Writing the Query: Believe it or not, you already know how

Apr 20, 2011

It's coming, my friends. The next step: querying. That's right, I finished Devolutionaries last night! I sort of hate to say "finished," because I don't think it'll ever be really finished until it's in the hands of readers (fingers crossed). But at any rate, it's ready for that next step. And I'm two parts excited and one part nervous.

I've been working on my query for literally months. I have three completely different versions, and each one has gone through at least a dozen revisions. And, call me crazy, but I actually kind of like writing queries. Of course, it's still hard. There's a reason a lot of us freak out about queries. I don't know how to do this! we cry. It's so different from writing a novel!

And it's true. In many ways, query writing is very different from novel writing. But in all the revisions I've done on my query, I realized something else.

Writing queries is not so different from writing novels after all.

You know what that means? You already know how to do this. So how exactly is a query the same as writing the actual book?

You're telling a story. A story has the 4 c's: A Character in a Conflict who makes a Choice with certain Consequences. A query is the exact same thing. As Sarah LaPolla says in her recent post on queries, the query doesn't have to be complicated. All you need to do is TELL THEM WHAT THE STORY IS ABOUT. Who's the character? What's the conflict? What choice do they have to make, and what are the consequences of that choice?

You already know how to do this-- you just did it for a whole novel! Writing it shorter is of course harder in some ways, but that's okay. Writing a novel is pretty gosh-darn hard too. Try starting as short as possible by writing your one-sentence pitch that contains the four C's. Then, add a few well-chosen details. It's a lot easier to expand from one sentence than it is to shrink down 70,000 words.

Choose specific details. You've got 250 words in a query. You can't show a clipping of the scene where your character discovers his mysterious power. I tried to do that initially, and it was just too long. However, if you just say, "One day, he discovered he could shoot laser beams out of his eyes," that's a little generic. So how do you find a balance? In a novel, you choose specific details to show a setting or a character. It's the same thing in a query. You can't show all the details, but you can pick a few specific ones to show the uniqueness of your novel.

Too many details: "Jeb crept through a dank forest on a hunt for the zombie squirrels who attacked his sister. When a squirrel lunged for his face, Jeb's instinctual reaction caused laser beams to shoot out of his eyes, frying the squirrel mid-lunge." Just enough details: "When Jeb is attacked by the same zombie squirrels that maimed his sister, he defeats them by discovering he can shoot laser beams out of his eyes."

Don't forget critiques and rewrites. You've done it on your novel for many months/years. People have torn it apart. You've rewritten it. They rip it apart again. You rewrite it again. A query letter is no different. You cutcutcut those unnecessary words, then go back and realize you can cutcutcut some more. You restructure. You write it again from scratch. People rip it apart again. And eventually, it's better. In fact, it's pretty freakin' awesome. A query doesn't have to be awesome from the start. It takes as many or more drafts as a novel to get it right. And you've got lots of experience in rewriting now!

So, my friends, don't freak out. You know how to do this! It's hard. But really, writing a novel is harder, and you've already done that. You've got the skills, so have confidence. And share with us-- do you have any tips and tricks that helped you write your query?


Reece said...

Hey, this was great! I've actually been thinking a lot about querying lately. I sent Penitence straight to a publisher (because there was a one-month window when they were accepting unsolicited work), but I'm thinking I might want to try sending it to some agents next. Thus the querying begins all over again!

Your tips here are going to come in really handy!

Chantele Sedgwick said...

I don't think queries are really that hard to write. Maybe it's just me. I actually kind of like writing them. Now, if you had me write a synopsis? That is a different story. Whoever invented that devilish idea is on my hate list! ;)

Cheyanne said...

Great advice, and I love the picture you chose for this post, LOL. Query writing isn't terribly hard for me, but that's probably because I tend to write the query before I write the first draft and I let it evolve as I write the story, so when I'm finished with the story, my query has been thought through a lot already.

Unknown said...

What a wonderful post. So detailed and informative. Thank you!

Why Not? Because I Said So! said...

Great post! This is wonderful advice that I will be remembering. Thanks for visiting my blog. I am glad to now be a follower of your blog!

Sheila Staley : Reviewer & Writer
Book reviews and Author Interviews at my blog at http://whynotbecauseisaidso.blogspot.com/

Margo Berendsen said...

Wonderful advice! I need to remember that great little tip: character in a conflict makes a choice with consequences. You gave good examples, too. I think it was Kristen Nelson that said recently #1 problem with pitches is convoluted plot.

Lynda R Young as Elle Cardy said...

these are great tips. (I also rarely see my manuscripts as finished. There's always room for improvement).

Alexis Bass said...

Great advice! I'm in query stage too and it's very daunting! Thanks for sharing these tips and links :)

Renae said...

Great tips! I've been toying around with my query whenever I need a break from editing.

Tara said...

I'm at the Scary Query Stage, too. I just completely rewrote mine a couple days ago.

Good luck to you!

David P. King said...

I'm excited for you. I'm closely approaching this part for my latest project, too. Since a query is a lot like a really short story, I find query drafting difficult, but it can be done. It just takes a lot of micro-editing (hours on a paragraph).

Great thoughts and reminders, Shallee. Thank you. :)

Anonymous said...

Great post. I wish I had access to this wonderful advice when I was at my querying stage.

Good luck. :)

Rachel said...

Wow, good luck! That's so exciting! I wish I had your enthusiasm for queries! =)

Anonymous said...

Oh, it's never finishedl,right? I am going through it too and am doing my own little query series. GOOD TIPS : )

Teralyn Rose Pilgrim said...

I'm so happy for you! I was just wondering how soon you were going to query. You're book is awesome. Keep us posted on your progress!

I love the idea of expanding a sentence instead of shrinking a book. I recently did a challenge to write a pitch that would fit in a twitter post, and it was amazingly helpful. I didn't consider using it to help me write a query, though.

Good post, and congratulations!

Abby Fowers said...

This is a great post Shallee. Really helps take the pressure of and make the query process possible! Thanks for sharing it with me. Great stuff!

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