Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Query Letters--Shannon Style (Part Three: The Meat)

Okay, we've talked about Query format (and what I think should and shouldn't be there). We've talked about writing the hook. So now we're down to the body of the query--or the meat, as I like to call it. The part where you have to condense those 300+ pages of awesome manuscript down to one or two killer paragraphs that leave the agent thinking YES--I ABSOLUTELY MUST READ MORE!

I'll tell you right now, it's not easy. But I have a few pointers that helped me, so I will pass them on to you guys.

Once again though, I MUST point out before we start that, amazingly enough, I'm still not an agent. (nothing has changed career-wise for me these last couple weeks). Nor am I a query ninja or shark or any of those other names donned by the real pros at this. And remember, there's a reason why I'm covering this stuff under the "Shannon Style" label--this is all just my own personal approach. If it differs from something an agent says on their blog or website as far as how they prefer to be queried--please, I'm begging you, don't listen to me. 

(Heh--can you tell I'm nervous about people blaming me for rejections? Yes, I'm THAT paranoid)

I should also point out that for most of us, writing a query letter is a very time consuming process. (There's a few lucky ducks out there who crank them out in a flash, but let's face it, no one likes those people). Yes, it's only a page--and not even a full page at that. But it's a ridiculously important page in which your entire career kind of rests. So yeah, don't expect to bang out this bad boy in a day and ship it off in a mass email to every agent in the biz (and while we're at it, PLEASE no mass emailing!)

Think of how much time and heart you poured into polishing your manuscript, and make sure you make all the same steps with your query. Really push yourself when you write it to get it right. Then revise. Send it to critique partners. Revise and send it to beta readers. Revise again. I'm also a big proponent of online query workshops or professional query critiques (which I will talk more about next week).

Basically: put in the time, sweat, and tears to get it right. I KNOW queries are boring to write. I KNOW they can be so frustrating you want to pound your head into the wall. Believe me, I KNOW. But this is your career--and your dream. Don't cut corners and risk ruining either of them.

Okay, so I'm going to start by breaking this down to lists of "Dos" and "Don'ts" to hopefully make it nice and easy. When writing the body/meat of your query:

-Focus on your main character and the main plot of your story
-Keep the sentences short, clear, and specific
-Use enough details to make it very clear what makes this YOUR book, not one of the millions of others out there
-Incorporate the voice of the novel 
-Limit yourself to two paragraphs (three can be okay, but they better be AWESOME)
-End with a "call to action" that leaves them wanting to know what happens next 

-Cloud the waters with too many characters and subplots
-Use gimmicks
-Be vague or generic
-Talk about the lessons or themes in the book. If you explain the plot right, the agent will be able to figure that out on their own.
-Fill this section with rhetorical questions
-Give away the ending

And let's quickly talk about what I mean for all of those.

First, your query letter needs to focus on your main character and your main plot. That's really all you have time for in such a small space. If it's a dual POV or there's another very important character (or even two) you should bring them into the query. But be careful. Dropping too many character names in such a short space can quickly lead to confusion. Remember, you don't have to tell them EVERYTHING about your book. Just enough to peak their interest.

That being said, you need to be specific. I can't tell you how many times I see sentences like: She must find the strength to do what needs to be done. That's a whole lot of words to waste on something that doesn't really tell us anything and can pretty much be applied to any book. HOW does she find the strength? And HOW is she going to do what needs to be done? And while we're at it, WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE? I think I've said this in every one of these posts, but I'm saying it again: the point of a query is to set the agent up to know what to expect from YOUR book, and make them want to read it. You need to be specific to do that.

It's also very important to inject your voice into the query. Sadly, that's not something I--or anyone else--can really help you with. It's your voice. Only you know how to create it. But the difference between a query with voice and a query without voice is night and day so push yourself to work it in there. If you were good enough to write a novel, you're good enough to put voice in your query--trust me.

Try to keep it to two paragraphs (three can work, but two is usually better). Why two? Space, for one thing. But also, it works really well to set up the paragraphs like so (and remember, these come after that awesome hook we talked about writing last week):

Paragraph #1: Establish the main character(s) and their basic situation in the book, so we understand who they are and what their life is like.

Paragraph #2: Introduce the villain or love interest or conflict. Then explain how the main character is affected by this new development and end with their call to action. And by call to action I mean something along the lines of:

As their attraction grows into love, Bella is forced to decide: live a safe life with a safe boyfriend like her many high school admirers--or be with Edward, and hope his love for her is strong enough to deter his thirst for her blood. 

