Last week I had the privilege of being a first round finalist in the twitter competition #QueryKombat. While I didn’t make it to the second round, I am intensely grateful and feel like I’ve won a major prize: education.
We writers love to write. We pour everything we’ve got into our ideas, our characters, those first and final pages. What we fail to do is pour ourselves into our queries, and I think there’s a simple explanation. We don’t know how.
We are engulfed in books. If we want to know what a truly well written book sounds like, all we have to do it pick one up and read it. If we want to know what a truly well written query sounds like, we… guess?
I realized a few months ago that I should be investing the same passion and pain-staking perfection into my queries as I do with my novel. I have pages and pages of notes on how to structure a plot. I have a page and-a-half checklist on character development, scene stakes, and dialogue objectives. I know my stuff. I have researched my stuff. I’ve spent days dissecting the sentence structure of authors I consider to have excellent prose.
And I’ve barely read more than ten queries in my life.
Part of the problem is we just can’t find them. Even if we do, how do we know what’s to imitate?
I went through almost every Query Kombat entry and I took notes on what worked and what didn’t, as suggested by the judges. The main problems were as follows:
1) Bad sentences/confusing phrasing. Sometimes you’d read a query and think… what? I have been guilty of spending an hour max on my queries before. DON’T DO IT. It takes DAYS. This should be some of the best writing you’ve ever done.
2) Lack of voice. This was me. Your query needs to have the same tone as your book. Spooky? Literary? Funny?
3) Unnecessary character mentions. So many of us tried to fit in characters who weren’t important to the mini synopsis. Unless they pay a critical role in the three-paragraph version of your book, take them out. It’s confusing, and it weakens your submission.
Oddly enough, I saw either stellar queries with clumsy opening 250 words, or stellar opening 250 words with clunky queries. Never both. If we had stellar both, we’d probably be published.
Here is a checklist that I made for myself, before starting any future queries:
What is my voice?
What actions does my MC take?
What are the stakes? In order, in intensity?
What about their background do we have to know?
What about the character relationships do we have to know?
Why did this happen to them? Is it clear? If they’re chosen, why?
Does it have a strong sense of character (desire)? Premise? Stakes? (The agent should come away actually invested in the stakes)
Is the full genre clear? Time period. Etc.
Our lack of education on query letters is hurting us. If you haven’t spent weeks dissecting, analyzing, researching, and reading good queries, then you’re going about this adventure wrong. We have to treat these little writing projects with as much weight as a novel.
Let’s get out there and study.