the query, and are probably querying every single agent listed on QT.


THE BIG RESOURCES:

http://queryshark.blogspot.com/

http://blog.nathanbransford.com/ (Look for "The Essentials" on the left.  Includes formatting queries, basic formula, examples, and how to address other things in your query package.  And don't skip the FAQs)

http://pubrants.blogspot.com/ (Look on right hand side for "Agent Kristin’s Queries: The Inside Scoop")

For people who have an AW account (and have posted enough to unlock locked sections) there is a very in depth post on query letter writing that expands on the five-step one I used: http://www.absolutewrite.com/forums/showthread.php?t=59255

http://www.courtneymilan.com/ramblings/2009/01/06/query-letter-outtakes/

http://ktliterary.com/daphne/


Special thanks to DHE for compiling the bulk of this list, and to Violet for suggesting it.
« Last Edit: August 15, 2010, 08:16:18 PM by Patrick » Logged
JeanneG
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« Reply #1 on: August 15, 2010, 05:39:56 PM »

Awesome! Patrick, you are da bomb!  clap clap clap

JeanneG
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Debut novel, BLOOD OF A STONE (Tuscany Press) released in March 2015; winner of IPPY in national category of religious fiction and currently a finalist for IAN Book of the Year. My work-in-progress: THE DOUBLE SUN.
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« Reply #2 on: August 15, 2010, 07:04:39 PM »

Perfect!  Thumbs Up

Hmm.  I think I'll go rewrite my query (again!  head bang ) based on this advice.
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Patrick
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« Reply #3 on: August 15, 2010, 08:16:52 PM »

Don't thank me, Jeanne. Thank DHE and Violet.  clap clap clap clap clap
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« Reply #4 on: August 15, 2010, 08:27:57 PM »

This is made of AWESOME, Patrick. Thank you!! I really think it will be helpful.  Smiley


Edit: I suggested this but DHE gets all the credit. And Patrick too. Karma to you both!!
« Last Edit: August 16, 2010, 11:37:18 PM by violet » Logged

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« Reply #5 on: August 15, 2010, 08:44:12 PM »

 Thank you, Patrick (and everyone else who helped), from your query-challenged QTer.   Thumbs Up Thumbs Up clap clap
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munley
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« Reply #6 on: August 16, 2010, 06:18:17 AM »

Any thoughts on comparing your book to another?

I'm generally not in favour of this. If it is just a statement that MY TITLE "is a lot like" TITLE, it can put me at a disadvantage of having to prove it, especially if the agent's immediate reaction is a cynical one. Saying my book will appeal to readers of AUTHOR seems a little better in that it points out a potential audience, but still risks sounding like a vain claim that can invite a reaction like, "Oh, yeah?"

I really dislike statements like MY TITLE is TITLE/CHARACTER meets TITLE/CHARACTER, such as HARRY POTTER meets AMELIA BEDELIA. I grant that they might work in some cases, but for me they're groaners.

In spite of my usual distaste for comparison claims, I actually put one in my query, which now gets more requests. What may be a little different from what I wrote above is that I compare the books on two specific points (one similarity, one difference). The pitch line captures the voice (using a quote) of the other author's book. Then I move on to a paragraph solely about my book, which has its own voice.

The book I compare my novel to is a well-known work of non-fiction by Jeanette Walls. Here is the pitch line:

Like The Glass Castle, GOD OF THE SWEET FERNS portrays a family on the fringes, but unlike Rex Walls, Alec, the fictional father in my novel, doesn’t make his family “do the skedaddle” when the bills pile up.

Alec is not even the main character, though a major one whose positive influence on the MC sticks with her in profound ways, long after his early death. I work into the MC (one of his daughters), by turning from the pitch line towards "the kids" and then narrowing that down to a specific kid.
Nuns and neighbors expect the kids to come to no good. Seven-year-old Annilee, who. . .

One agent, who went on to request the full, wrote what a perfect comparison I had made to Walls' memoir; however, she wanted me to convert my book to a personal memoir, rather than fiction, and re-submit it. I declined, since only a few incidents in the whole 400 pages were from "real life" and those were highly fictionalized. Even more so, I have no desire to write a personal memoir.

« Last Edit: August 16, 2010, 09:18:43 AM by munley » Logged
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« Reply #7 on: August 16, 2010, 09:12:36 AM »

Quote
Any thoughts on comparing your book to another?

Agent seem to like it.  Especially if your premise is too complex to sum up into 250 words or less. 

How do you describe "Donny Darko" without comparing it to "Incident at Owl Creek" or "The Last Temptation of Christ"?
« Last Edit: August 16, 2010, 02:39:11 PM by bodwen » Logged

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« Reply #8 on: August 16, 2010, 02:31:26 PM »

Oh yay, Patrick!  This looks wonderful!   clap
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« Reply #9 on: August 20, 2010, 12:45:55 PM »

I've had my query critiqued several times in AQ and by fellow writers and I still continue to tweak based on the perference of each agent I contact. You're suggestions here are right on target with everything else I've read on the subject. Think it's time to do some more editing   writer and post it here to see if anyone has other suggestions for it.  One question I have is also about comaring my work with other books.  Neither I nor anyone who's read it knows of any other storyline like it, however, it could easily be compared to a couple of well-known movies. Is that a no-no?
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« Reply #10 on: August 20, 2010, 12:50:41 PM »

One question I have is also about comaring my work with other books.  Neither I nor anyone who's read it knows of any other storyline like it, however, it could easily be compared to a couple of well-known movies. Is that a no-no?

There's no need to compare your book to others in a query, especially if you can't find anything like it. Generally speaking, it's a no-no to compare books to movies. Stick to literature. But like I said, there's no need. I couldn't find any books to compare mine to when I was querying, so I just didn't incorporate it.

 Smiley
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« Reply #11 on: August 22, 2010, 12:21:46 PM »

Thanks much, Violet!
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« Reply #12 on: August 22, 2010, 02:29:21 PM »

Generally speaking, it's a no-no to compare books to movies.

Why is that?

I compared mine to a TV series and had a pretty good request rate.
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« Reply #13 on: August 22, 2010, 03:14:32 PM »

Generally speaking, it's a no-no to compare books to movies.

Why is that?

I compared mine to a TV series and had a pretty good request rate.

I've just read that on agent blogs, that's all.

But you know me, I'm not one for rules anyway.

 Grin
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« Reply #14 on: November 03, 2011, 10:08:09 PM »

I love the two different forms you post. Few sites that I have seen actually explain it like that. I just found this site a few days ago but I have to say the information is amazing. Thanks everyone!
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