My Advice on Query Letters

How many of you writers out there have ever tried to write a query letter? I’m guessing most, if not all of you.  Now, how many of you dread the query letter?

I personally enjoy them.  I find them just as difficult and annoying as any other writer, but I look forward to the challenge. Synopses on the other hand…that’s another can of worms.

So, as I was finishing “The Feather” I realized I was getting close to needing a query letter from my novel, and that I’d better get to work.

It had been almost two years since I’d last had to write a query, and I was a little nervous.  I went to a friend, and fellow writer Emily Layne for help.

I really wasn’t sure where to begin, so this is what I sent her, in my request for help.

13 year old Ariana has a lot of things to worry about. On top of the normal worries like grades, homework, and making friends, she finds herself taking care of her mother who fell into a deep depression when Ari’s father went missing several years back.

What Ari doesn’t know is that things are about to get worse. A lot worse.

After a fishing trip turned nightmare, Ari finds herself trapped in a parallel universe, with terrifying shadow creatures close on her heels. Her only friend is a talking weasel, who informs her that not only can she never go home, but that she’s expected to save an entire kingdom from an evil mage who turned his own son into a bird.

Can she rise to face the challenges presented to her, or will she turn her back on the people who desperately need her help?

***

All 13 year old Ariana McGregor wanted was for her mother to wake up out of her depression, and for them to be a family again. What she got however, was talking animals, a strange magical feather, and the ability to travel to parallel universes.

As Ari begins to discover, her new fantastical life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  She is sent to other worlds at the whim of the “gods” and cannot chose when or where she goes. Her journey is made harder by the fact that she is expected to solve problems in each world, with little guidance or advice. There is also a danger that lurks between the words, a danger of Shadows, that stalk her every move.

Will she be able to avoid these Shadows, and accomplish her goals?

***

Being a 13 year old girl is hard enough, but being a 13 year old girl who finds herself taking care of her sick mother is even harder.  Ariana McGregor finds herself skipping school in the effort to look after her depressed mother.

That is, until something rather unexpected happens.  After a fishing trip turned nightmare, Ari finds herself trapped in a parallel universe, with terrifying shadow creatures close on her heels. Her only friend is a talking weasel, who informs her that not only can she never go home, but that she’s expected to save an entire kingdom from an evil mage who turned his own son into a bird.

THE FEATHER is a 70,000 word novel that tells the story of Ari, a young girl who is whisked away from her normal life, into one that is almost too impossible to believe.  Though her journeys Ari must come to terms with her inability to control the path she has been put on, or learn to take charge and change it.

Now, what is the problem with these? First off, none of them are a query letter. They might work for a back of the book blurb, but not a query.  Emily responded thus:

The first thing I noticed is that you need to figure out what needs to be in the query. As upsetting as Ari’s depressed mother is, I don’t think you need that. What’s really interesting (and important) is that Ari is thrown into this parallel world that she suddenly has to save. I first and third query letters seem to be the most similar. I like the first one the most so I’m going to shove my thoughts into that, if you don’t mind.

13 year old Ariana has a lot of things to worry about. On top of the normal worries like grades, homework, and making friends, she finds herself taking care of her mother who fell into a deep depression when Ari’s father went missing several years back.

What Ari doesn’t know is that things are about to get worse. A lot worse.This is all unnecessary background information. The next paragraph is where things actually get interesting, so let’s have the query start there.

After a fishing trip turned nightmare, thirteen-year-old Ari finds herself trapped in a parallel universe, with terrifying shadow creatures close on her heels Why are they on her heels?. Her only friend ally is a talking weasel, who informs her that not only can she never go home, but that she’s expected to save an entire kingdom from an evil mage who turned his own son into a bird. Why does she have to save the kingdom? She’s the outsider after all.

Can she rise to face the challenges presented to her, or will she turn her back on the people who desperately need her help?Questions at the end of queries are big No-No’s, apparently. Try putting the stakes into just one sentence.

THE FEATHER is a 70,000 word novel that tells the story of Ari, a young girl who is whisked away from her normal life, into one that is almost too impossible to believe.  Though her journeys Ari must come to terms with her inability to control the path she has been put on, or learn to take charge and change it.What kind of novel is it? Sounds like a middle grade novel to me.

Okay, final thoughts. You could stand to make this query longer, especially since it’s a 70,000 word novel. The annoying thing about query letters is you don’t want the agents asking questions. Let me just list mine to help you figure out what direction you want to go into.

  1. Why are the shadow creatures after Ari
  2. Why does Ari have to save this kingdom? Is she the only one? Does she have a special power?
  3. What are the stakes? Why does Ari have to save the kingdom? Does she end up caring about the weasel or any of the inhabitants?

So at this point, I know several things. I know I have questions to address, and that I shouldn’t be asking questions of the reader. I also realize at this point exactly how far I am from a good query.

So before writing my own query I spend the morning reading “successful” queries. There is a great list on WritersDigest where they not only post successful queries, but the agents talk about what the author did right, and why they like the letter. This kind of feedback is awesome because it gives writers a direction to go in, and an idea for what will make a query letter work.

Obviously there is no formula, no set way to write a successful query, but one can at least get some ideas of where to start.  After researching queries, I spent some time googling the agent I planned to query, and found several interviews where she talked about what books she had represented and what she was looking for. This was also helpful because it gave me more of an idea as to whether she was the right agent for my book.

