QUERYING

Elana Johnson is known through the writing community for her skills with querying and is affectionately known as a Query Ninja.

Query Letter Writing

Part One: The Hook

This series of articles was first published on the QueryTracker blog.

Okay, people. We all know that to secure a literary agent, you need to write a stellar query letter. You can get feedback at various writerly sites, but none better than the QueryTracker forum. People there are nice, honest, and want to see you succeed.

I know, I know. There are literally hundreds of websites where you can go to find out how to write a query letter. But, um, the fact is, you don't want just a query letter. You want a great query letter—one that sets yours above the others.

I know, I know, I know. There are literary agents who have blogged on how to craft these suckers. They're right. They have good advice. I'm no literary agent, nor an expert, but I did take a class at a conference on writing a killer query. We had to submit our letters before the class and the published author teaching the class reviewed them. Mine wasn't like, awesome or anything. But it did, ahem, win. I didn't get a publishing contract or even a bar of chocolate. I did get a round of applause for my hook and several nods from industry people. You know the kind. The nod of approval, large initial bend with several smaller nods of the head. One editor said she'd definitely like to read my book from the query letter. She did. I got rejected. Life goes on.

So I'm going to share what I learned in the class. It made my query better. The instructor taught that there are four parts to an effective query.

Part One - The Hook

You need a good hook. Scratch that. You need a phenomenal hook. Something that really grabs the reader and says, "Read this! It's gonna be good! Then request my full!" In my opinion, the hook should do two things. 1. Grab the reader (aka the agent) and propel them through the whole letter. 2. Sum up the main plot of the novel.

Here are some I've used/written:

Jonathan Clarke has everything a seventeen-year-old boy could want—except for a beating heart

This screams fantasy of some kind. At least to me. Or maybe that screaming in my head isn't supposed to be there…Anyway, I had a couple of full requests using that hook. I think it's quite grabby and it does tell the main plot, the driving force behind much of the novel. This dude, Jon, he really wants a beating heart and you better read to find out how/when/if he gets one.

Then I rewrote the book, which of course changed the main plot. So the hook changed to this:

Sixteen-year-old Annie Jenkins must control the magic to balance the realm—it's too bad her unknown abilities are hidden beneath her inhalant addiction.

I received a few more full requests—and a few more rejections. Apparently I can write a pretty good query letter, but not a good novel. Oh, and I'm a lover of the em-dash, what can I say? But this hook does, again, tell the main plot. All in 23 words. (I know, mine are kinda long.)

Sometimes the hook can be a little longer, like this one I wrote for a different novel:

In a world where Thinkers control the population and the Rules are not meant to be broken, fifteen-year-old Violet Schoenfeld does a spectacular job of shattering them to pieces. (29 words, but no em-dash! Go me!)

This hook A) Hopefully propels you to read the rest of the letter, and B) tells the main plot of the novel. That's what you want your hook to do.

I don't think there's one right way to write the hook, but lots of wrong ways. The point is, you need a hook. A good one. A strong one. A sharp one.

Your job: get out your whetstone and sharpen those hooks!

Part Two: The Setup

Okay, once you've hooked the agent to read your whole query letter, you've got to deliver. You can't just have a hook and then let everything else slide. Following the hook, you need to get to the problem. This requires a little bit of setup. In the first part, you may have noticed that I included the age of the protag in my hooks. Of course I specify my genre, but the agent knows right away which age group it is. Little details like that contribute to the setup in your query even if they're not in the setup portion.

In the setup, you have a few goals:
1. Provide a few details about who your main character is. You've hooked the agent to find out more about your main character, so give them what they want.

2. World-building information if pertinent. For fantasy and science fiction, a little taste of the world would go in the setup section of the query. For mystery, horror, thriller or other genres, including the setting here wouldn't be a bad idea.

3. The catalyst that moves the main character into the conflict (next section).
Let's look at this hook. Sixteen-year-old Annie Jenkins must control the magic to balance the realm—it's too bad her unknown abilities are hidden beneath her inhalant addiction.

Here's the paragraph right after it—the setup.

