Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Writing a Successful Query: A Special "SeCrit" Feature

Hi lovelies!

Today's SeCrit is going to be a little different. Instead of critiquing a user-submitted query, we're going to break apart one of our own successful queries and attempt to help you see how and why it worked. Below is Stefanie Gaither's original query, which had about a 2/3 request rate and resulted in multiple offers.

Okay, here we go!

Dear Agent,

I’m currently seeking representation for my YA novel, FALLS THE SHADOW. Given your interest in science fiction, I thought it might be something you’d enjoy reading. Here’s a quick look at the plot:
 [This first paragraph was pretty standard across all the queries Stef sent. Short, sweet, and to the point. A lot of people will make a big deal about bending over backwards to get really specific in the personalization and show that you've spent hours and hours stalking researching the agent. Which you should research, definitely. But if you've targeted your queries well enough (that is, you know it's definitely something the agent will want to read) then it should speak for itself--no elaborate declarations of love or personalizations necessary. In short: stop stressing over this. Story is most important.]
When Cate Benson was twelve, her sister died. Two hours after the funeral, they picked up Violet’s replacement, and the family made it home in time for dinner and a game of cards.
[This is the "hook" paragraph. Its purpose is to make the agent/editor sit up and pay attention, the same way the first line in the manuscript should do. Notice all of the things just these two sentences establish: character(s), the fact that this is sci-fi (as implied by the "replacement" bit), world-building and voice-- the non-nonchalant bit about the cards was a way of using voice to show that, in Cate and Violet's world, this "replacing" is commonplace. You have only so many words to work with in a query, so they should ALL count, and pull double-duty whenever possible. Actually, that's just a good rule of well-paced writing in general.]    
It's the year 2055, and Cate's parents are among the wealthy elite who can afford to give their children a sort of immortality—by cloning them at birth. So this new Violet has the same smile. The same laugh. That same perfect face. Thanks to advancements in mind-uploading technology, she even has all the same memories as the girl she replaced.  
[This paragraph builds on the intrigue established in the hook. At this point, you've (hopefully) already caught the reader's attention, so you can afford to elaborate a bit without worrying about losing them. If Stef had started with this paragraph, it probably would not have been as effective. This paragraph is important in its own right, though, because in sci-fi, worldbuilding is incredibly important-- so your query should demonstrate some level of it. Notice that it stays central to the characters, though, and includes only the worldbuilding necessary for developing the hook. There is a ton of other cool sci-fish stuff in the book, of course, but the query isn't the place to discuss that.]
She also might have murdered the most popular girl in school.
[And now we have our Story Worthy Problem-- our MC has a murder mystery to solve] 
Or at least, that’s what the paparazzi and the crazy anti-cloning protesters want everyone to think: that clones are violent, unpredictable monsters. Cate is used to hearing all that, though. She’s used to standing up for her sister too, and she’s determined to do it now—even if proving Violet’s innocence means taking on those protesters and anyone else attacking her family. But when her own life is threatened—not by protesters, but by the very scientists who created her sister’s clone—Cate starts questioning everything she thought she knew about the cloning movement. About herself. About her sister.
[Again, we've dropped a bomb of a hook about a possibly murderous sister, so now we have the reader's attention and can feed them a bit more information. This paragraph does two things at once: establishes more about the world of the book, and also about Cate's character by showing the way she deals with that world. It is all tightly intertwined to make the query feel more cohesive.]          
And the answers she finds reveal a more sinister purpose for her sister’s copy—and her own replacement—than she ever could have imagined.
[This last paragraph is purposefully vague, hinting at a bigger story and more complications to come.]
FALLS THE SHADOW is an accessible, character-driven sci-fi thriller of 81,000 words. The completed manuscript is available, in part or full, at your request. As per your agency’s guidelines, I’ve enclosed a SASE for your reply. Thanks for your time and consideration!

[Like the opening, the closing is short and sweet and to the point. Including "As per your agency's guidelines..." and whatever they ask for is just a quick and easy way to show you read said guidelines.]

A few random thoughts on query writing:

-Almost as important as what's in this query is what is not in it. There is no mention of subplots--nothing about the romance or the love interest (though there definitely is one of those), nothing about any other characters except for Cate and Violet. The reason? Because they are the crux of this particular story-- the characters that this story wouldn't exist without. Of course there are more characters, and they all complicate this story in their own way, but tangled and complicated is not what you're going for in a query. You don't want your query to seem muddled, because you don't want an agent/editor to think your book is just as muddled.

-Sometimes it's easier to write the query before you write the book (which is what Stef did with this query-- it changed very little through the process of writing the actual book). Because you don't get caught up in the aforementioned subplots and such, since you don't know about a lot of those subplots and intricacies and complications. Which is not helpful to those of you with completed books, but something to think about for future projects, maybe?

-Pay attention to white space. Break up your paragraphs. Set apart more dramatic lines (hooks), because it makes them feel more dramatic. Is it a cheap trick to manipulate reader's emotions? Of course it is. The same way using shorter sentences for dramatic effect and emphasis is. Writing is full of cheap tricks.

-You've probably heard this before, but a good way to think about queries is to think of them as cover copy on published books. That copy is intended to make a reader buy a book, and you're essentially doing the same thing here--trying to sell your pitch to agents/editors

-There is no completely wrong or right way to write a query, just like there's no wrong or right way to write a book. This query worked for Stefanie, and for her book, but all writing is subjective. Bottom line? You just need to make people want to read the thing, however possible. So take everything in this post with a grain of salt. Hopefully it helps in some way!

Feel free to post your query writing tips and tricks in the comments, or if anyone knows any great resources for query writing, share away!

Also, quick housekeeping note: 
The winner for our GAME OF SECRETS event will be announced tomorrow! And be sure to come back Thursday for an awesome author interview as well :)

2 secret replies:

  1. wow that really is a fantastic query (and I can't wait to read her book!) thanks for sharing it, it's interesting that she wrote the query first. I do try to write a query earlier in the writing process so I at least have a lot of time to revise it :)

  2. I definitely prefer to write the query as early as possible. If I wait, I have all these exciting subplots and it becomes difficult for me to keep them out.