Mar 27 2009

What is a query? How do I write one?

Published by at 6:04 pm under Writing a Query,Writing Articles

Novelists write a query to convince a literary agent or publisher that…

  • The book’s concept is exciting and well-designed.  If they don’t like the concept, they won’t read the sample chapters.
  • The book is marketable and could find an audience.
  • The book has some sort of advantage or angle that will allow it to compete with similar books.  Why will readers pick up this novel instead of a competing title?

The formatting depends on which literary agency or publisher you’re submitting to, but usually it will feature the following sections:

1.  Summary. Introduce a complete stranger to your book in 1-2 pages.  The Levine Greenberg Literary Agency recommends that you write this like a backcover blurb designed to hook readers.  This MUST excite the agent/publisher and make them want to keep reading.

2.  Author’s bio. In one page, describe why you’re the best person to write and sell this book.  Do you have writing experience?  Have you been previously published?  Have your previous books sold well?  Do you have some sort of helpful training/experience? Do you have some sort of special connection to your target audience?  

3.  Target audience. Who are you writing for?  (Note: please do NOT say “everyone”– that will make you sound like an unrealistic amateur). What age and/or gender do you have in mind? What will your book do for these readers?

4.  Competition.  Which books would you compare yours to?  Please do not say “this is actually a completely unique novel; there’s nothing like it.”  That will probably scare away publishers because there’s probably not a market for something completely new.  Instead, compare your book to competitors that have sold fairly well.  Why is your book well-prepared to compete with them?  What’s your edge?

5.  Marketing and promotional opportunities. What can you do to help market or promote your book?  Do you have a popular website?  Do you have a newspaper column somewhere?  Are there unusual places to sell your book that a publisher might be interested in?  For example, if you were writing a book about how to write superhero stories, it could probably be sold in comic book stores as well as traditional bookstores.    

6.  Manuscript specifications. Propose a word-count (NOT page-count) for your book.  How many photographs and illustrations will you have, if any?  Will your book need a special size, format or style?  When can you deliver a completed manuscript?  (If this is your first novel, you should have the manuscript finished before you submit proposals).  

7.  Outline. Start with a table of contents.  Provide annotations that show how the book will unfold in more detail.  This isn’t a final commitment, but it’s a clear sign to publishers that you have some idea how the book could go.  Give 1-3 paragraphs about each chapter’s content and how that content moves the book forward.

8.  Sample chapters. Give them a representative taste of your work.  Usually this is 1-3 chapters.  LGLA says that it does not have to be the first chapter.  However, I really recommend including the first chapters because they’re usually the most inviting to strangers.

26 responses so far

26 Responses to “What is a query? How do I write one?”

  1. ikarus619xon 10 Apr 2009 at 11:00 pm

    Are there ever any person to person interviews with publishing?

  2. alex.nighton 16 Apr 2009 at 6:29 pm

    Does age turn some people off from publishing your work?

  3. B. Macon 16 Apr 2009 at 7:00 pm

    Yes. All other things being equal, I think that a publisher will assume that a young writer lacks an established audience and is less polished and innovative. It’s also generally harder for a really young author to promote his work. (Ahem… having a license really helps).

    There is good news, though. If you get published, being young is a marketing asset. Young readers are more receptive to young authors. See Christopher Paolini, for example. If you are writing for young readers, I would recommend using your age as a selling-point in your query. You’re more relatable to your audience, it’s easier to get publicity from hometown papers if you’re exceptionally young, your writing is more accessible, etc.

    Besides, it is virtually impossible for a young author to write a decent query that hides that he is younger than 18. So you might as well try to make the most of your youthfulness.

  4. Gurion Omegaon 20 Apr 2009 at 10:09 am

    Ohhh…that’s what a novel query is. Useful. =0

  5. Beccaon 07 Sep 2009 at 4:49 pm

    The latest issue of Writer’s Digest has an amazing article about queries. It showcases several novel queries that got their authors contracts with agents, queries that worked. The example queries covered a range of genres. The article blew my mind, and made query-writing and planning a lot easier. Definitely check it out if queries seem daunting.

  6. bretton 19 Oct 2009 at 7:33 pm

    B. Mac, what if you wrote a prologue? Does that mean you submit the prologue and chapters 1 and 2?

  7. B. Macon 19 Oct 2009 at 7:44 pm

    Yeah, using a prologue and chapters 1-2 strikes me as reasonable. However, I’d be careful with prologues. Unless you have a good reason to start with a prologue rather than chapter one, I’d recommend chapter one because it’s usually more immediate and interesting.

  8. Beccaon 24 Nov 2009 at 2:38 pm

    B. Mac, I have a question for you. Do you think that writing the summary of the novel in the voice/POV of the protagonist could work for you or against you? Sometimes back-cover blurbs are written in first-person POV, so if you have a particularly enchanting character voice, would this grab an editor or agent’s attention?

