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Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Guest Post--Matthew MacNish on Queries

We are honored to have Matthew MacNish of the Quintessentially Questionable Query Experiment (QQQE) blog guest posting with us today. His blog is a great place to read up on all the intricate details of queries and see examples. I highly recommend you check it out. Now, over to Matthew...


All about Query Letters 

When I first queried my first novel, I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t know a single writer. So I wrote what I thought was a good query, and sent it out. I got a couple of requests (surely based more on the pages than the query), but I was inevitably rejected. I wasn’t ready. Neither was my query—or my book.

You can read some of my terrible old queries, and see many good examples of the mistakes I made, by checking the label “queries-rejections” at my blog.

After all that rejection, I decided to study query letters, and decided I would get good at them. So I started my blog, and began by sharing my own mistakes, so others could learn from them. Then I started finding some great resources for helping to learn how to write a better query. First, was Nathan Bransford’s blog, specifically posts like Query Letter Mad Libs, and Anatomy of a Good Query Letter. Then it was Kate Testerman’s blog, and especially her service Ask Daphne! About My Query. Then I met Elana Johnson, read her e-book From the Query to the Call, and after getting to know her (and the other great hosts) for a while, I won a query contest at Write On Con, which you can read the results of Literary Agent Joanna Stampfel-Volpe's critique of my query, here.

Once I figured out how to write a decent query, I started hosting and analyzing successful ones on my blog. You can find a list of those posts, here. Then, once I became familiar with good queries, I started critiquing query letters on my blog.

You can find those posts by checking the label “queries-critiques.”

So, now that you know some of the history of how I ended up running this blog about query letters, let’s talk about some of the basics of a standard query letter.

Assuming you want to write a standard query letter, and not break any of the “rules,” this is how it works: One page or less, 250 words is generally a good guideline. Usually 3 paragraphs.
  • First is your opening hook and pitch. You need to get across a strong sense of character right away, and if you can sprinkle in some backstory, in a nice, organic way, that's great. Then try to finish up with the inciting incident.
  • Second, you want to introduce the conflict. If you can sprinkle in setting and stakes, great. Try to be specific as possible. Avoid clichés, and make it clear why your story is unique.
  • Finally, you need to give us an idea of what choices your character has to make in order to overcome the conflict. The best choices are really tough ones, in which there is no clear or easy solution.
So that's: Character. Conflict. Choice. The three Cs.

Some personalization about why you queried that specific agent, and some kind of writing background bio are a great way to finish, but it’s the heart of the story that really matters.

If you can get those three things across clearly, and sprinkle in some great voice, you’ll be off to a good start.

I want to thank all the Unicorn Bell authors for having me on. Let us know if you have any questions in the comments.

52 comments:

Sarah said...

Great analysis, Matt! Concise specificity is the name of the game. I also want to second your point about personalization--really, I think that if you make sure to query agents who rep the kind of thing you've written, that's all the personalization you need. I sent out a lot of queries, and definitely did not find greater success with the personalized ones. It's really about the story, as you say, and the fit with the particular agent's interests.

farawayeyes said...

I love Matt's QQQE blog. I'm learning all the time from the example of others. I am bound a determined to submit one to him by the end of this month(course).

Charity Bradford said...

The 3 C's is the best tip for a good query. Those are the three things that matter most.

Thanks again for being with us this week!

Matthew MacNish said...

Thanks so much for having me on, Charity (and everyone at Unicorn Bell)! I do feel like sometimes I regurgitate the same info about queries over and over, but they're HARD, and it's always best to make sure as many new writers can learn from all the work the rest of us have done (not to mention the mistakes we've made).

Charity Bradford said...

Agreed! And, you do it so well.

Matthew MacNish said...

Thanks, Charity!

Emily White said...

As always, Matt, you've given great advice. :)

Matthew MacNish said...

Well, of course I've seen people break the rules, and my own query doesn't end with the strongest sense of choice, but as long as you get it close.

Matthew MacNish said...

You better.

Matthew MacNish said...

It reminds me of the video Suzie, Kathleen, and Joanna did for WriteOnCon this morning. Story will always trump EVERYTHING. It's human nature.

Matthew MacNish said...

Thanks, Emily!

Candyland said...

Oh hi. I *loves* this. Not that I've been actively querying, lately, but this is advice fit for everyone. I honestly feel we all make queries harder than they need to be. Stop stressing and just make sure all the major points are there. Yesyes.

Matthew MacNish said...

Bethany! Timmy has plans for you.

Eric W. Trant said...

Awesome, Matt. I snipped your summary into my permanent memoir and notes/thoughts on writing. I love quick notes like that!

- Eric

Matthew MacNish said...

I'm glad it helps! Thanks, Eric.

Ink in the Book said...

As everyone has already said, this post was amazing. I love how your broke the outline into describable parts. Because I've heard how to put the character, conflict, and choices into the query, but never precisely how.

Now, I understand and should be able to use this advice to set up my query. It also helped me to understand a couple of the questions posed to me in some of the feedback I have received from others.

This is pure gold. Thanks for sharing!

D.G. Hudson said...

I like the way you have reduced this to three main words: Character, Conflict and Choice. Good advice as usual, Matt. I've seen some of your query critiques and you do a great job of finding the weak spots, and the strong ones.

Thanks Unicorn Bell for featuring Matt!

Huntress said...

