Everything I Know About Querying: Writing the Query
Welcome back to my series in which I dump all my learnings about the querying process that I gathered over the course of querying three projects in three years. I'm a teacher at heart, and it feels good to share all I've learned through this process, but I hope anyone reading this remembers that this is based on my experience and the knowledge I've gained through study and hearing from my friends about their experiences. Everyone's journey is different.
Before you even get to the point of writing your query letter, you should have already:
Drafted the entire manuscript.
Revised it several times for plot, character, etc.
Edited it for grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc.
Had at least one round of beta readers (who read the genre you write) and made changes based on their feedback.
Once you've done all that, it's time to write a query.
(I know what you're thinking--what, I can't write one while I'm doing those other things? Don't be sassy, of course, you can. Writing a query or synopsis as a part of your plotting is a great tool. I mean that in order to consider yourself ready to actually query, you have to have done those things!)
This seems a great time to remind you that people have very Strong Opinions about how to write a query. These are mine, based on what I found worked best for me.
But first, see what I did that did not work.
I crafted my very first query letter for A BOTANIST'S GUIDE TO PARTIES AND POISONS, my debut historical mystery which was under a different title then, based on the information I found online about how to do it. There are a thousand of these articles, videos, and podcasts that are super easy to find, so I won't list those resources here. (But I will say that for complete newbies, I recommend Query Shark because it really helps you understand the correct format!)
Because I am very, very dedicated to the education of my peers, I will show this very first letter to you to show you what not to do.
Hercule Poirot, Lord Peter Wimsey, Daisy Dalrymple, and Phryne Fisher- great detectives of the exceptional time period of the nineteen twenties and thirties. A new detective joins their ranks.
Saffron Everleigh, a newly minted assistant to a Botany professor at the University College London, is eager to take on more responsibilities than the social norms of 1923 will allow. She helps prepare for the departure of a large expedition team to the Amazonian jungle. The mystery begins with missing books but quickly develops into something more dangerous. When her mentor is accused of poisoning the expedition leader’s wife with a mysterious toxin, Saffron is determined to prove his innocence. Alongside Alexander Ashton, a fellow researcher, Saffron uses her botanical knowledge to investigate the world of poisons, and her daring as she unwraps the mystery of who tried to kill Mrs. Henry and why.
SAFFRON EVERLEIGH AND THE LIGHTNING VINE, at 80,000 words, will entice readers of both mysteries and historical fiction with the promise of a unique heroine with heart and brains.
I’ve brought my love for the time period and my commitment to historical accuracy together with my desire for a refreshing take on the classic murder mystery. A young woman using both science and intuition to guide her sleuthing will stand out on any bookshelf. Saffron and her friends have inspired me to write five unique mysteries thus far.
I’m looking for a team that believes in Saffron Everleigh and is dedicated to her success in the market. With your interest (specific interest), I believe you can be that agent.
Thank you for your consideration."
Gosh, I'm just... adorably clueless, truly. And believe it or not, this got me three full requests within my first fifteen queries. Amazing! I credit it to my manuscript hitting the market right as "STEMinist" books were really getting hot. Think of how many lady scientists are on the shelves right now in mystery and romance! I had lucky timing.
The main thing wrong with this query is that my comps, which I listed right off the bat by citing Sherlock and the other great detectives, are really out of date. I should have comped popular books in my genre published in the last ten years. I've since read a number of the books I should have comped (namely Deanna Raybourn's Veronica Speedwell series). Not doing this showed that I wasn't well-versed in what was popular in my genre, and no agent wants an out of touch author.
Next, I included absolutely nothing about myself. I thought because I had 0 publishing experience that I didn't need to say anything about myself. Nope. Agents are taking on you and your manuscript as something to sell. Agents want to know a little about who you are and how it relates to your book. I should have mentioned I was a history teacher (even if it was 5th grade American History), and that I love plants and gardening.
As I mentioned, I actually got fulls based on this query, but they didn't go anywhere. I credit this to my manuscript not being the best it could be, which I discussed in this blog post.
I will point out something I feel I did right from the beginning, and that was to specialize each query to the agent by referring to their specific manuscript wishlist, past acquisitions, and/or experience in the literary world. This is pretty easy. I went to each agent's social media and manuscript wishlist (usually on literal www.manuscriptwishlist.com) and tack on something that married their desires and experiences with what I was offering. It's a one-line thing but I've seen over and over that agents like to see that.
From there, I reworked my manuscript and my query letter. Here's the next version:
In the golden lights of a champagne-fueled dinner party, amidst jealousies and professional rivalries, a woman collapses. A young botanist witnesses it all.
Saffron Everleigh, a newly minted assistant to a botany professor at the University College London, is eager to prove her mettle but lacks opportunity in the enlightened year of 1923. She helps prepare for the departure of a large expedition team to the Amazonian jungle. Her mentor is accused of poisoning the expedition leader’s wife with a mysterious toxin. To prove his innocence, Saffron gathers clues the only way she knows how: by following her curiosity and using her scientific knowledge. Alongside the intriguing Alexander Ashton, a fellow researcher, Saffron explores steamy greenhouses, locked offices, and dark gardens. Saffron uses her daring and her botanical knowledge to investigate the mystery of who tried to kill Mrs. Henry, and why.
SAFFRON EVERLEIGH AND THE LIGHTNING VINE, at 71,000 words, will entice readers of both mysteries and historical fiction with the promise of a unique heroine with heart and brains.
I’ve brought my love for the time period and my commitment to historical and scientific accuracy together with my vision for a modern take on a classic murder mystery. This is a book with strong series potential.