  9. B. Macon 24 Nov 2009 at 3:22 pm

    Janet Reid, an experienced agent that I trust greatly, recommends against it. She says it feels gimmicky. Since she’s worked on that side of the desk and I haven’t, I’d defer to her judgment.

    I’d recommend against it for a somewhat different reason– most queries are like business letters, which is a refreshing change of pace from the hundreds of pages of fiction editors and agents read through every week. I don’t think that it would be as easy to treat a business proposal from a fictional character seriously. (However, when you do the backcover blurb, I think it’d be okay to do it in first-person because you’re writing to readers looking to be entertained rather than professionals looking for business partners).

    Also, the query/synopsis is your best chance to give the editor the bird’s eye view of the story. I think that using the character’s voice is likely to compromise that. My guess is that you can captivate the editor with YOUR voice just as easily as you could with the character’s voice. However, I think it’s a good sign that you’re confident enough in the character’s voice that you’re willing to try it as a selling point. You’ll get your chance! If the voice is strong, it will shine through in the sample chapters.

  10. Beccaon 25 Nov 2009 at 5:06 pm

    Ahh okay, that’s kind of what I thought as well. I’d just read a quote from an agent who said a first-person summary bit “enchanted” her and I thought, hmm. It would probably be good just to write one in third-person, but with the kind of cadence and language the first-person narrator would use. That’s what I did in my query.

  11. B. Macon 27 Nov 2009 at 10:29 pm

    I read this today on QueryShark:

    “Much as I adore the phrase ‘sulfurous redhead’, this approach (writing the query ‘in character’) is gimmicky. Don’t do it. And what kind of power is ‘persuasion’ anyway? Revise. This isn’t a form rejection, I’d read the pages, but it’s not the most effective query you can write.”

  12. Beccaon 28 Nov 2009 at 4:56 pm

    Yes, I’ve read that on QueryShark as well. Still, I feel my sort-of-in-character summary is effective… can I post it here to run it by you?

  13. B. Macon 28 Nov 2009 at 5:21 pm


  14. Beccaon 28 Nov 2009 at 5:28 pm

    Okay, here it is. From my query. I loved it when I first wrote it, now I’m slightly less enamoured. But I still like it.

    “In Zach’s senior year, he falls in love. And not with just anyone – with Jonathan, the school’s reigning hipster. Then there’s a hasty engagement to marry said popular hipster. This leads to even more emergencies for Zach: Patrick’s [Zach’s best friend] dangerous jealousy, becoming one half of the school’s ‘it’ couple when he’s used to blending into the scenery, and figuring out what he really wants out of all this. Also, his public romance may somehow be linked to anonymous anarchist articles in the school paper. Oh yeah, and then his estranged way-older brother just has to fall in love with him, and Patrick just has to storm the school with a handgun…”

  15. B. Macon 28 Nov 2009 at 6:48 pm

    I think it’s a lot less annoying and more effective than writing this in the first person (from Zach’s perspective, for example). The narrator’s voice sounds a bit more casual and young than a typical narrator, but I think it fits the audience pretty well. I feel the voice works.

    However, I’m not sure about the substance of the blurb. I feel like it glosses over the critical decisions of the characters. In particular, I think that the engagement is a MAJOR event in the context of this story. (Usually, getting engaged is the climax of a romance, and I’d categorize this as a romance). We don’t really know why he rushes into the engagement.

    Is there some unusual circumstance that leads him into that decision? Explaining the circumstances could make the blurb come to life. (For example, sometimes soldiers rush into marriage in case they die so that their significant others can collect death benefits more easily). Right now, the motivation seems a bit unclear. This seems like a very important step in the relationship between Zach and John, so I’d recommend giving it a better hook than leaving it sort of implied that “Well, Zach just REALLY loves John!”

    I think Superhero Nation has a similar issue–it is really important to understand why a mild-mannered accountant joins a top-secret crimefighting team. I think that explaining the circumstances (he’s nearly killed by a car-bomb and needs protection) help introduce the reader to the story.

    One minor point of clarification. Zach’s older brother falls in love with Zach, right, rather than Jonathan or Patrick?

  16. Beccaon 29 Nov 2009 at 1:59 pm

    Okay, I see what you mean. And yes, Zach’s brother does fall in love with Zach… it’s a bit of an angsty, warped story haha. And the reason for their hasty engagement is supposed to be very questionable – Jon rushes them into this due to a phobia of being abandoned. Maybe I could tweak the query by mentioning that the engagement “has everyone raising their eyebrows – even Zach himself”, or something to that effect?

  17. B. Macon 29 Nov 2009 at 2:06 pm

    I think that something like “…has everyone raising their eyebrows – even Zach himself…” is a major improvement, but I’d recommend focusing on Zach’s mindset here. Jon is rushing into this because he’s afraid of being abandoned, but why is Zach going along? Since Zach is the protagonist, his mindset and decisions are the crux of the story.

