Monday, April 26, 2010

The Query

This week I thought I'd write about a few of the workshops I taught at a conference this weekend, since I've never addressed them on my blog.

Yes, that's right, guys. I've never written a post on how to write queries.

I know, that's like a stock post for every writing blog out there, but I've never felt qualified to offer up my querying advice. I never thought I was a very good querier, and I relied heavily on feedback from others to steer me in the right direction.

Then I got asked to teach a workshop on writing queries and synopses, so I had to figure out how to present some half way decent advice. (It only JUST occurred to me that I could have said no instead. Huh.)

Okay, let's get this show on the road.

Query Basics
The query is a one page document a writer sends to agent when seeking representation for a novel. It should contain basic information about the novel (title, word count, genre), a description of the novel, and a short, relevant bio. As for word count, stick around 250-400 words.

Novel Description
For the most part, this is where a query gets stressful. Condensing a novel into an enticing 3-paragraph (the standard) blurb is no small feat. It takes practice, lots of drafts, and feedback from others, but I hope these tips can help you get started in the right direction.

Your query's novel description should mimic the typical arc of every story—beginning, middle, end—and what happens in them. You must introduce the problem, explain the complications, and lay out the stakes if the problem isn't solved.

1st Paragraph: Problem/Stakes. Every novel has a problem, a premise. Your first paragraph should hook an agent with this. It should also get across why this problem is important or interesting at all.

2nd Paragraph: Complications. A novel is basically about a person with a problem who tries to solve it, but things get in the way. The complications are the middle of your book and the middle of your query. Focus on those that most impede your protagonist, whether they be people or events or whatever.

3rd Paragraph: Raised Stakes/Resolution. Once a person has messed up their problem, it's usually much worse than it was initially. Re-establish the stakes and what the protagonist must do to save the day.

Simple, right? Oh, no crying. It's not that bad. This is only a guideline, really. Rules waiting to be broken.

I guess it's only right for me to post my old queries as examples. These are my queries (not edited *cringe*) for my two most successful times in the query trenches: Allure and Relax, I'm a Ninja.

Allure: Keira Connelly didn't think becoming a dragon would be such a big deal. But so far, her gradual change from human to wyrm has only been trouble—the allure of eating gemstones and kissing that forbidden rogue dragon in school are too strong to ignore. And when her dragon family realizes her keen nose is beyond average, they wonder if her complete transformation will make her a fabled Blood Dragon.

Becoming a Blood Dragon will give her leverage, which she wants to use to get out of her arranged marriage. Maybe even persuade the Council to let her marry, Rune, the rogue dragon she loves. But the price for this privilege would be steep. Keira would be bound to hunt and kill the evil of her kind—powerful black dragons consumed with greed and rage.

Before she can fully transform and explore her new power, a black dragon discovers Keira's potential and determines to kill her before she can defend herself. Still in her weakened human state, she must rely on her Clan and Rune for protection until she can fight for her own future—and the fate of the dragon world.

I hope you will consider Allure, a YA urban fantasy finished at 67,000 words.

Relax, I'm a Ninja: Toshiro Ito is a pro at secrets—that's what ninjas do best. He thought no one did it better until he discovered a ninja in the unlikeliest place: a cheerleader's bedroom. Spying on super hot Courtney Petersen was supposed to provide a peek at her bra strap. Instead, Tosh finds his neck at the edge of her blade.

When teenagers start turning up dead around the city, Tosh is certain Courtney's somehow involved. But she isn't exactly interested in spilling information. After several failed attempts to break Courtney, Tosh enlists Amy Sato (new ninja recruit and his best friend's crush) to help. They are determined to make her talk—not an easy task when their covers are role-playing, calculator-toting, uber nerds and Courtney can use her meathead boyfriend as a shield.

After a run-in with the murderer and no luck with Courtney, Tosh worries he and Amy are next on the list. Together they decode the strange events, and Amy's charm steals his heart in the process. Who knew their first kiss would unlock not only Courtney's secrets, but those of an ancient ninja battle raging around them? All he wanted was a girlfriend.

I hope you will consider Relax, I’m a Ninja, a YA novel finished at 76,000 words.