Whenever she's high, Annie has vivid visions of a death she can't remember and a guy she's never met. (details) When she meets Jonathan Clarke, the ghostly boy from her hallucinations, she realizes her drug use has masked the abilities she's inherited from her magic-keeping mother. (Details = Annie inherits magic. World-building = magic-keeping mother, hmm...) Wielding magic isn't everything it's cracked up to be; Annie discovers her newfound powers can't cure her terminally ill mother. (More details = Annie's mom is sick. World-building = magic can't fix everything. Catalyst for next para on the conflict = magic can't fix everything, Annie's powers are new and she can't do what she wants with them.)

This setup paragraph is three sentences, only 65 words. But (I think, I hope, I pray) it tells more about Annie, more about the magic, and drives the agent toward the main conflict in the story. That's what you want your setup section of the query letter to do. Don't bog us down in too many details. Don't introduce your entire cast of secondary characters. Don't try to impress with sentences that are 65 words long by themselves. Just lay it out for us. Remember, you want to get to the conflict. Think of the setup as a bridge from the sharp hook to the cliffhanger conflict.

Okay, your turn. Using this hook I posted yesterday and the setup paragraph below, can you tell if I've met the goals for the setup paragraph?

Hook:In a world where Thinkers control the population and the Rules are not meant to be broken, fifteen-year-old Violet Schoenfeld does a spectacular job of shattering them to pieces.

Setup:

Refusing to listen to the Tapes, stealing an old ID card, and walking in the park after dark with a boy land Vi in prison. The Good are usually separated from the Bad, but Vi finds herself sharing a cell with beautiful Bad boy, Jag Barque.

In these two sentences (47 words) can you find the details? Can you identify where more is revealed about the world Vi lives in? What's the catalyst that will propel the agent forward to the conflict?

Your job: go examine your setup paragraph. Does it reveal details, build your world (or identify the setting), and propel you toward the conflict? Can't even find it? Um, Houston you have a problem. You need to be able to clearly identify your setup so you can know if you're, well, setting up your conflict.

Part Three: The Conflict

So you've hooked and setup up your query letter. Now to the part that everyone wants to read—the conflict. Every novel needs it. In fact, the more conflict, the better. In the query letter, you want to highlight the main conflict, not every single one in every single chapter. You can't even do that in the synopsis, so don't try.

Main conflict [meyn kon-flikt]: The central thing that prevents the character from getting what they want.

If you didn't setup what the character wants in the setup, you can do it during the conflict. For example, here are my examples from the past couple sections.

Hook: Sixteen-year-old Annie Jenkins must control the magic to balance the realm—it's too bad her unknown abilities are hidden beneath her inhalant addiction.

Setup: Whenever she's high, Annie has vivid visions of a death she can't remember and a boy she's never met. When she meets Jonathan Clarke, the ghostly boy from her hallucinations, she realizes her drug use has masked the abilities she's inherited from her magic-keeping mother. Wielding magic isn't everything it's cracked up to be; Annie discovers her newfound powers can't cure her terminally ill mother.

So the next paragraph is the conflict.

Annie learns she has the rare power to bring immortal beings (Shadows) living in another realm back into the human world. Jon has been searching for someone with Annie’s Mirror power for a century. (Both of these sentences are still setting up the conflict.) He's desperate for her to restart his heart so he can become human again, but his Reflection can't be completed until she balances the magic. (Jon wants to be human, but…)Their problems double when she learns there are evil Shadows who plan to kill her and take control of the realm. (Oh, crap.) One of Jon's old friends is leading the resistance and attempts to recruit him, while Annie discovers one of her friends is really working against her. (What? A friend that's really an enemy? That can't be good…)

I've actually included a sentence for Jon, one for Annie, and one for both of them. Jon's main conflict is that he wants a beating heart, and he can't get it until Annie balances the magic in his realm. Annie's main conflict is that she could die at the hands of any Shadow (including Jon's) at any time—oh, and don't forget about balancing the magic. Their main conflict together is they both have friends who aren't really their friends—and who would do anything to destroy them. No biggie, right? It took me 106 words to explain the conflict. Five sentences (and two of those were still setup). Find the main conflict and highlight that. Trust me, your query will thank you. Agents will thank you. Readers who read the blurb on the back of your book will thank you.

Now it's your turn. Here's the hook, setup, and conflict from the second novel I've been highlighting this week. Can you identify the main conflict for Vi?