    I think that your blurb could be enhanced by telling us a bit more about what drives Zach. Right now, we only know that he’s in love, is a bit shy and has a messed up brother. I’d recommend focusing a bit more on his personality, key traits and/or background.

  18. Beccaon 29 Nov 2009 at 2:38 pm

    Okay. Some of the stuff that kind of drives his decision to jump into this stuff with Jon way too fast is his previous anti-social-ness. He’s never before made an effort to get close to anyone, besides Patrick who basically worships him, and when suddenly someone he actually likes is interested in too, he’ll go along with anything they want. The driving force in his life up to this point has been the desire to be left alone, and here he realizes that he doesn’t want this anymore. So I guess he’s trying to figure out, if complete isolation isn’t what he wants anymore, what does he want?

    PS he wanted that isolation his whole life because he finds his parents and home life unbearable. Wow as I try to explain this it’s making less and less sense to me xD

  19. Goaton 09 Jun 2011 at 4:19 pm

    I didn’t really see an article about this but, how would you write a writing resume? I might do an internship for a publisher, I just don’t know if the regular resume would cut it this time around…

  20. B. Macon 09 Jun 2011 at 9:21 pm

    Hmm. It’d depend on the position, so it’d help me to see the job description for the job, but if I had to do a resume without looking at the description (mistake!), I’d probably try to work the following aspects into a generic resume:
    –Your writing and/or editing ability and/or the degree of trust other people have in your writing and/or editing. So, for example, it’d be good if you were a writing tutor for a college, but it’d be better if a professor asked you to review his manuscript. (Trusting a scholarly manuscript to someone says more than just a college paper).
    –Your ability to meet tough deadlines, particularly on creative endeavors.
    –Your ability to work with others, particularly on creative endeavors.
    –Your ability to reliably turn out high-quality work proactively without a manager needing to prod you or check your work at every turn.
    –In your cover letter, I’d recommend working in something about this company in particular. For example, if you’re notably fond of several of their authors, you could mention that to show that you’re familiar with the sorts of books they publish. (If you make it to the interview, they’ll probably ask you questions about that anyway).
    –Maybe your ability to learn from “drudge” work? (A lot of people have had highly unhappy experiences with interns that thought they were too good for grunt work, which is a mistake because interns are definitely not hired to be CEOs).

  21. Goaton 10 Jun 2011 at 10:29 am

    I might be doing either a marketing or publicity internship, I should have mentioned that above, but you gave me some good tips. I’ll just have to choose between the marketing and publicity one and then incorporate some writing credentials as well I guess.

  22. B. Macon 10 Jun 2011 at 11:42 am

    Well, in marketing and publicity, you’ll still probably be writing promotional copy and business emails. I’ve worked as a copywriter myself and my boss was notably relieved that I could communicate with clients and write copy without him standing over my shoulder.

  23. Grenacon 24 Jul 2011 at 4:44 pm

    Let’s say a first-timer with no writing experience submits a query letter. What should they do for a bio?

  24. B. Macon 24 Jul 2011 at 6:24 pm

    Generally, I’d recommend 0-1 sentences for the bio unless you have something like the following going on:

    –You have professional experience directly relevant to the book, like a cop writing a detective story, a doctor writing a medical drama or a ninja writing anything. You can be creative here. For example, if you’ve worked as a grade-school teacher and are writing a children’s book, your experience with kids will probably help you write something they’d want to read, right? (At the very least, they should be more believable).

    –You have some other experience that’s directly related to the book. For example, if you’re pitching a book about a crazy mountaineering trip, it’d be totally relevant and interesting that you have climbed K-2.

    –You’re a celebrity (i.e. your city’s largest newspaper has written articles about you). Double-points if the editor has heard of you before.

    –You’ve professionally published before. (I know you specified that the person hasn’t, but I’ll include this for other people that might be reading along).

    –You’ve worked in publishing or any other field related to writing, editing and/or selling books. For example, if you’re a librarian, I’d feel pretty comfortable assuming that you know at least a few people that buy hundreds of books a year. That can only bode well for your sales.

    –You’ve sold thousands of copies of a self-published book.

    –You’ve written for hundreds of thousands of readers (through your day job, your blog and/or your previous works, etc).

    –You’ve won a major writing award (one the editor has probably heard of).

    –Some people mention their degrees, but personally I don’t think it matters all that much.

  25. Delphineon 14 Feb 2015 at 8:18 pm

    What if you have never been published??

  26. B. McKenzieon 15 Feb 2015 at 10:40 am

    “What if you have never been published?” You don’t need to spend any time/space covering it. (If the query does not mention previously published works, most publishers will assume the author is unpublished).

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