What to do, what not to do – learn from the advice of experts and the mistakes of others…

Brain exploding yet?

Fear not. ‘Cause we’re about to bombard you with a bunch of resources to help you work out what makes a ‘good’ query and what makes an ‘eesh, what were you thinking?!’ query.

Your first stop in the query world should be Query Shark – because, well, she gives the most frickin’ excellent advice. Scroll your way down hundreds and hundreds of query submissions, picked apart and improved to perfection by the Shark Queen herself. This is a really helpful way to break down the process and see how tiny adjustments can make a huge difference.

A good place to start with QS is the ‘queries that got to YES’ section (scroll down to the bottom of the left sidebar and click away) to see how successful queries changed and developed into winning pitches. The huuuuge variety of genres and styles here should also show you how your story summary can reflect the style and voice of your book. Some of them are sparse and simple, like this one, while others include lots of rich detail, like this one (note: the final query will be at the top – scroll down the page for the earlier versions),  and some of them just get it bang-on first try, even when they break all the ‘rules’ (cw suicide).

NEXT:

When you’ve had your fill of QS, check out some more examples of successful queries at Writer’s Digest, or simply Google ‘successful query letter + [your genre]’ and see what pops up.

After a little while you should start to get a feel for how you’d like your query to read, and how your summary might best reflect your story. Maybe you want to try a version that’s dripping with authorial voice and atmosphere; maybe you want to use a killer hook and leave us dangling on a cliffhanger; maybe you have three narrative strands that weave together, so plan on splitting your query into three parts. EXPERIMENT. Find out what suits YOUR story.

AND THEN…

Since every action has an equal opposite reaction, we should probably also look at some query techniques to AVOID.

A somewhat extreme (and my favourite) place to find these is Slush Pile Hell: ‘one grumpy literary agent and a sea of query fails’.

For example, don’t do this:

This work consist [sic] of seven volumes. After you read Volume VI, you will know that the Lord has sent you the greatest writing ever written. Its sales shall succeed anything that has ever been sold in the world, even Harry Potter. You are authorized to represent my global publishing interest and all speaking engagements, etc. The Lord wants me to have a worldwide commercial publishing contract with a large cash advance.

(yes, someone really sent this to an agent)

I mean… yeah. Just don’t. You weren’t gonna do that, were you? No, of course not.

And on the flipside, don’t be overly self-deprecating (“I’ve always wanted to be a writer but I’m probably not good enough.” OR “My book probably needs some editing and I’m not happy with the second half but hopefully you won’t think the opening is crap.”). Seriously. Big turn off.

There’s also a helluva lot of specific advice on what NOT to do at Janet Reid (alter ego of Query Shark)’s blog, categorised under ‘query pitfalls’. Such as: writing a query from your character’s POV or not considering what your web presence looks like to a stranger, or committing these cardinal sins of querying.

Gif of a man in a car saying ohhh... we don't do that

Oh, and for the love of all that’s shiny, don’t forget to PROOFREAD YOUR QUERY TO WITHIN AN INCH OF ITS LIFE. Nothing makes an agent recoil faster than a sloppy typo or shitty grammar. Granted, they’ll probably forgive you if they love your pitch but really – you’re a WRITER. Act like one.

Now, some of these examples are a little cringe-worthy, and I’m sure you’re thinking “I would never do that, that’s just obvious”, while others seem like totally innocuous, innocent mistakes, but when multiplied to the power of shazillion can evidently piss an agent right off. Nonetheless, it’s better to know these things NOW than go forth and query a hundred agents in the wrong way. Right? Right.

FINALLY:

By far THE BEST way to learn how to write a stellar query letter is, well, not just writing one, but reading and critiquing others. Not only are you able to be far more objective when it’s someone else’s literary baby you’re tearing limb from limb, but it’s much easier to spot all those little pitfalls and cliches and errors when it’s not your own writing. Plus, if you give a lil’ help, you get a lil’ help in return.

If you haven’t already, post up a version of your query or book summary on the forum and see if you can offer feedback on someone else’s. Don’t be shy now… Even if you’ve only got a bullet point list of ‘stuff I’m gonna put in my query’, let us brainstorm your way to a stonking great cover letter. Let’s go!

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