Okay, I KNOW that's not very good--sorry, I'm pressed for time. Hopefully you can at least see what I mean by call to action, how it sets up the climax of the novel, raising questions in the agent's mind about what happens next, without resorting to using cheesy rhetorical questions like: Will true love conquer all?

Obviously there's a million and one ways to vary that (like I've said before, in my own query, I didn't follow that format. But my book is kind of untraditional, so it needed an untraditional structure to the query). But for most books, two paragraphs set up as such works really well.

And just to touch on a few of my other "don'ts": Don't use gimmicks like writing the query as though the character were the one writing it, etc, because they almost always read cheesy. Don't waste precious space with things like: Bella will explore the meaning of true love, and what really defines someone as "human". I mean, how boring does that make the book sound? Not to mention, themes and lessons are supposed to be subtly woven through the entire novel, not beating you over the head with: HERE'S THE THEME I'M EXPLORING. So why do that in a query?

And personally, I say don't give away the ending. In a synopsis, yes--you must. But in a query, I think it kind of ruins the anticipation a little bit. There are some people who disagree with me though, so I would recommend researching the agent to see how they feel, before you send off your query. And I'll talk all about researching agents next week.

Pretty sure that covers the basics, but I'll leave you with one final tip: Writing is reading--and queries are no different. Read successful queries before (and while) you try to write yours. Lots and lots of agents have them on their blogs. Do a little googling and see what you can find (and I'll have a list of some awesome links and resources next week). Reading the cover copy on books helps too. The more you familiarize yourself with the language of short, powerful summaries, the better you'll be able to write one for your book.

*Phew* Okay, I think that's it for today. Did I miss anything? Anyone have any questions? Hit me with them in the comments. 


  1. Really nice job on this, Shannon. I found your point about how the themes and messages should be woven subtly through the book so they shouldn't be blatant in the query, particularly valuable.

  2. You're awesome. This is great. You always make it sound like your posts are crap because you're so busy, but they're actually fantastic:)

  3. I think this is great. You have a way of writing about something that may put me to sleep. You keep my attention and explain it so I understand completely.

  4. Great suggestions. And so true that queries take forever to get right. I've spent well over 40 hours on mine. Having good examples in your genre really help. I've found some on writer's blogs, Elana Johnson's book, and agent blogs. If you have good examples, you may want to do another post and include them. It could help people.

    BTW, I'll send you my query for the query contest I won this week.

  5. Your humility really is endearing Shannon. Okay, maybe your examples aren't perfect (or maybe it just seems that way because you went with Twilight), but your breakdowns and explanations are top notch. Oh that I had only known you back before I went through my first round of ill advised querying.

  6. As always, your blog is always worth the stop. Thanks!

  7. Thanks a lot. I queried your way and got rejected. It's ALL YOUR FAULT!!


    Also, awesome tips.

  8. Eep. As usual you are a terrible amount of awesome smooshed into a little post!! Thank you so much for taking the time to write all these tips and how tos and what not and being so nice about it all!

  9. Thank you for stating this all so clearly and in such a friendly voice. The advice about voice really spoke to me.

  10. wow - great post. I've given you a Stylish Blogger award. Hope you come by to pick it up.

  11. Great post, Shannon! You're awesomely wonderful to help us with all this super fantastic advice. :)

    I finally got mine but not before a ton of trial and error. :)

  12. It sounds so easy reading about it. Sigh. But is always much harder said than done. Thanks for sharing!

  13. I always try to get feedback on my queries too, from places like writeoncon or Agent Query. Anyplace brilliant writers hang out and can critique and give feedback. :)
    Lisa ~ YA Literature Lover

  14. OK, now I would like you to teach me how to write a proposal. ;) I think I'll use these tips on my proposal anyway. Thank you SHannon for all your awesomeness!!

  15. Thanks for the post! These are great tips.

  16. "Short, powerful summaries." Yes. That's IT!!!

    I once read that a good start to a query is to pretend you're writing the back cover copy to your book. I pay close attention to those now!

    Thanks for this series, Shannon! I look forward to next weeks' links :D


  17. Awesome post. Writing queries are hard work but they aren't impossible.

  18. It always sounds easy, but in actual practice, queries are hard. But at least you wrote them in a moderately understanding way!

    Possibly unrelated question, but I enjoyed reading about your query how-to's... would you consider a synopsis one as well? I keep forgetting I'll need to write that as well.

  19. Thank you, Shannon! I really love the way you break this down and the "do and don't" lists are great. This will be a great help to me when I start querying later this year! :)

  20. oh so much hard work... can you do mine for me???


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