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Monday, September 9, 2013

All about query letters - Matt MacNish

Matthew MacNish of the Quintessentially Questionable Query Experiment (QQQE) wrote this excellent guest post for us last year for Query Con. His blog is a great place to read up on all the intricate details of queries and see examples. We highly recommend you check it out. Here's 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.


Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

Matt is a whiz at this whole Query thing.

Huntress, aka CD Coffelt said...

@Michael, Agreed.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Matt knows his stuff when it comes to queries.