8 Query Tips No One Tells Writers

Literary agent Carly Watters has practical advice for querying authors. Follow or bookmark her blog—she’s a great resource!

Carly Watters, Literary Agent

typing fadeoutThere is a bounty of query letter writing advice on the web. I’ve written about it before too: The Biggest Query Letter Mistake, and How To Format Your Query.

However, here are some tips you might not have heard yet that will set your querying strategy apart from the rest.

Querying in 2015? Read 8 Query Tips No One Tells Writers:

1. There are no second chances. Send a query letter with an agent’s name misspelled and resend 5 minutes later? You might already be written off. We get so many queries that we’re always looking for reasons to say no (even though we’re looking for gems!). Sometimes there are easy no’s.

2. If you say you’ve been published we assume that means traditional. And if you don’t share the publisher, year, and maybe some sales information we’ll assume you’re pulling our leg.

3. Telling agents you’ve self published…

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The Kinds of Queries that Work, from Query Shark


Two queries on Query Shark I recommend every querying writer to read. They are #246 and #179.

From 246:

This works.

The first sentence catches my attention. The rest of the letter tells me who the main character is, what her problem is, who the antagonist is and what he wants, and what’s at stake.

If I took on YA novels, I’d ask for pages.

From 179:

Yes! This is exactly how to start a query. We know what Jessica wants, and who is trying to thwart her. 

At this point we know the characters, what they want, and have a sense of who they are. There’s nothing extra here, but also nothing left out.

If you take a look at all of the winning queries on Query Shark, they aren’t all the same. Because there is no formula for writing good query letters.

But there are ingredients common to successful queries: Character + Want + Change + Conflict + Stakes.

Start your query with whichever drives your novel most. (See my post on WATCh) If your character and/or world is truly exceptional, and his or her choices or that world drive the plot, start with the hook. If your plot is a chain reaction of cause and effect which started at the inciting incident, start your query there.

I’ve categorized some of the winning queries from Query Shark, so you get an idea which ones might be a better model for your own query:

Ones that begin with what the character wants: 179174261211 (Character stories and thematic “Answer” stories)

Ones that begin with the inciting incident: 255246236199192191175162123 (Time stories and external Answer stories)

Ones that begin with an exceptional character hook: 223217212,  172168120114 (World*)

*Note that even World-based queries need to start with character. A query needs someone for us to empathize with. Your first line might give us the hook, your next might give us the inciting incident or what that character wants.

Query #7 December 2014


Below is the seventh public query critique I’m offering up on the blog. This will happen once a month (as long as I get a response). I choose one query per month. If your query is not selected one month, it will be in the drawing for the next month. Please do not resubmit unless you’ve made significant edits. To enter, see the rules here. If you want a guaranteed critique (plus line edit) of your query or synopsis, private ones cost $35 each.

My comments are in blue below. To read the original query first, simply read the black text only.

Since you specialize in XXX, I thought you might be interested in my young adult fantasy, THE BITTERBLOODS, which contains elements of Snow White and the X-Men set in the 19th Century. This should be cut, since your query doesn’t bank on this premise. When I see “in the 19th Century” I’m picturing a real, historical 19th century setting: the Victorian era. And I’m not getting the X-men vibe at all in the following paragraphs. Just call this a “steampunk fantasy.”

In Swansea Is this your fantasy setting? Is it a city or kingdom or realm? Because it’s a city in Wales., persons with magical ability are called bitterbloods, and by the Queen’s imperial decree, they are hunted and executed without exception. Is this Queen Victoria, or a fantasy queen? Since you said it was set in the 19th century, I’m picturing a historical fantasy set in Wales.

Raised as a ward of the Crown, sixteen-year-old Sarabande would rather read a math book than play croquet or learn to waltz. Her bookish habits annoy her governess(comma) and her curiosity about bitterbloods occasionally gets her in trouble, but trouble is no worse than being sent to the Tower and having to miss royal balls and operas. This is a bit confusing. I’m not sure whether she feels like that is punishment or if she enjoys it. Just be clear. For example: “…gets her in trouble, but to her, missing royal balls and operas is more of a relief than punishment.” 

