I have spoken at length about Janet Reid and her Query Shark blog in the past. You can read that article for details if you missed it here. As a quick refresher, she is a literary agent who kindly donates her time to rip your tender query letters to shreds. That’s right, you send your best work to her and she lovingly destroys it. It’s for your own good.
Anyway, should you decide to send something her way, there are a few basic rules to follow.
- Make sure the query is for a work of fiction. She doesn’t do memoirs or nonfiction queries. Don’t waste either of your time.
- Read the entire archive of past queries. That currently means over 300 queries, some with as many as 5+ revisions.
- Take notes as you go, revising your query with the notes you’ve taken.
- Set it aside for at least a week, then go revise your query again.
- Include the word count, the title, and the contact info (which will be redacted). Details on where to put this will appear in another post to follow this one.
- Make sure you have return carriages in the email. Many of the familiar word processing programs don’t transfer all of your formattings into an email. Avoid blocks of text. While we’re at it, make sure you put it in the body of the email, not as an attachment. No one opens unsolicited attachments.
- Add this exact phrase at the beginning of your query: “By submitting this query, I agree it may be posted and critiqued on the QueryShark blog and included in the archives for the life of the blog.”
- Put this exact phrase: “Query Shark: I promise I read the archives thoroughly” into the subject line. Don’t be cute. Don’t add to it or change it in any way. It won’t work in your favor.
- Optionally, you may add a paragraph before your query of 100 words or less. This option exists solely as a means of allowing you to express why you made certain choices or to ask questions. DO NOT put this at the bottom.
- Send your baby off to QueryShark@gmail.com and wait. You’ll get acknowledgment within a week. If you do not, then look at what you sent and recognize that something in this list wasn’t done correctly. If it is one of two things, you can edit to fix the problem and resend. The first is mistakes in the subject line. The second is making some obvious mistake that she has exhaustively spoken about (not putting the addresses in the right location, etc).
Congratulations. You’ve mastered the basics needed to send your work off to Query Shark and had an acknowledgment that it arrived. Brace yourself. In all likelihood, you will never see it torn apart. Janet Reid expressly notes that she’s asked for more fulls from authors than the number of Query Shark entries she’s done. You either have to have made some amazing new mistake that others before you haven’t managed or you have to nail it right out of the park. Still, it never hurts to try.
My list of notes on editing a query follows, based on the mistakes already covered. Just because I have compiled these is not an excuse not to read all of the previous entries. After all, I might have missed something myself. Most of these are useful in the generic sense, though several are Query Shark specific. I try to note when this is the case.
Lessons from the Shark Tank
- In General, you should keep it simple. “Query: <Title of the book>” or else whatever is specified by the agent or editor in question.
- Exceptions, such as Query Shark, will specify exactly what they want to see. Follow this. As an example, Query Shark requests that you use “Query Shark: I promise I read the archives thoroughly” exactly like this.
The Header in the Body
- When querying with Query Shark, you need to include the following: “By submitting this query, I agree it may be posted and critiqued on the Query Shark blog and included in the archives for the life of the blog.” (Found in Query #252 rather than the main rule block for submission.)
Optional in the Body, at the top only
- You may include up to 100 words asking questions you may have or explaining why you made certain choices.
Query Body in General
- Housekeeping goes at the bottom, not the top. Don’t start with her information, your bio, etc.
- Start the official query with “Dear <Editor Name>,” rather than “Attn: <Name>” or “Dear Sir/Madam”, etc. Show you know who you are talking to and that you know how to address them.
- Seriously, double check the editor’s name. Don’t get this wrong.
- Begin with a hook and the subject/character of the novel.
- Lead with a problem as action or an important event.
- You must convey the following: What does the protagonist want? What keeps them from it? What choices are faced?
- When showing what choices are faced, you must include what terrible thing will happen if they choose the first option. Also, display the consequences if they do not choose this option.
- Paragraph one should have the protagonists name, the problem and choice faced (20 words or so), and who stands in the way, as well as why they stand in the way (also 20 words or so).
- Sentences should be well structured. Subject rather than clause at the start. Use a “Noun – Verb – Clause/Object” structure instead of trying to be fancy.
- – Use simple declarative statements
- – Sentences should aim for 10 or fewer words initially.
- The entire query should cover the first act, not the whole book. Certainly, do not include the ending.
- It is best if you can turn the reader’s assumptions on their heads.
