Thursday, October 7, 2010

Query Rules - The Hard and the Fast of It

There are only three rules:

1. Focus on the story.
2. Keep it under a page (single-spaced, properly formatted).
3. Do not brag on or otherwise hardsell your writing.

Everything else you've heard are guidelines and personal preferences.

Put the title and word count in the first / last paragraph.
Put the personalization at the beginning / end.
Don't go over 150 / 250 / 350 words.
Write no more than 3 paragraphs total.
Talk about the story in 10-12 sentences.
Cap / Don't cap the name of the book.
Include / Don't include comparison titles.
Thank / Don't thank the agent for their time.

Different agents stress different things.
Different crit groups stress different things.
Writers stress over it all.

Pick a style that works for you and your book and perfect it.

If the query presents a story that resonates with an agent or editor and it's accompanied by amazing sample pages, no one's going to reject it because you put your contact info at the top and not the bottom. Unless, of course, an agent's guidelines specifically state one way or the other. An agent's guidelines trump all when querying that agent -- but one agent's guidelines should not be interpretted as how all agents prefer things.

Really, though, while many agents will have examples and suggestions on their sites, along with guidelines about how to format or send your query, you're not going to find many strict rules about how to construct the query itself.

Like many of you, I'm a student of the Evil Editor / Miss Snark / Query Shark / Nathan Bransford school of query writing, so my suggestions are generally along these lines:
  • Dive right into the story at the start of the query.
  • Title and word count near the end.
  • Personalization, if any, at the end. Unless the agent/editor has personally requested you to query them or you have been referred.
  • 5-7 paragraphs total, with 3-5 paragraphs about the story, 1 optional paragraph about you, 1 optional paragraph of personalization.
  • About 300 words.
  • Third person.
  • Present tense.
  • Cap the name of the book.
  • Be confident and ask for the send.
  • Subject line when emailing: "Query: Genre - Title"
    (Agents will often specify this as they'll have rules set up in their email programs to route queries properly. Do not cap any part of the subject line unless asked to since spam filters often look for all caps.)
But a 3-paragraph query that's just 200 words and leads with the title and word count can be just as effective in the right hands as the formula above. Don't let any critiquer pigeonhole you into something you're not comfortable with.

And remember, the hard truth is while you may have a solid query letter that does everything right, you may still have a low request rate. Run your query letter by a few more eyes, certainly, but don't automatically blame it for not garnering requests. It seems to be getting tougher and tougher out there. It could be you need a better hook for your story or to revisit your sample pages. Or that you're submitting a trendy story in a saturated market. Or that you just haven't found the right agent with the right chemistry yet. Or it's just not a highly marketable concept. Or the stars just aren't aligned properly and until you make peace with the fates, it ain't gonna happen. Because even a great query letter can only get you so far.


Kay said...

Great post with practical, useful information. I sometimes get lost in trying to get all of the techniques exactly right and lose focus it's the content that matters, not the structure. Thanks for this insightful reminder.

fairyhedgehog said...

I love how clear you make it.

Matt said...

Write a good novel and the rest will eventually work itself out. That's my philosophy.

vkw said...

you make it sound so simple.

There should be a disclaimer at the bottom, 'this description is akin to written instructions on how to tie your shoes with no examples or diagrams. Good-luck.'

Phoenix said...

Yes! It's all about the story.

vkw: But there are examples! Query Revision 9 was published and the blurb on the e-publisher's site is almost verbatim the revised version, so that one's a definite win. I've gotten several requests for partials and fulls from my queries, too, for Sector C and Cameliard Rising. Click the links at the top of the page and you can see what are basically my queries for them. Plus I'm leaving my synopses for them up for awhile longer. So yes, examples are here. And instructions throughout ;o)

And of course that's why we're here -- to help everyone learn to tie their shoes. Or figure out a way to replace the laces with velcro :o)

vkw said...

That's true there are examples on how to tie many different shoes.

But, there is no example on how to tie MY shoes.

Trust me I appreciate of all the help and certainly not overlooking it.

But you must admit, query writing, synopsis writing is an art unto itself and not as simple as it sounds.

Slush said...

Like the information and thank you for taking the time to share it. I am already putting it to use.

You are awesome Phoenix.