What Goes in a Query?

Query letters can be frustrating, but I think they're much simpler than we make them out to be. Really a query letter only needs three things to be made clear: character, plot, and basic statistics.

No more than three (and if you name that many, one should probably be the antagonist). More names than this becomes hard to keep track of. Of these, only one should be the main character. The novel may be about multiple people, but it's hard to tell all those stories in just 200-300 words. Choose the most important character and tell their story, starting with what they want.

Now that you know what your MC wants, show how they try to get there. That means the conflict (what keeps them from achieving their goal) and the stakes (what happens if they achieve it? what happens if they don't?).

Title, word count (rounded to the nearest pretty number), and genre.

And that's it. I mean obviously you want to include more than that -- details that make your story unique, aspects of your voice, etc. -- but if the characters and plot are unclear, then your query will be unclear. So include those details, answer the obvious questions you raise (e.g. why does your MC want what they want?), but in doing so be careful not to lose the story.

On Wednesday, I'll talk about a couple of optional parts of the query, commonly confused as required. In the meantime, got any query tips you wish you knew starting out?


Susan Kaye Quinn said...

I've learned a lot through getting ready to query, backing off from querying, pretending to query (also known as contests), and finally, actually querying.

You are exactly right, that the basics are what matter most. And I was surprised to find that writing my query actually helped solidify my novel. After all, if I couldn't boil it down, maybe it was because my story was a bit, shall we say, muddy on it's purpose? Writing the query before I was finished with edits on my current WiP has helped me see where the weaknesses were ... before I start sending it out.

Query tip: Have different versions of your query ready: 1 sentence description, as well as 1, 2, and 3 paragraph descriptions of your story (with the 3 paragraph one being an actual synopsis). Combinations of the above will be needed to tailor your query to individual agent requests.

Myrna Foster said...

I love how you make this look so easy, but it really does take practice to get it right. Every time I've posted a query for Star Swans in a public critique forum it's gotten shredded. But I agree with your points.

Adam Heine said...

Susan, I totally agree that writing the query before edits (even before drafting!) can seriously help you to focus your story. And those are great tips!

Myrna, writing a query really IS hard. But I think we overthink it a lot (I do, anyway), and try to include more than is necessary. I'm a big fan of starting small, like one sentence, and adding information only where necessary.

It's still hard to write it WELL, but at least it will be clear. Hopefully.

Michael LaRocca said...

You've got to quit writing like this before I just steal your blog and put it in my newsletter.

Adam Heine said...

Michael, you just made me laugh out loud. You can put this in your newsletter, just give the right credits :-)