- Do not recap the contents at the end.
- Finish the query with “Thank you for your time and consideration.” Don’t bother with “looking forward to hearing from you” or similar statements that are empty and obvious.
- Contact information belongs at the bottom of the query. This includes: <Your name>, <pen name>, or <your name> (writing as: <Pen Name>), and Contact information (address, phone number, twitter, blog, website, etc.)
- Don’t start with “In a world where…”, “So begins…” or similar cliche starts found in movie trailers.
- Don’t include other cliche phrases like “gasoline on a fire”, or “personal demons”.
- Focus on the values and interests of the main character rather than just how they look. This is an amazingly common problem.
- Loglines (1 sentence summary of the plot) are worthless in the query. Do not include them.
- Avoid false choices, IE: choices that no normal person would willingly take.
- Only worry about the initial choice the character is faced with, not the ultimate plot.
- Never start with a quote, random fact, question or rhetorical ideas. It’s not as witty as you think it is.
- Don’t open with backstory either. Open it with events.
- Don’t write in the first person. This is seen almost universally as a gimmick.
- When you use a question in the query (not at the beginning as you will recall), use them to create tension. (A solid example is found in Query #259.)
- Queries aren’t a synopsis. It exists to show the agent why they want to read your full.
Don’t give away the ending!!!
- Give a sense of what the book is about, not just names and details.
- Save the world building for the actual book. Who and What matters more in a query.
- Simple plots are better for the query. Hard to follow complexity in a query isn’t helpful.
- Don’t spell out the obvious. Trust the reader/agent to connect obvious dots.
- Your hooks shouldn’t be obvious in nature.
- Don’t be flowery, vague, or use purple prose.
- Be specific. Generalities are worthless.
- The protagonist must be likable. If the reader is going to care about the story, they have to want to follow the main character through their journey.
- Don’t bother with both a name and nickname for a character. Just pick one or the other for the query.
- Avoid name soup. The maximum number of character names you should drop is 4 to 5. Ideally, you only want 3 named characters.
- Name soup applies to locations as well. Focus on the protagonist and antagonist, not the locations they go.
- Brevity is great, but remember to have a page (250 words).
- DO NOT quote your book.
- Made-up words get italicised to verify it isn’t a typo. If you don’t set them apart this way, it can create confusion.
- Show, don’t tell. (Why do I need to say this?) Conflict and consequences trump descriptions.
- Use only one POV. If there are multiple POVs in the book, mention it in a single sentence. (Good example in Query #199.)
- Don’t use phrases like “terrible secrets”, “interesting dynamic”, or similar empty concepts. Be specific.
- Make sure you are using the right words. Don’t rely on spell checker to catch poor word usage.
- The title of your book should be in all caps.
- Books are ‘called’ or ‘titled’. They aren’t ‘named’.
- Your word count should be listed as #K.
- Ideally, the format should be “<TITLE> is a <#>K <genre> novel.”
- Genre should be 1 or 2 words only.
- – Research to make sure you are listing the correct genre!
- – If it falls across genres, select the best match with the largest number of readers.
- – Don’t say “fiction novel” or similar redundant wordings.
- If you’ve published multiple books, use “number of books”, but only mention details of the most recent one. A pub-list can be included at the bottom of the query along with a mention in the query body that it is down there.
- A correct format for listing a published work is as follows: “I am the author of <TITLE> (publisher: year published) a <fiction/nonfiction>.”
- The inclusion of previously published work should be of a similar subject or genre/vein. Saying you published a book on toenail care doesn’t have much weight for your space opera.
- Don’t just name drop. Listing books by the agent or the agent’s clients might show you did your research, but unless they are relevant to your query, they aren’t doing you any favors being there.
- Don’t bother mentioning self-publishing or local press.
- If you are including comp titles, write it as follows: “Readers who liked <X and Y> will like <TITLE>.” or “This novel should appeal to readers of “X”.”
- – For the love of God, if you are going to mention an author’s name, spell it correctly. Triple check it.
- – Books are compared to books. Authors aren’t compared to authors! Don’t compare yourself to another author. It isn’t likely to have the effect you are hoping for.
- Your history isn’t as interesting as you think it is. Don’t mention it if it isn’t vital and relevant to the story. Fiction authors don’t need credentials! (Query #211)
- Don’t write about yourself in the third person. Save that for your bio on a website.
