How to Craft a Query That’ll Knock the Socks Off an Agent or Publisher

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If you’re querying agents or publishes in 2023, you might find my pre-recorded Queries & Synopses course helpful! Plus it comes with either a query or synopsis critique! Watch in the comfort of your own home, on your own time. Check out the details here!

In the fall of 2021, I posted a three-part blog series on my author website on how to craft queries, pitches, and synopses that would grab agents’ and publishers’ attention. (This was actually how my podcast was born!) Since then, I’ve directed hundreds of people to the post, including many of my editing clients. I’ve decided to update the post and move it here to my editing services website.

I’m pretty sure not one day has gone by since I started my author Twitter account where I haven’t scrolled by someone talking about pitches, blurbs, or synopses. How challenging they are. How they don’t know what they’re doing. And I think I might be one of very few writers who enjoy the process! (Glutton for punishment? Maaaaaybe! 😂)

That’s not to say I don’t find them challenging. Of course they are—you’re trying to squeeze tens of thousands of words (or more!) into a tiny 280-character pitch, a 150-200-word back cover blurb for queries, and a 500-800-word synopsis. The very thought of it is daunting.

When I first started down the road to querying, I wondered how the heck that was even possible. So, I researched, and that’s really all I had to go on. I hadn’t yet established myself in the writing community and had no writer friends, so I had no idea who or what was beyond the walls of my office and how helpful it would be to venture out into the writing world.

Fast forward a few months (AFTER I sent out copious amounts of really shitty queries 🤦🏼‍♀️), and I’d begun making writer friends and learning more about the craft by attending conferences and webinars, signing up for live query panels, taking classes, etc. What did that do for me? Well, among other wonderful writing-related things, it opened my eyes to what agents want to see in queries—and what they don’t want to see. It allowed me to improve my query- and pitch-writing skills, which ultimately resulted in getting agent likes on pitches and requests for partials and fulls for my completed manuscripts.

It’s an exciting thing to be in the querying stage! I know a lot of writers don’t like it; it’s scary, it causes anxiety… but as with anything in life, I always say this: the key to overcoming that stress and anxiety and fear is having confidence in what you’re doing. (Similar to what P.S. Literary Agent Cece Lyra says re: ambition over anxiety!) And how do you gain confidence? By obtaining the knowledge and experience. Knowledge + experience = confidence. And when you feel confident in what you’re doing, it shows in your writing.

Knowledge + Experience = Confidence

Let’s cover the basics. What is a query? At its core, it’s a letter that tells the reader this is a story worth reading. When you’ve written a fiction manuscript and are preparing to seek agent representation or find a publisher to buy your book, you need a query to entice them to want to read the manuscript. Nonfiction requires a proposal, which is a whole other topic, so here, we’re focusing on fiction (with one exception: memoir. Although memoir is technically nonfiction, a good memoir reads like fiction, and many agents like to see queries. Caveat: you also need a proposal—but you can start by querying and then either tell the agent you also have a proposal or sometimes your agent will work with you to create one as part of your submission package to editors).

A typical query should be between 250-350 words in total. That includes your opening paragraph (usually where the metadata is) and your bio paragraph (usually at the bottom).

Many agents prefer the book-cook-hook method of query writing (some refer to it as the hook-book-cook method, but it means the same thing), which means you introduce your book first, then you talk about the story and really hook that agent into asking for pages, and then a bit about yourself. And if you don’t have writing credentials, don’t worry! That’s ok. You don’t need to have a long list of publications or an MFA or even any kind of English degree. Anyone can write stories—it just takes dedication, determination, passion, and perseverance to finish those stories and polish them to the point where they’re ready for querying. It takes time, effort, and learning. Never stop learning! No matter how much knowledge you possess about writing, there is always more to be learned. There’s never a point where you can say, “yep, I think I’ve finally learned all there is to know about writing,” because it’s an ever-evolving world.

So what does all of this mean?

It means you want to focus on tension and specifics in your story as much as possible without giving away spoilers. (Save that for the synopsis!) How do we do this?

Start with the opening paragraph with a bonding line and metadata. You should personalize this paragraph with a bonding line according to each agent to show him/her/them why you are querying. What about that agent makes you think you’re a good fit for their client list? And what makes you think they’re a good fit for YOU and your story? Do you have a connection on Twitter? Mention it. Do you attend their writing webinars? Let them know how much you appreciate their knowledge and insight. Did you read on their MSWL (manuscript wish list) that they like certain story elements in a certain genre that you have in your manuscript? Mention that.

The metadata is the information about your book’s title, word count, age category and genre. It also typically includes comps so the agent has a general idea of tone, theme, storyline, etc. Stick to two comps, and make sure you’ve actually read the books. You can also use a movie, tv series, or even a song or album (or even the artist!) to comp to (but use at least one book). Be creative! But show what you’re taking from each comp and how it applies to your story. But keep this paragraph small. Make sure you capitalize your manuscript’s title and italicize the comp titles. It makes a difference in readability and follows the standard format for this paragraph.