Pep Talk
I wish I could tell you exactly how to write the perfect query, but I don't believe it's possible, actually. It's not a science. What works for one agent doesn't work for another. The most important thing is to be YOU in your query. You don't want a query that will get you just any agent—you want a query that will connect you with an agent who gets your voice and style. That's why you and only you should write your query.

That's not to say you shouldn't get opinions, though. I relied most on the opinions of those who have read my work, which I think is opposite to what many advise. Why? Because my betas know my voice. They know if I'm getting that voice across in my query. Yes, get feedback from strangers to double check for understanding, but I believe having your personality in the query is most important.

Experiment. You don't have to get it all right on the first try. Or even the second. Just like writing novels, your best work often surfaces in later drafts. It's not a long document—write one from scratch if you feel like yours has lost something or isn't doing your story justice.

Also, try not to worry too much. The more time I've spent in this business, the more I've learned that querying and submission are more about connecting than being perfect. Try your best. Do everything you can to improve and be professional. But then remember that you can't control how people receive your work. Sometimes there just isn't a spark and that's not your fault. It's far too comparable to dating. Feel free to concoct whatever analogy you will.

Take deep, cleansing breaths and know it'll happen if you keep trying. Like I've said before, it's only game over if you put down the controller.

(Yes, I totally just quoted myself.)

So that's my official and obligatory post on querying. Now I never have to do one again, right?


  1. Thanks! Definitely not a process I look forward to, but it's necessary :)

  2. Awesome, thanks for this valuable insight. I'm bookmarking this for later reference when my WIP is ready to start sending out!

    Wonderful post!

  3. Thanks for this, Natalie. Much appreciated, and I always like seeing the queries of authors who made it past the gauntlet.

  4. "It's only game over if you put down the controller."

    Love that, Natalie. Reminds me of my HS valedictorian's graduation speech - the theme was "This isn't game over, it's the beginning of level 2."

  5. The most important thing is to be YOU in your query.

    You've given me some renewed determination to attack my query again.

  6. Great advice Natalie. Thanks :) I think keeping your voice in the query is important ... something I struggled with huge (and probably still do).

  7. I'm afraid my query will take me a month to finish! =) Thanks for the advice.

  8. This is awesome. I'm very new to the query concept, working on my first novel rewrite, so I find it all very useful. I've never written a query and look forward to it. Okay, that's a slight lie. I wrote a query for a nonfiction book proposal as part of my capstone project. I've never written a fiction query. Thanks so much for the information.

  9. Oh the thought of queries and synopses freak me out entirely. When I come to doing one I will take this very calm sensible advice and run with it.

    You are lovely for helping out so thoroughly.

  10. Great post, Natalie. You really broke it down well.

    I've just started working on queries again. My third time, and it's not much easier. *sigh*

    *goes back to work on draft 5 of query*

    Only ten or twelve more drafts to go . . .

  11. You've boiled it down to the essentials, and added terrific insight and advice ... a great service to writers everywhere. Where were you when I first started querying so many years ago?? ;-)

  12. Great post. Thanks for the breakdown, it's a great help for checking my query works:)

  13. Great outline! Definitely helpful. :)

  14. Great post on queries. Maybe I'll just copy and paste it someday, ha ha. :-)

    So did the rest of your classes go well? I'm sure they did. It was so fun to meet you! Keep me posted on how things go! *fingers crossed for you*

  15. Sara, I managed:) It was less scary in smaller groups, hehe. So good to meet you!

  16. I love reading other people's queries! Those are great!

  17. These queries are great! That outline is a great example of how to break a query letter down. And your voice definitely comes through. Fantastic examples for when I get to the query stage, probably in about a year (I hope I hope).

    Thanks for the post!

  18. Thanks for posting the actual queries! It helps to see the real thing. Now, back to crying.

  19. Now I want to read Ninja again. :)

  20. Patiently standing in line for ARC's :D

  21. I stumbled onto your blog because it's on my sister's bloglist and she's a huge YA fan. I've enjoyed the voice and sketches and humor.

    But I love these queries. I think they're excellent. I rarely read YA, but I'm going to have to Allure and may have to read the other as well.

    I'm not surprised you were snatched up. What fun!