Query Writing – A Guide For The Anxious

Originally Published: Jan. 8, 2012

by Sarah Davies, Literary Agent

I toyed with much fancier titles for this post, but then decided to say it straight. What you want to know is how to write a great query and the whole process worries you sick, right?

Everyone else in the industry has blogged on this topic, so there’s no shortage of great advice around, but having just faced around 350 queries on my return from vacation, I’m weighing in with a few simple pointers.

Let’s start with the perfect (French) cup of coffee. Short, strong, elegant. Served in cup and saucer, and usually with tiny square of chocolate balanced alongside. (S*bucks, with your buckets of hot milk, please note.) The first thing to know about queries is that they’re not nearly as hard as you think, so lower your shoulders, breathe deeply and say, “I can do this!”

As soon as we demystify the process, the stress and anxiety fall away and you are in the best mental place to write a simple but strong account of yourself and your work. And that’s what we’re after. This isn’t voodoo. It isn’t brain surgery. It’s a few straightforward paragraphs.

A good query will consist of a beginning (introducing your work/yourself), a middle (your pitch), and an end (your bio and sign-off). But first – before you write a word – there is work to be done!

RESEARCH:

How will you set about querying? If your instincts are to spread yourself around like confetti at a wedding, please curb them. Contrary to what some ‘experts’ say, there is no merit whatsoever in flinging your query indiscriminately at the entire industry. If you do, you will annoy a lot of people (who don’t represent what you’re sending them), lower your own sense of value, get yourself into a right old muddle, and also waste a lot of your time – and everybody else’s.

So, think carefully what agents you want to target, and why. Read their interviews, see who they represent, check out what deals they’re doing, and study their submission guidelines. Always research via the agency’s own website, not via hard-copy guides or online databases. You want the most up to date info, and the agent’s website is the only place you can trust for that. You could also read my blog post ‘A peach of an agent’ (find it in the website blog archives in July 2010) which gives some tips.

Get a sense of an agent’s taste, but don’t presume they will (or won’t) want to rep you entirely based on what they’ve already sold – unless they say they’re only interested in one kind of book. Greenhouse is looking for outstandingly original work across all genres, not clones of our existing authors, and we’re always looking for something unique that we’ve never seen before. Surprise us!

So, do a reasonable amount of research, make a sensibly-sized list of people to target. But don’t obsess.  If you’re a Type A personality, you can get really wound up about this kind of decision-making. It’s not a scientific process. Do the work, but then leap in with ‘joie de vivre’!

Read the agency’s submission guidelines with care and follow them. We are all inundated and hate wasting time, so make it easy for us to fall in love with you and your work. That includes addressing your email to the correct person, spelling our names right (my favourite was the submitter who addressed her submission to ‘Julia Childs’ instead of ‘Julia Churchill’ . . . .).

NOW TO THE QUERY WRITING

Your opening: I am scanning your email at speed and I want all the pertinent info ASAP, up front. Tell me the name of the work, what age group and gender it’s primarily aimed at, what genre (paranormal romance? Speculative fiction? Classic-toned middle grade? Etc), and how many words it has. The latter point is surprisingly important, because it tells me immediately if we’re in a saleable ballpark, if your word count matches your audience. For example, a 20,000-word novel aimed at YA is likely to be unsatisfyingly short. A 200,000-word novel for the same market is going to unwieldy and massive. Do tell me in your first/second paragraph if the query is exclusive and if we’ve met – eg, at a conference. You could also tell me why you’ve decided to query me; is there a particular connection? Also useful to know where you see the potential audience for your book – can you think of any similarly pitched titles already in the marketplace?

The middle: Here I want two paragraphs (no more) of really enticing story pitch. This should give me the bones of the plot (though not the detail), while also intriguing me and making me want to read more. I know your stress levels rise here, so I’m going to give you a perfect example – the pitch that Lindsey Leavitt sent me in Feb 2008 for her contemporary YA debut SEAN GRISWOLD’S HEAD (published 2011 by Bloomsbury):

After discovering her father’s big MS secret, Payton Gritas’s structured life crumbles. So begin her excruciating ‘chats’ with Ms Callahan, a school counselor aiming to save Payton from drowning in denial by encouraging her to write Focus Exercises on any random subject. Payton chooses Sean Griswold, her alphabetical connection since kindergarten. More specifically, she chooses his somewhat large head.

Payton’s head-centric research spawns more and more questions about Sean and his dome. Like, what’s with the scar? Why does Mr Prep hang out in the Goth hallway? And why is a 15 year old in training to be the next Lance Armstrong? She finds answers to these questions by getting inside Sean’s head, while Sean somehow finds a way into her guarded heart. But when Payton realizes her Sean obsession won’t ultimately mend her battered father/daughter relationship, Payton must shift her focus to the one person who can get her through the drama –herself.

Why did I like this? Because the romantic premise is arresting, cute and original – there’s humour, but also indications of a significantly deeper thread. We get the gist of the ‘macro’ of plot, but also the ‘micro’ of the emotional arc and where/how the tension will rise. In short, I could already see what this book could be, and how we might market it. Does this help?

The ending: This should be one short paragraph telling me a little about you. Any writing ‘credentials’ – published work, courses taken, etc etc. And anything else you think relevant and which might help to pick you out. Also useful to know if this is a multiple submission and/or whether you already have interest. And there you have it – a simple but beautifully turned query. But wait – there are a few pitfalls for the unwary!

QUERY HORRORS TO AVOID

It can be tempting to try ‘too hard’ to embellish your query. Don’t use fancy fonts or coloured backgrounds. Annoying to read and distracting. Keep it simple and use a professional-looking typeface. Don’t include a pitch within your query and then ANOTHER synopsis later on. We don’t have time to wade through pages of outline. Don’t fret and re-send if the formatting of your pasted pages goes wonky. We can see beyond formatting. Don’t brag hugely about yourself (ie, saying how wonderful you are). Does anyone warm to a bragger? Don’t liken yourself to JK Rowling, CS Lewis, Stephenie Meyer or Philip Pullman etc. It’s fine to point out your potential audience (titles with similarities), but if you compare yourself to the truly greats – in sales or content – we are almost certainly going to be disappointed. The best writers tend to be very modest because they’re always aware of not being as good as they long to be.

Don’t address your query to ‘Dear Sir/Madam’. Find out who we are (and our gender). Don’t send attachments, when we are very clear we don’t open or read them. Don’t think/expect we will make an exception for you. We get tons of submitters every day who require us to make them exceptions to our guidelines. It wastes a huge amount of time. Don’t fling your work at us without a proper query, thinking, ‘What the heck, they don’t read it anyway.’ We do. So – keep it simple, professional, honest, and realistic. And always remember that your query only points the way to your writing, which is the key to everything. Happy query writing!

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