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Monday, February 24, 2014

Agent Sarah Nego on Queries!

Agent Sarah Negovetich of Covisiero Literary Agency is with us today to talk about query letters. And if you still want more help with queries I'm (Beth Fred) teaching a class on the subject. There is still limited availability so sign up now!  Okay, take it away Sarah!

Let’s talk about the query. It’s the magic letter that distills your amazing novel down into a few paragraphs and makes agents leap from their chairs in excitement. Write a great one and your inbox will flood with requests. Miss the mark and you’ve got a future filled with form rejections. That’s a lot of pressure for 250 words. The only thing writers hate more than these one-page torture devices is their two-page cousin, the synopsis.
It’s no wonder querying hopefuls want to know exactly what it is that agents are looking for when they open their inbox. So here’s my not-so-secret insider tip. The number one reason I pass on queries is:

All signs point to a premise novel.

A premise novel has a great set-up, interesting world building, fascinating characters, and a lot going on…without really leading toward anything. These novels often resolve with a big battle scene, even though the rest of the novel isn’t driving toward a battle. This isn’t good.

Your query needs to hit on several key aspects if you want to make it clear that you have a fully fleshed novel with a well-developed plot.

1.       A protagonist: This may sound silly, but I see a lot of queries that list several characters without making it clear who the main character is. Your query should focus on your protagonist and every aspect of the plot should impact him or her. Also, give me more than just gender and age. An adopted teen cyborg, despised by the mother who never wanted her in the first place.

2.       Goal: What does your protagonist want to achieve? What is the goal driving each of his/her actions throughout the story? Be specific here. Saving the world is not specific. Stopping the bad guy from building a Death Star battle ship threatening to blow up an entire planet is specific.

3.       Obstacles to the Goal: What is stopping your protagonist from achieving their goal? Again, be specific. Trials, tribulations and difficult choices are about as general as they come and could be applied to any novel. A family of knucklehead mobsters with guns chasing you through hidden tunnels and “booty” traps laid by a long dead, paranoid pirate are very specific obstacles.

4.       Stakes: What happens if your main character fails? Spoiler Alert, these should also be specific. The end of the world as he/she knows it isn’t going to cut it. If your character can’t figure out a way to stop the curse and avoid being claimed by the dark casters, every light caster in her family will die. Hello, specific.
Bonus Points: Make me care about the stakes. If your character manages to be claimed by the light, every dark caster, including her surrogate sister and the only father she’s known, will die. Hello, heartstrings.

When I finish reading your query, I should be able to tick off these aspects of your story without thinking too hard about it. By keeping the details specific you set your novel apart from the hundreds that land in my inbox each month. 


Need further proof of how important these details are? See if you can name each of the books or movies I used as examples for the four crucial elements of a query. Even though I only used a line or two from each example, I bet you can do it. 

8 comments:

Angela Brown said...

Very helpful tips (some things that should be common sense but just aren't in the fit of trying to craft the elusive perfect query lol!)

Thank you :-)

Liz A. said...

Ah yes, the specifics. Got to be specific. Great reminder. Thanks.

Huntress, aka CD Coffelt said...

The first tool to marketing, that all-important query.

Great advice.

Beth said...

@Angela I think the simplest things are the ones we most often forget.
@Liz A Yep on the specifics and that matters for all aspects of writing.

Lexa Cain said...

This list of what should be in a query is perfect. I wish I'd read it before I queried my very first novel 'cause wow, was my query missing a lot -- like goals and stakes.

farawayeyes said...

Some excellent advice. A checklist I'm printing out for future reference. Thanks.

farawayeyes said...

BTW- the number two tip uses Star Wars as it's example. Number three is Goonies. I don't know one and four.

Matthew Keith Reviews said...

I really enjoyed this post. Great information distilled down and delivered in a way that makes sense. Thank you!