5 Quick-&-Dirty Query Tips

In the buildup to Pitch Wars submissions, a lot of queries are flying around the writing world right now. And I’ll admit, I’m a bit of a query junkie. I write them for works-in-progress as practice. I’ve read the entire QueryShark archive and listened to every Print Run query episode. I spent hours in the Query Critique Pitch Wars forum the year I entered (2018).

If you’re entering Pitch Wars, or if you’re planning to query agents soon, here are some simple, quick tips I’ve picked up in my research that can tighten up your letter.

Quick note: This is for querying fiction. Nonfiction is a whole separate beast, and one I don’t have any personal experience with.

1. Trim the Proper Nouns

A general rule of thumb in queries: the fewer proper nouns, the better. I’m looking at you, fellow SFF writers. By the fifth or sixth proper noun, you’re risking an agent’s eyes glazing over or a mentor losing the thread of the plot trying to keep everyone straight.

Your planet or kingdom’s name? Scrap it. Describe it as “[protagonist]’s kingdom” or “[protagonist]’s home planet”.

The uncle that betrayed her? Unless he’s referenced multiple times, he’s just “her uncle”. The ruling monarch is just “the king”.

I try to limit a query to three proper nouns in the plot blurb portion of the query if I can.

  • Cambiare’s query listed the protagonist, the love interest, and the antagonist. The rest were “her allies” and “the faerie realm” or “her kingdom”.
  • Project Autumn’s query listed two names: the main character and a love interest. The antagonists were “the high priests”.
  • We Are Monstrous is dual-POV and the blurb only mentions those two characters. (Although I never queried this one since it’s still in revision, I wrote a sample query for potential beta readers). The setting is just “an enchanted castle” and the enemies are just “demons” rather than being listed by name.

2. End With Stakes

If you end the plot-blurb portion of your query with the core conflict, it’s more likely to entice the agent or mentor to request more, to find out how that conflict plays out. To do this, you actually need a choice or situation that could result in at least two outcomes. There are couple of simple (if formulaic, but effective) ways to do this:

  • “[Protagonist] must do X to prevent Y [bad thing]”.
    When possible, make the Bad Thing personal. “Or their sister will be murdered by her kidnappers” is a deeply intimate consequence. “Or the planet will implode” is too big. Make it matter on a deep, personal level to your protagonist. Why does your main character care if the world explodes, aside from personal survival? Does the fate of their loved ones hang in the balance? Will they clear their name and gain freedom by becoming a hero?
  • “If [protagonist] can do [difficult thing], then [good thing will happen].”
    Will they finally win the tournament and defeat their long-running rival? Or is it coming to terms with grief to find a happy ending with a new love interest? Maybe they’ll defeat the evil wizard and regain their stolen throne.

These aren’t the only way to convey stakes at the end of your query, but these can be a good template if you’re a bit stumped.

3. Keep Your Metadata Together*

(* If you’re querying in the United States. I’ve been informed that formatting is different for querying UK agents and may be different elsewhere as well).

It doesn’t matter if the metadata paragraph is at the beginning or end of your letter, but keep it all in one place. Word count, genre, and comps should be lumped together in the same paragraph as your book’s title.

  • “[BOOK TITLE] is a XX,000-word contemporary thriller in the vein of [COMP TITLE] with the non-chronological narrative structure of [OTHER COMP BOOK].”
  • “This XX,000-word space opera will appeal to fans of [AUTHOR], while featuring the lyrical prose of [OTHER AUTHOR OR BOOK].”

Obviously you can tweak these formulas and jazz them up a bit to give your query some voice, but the gist is that it’s usually best to keep these things relatively close to one another.

4. Some Notes on Comp Titles

Keep The Number Low

It’s also good to keep your comps down to only two if possible. By the time you’re mixing four things, it can get a bit muddled.

At least one of these should be a recent book (or an author who has released books recently, if you’re comping to an author rather than a specific novel). Opinions vary on how recent is “recent”, but within the past five years is probably good, past two years is even better.

Give Specifics if You Can

While it’s not absolutely necessary, it can be a bonus if you give a brief word or two why you’re featuring those comps. “the atmosphere of [BOOK]” or “the complex family dynamics of [BOOK]” give the agent/mentor a bit more to sink their teeth into.

Use Comps to Convey Bonus Information

This is a personal preference, but I like to use comps that tell the agent/mentor something that isn’t listed elsewhere in the query. If your comp mentions that your book is about dragons, you don’t really need to choose a comp novel just because it features dragons. While accurate, this repeats information already in the query and isn’t using comps to their full potential.

I prefer to comp based on one of the following:

  • Voice
  • Atmosphere
  • Character Dynamics
  • Structure or Pacing

That tells the agent/mentor a little bit of extra info and sneaks it in there concisely.

Don’t Go Too Big or Too Small

I’ll just mention this briefly as it’s common advice: Don’t comp to mega bestsellers like A Song of Ice and Fire. They’ve become so ubiquitous that using them as a comp doesn’t really give any specifics, as well as possibly giving the impression that either A) you don’t really read that widely, or B) you assume your book will be as big of a hit and might have unrealistic expectations.

Instead, consider why you’re comping to that book. For A Song of Ice and Fire, is it large in scale with several POVs? Maybe consider Priory of the Orange Tree. Is it a grimdark fantasy with morally gray characters? The Blade Itself might be better. These show that you know your genre well enough to pick out books other than the household names.

5. Keep the Bio Short and Sweet

If you don’t have writing credits to speak of, don’t fret. Just post a couple of small facts about yourself. A good bio template (and the one I used):

“I am a [PROFESSION, SAHM, STUDENT] living in [PLACE]. When not writing, I enjoy [A HOBBY]. [Here you can list any relevant education, degrees, workshops, or experience, but only if they relate to writing or the topic of the novel. They’re not necessary if you don’t have them. I didn’t]. This would be my debut novel. (Or in my case, I mentioned that I self-published a separate novel previously).”

In general, you don’t need to mention that you have a passion for writing, or that you have always wanted to be a writer, as these are common and sort of assumed.

Conclusion

I hope these tips offer some insight! Remember, the point of the query is just to entice the agent/mentor to read your pages. That’s it. Keep this in mind and you’ll succeed. Good luck!

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