Monday, August 16, 2010

Crafting a Query

In a past life (okay it was two years ago), I taught lit at the University of Missouri.  This was a great gig.  Not only was it like getting to host a book club I could pass judgment on, I learned a lot about writing.  That's right, I learned more about the craft through teaching than taking classes.  When you are expected to teach others, you begin to examine methodology more deeply.  You can't just write, you have to show someone else how to do it themselves.

So naturally as I begin to think about what happens when the revisions are done, I've starting to think about  the query and what better way to approach it then with a little lesson plan.

Successful queries are ones that convey your story and writing ability using an economy of words.  The first step is to have a good story, a good query is dependent on it.  The second step is to have a concise, well-written synopsis.  One bad paragraph or poorly structured sentence and you are in the slush pile.

A query should contain these elements:

1.  It should be addressed to a specific agent, no sirs or madams here!  And make sure you actually have done your homework and this is the best person.

2.  The first paragraph should contain all the vital info of the story in 2-3 lines, AND it should have a hook.  Start looking at your DVDs and books for blurbs, then try your hand at writing a blurb.  NOTE: While this may be the first thing in the letter, it doesn't have to be written first!  It may be easier to come back, read your synopsis and then boil it down to two sentences.

3.  A one to two paragraph synopsis of your entire plot NOT your every scene.  Focus on the good stuff.  That scene where your heroine slips into a vat of pudding might be hilarious, but unless she uncovers a body in the pudding and begins hunting the killer, it doesn't belong in your synopsis.

4.  A little about you.  You don't have to have fancy degrees or published stories, but if you do toot your horn.  If you don't, don't talk about how you wanted to write a book since you learned the alphabet song or wax poetic on your love of libraries, we could all say that. What makes you a unique and valuable voice in the literary world?

Got it written?  Great!  Go back and cut 25 words.

You heard me.  I know you think you need it all, but one of the greatest tricks in a writer's toolbox is the ability to delete and combine.  I know you can do it.

Done?  Fabulous.   Print 2 copies and go grab your neighbor, friend, husband, literate 8 year-old and have them read it out loud to you.  If they stumble over words, underline the spot. Circle the things that sound wrong.  Listen to how it sounds read by someone else.  Repeat with someone else.

Hate me yet?

Good.  Now go post it to your writing support group.  Chances are they'll rip it to shreds.  Wonderful.  Address concerns and keep revising until it sounds eloquent read by someone else and the writing group is gushing about its clarity and tone.

This is your first step in the publishing process.  Make sure you are the wheat not the chaff.


  1. This is really helpful, Jenn. Thanks for the advice. I just finished my first draft of a new query. I'll try your method out and post it on YAlitchat.

  2. Hi Gennifer! I found your blog via GK's, and I've been poking around a bit (so glad I found you) and I had to say, I laughed aloud at your description of the lit class. That sounds like an amaaaaazing job.