Assume that they will be interested in your MSS. Don’t feel the need to mention looking forward to sending it, hoping they ask, etc.
- It is best not to mention other books or sequels. At most, you can mention that it has series/sequel potential. Don’t mention it at all if you don’t already have SPECIFIC ideas.
- Don’t include pages unless the agent/editor has specified to do so or actively requested them. If the request came at a conference or similar, be sure to mention where you met them and what they asked of you.
- – Do not send attachments!
- – You can possibly include sample writing if it is mentioned on the website.
- – If unspecified, it could be okay to send the first 3 pages, but possibly best not to until requested.
- It’s okay to say this is your first novel or first time publishing, but not that it is the first thing you’ve written or your first effort.
- Don’t say things like “have a <X> take” where <X> is something like white, male, poor, etc perspective.
- You should never accept exclusivity. Certainly, don’t mention it yourself!
- Never say it is available or complete. If it wasn’t, you wouldn’t be ready to query. That’s assumed.
- Never tell the reader how to feel.
- Never talk about how it will be liked. You can’t predict the future.
- Never bother mentioning how beta readers felt. There’s no value there.
- Don’t talk about how you feel about the book or characters. Nothing good comes from this.
- Never mention the sort of agent you want. Presumably, it is the person you are sending the query to.
Editing the Query
- Edit it down to 250 words for the body. Don’t go over this at all or under it by much.
- Evaluate the first paragraph. Often this paragraph is just setup and can be removed entirely without losing anything important.
- Only combine sentences of 10 words to add clarity.
- – The maximum for a single sentence is 25 words. Have a good reason for it if you are doing this.
- – Read the query out loud. Hearing the rhythm and flow is more important than you think.
- – Avoid compound sentences. (And, but, etc.)
- Sentences should start with the subject.
- – Don’t start with when, since, during, but, and, meanwhile, so, or however. The only exception to this is if it is absolutely vital to the flow of the query.
- Even if it is a novel written in the first person, keep your query to third person, present tense. (is, not was!)
- You can drop ‘he says’ and ‘she says’ statements. The reader can intuit them.
- Avoid words with ‘-ing’ and ‘-ly’ words. IE: “is <verb>ing”.
- – Replace ‘is washing’ with ‘washes’
- – Adverbs and adjectives aren’t as helpful as you think.
- – Remove ‘that’ where it appears.
- Show, don’t tell. Stay short and concise.
- – “Bob is patient” vs “Bob waits a decade.”
- Are you focused on plot and story? Don’t moralize. Don’t just list events happening.
Aim for clarity!
- – A sentence must make sense even if the () or – – are removed.
- – Metaphors must illuminate the situation.
- – No one just knows (ala Deus Ex Machina) something. Explain why they know.
- – Must be skim-friendly since agents and editors tend to do a skim first. Have a clear flow and clean sentences.
- – Quotes should be used if you are trying to imply a contrasted meaning. Don’t just lob them about without a purpose. Expl: Cruella was a ‘dog lover’.
- – Apply all of the senses to the writing.
- – Remove anything purple or flowery.
- Use the right words!
- – ‘A’ is one among many. ‘The’ is exclusive.
- – ‘Lays’ is active. ‘Lies’ is present.
- – ‘Publishers’ publish, ‘agents’ represent.
- – You ‘query’ fiction, but nonfiction uses a ‘proposal’.
- – ‘Mythical’ doesn’t exist.
- – Beta-reader and reviewer are not the same things.
- – Young adult protagonists are between 13 and 17
- – New adult protagonists are between 18 and 22. (This is almost exclusively used as romance novels these days)
- – ‘Then’ and ‘than’ are not interchangeable.
- Break up text with spaces. You want to avoid large blocks of text.
- Remove odd formatting or colors from the writing.
- – Gmail has a ‘remove formatting’ option.
- For picture books, the body is just the book’s text.
- The protagonist must seem relatable and likable. Double check this now.
- Query Shark doesn’t hate exclamation marks, but some agents do. Do your research.
Sending It Out and Following Up
- Send queries out in batches of 10 to 20.
- Keep records of who you sent queries to, if they replied, and what they replied with.
- Expect rejection and be prepared. It might mean you need to clean up the query more or it might just be that the story isn’t a good fit for the agent/editor.
- If you haven’t gotten some form of reply in 60 to 70 days, politely ask after the query. If this receives no reply, assume it is rejected.