Next is the blurb. The blurb is essentially what you envision as the back cover copy; the write-up about your book (sans spoilers!) that will entice readers to buy it. There are many reasons people buy books, but if your blurb is boring, they’re not going to want to read it. This is also what the agents see in your query. It’s their first look at what you’ve got to offer the publishing world, so you need it to be as strong as possible when seeking agent representation. You’ve only got about thirty seconds to impress an agent, so make it count!

These are the components of a good blurb (and thanks to one of my favourite agents, Cece Lyra at P.S. Literary for most of these!). Incidentally, they all start with S’s:

  • Short
  • Specific
  • Story-forward
  • Stress & Strain
  • Spark curiosity
  • Structured
  • Succinct
  • Simple

You want your query blurb to be short and to the point, using specific details that are essential to the plot and keep it moving forward. Keep it about the main plot and don’t worry about side characters and a B story. Don’t name too many characters, and don’t focus on world-building in the blurb. You want to use powerful words that spark curiosity, but you also want to use the KISS method: keep it simple. Don’t be too flowery with your words; be succinct. Tension, emotion, and voice must be present in the query so the agent gets a sense of the stress and strain your main character is going to experience in the story. Using sharp specifics in your query blurb can help make the imagery strong and increase understanding of the plot.

Stick to one or two paragraphs if you can, or a maximum of three. The key is to highlight the most important aspects of your story. Make sure your main character (MC) is in a pressure cooker situation to get that tension high. Use strong words that portray the tone and voice of your writing style and the theme of the story. Use emotion in your blurb. (That is to say, use wording that will elicit emotion.) You want the agent to connect with your MC, and emotion (relatability, caring about the character and their stakes) is how to do it.

Exercise: Take a sheet of paper and a pen. Write down a few words that describe the themes and emotions in your story and the tone it represents. Also, what are the key plot points that make your story unputdownable? Then take 5-10 minutes and brainstorm words and phrases that coincide with those themes, emotions, and vibes. Take another few minutes to find synonyms for those words, or think of some clever ways to describe them. Choose the strongest, most enticing options, making sure they’ll flow nicely and make sense in your summary, and then go forth and write your blurb!

Pro Tip: Write your query BEFORE you draft. When you get that idea, when the excitement is pulsing through your veins and you can’t wait to start outlining and get to drafting, THAT is when you want to write that blurb. It’s when you have all the exciting main ideas for the plot, the ones that are going to thrill and hook and create curiosity, before it gets cluttered with allllll the other (still important but not front-and-centre) details of the story. Because the clutter is what you want to keep OUT of the query, and it’s really hard to see the forest for the trees once you have the entire manuscript completed.

Now, don’t fret if you’ve already completed your manuscript and haven’t even started on any of this stuff. You can still do it—you just have to have a laser-sharp focus on your story so you can pick out only the things that are absolutely essential to the plot.

The other super important thing is you need to have fresh eyes on your work. If you’ve never queried before and you haven’t gotten some feedback (ideally from a few people in the writing community), I promise you: it’s not ready. It’s imperative that you have a trusted critique partner who can read your blurb. Get their opinion on it. Ask them these questions:

  1. Do you understand the plot? (Have them summarize in their own words.)
  2. Is there tension? Do you feel anxious for the MC?
  3. Do you connect with the MC and understand why he/she/they must Do The Thing?
  4. Are the stakes high enough? (Tension, tension, tension!)
  5. Does it spark your curiosity enough to want to read the pages?

So. In your query blurb, you want to do these things:

  • Introduce your MC with age and a descriptor; mention a flaw, misbelief, or struggle
  • Allude to their secret
  • Introduce MC’s status quo or norm and what the MC wants in life
  • Introduce the catalyst or inciting incident that’s going to propel your MC into a different world or set of circumstances
  • Introduce an antagonist or major obstacle that’s going to disrupt that norm but give it a twist so there’s tension. The more twisty it is, the hookier your blurb will be.
  • What threatens your MC by the choice to accept their path?
  • Mention those high stakes—what specific things does your MC stand to lose?
  • Give a specific (but not spoiler-y!) detail about what will happen; take us to the crux of your story and leave us hanging on a huge and specific point of tension. What will the character lose if they reach their goal? What will they lose if they don’t?
  • End it with a jaw-dropping line if possible—something that will absolutely make the agent say, “YES! I need to read this!”