Hook: In a world where Thinkers control the population and the Rules are not meant to be broken, fifteen-year-old Vivian Schoenfeld does a spectacular job of shattering them to pieces. 

Setup: Refusing to listen to the Tapes, stealing an old ID card, and walking in the park after dark with a boy land Vi in prison. The Good are usually separated from the Bad, but Vi finds herself sharing a cell with beautiful Bad boy, Jag Barque.

Conflict:

Because Jag and Vi are Free-Thinkers, they're banished to the Badlands, a place Vi fears but has always wanted to go. Secrets about her missing father and dead sister, combined with who—or what—she really is, lead her down a road full of difficult decisions. Falling for Jag further complicates Vi's life as she faces her new role, one she's always despised—being in Control.

I admit, this one is much harder—even for me, and I wrote the darned thing. What do you think? What's the main conflict?

Your job: No novel is complete without conflict. What's yours? Can you clearly identify it for your main character in one sentence? Pull your conflict section out of your query letter and make sure it clearly explains the main conflict for your novel.

Part Four: The Consequence

The final element you need in your query letter is the consequence. What will happen if the MC doesn't solve the problem? Doesn't get what they want? Will evil forces achieve world domination? Will her brother die? Is it a race against time across Antarctica to find the long lost jewel of the Nile? What's the consequence?

In the queries I've read, this is what's lacking the most. The consequence. You've hooked me, set me up, explained the conflict that's keeping me from getting what I want, but…what will happen if I don't solve the conflict? That's the consequence. If you're having trouble identifying yours, it's time to go back to the revising stage—in the novel.

Let's examine my query letter in full. (Well, it's not the whole letter; I’m planning a bonus post on Everything Else for the next section. Yanno, word count, genre, bio.)

Sixteen-year-old Annie Jenkins must control the magic to balance the realm—it's too bad her unknown abilities are hidden beneath her inhalant addiction.

Whenever she's high, Annie has vivid visions of a death she can't remember and a boy she's never met. When she meets Jonathan Clarke, the ghostly boy from her hallucinations, she realizes her drug use has masked the abilities she's inherited from her magic-keeping mother. Wielding magic isn't everything it's cracked up to be; Annie discovers her newfound powers can't cure her terminally ill mother.

Annie learns she has the rare power to bring immortal beings (Shadows) living in another realm back into the human world. Jon has been searching for someone with Annie’s Mirror power for a century. He's desperate for her to restart his heart so he can become human again, but his Reflection can't be completed until she balances the magic. Their problems double when she learns there are evil Shadows who plan to kill her and take control of the realm. One of Jon's old friends is leading the resistance and attempts to recruit him, while Annie discovers one of her friends is really working against her. If Jon and Annie can't find a way to achieve balance, Reflections and potions won't do any good. There is no spell to revive the dead.

That last sentence is my consequence. You need one to complete the query letter. It should be just as "hooky" as the hook to leave the reader (AKA: agent) salivating to request the full. Also, did you notice how my consequence ties back to my hook? In the hook, Annie has to control the magic to balance the realm, and the consequence directly states what will happen if she doesn't. It's made a complete circle for full closure. That's what you want.

Your job: Separate your consequence from the rest of your query letter. Is it concise? Do you even have one? If not, this is a novel problem, not a query letter problem. Is it a cliffhanger? Enough to entice the reader to want to read the entire book?

Everything Else

The HookThe SetupThe Conflict, and The Consequence are the four parts of the query letter. I believe you can write a killer query using those four parts. I've also added another item to consider when writing the query letter. The rhetorical question.

I studied my query and decided that although it had received some praise, it could be better. Since the query letter is the gateway to getting your manuscript read, I wanted to have the shiniest gate I could.And so I set out to accomplish it. I worked—hard. I broke my query letter down into the four parts and worked on them individually. Then I studied the query letters of others. I printed out the query letters of authors who had landed agents. I emailed friends who I knew had received significant requests and begged them to let me see their queries. Then I sat down at the kitchen counter and spread the queries out on the counter. I started at the top, took notes, and wrote my query by hand. This didn't just "happen." I made it happen. You can too.

Everything Else:

1. Some agents say to dive right into the book. Some want the genre and word count up front. Do your research and switch the parts around according to the agent's tastes. But generally, I like to start my query with the title (in all caps) and word count with a lead into my hook.

