Thursday, May 11, 2017

0 Writing 101: The Dreaded Query Letter

**This post is part of the Writing 101: From Concept to Query (and Beyond!) series. For an overview of planned posts, take a look at the series introduction. Previous posts have explored the drafting processnovel revisions, and why you may or may not want to query literary agents**

As I write this post, I’m alternating between it and putting the finishing touches on a pitch for my agent. And honestly, it’s amazing how much more efficient at pitch-writing I’ve become, especially considering that my first query letter went through over fifty drafts.

Yes, fifty.

Hopefully, with the help of this post, we can keep you well under that agonizing number! There are a few key ingredients you can use to ensure your query is concise, to the point, and grabs the reader’s attention. They are—

Professional Presentation

High Stakes

Specifics

Originality

Professional Presentation

When querying, there are formatting rules you need to follow. This is NOT the place to get creative. You want to present yourself as a professional who can work effectively within the structures publishing has put in place, and as someone who’s done their homework.

Your query should be—
--Single-spaced line by line, double-spaced between paragraphs
--Written in a legible, reasonably-sized font (I would say 12pt Times, but your email default is usually acceptable too)
--Personally addressed to a specific agent

Your query should contain—
--Three concise paragraphs dedicated to your hook—the part of the query where you explain your story. Try to keep your hook between 300-350 words if possible. Too short, and you won’t be giving enough information. Too long, and you’re likely including more than you need to.
--One paragraph for genre and wordcount, comparative titles, personalization (why you queried this specific agent), and brief biographical information.

You may see a variety of suggested layouts for query letters—some recommend putting your genre/wordcount/personalization paragraph first. I’ve always left it for last, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s not that important. The really important thing is to research each individual agent and follow their specific querying guidelines.

High Stakes

This is advice you’ll hear a lot about querying. High stakes need not be gigantic, world-ending, life-or-death scenarios, though. Emotional stakes can be equally compelling. What’s important is to know the central conflict of your book, or as Jane Friedman puts it in her querying how to, what does your main character want, why does she want it, and what is preventing her from getting it? If you can answer all three of those questions within your query letter, you’ll be well on your way to a compelling query.

Specifics

It’s important to be specific in your query letter, especially as you elaborate your high stakes. Saying “Mabel has to find a way to defend her school or else” is far less interesting than “Mabel must defend her school against a horde of flying monkeys or risk losing her best friend, her crush, and her swim team dreams all in one day.” Go into detail as to what will happen and why it will happen if your main character does not succeed in her endeavors.

Originality

Within the framework of proper query structure, try to find ways to show how your story is original. Have a main character with a fantastic voice? Try to infuse some of that voice into your query. Did you build a glorious and lush new setting? Concisely work it into your hook. Is your premise incredibly unique? Show it off.

All of this may seem a little vague and hard to implement, and that’s because the real key to writing a great query is practice and patience. It will likely take multiple drafts, and it’s always wise to ask someone else for their opinion on your query before sending it out. Others may find holes and unanswered questions you’ve overlooked.

Need some more help along the way? Check out the following query writing resources:



Happy query writing, and may you reach perfection in less than fifty drafts!


About the Author

Laura Weymouth is AYAP's contest coordinator, working to create opportunities for you to get samples of your work in front of agents right here on Adventures in YA Publishing.

Laura lives on the edge of the woods in western New York, along with her husband, two wild-hearted daughters, a spoiled cat, and an indeterminate number of chickens. Her YA fantasy debut, THE WEIGHT OF WORLDS, is forthcoming from HarperTeen in the fall of 2018.

You can follow Laura on Twitter and add her book on Goodreads.

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