Note: As I said yesterday, this post is about query letters. There’s no perfect query template, and a lot of what goes into a query letter is up to you, depending on whatever you’re writing. So what you see here is an example and your own query can look very different and still be “good.”
We’re continuing our discussion of query letters today with a sample query, as well as some common query problems that I get asked about during workshops and seminars. I’m going to write an intentionally bad query first, comment on it, then fix it. Any comments I make are going to be written as ((number)). It’ll all make sense when you see it.
Bad query ahoy!
To Whom It May Concern ((1)),
Have you ever thought about what it would be like to be able to make dreams come true? Not your dreams, but other peoples’ ((2) dreams? ((3))
STEVE PROTAGONIST used to think he’d never be anything ((4)), and then one day he found a magic lamp while walking on the beach preparing to drown himself during a vacation designed to re-ignite the spark in his marriage to MARY SECONDARY-CHARACTER, who he’s been married to for the last eleven years, three kids, and two houses.((5)) Steve is ((6)) down on his luck, just waiting for the chips to fall where they may ((7)), and this magic lamp has some magic in it after all.
So our ((8)) hero wishes for the ability to make other people happy, and initially his powers really help. That is, until he meets TIM ANTAGONIST, his boss ((9)). Tim discovers Steve’s power, and began ((10)) to abuse it. They have a showdown on the roof of their office building after Tim discovers his own magic lamp and Steve finally gets his own wish granted when Tim gets sucked into Dimension X ((11)).
GUYS WITH LAMPS is my ((12)) first complete ((13)) novel in the wish-fulfillment science edutainment genre ((14)), and is 790602 words unedited ((15)). My name is FIRST-TIME AUTHOR and I am so nervous to be writing you this query letter! ((16)) I hope you like my story, and that you’ll email me back, because I’d really like to be a published author 🙂 ((17))
Happy holidays to you and yours ((18))
(pretend I got WordPress to right-intend the contact info, it goes on the bottom right)
Actual postal address
Town, State/Province, Country
Zip or Postal Code
Okay, that query letter sucks with a capital “Suh” and a capital “cks”. Let’s do the numbers:
((1)) If you’ve done enough googling and social media investigating, you should know the name of the person you’re corresponding with. This isn’t one of those ValPack coupon things in the mail, this is your effort in getting your manuscript published.
((2)) Grammar issue – Treat an s-apostrophe on a word that ends with an “s” as though it’s an apostrophe-s. So here “peoples'” means that you have multiple groups of people, and you’re saying peoples’s. You just mean people (one group of many) apostrophe-s, since that one group owns them.
((3)) This is not an elementary school book report. You don’t have to, and often shouldn’t, open with questions to the reader. Start the query where the action is.
((4)) A character IS already something. You’ve made them special because you’ve put them in this story. Again, keep the query’s momentum growing. The sentences here are supposed to make the reader jump at the chance to read the manuscript.
((5)) This whole breakdown of Steve’s crappy life is wholly unnecessary and uninteresting. This is material that goes in the manuscript, not the query. How does this information here, in this spot, make the reader want to read the rest? Yes, sure, writing this out here makes it sound like the author did their best, but the query has a job to do, and that job isn’t making the author look good.
((6)) There’s a shift in tense here. Pick a tense and stay in it.
((7)) Look at all the cliches. See how, much like that one aunt who still thinks she can pinch your cheeks, they take up space and contribute nothing good to the situation? Write better sentence(s).
((8)) He’s not “our” hero, because the query isn’t written in that conversational or conspiratorial tone. Had that started from the top, “our” wouldn’t stand out so much. But it does, so this whole sentence needs overhaul.
((9)) If the antagonist is the character’s boss, and the character has presumably had this job for some time, how has our protag just now met his boss? Even in the most Office Space comedic scenario, you know your boss, even if you don’t interact all that often.
((10)) Here’s another shift in tense. This one is particularly clunky because it’s the second verb in a sentence.
((11)) Is that the book’s ending? Queries aren’t supposed to spoil the ending. Queries aren’t summaries, they’re amuse-bouche.
((12)) There’s a tricky shift to manage here, going from talking about the MS to mentioning you-as-the-writer. Because it’s really hard to do well, I advise people not to do it until they’re really comfortable querying. Keep the focus on the MS.
((13)) Since you don’t query incomplete work, calling it complete is redundant.
((14)) Don’t invent your own genre. The person reading this query has to take your MS and be able to make it sound interesting to other people up and down the respective publishing food chain. Making up your own stuff (even if you did it just so your MS would stand out) makes their job harder.
((15)) If you’re going to use the word “unedited” in a query, you might as well just label it “sloppy”, because no matter what you mean, that’s what’s coming across. Also that novel is like 7 times the size it needs to be.
((16)) One: Don’t use exclamation points in a query when you’re talking about yourself. Two: Don’t tip your hand. It’s okay to be nervous, everyone on both sides of this exchange knows that nervousness is a thing that happens. But it’s not relevant here, and it makes you sound desperate.
((17)) Again, this is desperate and PLEASE OH PLEASE don’t put any emoticons or emoji in a query.
((18)) You don’t know, and shouldn’t presume to know, how your reader spends their time. Thank them for their time and get the hell out of the way.
Got that? Make sense?
Other things to consider:
If you have anything else to add, like how you found the person you’re querying, or if you’ve got other published work, or something professional that’s worth pointing out, it goes in the last paragraph.
See the part where I put the personal/authorial info? Yes, it goes on the bottom, after all the query stuff. Right-indenting it isn’t a bad idea, but so long as it’s all together, it isn’t critical.
Now let’s go fix this query, applying all the tools we’ve talked about over the last 28 days of FiYoShiMo.
Dear Agent/Editor/Person’s name,
It really sucks being STEVE PROTAGONIST. He got passed over for three promotions at work. He’s pretty sure his wife is going to divorce him. His kids think he’s a loser. And he can’t even figure out how to end it all as he stands in waist-deep ocean tides.
And then that damned lamp comes into his life.
One rub, one genie, and one wish later, Steve starts turning his life around. At least until he has to go back to work, and discovers that no wish is without costs.
GUYS WITH LAMPS is a 115,000 word science fiction thriller about hope, dreams, genies, and office jobs.
I’m a first-time author with years of experience staring out windows and making wishes while working office jobs.
Thank you for your time and consideration.
FIRST TIME AUTHOR
Actual postal address
Town, State/Province, Country
Zip or Postal Code
A query is a text-based movie trailer, where your manuscript is the film people have been waiting to see in IMAX 3-D at one of those theaters with the reclining sofas and chairside food and drink service.
The query can and should build hype while giving some of the plot away. SOME. Not all. Just enough to set up some expectations or give a groundwork for what’s going on. The goal is to get the reader into the manuscript.
Since there’s no one single always perfect query, there are only queries that are perfect for that manuscript in that moment. You can pitch the same book twenty times in twenty different ways and see lots of different strengths and weaknesses.
Which brings me to the last common question I get — can I query different people about the same manuscript at the same time?
You can, I mean, you possess the faculties to send emails to many people. But if you do, don’t mass e-mail everyone in the same email, and don’t use the same query twice. New reader, new query. Also, in that last part of the query, you do need to mention that you’ve sent the same MS elsewhere. Yes, that’s a huge risk, and a lot of people will red flag and reject you for it, but you do have a responsibility to be professionally forthright.
Or you could just do one at a time and be a bit more reasonable.
Tomorrow’s FiYoShiMo will be a list of resources for writers – contact info for some people to work with, some books to read, some tools that might help you get stuff done.
See you then.