However, when Sarabande discovers she has the power to heal, the Queen orders her assassination. A few things. 1) “However” doesn’t work here. This sentence doesn’t contradict the previous. Just start with “When.” 2) The Queen doesn’t order Sarabande’s assassination when Sarabande discovers her power. What specifically happens to make the Queen aware of Sarabande’s power? What did Sarabande do? An unlikely ally comes in the form of  “An unlikely ally” is a cliche, but I worry more about the unnecessarily wordiness of this. Argan Blackstone, a boy who kills with a word just as Sarabande heals with a touch. Killing with a sword isn’t a power. Sarabande has a power, so he doesn’t kill “just as” she heals. Together with an ingenious inventor and his mechanical flying horse, they must uncover the secrets behind Sarabande’s new abilities to defeat the Queen and build a future for magic in Swansea.

THE BITTERBLOODS is complete at 84,000 words with series potential.

Thank you for considering my work.

Comparing this to Snow White doesn’t help you. First, I’ve seen A LOT of fairytale retellings being pitched this past year. Second, it seems like an excuse to have a flat antagonist Queen. Why would the queen want to kill a healer? Because she has a weird law against magic that dictates everything she does (like Uther in Merlin). What does Sarabande want? To survive? If she wants to survive, why doesn’t she run away? Why is it so important to defeat the queen? Why should she build a future for magic? We know why Merlin sticks around Camelot and won’t run away—Arthur. Merlin has to use magic to keep safe someone who can never see him use it. He has to break the law to save the one who lives by it. That’s a premise full of conflict and possibility.

Having cool powers / being bookish / being an introvert isn’t enough to make me like a character. What does Sarabande want? What does her story goal have to do with her being bookish and not liking royal parties? From the first paragraph, it seems that S’s motivation is to hide. So why doesn’t she revel in exile? What changes for her?

I need to know motivation, goal, and conflict. I’m getting hints of those here and there in this query, but none of them seem to fit together. Her motivation is to be alone so she can reach her goal of reading math books, but the queen wants her killed? That isn’t drama, it’s a disconnect.

Let’s say that the X-Men comparison does work for your novel. Then you start with Sarabande learning she has powers. Everything before that is setup. “When bookish Sarabande [does this], she [discovers she has a power]. And her guardian the Queen [has this motivation, so she wants Sarabande killed].” That’s conflict. Then give us Sarabande’s motivation and goal, which she probably discovers through her new friends, and show us obstacles (the queen’s response).

I need to see a clear C+O+G in this query.

I’m posting a guide to writing queries immediately after this post. Read the WATCh post, determine which kind of novel THE BITTERBLOODS is, and then read similar queries to get some ideas for your own. Then resubmit to me, and I’ll edit your revision.

Best of luck! Once you get this started in the right place, I think everything will fall into line nicely. You can do it!

Slushproofing your Query pt. 2: Getting all the Blocks

Max Wirestone gives great query advice. Don’t forget, agents and assistants skim queries. They’ve got to! They read hundreds per week!

Max Wirestone

Let me engineer a made-up query that has an element I saw in several entries.

Emily was worried. She knew that meeting Nick’s parents would be a minefield. She couldn’t ski, she couldn’t ice skate. She was going to be completely out of place– from the sounds of it, Christmas with the Millers was nothing but a sequence of winter sports. But she really started to lose it when she discovered that Nick’s mom was in the Daughters of the Confederacy.

I ran into a query like this (that was actually probably more subtle) and I read it three times before I got the subtext. Which is here is: Nick is white, Emily is black. The book is an interracial romance.

The author doesn’t state that, though. They imply it. They artfully suggest it. But they don’t state it out right.  Instead, it’s hinted at it in a single, important…

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