5 Tips for Querying Your Novel

I’m querying this year, and in my journey to write a solid query letter, I’ve come across some not-so-great advice online in regards to not only query writing, but the querying process in general. It led me to write this post, in hopes I could help someone avoid making needless mistakes. I don’t claim to be amazing at query writing, but I’ve done my research, and can point many of you in the right direction.

So here goes ūüôā

1. ¬†Study other queries. Want to see what a solid query looks like? Read every single one of these query letters (sent to Writer’s Digest via literary agents). Successful Queries is the first place I stopped in my online search. Queries are unique beasts, so what better way to tackle them than to read agent-winning letters or helpful critiques of close-but-not-quite-there¬†examples? You wouldn’t attempt to write a novel without reading other works of fiction, so why¬†write a query without studying a vast array first? Not only will this show you how it’s done, it’ll show you a range of possible styles and get you in the brainspace¬†of 200-word summaries. So do that. Read your heart out. Google is your friend. But in case you need a quick Go-To list, check out these sites for examples.
2. Know the proper format. If you do step 1, you’ll undoubtedly see the correct methods for writing a great query letter. But know the breakdown. There IS a method to the madness. ***Read these posts for proper technical format like spacing, font, header, etc. NATHAN BRANSFORD,¬†Literary Rambles, and Janet Reid.
  • Personalization: Open with a little something that tells the agent what drew you to them, whether you pitched them at a conference, or that you regularly read their blog. Notice these elements in the queries you read to see examples of things that work. Maybe you met at a conference and hit it off, or they tweeted you that they love your idea. Remind them. They talk to so many people. Give them a little help. Other things that can go here:
    1. Were you referred by an author this specific agent reps? You can put that here.
    2. Are you pre-published? You can put that here (or at the end).
    3. Is this requested material? As in, did the agent tell you to send pages/chapters/full manuscript? If so, you can put that here.
    4. Don’t have any of this? TOTALLY OKAY.
  • Book Info: What do you have to offer? An 85K word count contemporary romance? A 120K Historical Fantasy? A 75K Dark Erotica? A 70K Adventure YA? Whatever it is, (and you should study your genre and author/novel comparisons to be sure you get this right), put it in the opening paragraph. You’re attempting to sell this agent on 1) yourself as an author, and 2) your work. Genre prepares the agent up front for the type of novel you’re selling. Word count tells them if you’re in the general ballpark for the genre. If you’re writing a contemporary romance and the word count is 175K, the agent might question whether or not you really have a solid grasp on your work. ***This is also a good place to add comparisons, like: Readers of (author), (author), and (author) would enjoy this (genre) of (word count) words. Or maybe you want to put actual book titles instead of authors. Again, READ OTHER QUERIES for ideas. And for heaven’s sake, guys–be real. Choose works/authors that are true comparisons to your work. This can set the tone for the agent, so choose wisely.
  • The Meat: This is the main event. This is your book boiled down into two tiny paragraphs. Typically, this portion of the query is around 200 words. I know that seems impossible, but it’s not. The key here is being concise. What the middle paragraphs should do:
    1. Introduce the main characters. Not secondary characters. Again, STUDY THE QUERIES LINKED ABOVE. Look at how those authors intro their characters.
    2. Show the agent the MAIN CONFLICT of your novel. What is the trouble your main character/characters face?
    3. Show the choices they have to make. What is the dilemma? Hint: This can often be found near the first act turn of your plot.
    4. TIP: DO NOT REVEAL THE ENDING. That happens in a synopsis, not a query. The query is a tease. Enticement. You have to leave the agent wanting to read your book.
    5. TIP: DO NOT LIST ALL THE PLOT POINTS. Again, reserve this info for your synopsis.
    6. TIP: Edit your query just like you’d edit your novel. Strong nouns and¬†verbs, clarity, and word economy are key.
  • The Close: What to put here:
    1. Writing Credentials: Have an MFA? A degree in Creative Writing? Attend a cool Writing Program like UCLA’s Writers’ Extension Program or Gotham?
    2. Writing Affiliations: RWA, SCBWI, etc.
    3. Major Writing Awards
    4. Work/Career/Background: If you’re a historian of 18th century England, or you’ve done research for MIT, and these things lend to the credibility of the novel, by all means, list it.
    5. Previously published works: Novels, short stories, articles, etc.
  • SALUTATION: Keep it simple ūüôā

                           Thanks for your time and consideration,

                           Charissa James-Weaks

3. ¬†Get a Critique. Ok. So everyone won’t agree on this bulletpoint, but a critique will help you see ways to tighten and clarify your query–if the advice comes from a trustworthy source. Be careful what advice you take. Seek out mentors/other writers with skill, even if it means you have to pay a little. Time isn’t free. A lesson I’m learning is to be wise about who you select. People like Jane Friedman & Chuck Sambuchino? I trust their advice.¬†Also, do the hard work BEFORE you send a query for critique. Your letter should be as solid as you can get it.¬†So where do you get a query critique??

  1. Your critique partners. Hopefully, you are blessed as I am and have brilliant CP’s. Have them read and give you a thumbs up.
  2. Online workshops. Look around. Query Workshops DO exist. Writer’s Digest has LIVE Webinars hosted by actual literary agents. You never know. If they like your query, they might request pages. Keep an eye out for Webinars HERE.
  3. Second Draft Critique Service via Writer’s Digest.
  4. Professionals in the business: Jane Friedman, Chuck Sambuchino, Cathy Yardley.
  5. Your local writing group. Romance Writers of America and SCBWI, for example, have huge support networks. If you’re a member of such a group, ASK FOR HELP.
4.  Get on Query Tracker. (Or Agent Query, whichever you prefer). You need a way of tracking agent communication. Agents are easily searchable on these sites, and on QT you can even see response rates and feedback from other queriers, as well as make lists per project. If you want to keep things super organized, make yourself a spreadsheet, or handwrite it if you must, so that you can see at a glance where you stand. Things to consider including:
  1. Name
  2. Agency
  3. Accepts Queries via…Snail Mail, Query Email, or Online Form?
  4. Contact Info
  5. Genre
  6. Is agency a One Query agency? Some agencies have a policy that once you query one agent from that agency, you cannot query another. KNOW THIS. Because if they’re NOT a One Query agency, and one agent says no, you can try others.
  7. What to send: KNOW THIS. Check agency websites and QT to be sure you get this right. The fact that you can follow directions is important. Show the agent you care enough to do your research. Do they want the query & first 5 pages in the body of the email? The query, 1-2 pg synopsis, and first 3 chapters? Get this right.
  8. Typical Response Time: This info is found on QT and agency websites.
  9. Date Query Sent
  10. Date of Response
  11. Response: Rejection or Request?
  12. Date of Requested Material
  13. Date Requested Material Sent
  14. Communication Column
5. Read submission guidelines thoroughly before you hit SEND. Every agent is different. And yes, if you follow tip #4, you probably have a spreadsheet with a column for “What to Send.” But things change. Double check just before you send that email, and BE SURE to get the Subject line info correct. This varies from agent to agent and can prevent your query from going to the SPAM folder, or being¬†clicked over to Slush.
And that’s it!! Good luck on your querying endeavors!!