I am pleased to submit for your consideration my young adult urban fantasy, THE MIRROR. In this 95,000-word tale of magic, mystery and romance, sixteen-year-old Annie Jenkins must control the magic to balance the realm. It's too bad her unknown abilities are hidden beneath her inhalant addiction.

2. I noticed that almost all of the query letters had some sort of paragraph after the blurb that told a little more about their book. Marketing, a twist on something, a comparison to published books. Something. So I crafted one of those for my novel.

Not just another ghost story, the Shadows in THE MIRROR bring a magical twist to life beyond death. THE MIRROR will appeal to readers who enjoy the paranormality of A GREAT AND TERRIBLE BEAUTY, and also to those who fell in love with the romance of TWILIGHT.

3. The bio. Many authors agonize over this. If you have no publishing credits, so I advise simply omitting this portion of the query. Many agents advise the same thing. Then you need to wrap it up with a simple, "If you would like to consider THE MIRROR, I'd be happy to forward the complete manuscript at your request. [I put requested material here, like if they ask for the first three chapters, the first five pages, etc. Maybe a personal blurb about their blog or something if I feel it's relevant.]"

And end with, "Thank you for your time and consideration."

So my query looks like this:

I am pleased to submit for your consideration my young adult urban fantasy, THE MIRROR. In this 95,000-word tale of magic, mystery and romance, sixteen-year-old Annie Jenkins must control the magic to balance the realm. It's too bad her unknown abilities are hidden beneath her inhalant addiction.

Whenever she's high, Annie has vivid visions of a death she can't remember and a boy she's never met. When she meets Jonathan Clarke, the ghostly boy from her hallucinations, she realizes her drug use has masked the abilities she's inherited from her magic-keeping mother. Wielding magic isn't everything it's cracked up to be; Annie discovers her newfound powers can't cure her terminally ill mother.

Annie learns she has the rare power to bring immortal beings (Shadows) living in another realm back into the human world. Jon has been searching for someone with Annie’s Mirror power for a century. He's desperate for her to restart his heart so he can become human again, but his Reflection can't be completed until she balances the magic. Their problems double when she learns there are evil Shadows who plan to kill her and take control of the realm. One of Jon's old friends is leading the resistance and attempts to recruit him, while Annie discovers one of her friends is really working against her. If Jon and Annie can't find a way to achieve balance, Reflections and potions won't do any good. There is no spell to revive the dead.

Not just another ghost story, the Shadows in THE MIRROR bring a magical twist to life beyond death. THE MIRROR will appeal to readers who enjoy the paranormality of A GREAT AND TERRIBLE BEAUTY, and also to those who fell in love with the romance of TWILIGHT.

If you would like to consider THE MIRROR, I'd be happy to forward the complete manuscript at your request.

Thank you for your time and consideration,

ElanaJ

I hope you've found something useful you can use in The Writing of your Query Letter.

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Elana has also included some bonuses: PowerPoints from classes she's taught!
Writing A Killer Query Letter (1 hour presentation RIFT)
Writing A Killer Query Letter (Possession)
Writing Killer Cover Copy (Indie Recon)
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Elana Johnson is a hybrid author of YA novels and romance novels, as well as an elementary school teacher. Her work includes the Possession seriespublished by Simon Pulse (Simon & Schuster). She is also the author of ELEVATED and SOMETHING ABOUT LOVE, both standalone young adult contemporary romance novels-in-verse. Her next YA sci-fi series, The Rift Walkers series which includes RIFT (Fall 2016) and MEND (Spring 2017), will be published by Jolly Fish Press.

Her newest release is SECOND CHANCE RANCH, a western inspirational romance published under the pen name Liz Isaacson. She also contributed a contemporary romance novella to the best-selling Timeless Romance Anthology, ALL HALLOWS' EVE. Her romance novellas will be featured in 2 more anthologies in 2016, and her debut full-length contemporary romance series, the Redwood Bay series, will be published by Cleis Press beginning in 2016.She runs a personal blog on publishing and is a founding author of the QueryTracker blog, a regular contributor to The League of Extraordinary Writers, and a co-organizer of WriteOnCon. She is a member of SCBWI and RWA.

Her website is www.elanajohnson.com.