Thursday, April 19, 2012

A to Z Challenge: Q is for Query




Q is for Query:  an inquiry from a writer to an editor or agent regarding the acceptability of or interest in an idea for an article or book, usually presented in the form of a letter that outlines or describes the projected piece. (Dictionary.com)

Excuse me but…queries are a total bitch.  I mean, how in hell is a novelist supposed to simmer an entire 90,000 word document down into 150 words?  It ain’t easy, I can tell you that, yet I’ve done a total of twenty-seven of them.  Writing a good query became my obsession.  I wrote my first one in January 2011 then sent out the first batch of ten via email and got a request for a full from a superstar agent within one hour.  I thought, I got this.  A solid query. 

Mm yeah, not so much.

I worked on fine-tuning my query, even put it up for review on Deana Barnhart’s Gearin’ Up to Get an Agent Blogfest.  That was fun.  I had some outstanding input and modified my query, but while I learned a lot about getting down to the very heart of the conflict, it had become too bare.  So I worked on it some more then entered a query critique contest at literary agent Suzie Townsend's blog.  She gave me some great advice which I then incorporated before I had Matthew MacNish critique it on his blog, The Quintessentially Questionable Query Experiment.  By that point, I felt I had it down.  It just needed a few tweaks.  Afterwards though, I couldn’t face the whole querying process.  I’d done it for three one-month-long periods early in the year, and while I had my fair share of requests, nothing had panned out.  So my heart just wasn’t in it. 

BUT…I decided to try one publisher and see what happened.  And that’s all it took.  After some back and forth, we struck a deal, and now I’m due for publication on October 18, 2012.  Looking back though, I realize I did learn an awful lot about writing queries.  I came up with a solid formula, one worth sharing.  One thing you should know first:  though you love your characters and their backstory, all that really matters in a query is the heart of the conflict.  Zone in on that and you’ll have a great place to start.  So here goes my formula:

First paragraph: First sentence (or two, at most,) introduce your main character and his normal world in as few words as possible, then for the hook, show how that world is irrevocably broken.  Next sentence, show how this has changed your MC’s life and what he must do (his goal) to get back to normal. 
            
Second paragraph:  In two sentences, show the main complication and how it interferes with the MC getting back to normal.  This usually requires a small bit of setup and the introduction of one, maybe two (at most) additional characters.  Avoid throwing too many names into the mix.  Try using their titles or positions instead.  It’s less confusing. 

Third paragraph:  Show the choice the MC must make in order to achieve his goal.  Lastly, show what is at stake, what the MC will lose if he doesn’t achieve that goal.  And that’s it. 

Last paragraph (the housekeeping):  The book’s title (all in caps), the genre, and the word count first, then a little bio, but only if you have verifiable publishing credentials.  Wrap it up very simply by explaining why you chose that agent (without kissing her ass,) then thank her for her time and consideration.  The end.  NOTHING ELSE!  Sign off with your name, address, phone numbers, email address, and your website or blog.           

So what do you think, could you write a solid query using this formula?  Do you have an alternative method?    

20 comments:

JeffO said...

This is the worst part of it, I think. Trying to get that query just. Exactly. Right. is brutal. Even the waiting, now that a bunch of queries are out, isn't so bad, because I can at least do other, more fun, things, like work on The Next Book. But writing the query letter was a grueling, all-consuming process.

Matthew MacNish said...

You nailed it. The three Cs!

I think the hardest part, even after working on a query for years (yes, literally, YEARS) is having the confidence to actually send it out. I used to be so bad at them, it kind of made me terrified for a long time.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I could follow that formula. I have no idea what I did the first time though!

Natalie Aguirre said...

Thanks for making it sound simple. I have 40 pages of queries for my only manuscript and I'm still not sure what the best one is.

I'm an attorney and write letters everyday so it drives me nuts how difficult it is to get this query right.

Heather M. Gardner said...

I think I'll let you write mine when I finish!
Great post.
Heather

L.G.Smith said...

Blah. Hate the query. They are a bitch and should be slapped. Love your advice though. :)

Tasha Seegmiller said...

I am working on writing mine right now - this is great advice. But you counted how many times you wrote yours? Argh - that would just add to the misery, wouldn't it?

Donna K. Weaver said...

I'm so happy for you, Nancy. Those queries are such a bear. In my experience, it really took a (blogging) village to write mine. =D

Lynn Proctor said...

great advice and details--and congratulations

Julie Daines said...

Congratulations! This is great advice on query writing! So many people let their queries run on and on. I like how you say get to the heart of the conflict.

Sarah Allan said...

Great formula, Nancy! I'll definitely keep that in mind when writing mine. Thank you for checking out my blog, and I wanted to check yours out as well. You have a lovely blog and a new follower!

Lynda R Young said...

I agree on your view of queries ;)
Unfortunately it's one of those necessary evils if a writer wants to go the traditional publishing route. Fab advice.

Carrie Butler said...

Queries are the devil!

...Oops. I didn't mean for that to slip out. I meant to say, "Great post, Nancy!" :)

Chuck said...

This is the second writer post I have read today on query letters and I think I am beginning to understand what they are about. A lot goes into writing and publishing, huh?

Al Penwasser said...

Queries blow! I've written a bunch of queries and have never gotten so much as a nibble from a publisher.
Oh, wait. Maybe MY queries blow.
Never mind.

Empty Nest Insider said...

I should save this for a guide when I'm ready to take that step. Thanks for the great tips Nancy, and I'm so glad all of your hard work paid off! Julie

klahanie said...

Hey Nancy,
And right on "Q", I'm back to see how you're doing with this fascinating challenge that brings even more awareness of the alphabet or as Penny the Jack Russell dog and modest internet star would refer to it, in her alternate um challenge, 'The A to Z Alphabark Challenge'. Enough about that. Just glad you're doing so well with it all.
I'm sure your query formula can be well utilised. Of course, with my disjointed, meandering writing, my query would just have them shaking their heads :)
And without Question and right on "Q", I shall now continue my Quest to continue to write Quotidian articles....
All the best Nancy and happy writing :)
In kindness, Gary

Kern Windwraith said...

Well, I'm definitely bookmarking this for future reference! I'm not quite at the query letter stage yet, but it's creeping closer, and I've heard enough rumblings about how fiercely difficult these letters can be to make me nervous.

Congratulations on the publication deal! That's awesome!

Lisa Regan said...

It just goes to show you that on occasion, the gatekeepers are too burnt out to recognize a great thing when they see it! Anyway, queries are a total bitch and for me still remain the worst part of the process. This is a great post though and writers starting their queries should definitely use it as a reference!

Lynn Proctor said...

this was very helpful--the more i read about the query letter, the more i think i will be doing one soon