Love them, hate them, either way you need them when submitting your manuscript to an agent or editor. And if you’re querying your second (or third) manuscript, I bet you’re looking forward to never writing another query, right?
See, I know you’re going to get that agent. And then you’re going to go on submission and sell that book! And then your new editor is going to ask you to come up with the back cover copy—the blurb. And you know what that blurb is disgustingly similar to? That evil little query you thought you’d said goodbye to forever.
But don’t fling yourself to that chaise just yet.
Queries, like pitches, only have to do ONE thing: Entice the reader.
*Please note: you can break EVERY rule in the book as long as you do it well—and hook the reader—but you’re probably not that special snowflake. Trying to stand out can make you look like an amateur, or gimmicky. There’s a format for a reason.*
They may only have one purpose, but they’re made up of a few standard things. FOLLOW THE RULES and you increase your chances of getting a partial or a full request.
When I say follow the rules, I’m talking about two things:
Submission guidelines and standard formatting.
If an agent asks for the query pasted into the body of the email, the first five pages, and a one page synopsis attached as a word doc DO EXACTLY THAT. Don’t paste it all into the email. Don’t paste the synopsis at the end of the pages for their “convenience.”
Do. As. You’re. Told.
You’d be surprised at how annoying little things like that get to agents and interns. With the sheer odds of publishing you’re already up against a stacked deck. Following the submission guidelines shows that you’re a serious professional—or at least capable of following simple instructions. Do I want a client who takes the time to DO AS I SAY, or do I want a special snowflake who starts things off by disregarding my requests, giving me a PDF when I wanted a word doc?
The second thing you need to focus on is formatting.
A good rule of thumb for queries is to keep them short and sweet. TRY to make them no longer than 200 words INCLUDING the salutation AND your bio.
That’s right. 200 words. That was not a typo. Time is money. Be succinct.
So. The formatting of the query.
1) The email’s subject line should always be: Query: TITLE by Name.
This makes it straightforward as to what the email is, and easy for them to find later in a folder.
The only exception to this rule is if they’ve requested materials from you at a conference or a contest. If they request, ALWAYS state REQUESTED MATERIALS in the subject line so you won’t get stuck in the slush.
(and don’t try to be sneaky and put ‘requested material’ in the subject line when they didn’t request it.
Agents might be insanely busy, but they’re not stupid. You’re only shooting yourself in the foot by being unprofessional.)
2) The salutation or greeting. Salutations should be simple. You’ll hear people say to personalize your query, and I agree. BUT only if it’s relevant.
Eg. Dear Ms. Snucker,
I’m querying you because I read on #MSWL that you’re looking for a YA ensemble cast featuring teen girls pursuing careers in STEM.
BAM! THAT’S IT! Move right into the pitch!
Or greeting two:
Dear Ms. Snucker,
I pitched to you at X conference and you invited me to forward my full manuscript, (title).
BAM! Move right into the pitch and include any requested materials with reckless disregard to their standard submission guidelines you unicorn, you!
*If the agent/editor you’re querying requested materials, LEAD WITH THAT INFORMATION. You may have a great logline but a lacklustre query and they don’t bother reading to the end where you finally remind them that they liked something about this story and actually wanted to see it. Agents are wildly busy people. DON’T BURY THE LEAD!*
You don’t need to say WHY you wrote the book or that they’re your absolute fave agent on twitter and you’d love for them to read your MS. OF COURSE you’d love them to read it. It goes without saying. Just get to the pitch.
3) The pitch itself. Typically, these are three paragraphs. In dual POV romance, for example, you get ONE paragraph for the first POV, the next paragraph for the second, and the last paragraph to tie their worlds and conflict together. I like adding a final line to sort of sum things up in a punchy way.
With The Best Laid Plans, the final line was:
‘Jayne wants the perfect lover. Malcolm wants revenge. But you know what they say about the best laid plans…’
Sure, it’s three sentences instead of one, but it sums things up in a quick, punchy way.
(And yes, if your manuscript has more than one POV it NEEDS to be represented in the pitch. A good rule of thumb is that if the character is important enough to get a POV, they need to be in the query as well. It’s a little different if you’re working with a large ensemble cast, but those are a different beast and able to be summed up with broader strokes.)
So. 1 paragraph PER POV. 1 paragraph to tie those POVs together and show the conflict and stakes.
And one ring to rule them…no…ONE line to sum with a punch.
Let’s go a little deeper. Those paragraphs (the pitch) needs three things.
A) Goal: What does the main character want/need to happen.
B) Conflict: What’s stopping the main character from achieving that goal.
C) Stakes: What happens if the character doesn’t achieve that goal.
You can also have motivation in there—WHY the character wants to achieve their goal, but that’s usually self-explanatory.
4) The close. ‘TITLE is a YA contemporary romance, complete at 65k words.’ (ALWAYS round up/down to the nearest k. It looks neater.)
(You COULD put comps in here, but ONLY do it if they’re accurate. A sloppy comp can hurt you if the agent HATED that book or maybe already rep someone with something like it. I’d say it’s better to NOT put specific book comps. Instead, go for a higher concept, accurate but more vague ___ meets ___. The Usual Suspects meets Hot Tub Time Machine. And if you have a great line like that, I suggest putting it JUST before the first paragraph as a great hook.
5) The sexy bio. Keep it RELEVANT. Degrees, awards, publishing creds. If it’s a book about space and you’re an astronaut, STATE THAT. But even if your bio is…less than fresh…you can still make something short, sweet, and spicy.
Here’s mine: Tamara Mataya is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author, a librarian, and a musician with synesthesia. Armed with a name tag and a thin veneer of credibility, she takes great delight in recommending books and shushing people. She puts the 'she' in TWSS and the B in LGBTQIA+.
You COULD say, thanks for your time, I appreciate your time etc. but don’t get too effusive with it or you sound like a politician.
And I don’t endorse THAT message.