Personalizing is very difficult if the agent does few interviews and has no blog or website. Sometimes my only connection to them is their reputation and that they rep your genre.

Rather than give a stiff, "howdy. Please rep me because you are great", I choose to skip over the awkward intro and hit 'em with the hook.

Great post! Thanks Matt.

Bryan Russell said...

Spot on, as always.

Lara Schiffbauer said...

This is really good information! How much of query success is based on tailoring the query to the agent's tastes? A couple of weeks ago I queried two agents, both of which have several examples of their ideas of successful query letters on their blogs. They were similar, of course, but different enough that I wondered at the time if the personalization has to go farther than the "I chose to query you because" line (when they are that specific, I mean). What do you think?

Nancy Thompson said...

Matt's the best! I love reading all the queries on his blog & seeing his critique. It really helped a lot. Now I refer all my writer friends to him.

Matthew MacNish said...

I'm so glad it helps, Ink! If you ever want your query critiqued on my personal blog, you can email me at the address in my blogger account.

Matthew MacNish said...

Thanks for visiting, D.G.!

Matthew MacNish said...

I often get right to the hook myself, even if I personalize a bit at the end of the query. Story always trumps personalization, IMHO.

Matthew MacNish said...

And the creature emerges from the smoking ruins of the Death Star flight deck. The horde is strong with this one.

Matthew MacNish said...

There is, unfortunately, no way to know anything for certain. The entire process is so subjective, what one person likes, another may not care for. I don't know that there are any hard numbers that can tell you how much personalization matters, but I think story is always more important.

Unless you're my friend Bryan, up there. Read my post about his query for a great example of personlization:

http://theqqqe.blogspot.com/2011/01/dreams-of-crows.html

and without all the feedback/analysis:

http://theqqqe.blogspot.com/2011/01/bryan-russells-query-letter.html

Matthew MacNish said...

I do love to help. Now if only some of that karma could come back and get me a book deal! LOL.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

The three C's - easy enough to remember!

Michael G-G said...

I wish I'd known you when I first starting querying (which was about when George Bush Sr. was president.) The 3 Cs says it all!

Matthew MacNish said...

I've been chanting it for years now. I hope no one has fallen asleep yet.

Matthew MacNish said...

You should have seen my first round of querying. I still hang my head in shame just thinking about it.

Patchi said...

I've been reading through Matthew's old posts at QQQE this past month and they have been a lot of help. I'm cleaning up the CCC's in my query before I send it out. And I'm very thankful he directed me over here, too!

Lara Schiffbauer said...

Thanks for the additional link! It does give a little more light on the pros and pitfalls of personalization. (Dang, that's hard to type, much less say.) Anyway, I don't think it's the lack of personalization that resulted in the rejections I received. While better than my first attempt, the query was still was too wordy and didn't really capture the gist of my story. The basics you give (Character, Conflict and Choice) give a query structure, and I'll be trying to develop that next week. :)

Matthew MacNish said...

Thanks, Patchi!

Old Kitty said...

Hi amazing Unicorn Bell! Thank you for hosting the fab Matthew MacNish and his ever so helpful blog!!! I am always in awe at the feedback he gives to the query letters (brave souls!!) and it's great to read other bloggers' take on the query letters too!

Take care
x

Matthew MacNish said...

Good luck, Lara!

Matthew MacNish said...

Hi Kitty!

mshatch said...

thanks for coming over to post, Matt. As always, you give great advice on querying and I love the three C's, which make it easy to remember what's important.

Matthew MacNish said...

Anytime, Marcy! And I didn't know you worked here. LOL.

maine character said...

Thanks for the tips and for cluing me into this site.

At first I was like, they post four times a day? How can anyone keep up with it all?

And then I saw the Query School photo, from Study Hall to Judging, and I thought, how cool is that?

Jamie Gibbs said...

Great tips, Matthew! If I ever get to that stage in the game, I'll keep these in mind :)

Aldrea Alien said...

Matt, I may just have to send you one of my queries (not the one on my blog, another one) to see what ails it.
If I can get up the courage to. At least I've got it down to three paragraphs, though I'm not sure on the three Cs. Got Character and Conflict, my Choice is a bit wobbly though.

Yeah, it may need a bit more polishing first.

Matthew MacNish said...

It's wicked cool, that's how.

Matthew MacNish said...

Thanks, Jamie! Best of luck.

Matthew MacNish said...

Choice is the hardest one. It's not that clear in my own query. But send it any time, Aldrea!

Ink in the Book said...

Thanks Matt! I will do it for sure. I appreciate your advice and help! You might want to take a look at what I am doing on my own blog for the next couple of days. I'm using your advice...

http://inkinthebook.blogspot.com/2012/08/never-give-up-never.html

Traci Kenworth said...

Great blog, Mathew!! I'm so glad I found your blogs recently and I've begun my own "studying" to find out how to write the best query I can. I know I've written some awful ones in the past, but I'm determined to triumph in the end.

Matthew MacNish said...

I'm sure you will. Let me know if you ever need help.

Angela Ackerman said...

Matt, your site is the go-to place I send everyone who is querying. You really know your stuff, and you are incredibly generous to help so many others with this tough area of the biz. :)

Angela

Matthew MacNish said...

Thanks, Angela!

Eliza Tilton said...

I've been following Matt's crits and I gotta say, he is on point when it comes to queries.

Stéphanie Noël said...

That was extremely helpful. I will need to use this good piece of advice soon!