I spent most of last week reading through slush for Nightmare on Query Street, and I’m also acting as a mentor. While reading about 200 queries, I noticed a few common issues. So, I’ve compiled some query DOs and DON’Ts.
- DO write your query in the third person, present tense. It doesn’t matter if the book is first person, past tense.
- DON’T get too creative. A query is a business letter. It’s not a poem. It’s not a haiku (which is sad, really, because I adore haiku). A query should have two or three paragraphs and include the information an agent wants to see. Don’t try to be so fancy with it that no one knows what your book is about.
- DO instill voice in the query, but
- DON’T write it from the main character’s point of view. It should be a third party telling about the book.
- DO tell us what happens. If the query is so vague that the reader has no idea what’s going on, that won’t inspire us to want to read more. However,
- DON’T tell us how it ends. That’s what the synopsis is for. You want to entice your reader to keep going. Why would I buy the book if I know the ending?
- DO limit the number of characters in a query. Your main protagonist, the antagonist, and any love interest are usually enough. It sounds impossible, but if you boil everything down to the essential plot and avoid naming anyone who doesn’t play a key role through the book, it helps. The query is almost always easier to read after you remove unnecessary names.
Quick! Find the main character. (I do not own this image)
- DON’T editorialize about the book. We don’t want you to tell us you think your book is hilarious and fantastic. We want you to show funny things that are going to happen.
- DO know acceptable word counts. An agent is almost never going to request a debut novel of over 100,000 words. An agent will never request an adult novel at 30k words. I’ve been told the cutoff for adult novels is 65,000. For children’s literature, check out this extremely helpful blog post by children’s agent Jennifer Laughran (I’ve referred to it about six hundred thousand times).
- DON’T quote the book directly. A query is your one chance to sell the book. Be direct.
For more information on successful queries, check out Amy Trueblood’s Quite the Query series