Things to stay away from:

  • Rhetorical questions—it’s usually going to be the most obvious choice, and if it’s not, then why does the story even exist?
  • Flowery language—use powerful words and cut back on the word count
  • Too much description of the world or characters—we need plot in the query letter
  • Too many characters being named—stick to the essential characters
  • Not enough voice, tension, emotion
  • Not enough plot
  • Mentioning the themes—they should be apparent in the blurb (and of course in the pages)
  • No content warnings. If there’s sensitive content, please warn the agent. It is genuinely appreciated by all (this goes for CPs, too) and it’s not a deterrent; it’s to mentally prepare the agent/reader
  • Telling the agent this is “the next big novel” or that “you’re going to love it” or “it’ll give you all the feels.” A) those are awfully big shoes to fill as a debut novelist, and while it could eventually be true, you don’t want to sound over-confident, and B) an agent doesn’t want to be told how they’ll feel about your story. They’ll decide that when they get to the pages—IF they get to the pages.

Remember: the job of a query letter is to get an agent or publisher to request pages. That’s all. You must hook them with the plot and unique points so they request a full or partial manuscript.

You also don’t need to be super formal. Skip the addresses and contact numbers and just start right with the greeting line: “Dear [Name],” and it’s ok to use an agent’s first name or first and last name. This is safest since you may not know what the preferred pronouns are. They may state this on their website or manuscript wish list, but if not, just use their name. You can include your social media handle and/or website (if you have one) under your name. Addresses and phone numbers aren’t needed at this point in the process, so by including them in your query letter, they’re just going to get skipped over anyway, and they add to the word count and take away from the visual appeal.

Below are two examples of query letters. (Click to enlarge.) On the left is my query which has so far gotten me four full requests and three partial requests. The one on the right is my query for my current WIP (not yet queried). I attempted to include as many elements listed above as possible.

And just for kicks, let’s take a look at my first-every query, shall we? 🙈

Go ahead, get your laughs out. I’ll wait.

But do you see the difference between that one and my most recent query for SECRETS? I used a question personally addressed to the reader right off the bat. At that point, the agent wouldn’t yet have any idea what the book was about, and that’s all they care about. My thought behind it was to evoke curiosity or fear, but without investment in the plot or character, who cares? I didn’t even have the right genre because at that point, I’d just written a book and that’s all that mattered. I didn’t realize how important placing your manuscript in the correct genre is. There are no stakes in the blurb, there’s no tension, no emotion. No threats, no content warning. No powerful words. It’s completely vague and we have no idea what actually happens in the plot, just that there’s some ghostly time travel involved and that Jennifer wants to end this curse so her daughter doesn’t have to deal with it. Just a bunch of hibbity-jibbity that not even a fairy godmother could transform.

The point is, it was my first query. And I sent it out. And it got rejected… (I would be shocked now if that ever garnered anything other than a rejection.) But after connecting with so many other writers in the writing community who are in all different stages of their writing careers, I built friendships. I gained knowledge. I found out about classes and courses and conferences and webinars and podcasts and writing retreats. I found out about websites and tools and I’ve learned and grown since then. And that’s the best part about the writing process—the friends you make and the knowledge you gain along the way. And then, sharing it with other writers who are where you once stood to help make their road a little less bumpy, even when your dumpster fire is embarrassing. 💜

Most of us have dumpster fire query letters like my first attempt above. I literally called the file “First Ever Query – Dumpster Fire.” But by putting the effort into learning how to do it properly, we can completely change it into something that works. This is why I love critiquing queries so much. I know it’s so helpful to have other eyes on it to help make it the best it can be. I critique several query letters every week and I love seeing the growth in my clients’ query writing skills. 🥰

Quick Tip: Be courteous and professional. A query letter is like a cover letter for a job (even though it’s you that’s hiring the agent!) and your resume is the manuscript. In *most* cases (and there are always exceptions), it’s nice to add little quirks or a bit of humour in your bio. Show the agent who YOU are. What is your author voice?

And one last thing: with any tips you read (including this post) and feedback you receive, take what works for you, and leave the rest. I’m going to go ahead and use everyone’s favourite word and say that the publishing world is very subjective. It really is. What one person loves, another is going to dislike. You’ll always get feedback on your query no matter how much you revise it because someone will always see something that they think needs changing. At the end of the day, you need to be comfortable and confident with what you’re sending out into the world. Learn what you can, get some feedback, apply what resonates with you to your work, and shoot for the stars. You will never know until you try. And you also learn and grow by trying.

You can listen to critiques of writers’ queries and first five pages by tuning into The Shit No One Tells You About Writing podcast! Hosted by author and creative writing instructor Bianca Marais and P.S. Literary agents Cece Lyra and Carly Watters, the podcast features a Books With Hooks segment each week where you can hear critiques of query letters and first five pages. How awesome is that?! The episodes also feature interviews with amazing authors and industry professionals. There’s so much to learn from listening. I highly recommend it!

I’ll also be updating and transferring the related two posts on crafting pitches and synopses, so watch for those!

Good luck in your query journey! And if you want an extra set of eyes, I offer an array of full editing and query package critique services, which you can read more about and book here.

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