Michelle Hauck is giving us advice on how to write a query letter that agents will love. Take it away, Michelle!
As the host of many contests that feature query letters, like Query Kombat and Sun vs Snow, I've seen my fair share of letters that are designed to capture an agent's attention. Over four years, I've probably seen just about everything and this has helped me figure out a little about what works and what doesn't.
When I dig into a query for a contest or for one of my clients, I first examine each sentence on its own merit, including the greeting, closing, and bio paragraph. I usually cheat by looking at these easy to correct sections of a query first and saving the "meat" of the query for later. In the information paragraph, I look for anything that doesn't really belong. Are the sentences straightforward and to the point or are they crowded with extra words? It doesn't matter too much if this part comes at the beginning or the end, but agents appreciate queries that don't waste words in the bio/word count/genre paragraph. Concentrate most of your query letter word count on the part of the letter where you tell about the story. All you really need is:
TITLE is a (age category, genre), complete at XX,XXX(round to the nearest thousand) words.
Then add your comps (if you use them) and bio.
It may appeal to fans of blank...
Tip: Here's a trick for whether to put your word count/genre/bio section first or last in your letter. If your genre is out of favor or your word count is higher or lower than standard, put it at the end. If your story features some super diversity and that's reflected in your bio or your genre is hot or you have strong publishing credits, put your information paragraph upfront.
After the easy part is done, I turn to the heart of the query. This is usually three paragraphs often described as the hook, the line, and the sinker. What I'm looking for by going sentence by sentence is that no sentence is merely a repeat of what the reader already knows and that each sentence follows logically on the one before it. There's just not enough room in a query to waste space on repeating information. And jarring sentences that don't follow one another logically destroy the flow. A query shouldn't jump from topic to topic. If the sentences flow one to the next, you're also eliminating another likely problem, which is getting side-tracked by side plots.
Tip: A query letter should stick to the main plot and avoid venturing into channels of side plots.
By side plot, I don't mean things that motivate your characters. There is a slight difference, which can be difficult to discern. The main character may be motivated by the death of a family member due to a doctor's mistake. A lawsuit against that doctor could be an example of a side plot if the real plot is the sudden magic powers the MC discovers.
Tip: Show your character's motivation, usually in the first paragraph with the hook. Why do they act as they do? What defines their personality?
When going sentence by sentence, I'm also looking for bulky sentences that have extra words and awkward sentences that just need to be rearranged. I'm looking for important pieces that are missing, like the main character motivation and well-defined stakes. Are the sentences full of specific details or are they full of cliche words like family secrets, dark phantom from her past, sudden powers and more?
If all I learn is that your main character has a secret and they are hiding from a dark phantom because of their sudden powers, I don't really know anything about the story. That doesn't entice and it's the biggest problem I see in query letters in contests. Compare that to a main character who accidentally killed her sister when her ability with fire appeared as she was trying to protect them from a sword-carrying bird creature. Clunky but you get the picture.
Tip: Fill your query sentences with specific details relating to the plot.
So the hook paragraph should tell us something about the main character, their motivation, and the obstacle they encounter that stops them from their goal. But be careful to avoid character soup. Limit your query to three named characters, and if it's set in a fantasy world, limit those names, too.
The line paragraph is where we learn more about the obstacle in detail, and what the main character does about it. This is a good place to show how the conflict escalates. How does the problem get worse? Agents like to see a sense of problem growth so they know the plot doesn't stall: there is an obstacle, but then it gets harder to overcome.
Tip: Have your main conflict escalate and get worse in the query.
The sinker paragraph is where you lay out the stakes and the character choice. What bad thing will happen if the MC fails? Will the whole human race be wiped out? Will they lose their scholarship and chance to go to college? Will their family fall apart? Spell it out for the reader in detail and work it in with the choice the MC must make. Will the MC take the easy road and live safely or will they surrender their freedom to take that rocket ship to the moon and confront the villain? Laying out the main character's choice should be the end of the sinker paragraph, but be sure not to give away the ending and which way they go. Here's an example from one of my own queries:
She’ll have to accept Garrett’s chains or lose her humanity forever, unless the sun’s deadly rays awakens magic within her.
Note that I have already spelled out what the chains are, how her humanity is at stake, and why the sun creates magic early in the query. Now I'm just laying out the character's choices.
Tip: The end of the sinker paragraph can be less about plot points and more about the indecision the main character faces. What reality do they have to brave to overcome the obstacle?
I always edit three revisions for my clients. In the first pass, I look to nail down the basic plot and make sure all the things I talked about above are in place. We make the query structurally sound. In the next two revisions, I ask the author to focus on the details and add bits that reflect the world building, the character personality, the mood of the story, and the tone of the story. In other words, it helps to nail down the story and stakes, then go back and add voice.
Tip: Take bits of slang from the manuscript and try and word sentences in your query the way your main character would say them. That does not mean write the query from your main character. Just try and copy the same voice and mood/atmosphere from your manuscript into the query. If your character is cynical, your query should reflect that. If they are bouncy, give zest to your query.
If your story is horror, give the query a creepy feeling. If it's a romance, focus on the character building and add sex appeal. Make the query match the manuscript is a good way to capture an agent's attention. Another thing to check for is did you remembering to highlight what is unique about your story, including the concept.
Tip: Pick out the elements of your story that are unique and make sure that is in the query letter. You don't want a query letter that is full of stale and used concepts.
So there you have the strategy I use to judge query letters and to discover if they are strong enough to entice an agent. I hope this helps you to shape your own query.
And a final tip: Even when you land an agent, there's a good chance you'll still be writing query-type blurbs for your manuscripts. I wrote one for Grudging before it went on submission. An agent will want to have your take on what should be in their pitch letter to editors. So keep polishing your query skills.
BIO and LINKS:
Michelle Hauck lives in the bustling metropolis of northern Indiana with her hubby and two college kids. Besides working with special needs children by day, she writes all sorts of fantasy, giving her imagination free range. She is a co-host of the yearly query contests Query Kombat, Nightmare on Query Street, New Agent, Picture Book Party, and Sun versus Snow. Her Birth of Saints trilogy from Harper Voyager starts with GRUDGING and FAITHFUL on November 15, 2016. She has another epic fantasy entitled KINDAR’S CURE.
Facebook: Michelle Hauck, Author
Goodreads: Kindar’s Cure