You don’t want to query an adult sci-fi agent for a YA fantasy. Or a YA agent for a nonfiction book about tomatoes. Luckily the more I read about the agent, the more I felt I was querying the right person for my novel.

So, I sat down, and in one go, wrote my query letter.  I thought it would be a rough draft, but after getting some feedback I realized it wasn’t just a rough draft, but a final draft.

Here is what I ended up with:

Dear Ms. (Agent):

I noticed on your (Agency) page that you represent quite a few YA books with fantasy elements and strong female characters. Because of this, I am submitting for your consideration The Feather, a 70,000 word YA fantasy that will appeal to fans of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, and Tamora Pierce’s Tortall series.

After a fishing trip turned nightmare, 13 year old Arianna McGregor finds herself trapped in a parallel universe.

Ari learns that she is the descendent of an ancient bloodline called Travelers, and that it is her job to solve the problems of this new world, and to continue on to another world when her job is done.

Ari also learns that she can never go home again.  To make matters worse, she is stalked by Shadow creatures, terrible monsters that live in the void between the universes.  Their only goal is to hunt her down and kill her.

Ari ventures out into the new world, with little assistance and encounters both triumph and pain as she learns not only what it means to be a Traveler, but what it means to grow up and take control of her life.

The Feather is a novel with series potential and the manuscript is available in part or full, upon request.

I currently work as a zookeeper in a children’s museum.  I also have a blog on writing, book reviews and animal facts, and have developed a presence on Facebook as a writer as well.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Best,

Lindsay Adams

Now I’m going to take you readers through it, and give you an idea for why this is a good query. I can’t call it successful yet, but I think there is still a lot to learn from this. I know I learned a LOT working on it.

Dear Ms. (Agent): Agent’s name removed because that seemed like the right thing to do when posting this publicly. Don’t forget to double and triple check the spelling of the agent’s name, as well as their title (Mr. Mrs. Ms.).

I noticed on your (Agency) page that you represent quite a few YA books with fantasy elements and strong female characters. Because of this, I am submitting for your consideration The Feather, a 70,000 word YA fantasy that will appeal to fans of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, and Tamora Pierce’s Tortall series. Here I show that I did my research, I know what kind of books they represent. I also give some popular examples of similar books, so they can get a better idea of what my novel is like.  “Will appeal to” seemed less egotistical to me than “fans of X books will adore/love/be interested in”. That was mostly personal preference.

After a fishing trip turned nightmare, 13 year old Arianna McGregor finds herself trapped in a parallel universe. This is my pitch.  I try to put a hook here, so the agent will want to read more. Who is this young girl? How does she find herself in another world? Why?

Ari learns that she is the descendent of an ancient bloodline called Travelers, and that it is her job to solve the problems of this new world, and to continue on to another world when her job is done. This is the overall idea/plot, the driving force of the story. This explains the main conflict to the agent.

Ari also learns that she can never go home again.  To make matters worse, she is stalked by Shadow creatures, terrible monsters that live in the void between the universes.  Their only goal is to hunt her down and kill her. Here I add some conflict with a subplot.  This gives the agent an idea of what else is in the story.

Ari ventures out into the new world, with little assistance and encounters both triumph and pain as she learns not only what it means to be a Traveler, but what it means to grow up and take control of her life. My novel is about more than a young girl who lives a life of adventure.  I try to have several themes to address, that might also be helpful to the kids/young adults reading it. This book is about Ari’s adventure, yes, but it’s also about how she changes and grows on her journey.

The Feather is a novel with series potential and the manuscript is available in part or full, upon request. Some people will say this line isn’t needed. I like the sound of it, even if it is stating the obvious. I also wanted the chance to mention that I have a couple of other books planned around this character, without seeming all uppity about it being a series. I’ve been told before that the agent and editor are the ones who decide if your book has sequels, not the writer. This is my friendly, non-invasive way of letting them know that I have other ideas for Ari…

I currently work as a zookeeper in a children’s museum.  I also have a blog on writing, book reviews and animal facts, and have developed a presence on Facebook as a writer as well. My bio. I only mention things here are are relate-able, e.g. my experience with animals and kids. I also mention that I have a reader base/following on here and my facebook page, which lets the agent know that I’m already working on a platform and getting my name out there.

Thank you for your time and consideration. Always thank the agent for their time. Seriously. This is just common courtesy.

Best, I thought this sounded better than sincerely.

Lindsay Adams

I then end with a signature and my contact info, as well as a link to this blog should the agent wish to look at it. Contact info wise I provided an address, email and phone number. If the agent wants to get in contact with me, or contact me in a hurry, I don’t want to do anything to make that difficult. So I’ve provided everything they might need to get a hold of me.

And that’s my query letter!!  Hope this helps some of you writers out there. In the end, every query is different, and yours will probably look pretty different than mine. Just make sure you do your research, and don’t forget to recheck the spelling of your agent’s name!

-Lindsay

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About lvadams

I grew up in Central Florida for most of my life. I was one of those strange kids who liked to catch lizards and snakes, and brought everything home from stray kittens to baby chickens and ducks. I started writing around the age of 11 and never really stopped. I now have a Bachelor's of Science degree from Auburn University and hope to get a job working with animals. Until then I keep on writing. :)
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