QueryTracker Blog

Helping Authors Find Literary Agents

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Breaking Down the Query (the story of a colorful noob getting results)

This post kicks off our series on queries and the query process. Stay tuned for more awesome. 

My path into traditional publishing wasn’t typical. I’ve only written one book, which I recently sold to Knopf in a two-book deal. So, my journey was littered with firsts, and blunders that would make the queen’s guard cringe (but that’s for another post).

When I sat down to write my query, I knew absolutely nothing about them. What surprised me was that I spent as much time researching and writing my one-page query as I did 30K of my novel. I gotta say, though, it was worth it. I sent it to 17 agents, got 7 full requests, and 5 offers of representation.

Below is a breakdown of all of the sections I used and how I arrived at each one.

The Mini-Synopsis – aka make my book sound fantabulous in ten seconds
The idea of cramming my entire novel into a measly paragraph gave me agita. See, I thought the mini-synopsis needed to paint a complete picture of my story, and was super happy to discover it was actually a teaser to inspire an agent to read on.

Once I understood, I found my way to agent Kristen Nelson’s blog, Pub Rants, where she broke down the back of a book-cover into five or six manageable sentences. She explained the purpose each sentence served in a plot description – which was something concrete I could replicate for my own story. My logic was that a book cover serves the same purpose for a reader as a query does for an agent.

Then, I took my pitchy synopsis and compared it to the stuff the fine folks of QT wrote and the honest critiques on QueryShark. I told my ego to “shut up” and I revised, listened to feedback, and revised some more.

The Bio – I wore a skirt suit and tie to my fifth-grade school picture (true story)
Dun dun dun… I had NO writing credits or degrees and was narrowly eyeing this section like it was challenging me to a fight. I had read warnings to omit my multitude of cats and how I hate wet socks. Instead, I made a list of things that represented me best as an author and as a human someone would want to work with.

That list included clubs and organizations I was in (or could join) that related to my book subject matter or target audience, skill sets that would be useful in promoting my work, and any real-world experience that made me the right person to tell my story.

A bio wasn’t necessary and it’s debated how much info should go in there. Personally, I was a fan because I considered it an opportunity to pitch myself. Something I realized later when talking to offering agents was that they googled me, visited my website, and even knew the names of my business partners. It’s important to agents to work with someone they feel confident about, and I used my bio as a place to accomplish that.

The Comparison – Twilight Potter meets Divergent Hunger
I really liked this bit. It was an added bonus where I got to use other people’s radness to make my book look good. I read on lots of sites to avoid gigantically successful stuff and esoteric stuff. Problem was, I couldn’t think of books I wanted to compare mine to. I blame this on my bad name retention and my mother… ‘cause, well, I can, right? I wound up comparing my novel to two movies. The advisability of that is questionable.

Word Count/Genre – transcending boundaries
So, this was a no bueno situation. I couldn’t definitively pinpoint my genre. Therefore I didn’t know what my corresponding word count should be. What I did know was that I didn’t want to be rejected on a technicality. After reading genre definitions, I discovered that the wiggle room was to my benefit as long as I accurately represented my work.

My story, for instance, could be considered YA Contemporary with magical elements or YA light Paranormal. Now, Contemporary was selling well and Paranormal was being treated like the ugly stepsister. Having some working knowledge of the literary market made a difference. Publisher’s Weekly was a great place to find sales info, and lots of industry folks had wonderful blogs about this sort of thing. 

The Personal Intro – where I believed stalking agents was normal
Now I was in eel-infested writing waters. Having a sentence or two telling an agent why I queried her was something I wanted. After all, I spent lots of time choosing agents who would be great at representing my book, had integrity, and had agreeable personalities. But, I had also read all over the interwebs that the personal intro was a gamble, because it’s easy to come off as a cheesy nutter who’s trying too hard.

Of course, I’ve never been afraid of being a cheesy nutter; so full steam ahead. Trusting myself was the most important thing I learned in query-writing. I don’t think my query was successful because it was perfect or followed all the rules. In fact, I broke a bunch of them. I think it was successful because it was intentional, because I did my homework, because I asked for help, and because ultimately it represented me and my writing.

My query was only one variable in gaining representation, but it was one I could control. I couldn’t control market preferences, an agent’s schedule, or how many mss an agent had on her plate. There were also agents that were great candidates for my query, but they already had similarly themed books on their lists. For me, it wasn’t about getting bogged down with the unknowables, but having fun presenting my story.

I felt confident when I emailed my query to agents that I had done my part. I also felt confident that not everyone would find me fabulous. But, I wasn’t just looking for an agent; I was looking for someone who was an excellent match for me.


Sydney O'Neill said...

This was such an interesting post -both informative and inspirational. Given the number of requests for a full and contract offers you had, HOW TO HANG A WITCH must be a dynamite novel. By the way, paranormal is still a princess to me if it's done well, as I suspect yours is. I look forward to reading it.

Terrye Toombs said...

You mean stalking an agent isn't normal?

Adriana Mather said...

Thanks, Sydney! That's so nice of you. I'm thrilled you enjoyed the post.

Diane Kress Hower said...

This is one of the best and most honest accounts of writing a query I have read or heard in a video clip. Well done!

Adriana Mather said...

Diane, what a lovely thing to say. Thank you!

Denysé Bridger said...

Thank you for this excellent and informative post. Like most writers, I think and rethink my queries to the point of obsession, so a simple breakdown certainly takes a little of the pressure off. This is not only direct and straightforward, it's sound, simple, and user friendly advice. Thank you so much!!
Have an awesome day, Adriana!!

Adriana Mather said...

You and me both, Denysé! And if I thought I was bad at thinking and rethinking the query... it's only gotten worse with the MS editing process. I will probably be pulling books off the B&N shelf and changing things in the margins.

And it makes me very happy you found this post user friendly. That was my main purpose. So thank you so much for letting me know!

Linda H. said...

I agree. Researching agents and writing a query is very time consuming

This post is loaded with good information. Thanks!