I’m looking for an agent that believes in Saffron Everleigh and is dedicated to her success in the market. With your (specific interest), I believe that you should be that agent.
Thank you for your consideration."
This query was much more successful, resulting in a slew of partials and fulls. I've already talked about why I think I didn't go further with those queries in the Agent Selection post, but I do think this letter was much better. The hook is better and the mini synopsis includes more vibes.
It's still missing things, though. I don't have enough about myself and I don't clearly state the genre and audience (adult, rather than YA or MG). Also, my title still sucks. Saffron Everleigh and the Lightening Vine sounds like a MG fantasy. That was one of the first things my editor changed when we started working together.
Learn from me: clearly state your word count, genre, and audience (even if you think it's obvious), and use genre conventions to name your book. Here are three articles that might be useful in naming your book: one, two, three.
This is basic stuff you can pick up from your average "how to query" post, so let me share what I believe is the secret sauce in this query:
I can recall thinking to myself as I sat down to write a new query that I needed to focus on my strengths. I tried to think about a really cinematic moment from the book to kick off the query with. I didn't have this awareness at the time- though I definitely knew it subconsciously- but historical fiction is really all about the vibes. Readers want to be transported to a different time and place with some very sensorily engaging writing, and I think I'm pretty good at that.
A lot of advice says to put your hard data (word count, genre, etc) as the first thing the agents reads, and sure, you can do that. Many successful queriers do. I chose to put my hook right front and center because if I was slogging through the slush pile, I'd delight in finding something interesting.
Consider your strengths as a writer, and consider what draws readers to your genre. Play to both in your query.
My strengths are vibes, commitment to accuracy through research, and un-put-down-able Third Acts. I mention the first two in this query, and if I'd realized it at the time, I would have found a way to include the last because that's something that mystery readers look for.
I don't know about other genres, but these are some things about the genres that I love and read constantly that I think one might capitalize on in their query to capture attention:
Mystery: twists and turns, high stakes, motivation of the main character to solve the crime.
Romance: personal stakes (the internal issues the MCs have to overcome to fall in love and stay there), fun secondary characters, and unique settings/occupations.
Fantasy: unique and/or underused world-building inspiration, high stakes, and vibes.
Historical: unique and/or underused settings and/or character types, situations relevant to today, and vibes.
My query emphasized Saffron's love of science, but it didn't emphasize her struggles with sexism in her workplace. That ended up being a much larger part of the story and the marketing for the book, and I could have capitalized on that more by considering how Saffron's story mirrored what women are dealing with in the workplace today. Relatability is key, as we'll see in the final piece of advice I have about querying.
One of the best pieces of advice I've received about querying came from the Query Gong Show, a game that the DFW Writers Conference hosts every year. Five or six agents listen to queries and ring their gong when they hit the spot they'd stop reading and reject the query. Three gongs, and you're out.
The first year I attended the Con, I signed up to have my query read and critiqued live in front of two hundred people. It was anonymous, but still! I was a nervous wreck and could barely breathe. It was so worth it, though.
I wasn't quite ready to query my romantic-epic-court-intrigue-fantasy Nights of Nael, but I'd written a query for it in preparation. I won't share the whole thing, because my query got gonged about three sentences in.
In Natalat, a nation insulated by a vast rainforest and centuries of friendship with its
neighbors, motherhood is the highest station one can attain. But Neena, who has
unexpectedly ascended the Natal throne, is not a mother, nor do her immediate plans for
the future include becoming one. But her new queendom requires her to participate in an
ancient annual ritual, Nael, that aims to give her a child and cement diplomatic ties."
If you look back at the cool things I think readers love about fantasy, you'll see that world-building is right at the top of that list. I leaned into that because that was what I was particularly proud of about this project and I thought it would be really engaging for people who wanted to acquire fantasy.
But I got gonged by three of the agents playing the game right about where that excerpt ended. It was for several reasons. First, there are a lot of book-specific words right away. Natalat, Natal, and Nael. They found that was too steep a learning curve. Second, some of the agents got the ick from how I phrased what Nael was about. So fair. I changed that and improved my explanation of what Nael was.
Most importantly, however, multiple agents said that they got absolutely no sense of my main character. They wanted to connect with her right off the bat. They wanted to know why they should care about her and her problems.
So, perhaps my best advice is to make sure that you're giving agents the chance to connect immediately to your main character. Present their stakes right away. Show how they're relatable and why we should care about them. Explain how the main character is affected by the premise of the story, rather than just what the premise is.
Here is the updated version of my query letter for Nights of Nael, which received a full request within literal hours:
Neena always longed to travel the world, but her sudden ascension as the new Matriarch of her jungle nation, Natalat, makes that impossible. Not only does she have to give up her dreams of freedom, she feels pressure to participate in a ritual known as Nael to obtain a child and cement diplomatic ties. Motherhood is the highest honor, but it is only a further complication for Neena. With the pressures of her government and the memory of the late queen who raised her weighing on her, Neena agrees to participate but is determined to skirt the rules of the ritual."
Now, is this perfect? No. It's still pretty wordy. But relating how Neena is affected by the premise of the book is way more effective.
To recap, my best tips for writing a great query:
Comp popular books in your genre published in the last ten years
Share a little about who you are and how it relates to your book's content
Clearly state your word count, genre, and audience (even if you think it's obvious)
Use genre conventions to name your book
Capitalize on your strengths as a writer and what draws readers to your genre
Give agents the chance to connect immediately to your main character
Explain how the main character is affected by the premise of the story, rather than just what the premise is
Next time we'll take a look at the dreaded synopsis!