Finally, a post that’s not a list!
There’s plenty of advice on query writing out there and a lot of it is excellent, but I wanted to offer an easy format you can use when writing your queries that hits all the relevant bits. I’ve developed it from my own time in the query trenches and also from my time as an editor. I would help draft the “back cover” copy for my author’s titles, and a pattern emerged for what seemed to work. This is that pattern. I’ll explain it and then give two examples afterwards, one for a regular query and one for a query with multiple narrators.
Parts of a Query Letter
There are approximately four-five paragraphs to a good query:
- Bio (optional)
The set-up is exactly what it says. The basic premise, the introduction to the world, your main character and their goals. Many writers get this right, so I won’t spend much time on it. It’s what tends to be included in the elevator (or Twitter) pitch. How can you tell if it belongs in the set-up? It’s exposition, backstory, or context for the conflict. Typically the set-up includes the inciting incident and possibly the first turning point.
Apologies to the handful of people I reversed the names of the complication and escalation section to when I was replying, by the way. It doesn’t matter what you call it as long as you know what goes where though. This is where you introduce the antagonist and what stands in the way of your protagonist. I speak a lot of the “through-line” to your story, the backbone, and that typically means the main conflict. Paring your story down to the through-line helps keep unnecessary detail out of the query. Typically this will include the first turning point or even the B story, if you use the Save the Cat story structure.
This is the fun bit that is the hardest part to get right, but if you answer one question you should be able to nail it: What goes wrong when the protagonist tries to win and why does it matter? Typically if you’ve introduced an issue in paragraph one and a different or complicating issue in paragraph two, here is where you tie them together. This is important because just giving us the main conflict doesn’t make us care, and it isn’t always “meaty” enough on its own.
This is the standard “about the book” information you need to include. Always include a finished* word count and genre. You can add comp titles here and a personalization, though both are optional. This paragraph can go before the blurb or after, but I prefer it after so the blurb can speak for itself.
*Because your book is finished, right? You wouldn’t be querying an incomplete draft, right? Don’t let me down like that. And by finished I mean drafted *and* revised, of course.
This is optional because if you’re a newer writer you might not have anything to put here. We don’t need to know your day job, hobbies, or that you’ve been writing since you could hold a crayon. Remember that this is a professional letter: only list what’s relevant to doing business. Do you belong to any associations or writer’s groups? Have you had any short sales or awards? Is your degree relevant? The exception to the career and hobbies rule is, of course, if it’s relevant to your manuscript due to an expertise or lived experience. If your protagonist is Deaf and so are you, mention that. If you volunteer as a firefighter and your mystery features an arsonist, include it. Use common sense here.
Remember, a query should fit on one page (even in an email that doesn’t have pages) so don’t spend more space on your metadata and bio than you do on your blurb.
Example Query #1
Below is a fake query for an unwritten project. Because I have shifted my focus from spec fic and YA it may never be written, but I wanted to show you a straightforward example that progresses through the main format, and this does that neatly.
Autistic sixteen-year-old Trinity Goodwin is thrilled and terrified to be starting freshman year at elite St. Gertrude University. Thrilled because she’ll finally be able to study computer science in depth, and terrified because she’ll need to develop new routines and scripts to help her navigate. As the first in her family to go to college, she wants to make them proud.
When Trinity is sexually assaulted at a party, she has no idea how to handle something so outside her norm. Initially blaming herself, Trinity starts an anonymous online journal on St. Gertrude’s intraweb to process what happened. She realizes she has the skills to help others, turning the site into a community for those like her. Using her knowledge of computers and the Internet to post stories anonymously, Trinity is shocked when the website, Name Them, takes off–and so does the backlash.
Not everyone is happy with the website’s success, least of all Jordan Matthews, Trinity’s attacker and the first person named. He starts a counter-campaign to get the website taken down and discover who’s behind it. Trinity isn’t going down without a fight, not with the dozens of posters in the community counting on her. But putting herself out there could cost her more than her spot at St. Gertrude’s: Trinity knows Jordan isn’t above using her autism diagnosis to try to discredit her, and she’ll have to fight back on more than one front. She may not have any scripts for this, but she’s not going to let that stop her.
GIFTED BUT ANXIOUS is a 70,000-word young adult contemporary in the vein of S. K. Ali’s SAINTS AND MISFITS. It is #ownvoices; I am an autistic survivor of sexual assault. My work has been featured in anthologies from Zest Books, Broken Eye Books, and Drollerie Press.
