Eerie Query Week: Monday Tips about Query Writing

Okay, so I promised that this week I would do a series of blog posts about queries.  Why?  I’m pretty sure the answer to that is that I’m a masochist.  So every day this week, I’ll post advice that I would give, I’ll answer questions if you have them (hint: leave them in the comments!), and I’ll even offer a query critique to anyone who wants one (within reason), provided you let me post it on the blog.

Also, Query week needs some sort of name.  What about Eerie Query Week?  Yes?  No?

Up first, I want to do a post with my query writing tips, but I also want to try and give different advice than the usual stuff you see.  So bear with me.  If you’re struggling with your query, here’s some suggestions of things to try.

A suggestion I saw recently (I think it was on the Query Shark blog) is that you should always write a normal query letter first.  Summarize your novel.  Just get it down on the paper and down to a manageable size.  Once you can do that, you have something to start with so that you can play around with it.

Keep it simple.  You have 1-2 paragraphs to summarize your whole book.  If you spend all that just describing the characters, or the themes in your novel, agents are going to lose interest.

I definitely agree with writing several different versions of the query.  Try writing one focused just on the main character’s journey.  Try writing one that covers just the sub plots.  Heck, try one that uses Beach Boys lyrics to explain everything that happens.  Shake your personal Boggle and mix up the words.  Give yourself permission to try different things.

Pick out your five favorite lines from your novel. Now, why are they your favorite?  Is it the way you play with language?  Is it a particularly enchanting turn of phrase?  Or maybe you just like the way the voice comes across the page.  Keep in mind how many times you probably worked on those lines.  It’s okay to work on polishing the query just as much.

Good.  Now take these lines, and try to inject your query with the same kinds of lines.  Look at how you’re describing things.  Is everything dynamic?  You want the query to pop, so actions are louder than words (I mean, I guess technically your query is all words and not actions….)  Ahem.  Moving on. 😉

Only use a comparison if it’s going to make someone stop and stare.  I write books about magic.  The last book I’m ever going to compare myself to is Harry Potter.  Witch Eyes was pitched to editors as ‘Smallville meets a modern, gay Romeo and Juliet.’  When I queried Moonset, it was Party of Five meets The Craft.  (Please tell me you know what Party of Five is.  Otherwise, I’m going to have to dip into Bailey’s secret stash of booze).  (If you got that joke, you are cool).

I use the comparison heavily when I’m working on a book.  All of my books have a “It’s like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory meets Alien Versus Predator” attached to them.  Or “it’s like Stephen King’s Firestarter meets The Amazing Race.” But not everyone can or should do this, of course.  I mean, I also write a query for every single project I work on, even though I already have an agent.  It’s just how I process my concept.

If you use a description, it also has to FIT.  Don’t include one just to have one, or just to link yourself to bigger projects than yours.  If you declare that your book is “The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause meets Nightmare on Elm Street (the 2010 version)” then by god, I’d better see Jack Frost wake from a nightmare in a boiler basement with his pajamas shredded.

Long story short, only use a comparison if it’s really going to work for your particular novel.  It may not, and that’s okay.

Have fun with your query. Think about lines and descriptions that would make YOU smile.

The query for my first book references Corey Hart.  And if you don’t know who Corey Hart is, you’re either not American, or you’re young enough that I’m going to sob quietly in my corner.  Explanation:  Corey Hart sang the classic 80s tune “Sunglasses at Night.” You know…about how he wears them.  His sunglasses, I mean.  At night.

When I have to describe the feud plaguing Belle Dam in the book, I explain that “each side wants to use (Braden) to achieve a final, vicious victory.”  A final, vicious victory.  That just SOUNDS fun.  (Err, you know what i mean – a vicious victory doesn’t ACTUALLY sound like fun).

My second query referenced Maleficent.  (yes, THAT Maleficent).  Now if I was an agent, I think anyone that referenced Maleficent would immediately get my full attention.  But I also grounded my reference in history.  “If Maleficent and Joseph Stalin had started a coven, the result would have been Moonset.”  Wait, you don’t know who Stalin is?  Sigh.  Crack a history book and YOU KIDS GET OFF MY LAWN.

Query your friends first. I wouldn’t have gotten the Witch Eyes query where it is without writing friends on the Querytracker boards.  One thing I would strongly suggest is pick one or two friends to start with.  Send them your query.  Ask them what they think.  If they tell you it’s perfect, discard their opinion.  Because a query is never perfect, and there’s always improvements you can make.

If they’re not telling you it’s perfect, that’s great!  Now look at their suggestions.  Ask them point blank: if they were an agent, would they request?

You want the answer to be yes, but you also want the answer to be honest.  Public boards like Absolute Write and Querytracker are good places for a mix of pat-on-the-backing and brutal honesty.  Someone may tear your query apart, but just look at it as an important life lesson.  You’re going to get your heart torn out on a daily basis as a writer.

Okay, so that’s all my advice for today.  If you’re querying, or hoping to query soon, good luck to you, and I hope something in here was helpful to you!  Remember, if you want me to critique your query (and maybe some of my friends will point out that I helped them out in the comments) then email it to me at scottshouldbewriting at gmail dot com. And if you don’t want me using your real name, let me know in the email.  Any and all queries sent to me will get critiqued and posted on the blog this week, so look out for that.

If you have any questions you want me to answer, or you want me to blog about something specific, leave me a comment!


9 thoughts on “Eerie Query Week: Monday Tips about Query Writing

  1. Loved this post! And, yes I know all about Party of Five. I think I’m still upset that it got cancelled.
    Anyway, I would love to send you my query that I’m working on and get your opinion. I did have one request from this, but only one chapter and synopsis. Then was told YA’s voice was not what he had hoped for.. UGH!
    Thanks Scott and love the tweets!

  2. Great advice. I’ll be querying soon so I need all the tips I can get. I like the Title meets Title concept though that might be harder for the middle grade I’m pitching. There’s Something About Mary meets Saw 5 just doesn’t seem appropriate for that grade level. 😉 Just kidding. It might be a Mean Girls meets Purple Rain. Okay, I need to think about this more.

  3. What about The Lost World meets Romeo & Juliet?? THAT is the book I want to read!

    Great post 🙂 One thing that helped me get my query for Wavecrossed into shape was some contest on an agent’s blog where you had to get the pitch under 100 words. It really made me focus on what was unique and interesting about the novel, and I wound up using a slightly expanded version of that 100-word pitch in the query letter that snagged Ginger’s attention.

  4. Great suggestion about querying your friends. I sent my first few versions of my query to friends, like you said. My favorite response (from a friend who is not a writer): “Um… did you write this against your will?”

  5. Ack! I want to concentrate on my query but now I am pining for Party of Five. Salingers! Poor, neglected baby Owen! Claudia in her tent! Sarah’s sweaters with sleeves that NEVER ENDED AT THE WRIST! What was she hiding? Thanks for the post, Scott. Lots of good ideas and advice!

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