Your Query is Not a Blurb: Query Tips from a Freelance Editor
You’ve just finished your novel - not just written the first draft and corrected a few typos, actually finished it. Months of beta readers and critique and editing and workshops, and you’ve got this glimmering piece of finished art in front of you. Somewhere deep inside of you, doubt still niggles: it’s not perfect. You know it’s not perfect. But you (wisely) ignore that niggle because you know that perfection will never come. What you have is a really great, tightly written story and you don’t have to be embarrassed about it. It’s ready. You’re ready. It’s time to send it out to agents.
But there’s this thing called a query letter. And all those months you spent polishing your manuscript, those years you spent honing your craft? They don’t really help. This query letter is a whole new beast: leaner, meaner, more stressful. It’s a professional correspondence that also has to entice someone to read your books. You think: well, it’s just the same as a book blurb, right? You try not to worry about it. But then you receive the response that no, no, a query is not like a blurb at all.
Oh, you think.
Before the panic sets in, let me stop you right there.
How good you are at writing query letters has zero correlation to how good you are at writing novels. They are different skills. Ultimately, it’s your skill at writing novels that will get you published. So relax.
And, because I believe in practical advice, here are 10 tips to help you write the query your novel deserves.
1. Follow convention
I know it breaks the mould of how writers are taught to think, but a query letter is a professional correspondence and agents get a LOT of them. They’ve seen every gimmick the slushpile has to offer and, more often than not, they’re tired of it. Convention is to write about your story in third person present tense (regardless of how your actual novel is written) and then write a short bio listing relevant experience or publishing credits. This is a format that works. Stick with it.
2. Follow the guidelines
Agents want authors who are easy to work with. Following the submission guidelines is like their first test of that. If the agent asks for a query and 10 pages, don’t send them a query, synopsis and full manuscript. They may well auto-reject you if you can’t follow basic instructions.
3. Make it clear what the story is about
This sounds obvious but people really seem to struggle with this. Your query needs to make it clear who the main character is, what they want, and what is stopping them from getting it: Character, conflict and stakes.
4. Keep it focused
I know it seems cruel to try and hook an entire novel with less than 500 words (and it kind of is). Your novel probably has a hundred things to recommend it. But a query is not a synopsis: you’re not summarising your entire novel. You’re just giving enough information to make it sound interesting and special. Ideally, you’ll stick with one main character and the challenges they face.
5. Be specific and avoid clichés
Your query letter is not the same as a blurb. Agents need more information to go on than a reader: a reader is looking at a finished product that is worth their time. That is not the case with agents and slushpiles. Phrases like ‘faces inner demons’ or ‘uncovers secrets that will change everything’ are generic and clichéd. They don’t show the agent anything that makes your novel stand-out, or give them any reason to think it’s special. Go for specifics instead.
6. Don’t be afraid to spoil
Following on from ‘be specific’, I repeat: a query letter is not the same as a blurb. You absolutely shouldn’t list off every major plot point as you would in a synopsis, but you also shouldn’t get really vague when it comes to your awesome plot twist. If knowledge of this plot twist makes your query stronger: reveal it. There’s a balance to be found, certainly, but don’t be afraid to actually sell the parts of your novel that make it special.
7. Write your best
Your query writing needs to be very tight indeed. Don’t use two sentences where one would do. Use powerful verbs. Use fresh analogies in the place of clichés. If you’ve gotten to the query stage, chances are you are a fantastic writer. Show it off. Because if your query letter is sloppy, agents will assume your novel is, too.
8. Get it critiqued and proof-read
Have your friends read it. Have other writers read it. Have people who know your story inside-out read it. Have people who’ve never so much as sniffed in your novel’s direction read it. Get other eyes on your query before you send it out, people who will be honest with you, because finding out that you left out a word at the end of a . And that You Accidentally Capitalised Some Of The Words after you send it out is too late.
9. Include title, genre, age range (if appropriate) and approximate word count
Agents want to know what they are getting into, and a query doesn’t always tell all. Word count is a big one – agents want to be reassured that you have a normal word count for your genre and audience. They’ll also be interested in how YOU list the genre. If the query sounds like a classic high school story but you class it as a work of science fiction – well, that’s telling (and might suggest that you need to rewrite your query!)
10. Be professional and personalise your letter
Remember that a query letter is a professional correspondence. Be polite, be friendly, be formal. Tailor your letter to the agent you’re sending it to if possible – for instance, if you heard that they adored Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone and that’s why you’re sending them your Russian fairy tale, include that. When you personalise your letter to a specific agent, they know that you’re interested in working with them, not just whatever agent will have you. It also makes you look savvy, and that’s always a good thing.
Those are my top 10 query writing tips, but my number one tip for the query process is this; believe in yourself. Your writing is beautiful and unique and worth it. Stick it out, keep writing, keep believing. Your day will come.
If you have any questions about querying or novel writing, I’ll be patrolling the comments this week and you can always contact me at www.storyfox.co.uk/contact.
Some useful links:
- Query Shark: Agent Janet Reid rips up query letters and gives advice for improvement. You can learn a lot from reading the archives!
- Query Letter Critiques at NaNoWriMo: Get help from the enthusiastic and hard-working writers at NaNoWriMo. One of my favourite corners of the internet and a great place to get an objective critique.
- Query Letter Hell at Absolute Write: You won’t be able to access the Share Your Work forum unless logged in, but here’s where you can bare your query to the internet and get valuable critique.
(Fair warning: getting critique from the internet can be harsh and sometimes unhelpful, but the benefits usually outweigh the drawbacks. Follow these links at your own risk!)
Victoria Boulton is a freelance editor at www.storyfox.co.uk, specialising in children’s and YA fiction. She’s a Ravenclaw, weirdly emotional about Avatar: The Last Airbender and adores her stupid, chubby, wonderful cat. You can follow her on twitter at www.twitter.com/vicorva. She’d love to hear from you!