Thank you for your time.
Okay! The set-up and our inciting incident is Trinity going off to college and, like any freshman, not knowing what to expect. The fact that she’s autistic adds a layer of complexity. The thing about a strong set-up is that it implies conflict. We don’t know what the conflict will be yet, but fish-out-of-water stories have inherent opportunities for conflict: in this case, an academic issue, a rival, a romance, any or all of these could happen.
Next, what our conflict through-line will be: Trinity is assaulted and has to deal with the aftermath. Now we have our conflict and we can start to see the shape of what this book will be like. It’s going to be emotional and there will be internal conflict too as Trinity processes the way society victim blames and the way autistic people doubt their coping skills. But wait! Trinity uses her agency to try and solve this problem by starting a website community for other survivors, but there’s backlash—again, the conflict is inherent. Will she have to see her attacker regularly on campus? How will she keep all the balls in the air of adjusting to a new environment, keeping up her grades, processing her assault and now the responsibility of this website? How will the backlash threaten her?
And now the stakes raise with the escalation of the conflict: Trinity’s attacker comes out swinging at being named on the site, and Trinity has to figure out either how to evade him or face him, and either option could jeopardize her goals. I tie things back to the fact that this book explores autistic identity with a reminder of her diagnosis and how it might be used in the story, linking our set-up and our conflict together. The last paragraph from the first sentence serves to raise the stakes too, because if Jordan forces Trinity to withdraw or worse, get her expelled, there’s more riding on it.
Lastly, my comp is a Morris Award-nominated title from 2017 with a similar tone and theme; it’s a novel that looks at Muslim community through the lens of a sexual assault narrative, and mine does something similar for autism. (PS it’s excellent you should read it.)
Multiple Points of View
But Jess, you say, my book has five different protagonists and each has their own story; I can’t possibly use your structure! Alas! Woe!
But wait, you still can. With more than two POV you need to treat the ensemble as a single entity and follow the through-line of their trajectory/conflict, not each individual thread. Alternatively you can pick the character whose story has the most at stake or who kicks off the main conflict and treat them as the protagonist while including the fact it’s an ensemble. However, most books will only have one or two narrators, as in a traditional romance that uses the hero and heroine, or in many historicals that may feature two generations.
The example below is from my current project, a historical novel that features two timelines. See how it still follows the pattern? The first paragraph gives us set-up, the second gives us the complication even though it’s a different timeline, and the third ties them together and why it matters.
Example Query #2
Some secrets don’t make it to the grave.
1972. Nancy Sandoval’s husband is one of the last ground troops in Vietnam when her mother, Evelyn, takes a turn for the worse. Putting Evelyn into hospice, Nancy finds letters and photographs that reveal Nancy is actually Baby May Howlett, whose father came home from WWII and killed her real mother, and supposedly, her.
1944. Gigi Howlett’s husband is at war and she’s lonely. Against her mother’s wishes, she becomes involved in the war effort by opening her home to the girls flooding the city for factory jobs. She has no idea how one of them, Evelyn, will change her life.
Despite Evelyn’s tight-lipped admonitions against doing so, Nancy contacts Albert Howlett to find out why he confessed to a murder he didn’t commit, and the consequences will unravel almost thirty years’ worth of secrets held quietly by Evelyn, the most important woman in the lives of two generations of Howletts.
Kate Quinn’s THE ALICE NETWORK meets CAROL (2015) in my 90,000-word historical novel, A FAMILY RESEMBLANCE. My work has been featured in anthologies from Zest Books, Broken Eye Books and Drollerie Press. Thank you for your time.
The first line is a tagline, not an elevator pitch.
We get a pretty complicated set-up that (hopefully) hooks you right away: what really happened? The next paragraph uses a mirroring technique to keep us grounded while introducing the second timeline. It acts as a complication/conflict because we know it’s going to give us the explanation for the 1972 timeline, the story of someone being murdered and how Evelyn ended up with Nancy. The last paragraph ties the two timelines together and introduces the escalation and stakes for the 1972 timeline.
My comp is a 2017 NYT bestseller with a dual timeline that comes together at the end and a recent historical movie about women having an affair, which is relevant both in theme and content. (Also TAN was one of my favourite reads of last year so please to check it out.)
Phew! I know there’s a lot in here, but I hope my examples have given you a better idea of how to structure your query. I’m happy to answer questions in the comments about queries.
So, would you read either of these?