Meet Caitlin Lambert
Caitlin Lambert is a YA writer, YouTuber, and all-around book lover! She runs Quills & Coffee – with tips, tools, and encouragement for writers every Wednesday – and chats about books and the writing life on her YouTube channel (new videos every Saturday). She likes to think she’d volunteer as tribute. When she’s not writing, you can find her reading, composing piano, and adding endless destinations to her travel bucket list. Or quite possibly eating dark chocolate.
Connect with her!
Quills & Coffee: https://www.caitlinlambert.com
Querying 101 – How to Write a Strong Query Letter
Hi everyone! I’m so excited to be here! Thank you so much, Rae, for having me 🙂
Today I’ll be discussing a topic that many writers wonder about – querying. Specifically, how to write a strong query letter. I get questions about querying and agent interactions ALL THE TIME, and I completely understand. Navigating the world of querying is sometimes nerve-wracking and confusing, especially when you first start out.
Before we begin, I just want to briefly mention why I am even qualified to talk about writing a query letter. I am by no means an expert, but I have been writing for close to eight years, and have queried two novels. I’ve had full requests from the slush pile, conferences, and even Twitter pitch parties. I’ve had an R&R request (revise and resubmit), and even an offer of representation (which I turned down, but that is for another discussion). Through all of this, I’ve learned some of the things that work, and quite a few things that don’t. Querying is subjective, but there ARE some tips that will help you stand out and catch an agent’s eye in your query letter.
So, in the end, this isn’t me talking down to you about all I know. It’s me sharing what I’ve learned, in the hopes that it will save you a few bumps in the road 🙂
I also want to mention that I am doing a collab with one of my good friends, fellow author and YouTuber Kim Chance, and we will be tackling this subject of querying. I’m discussing the most important things to remember during the process, and Kim is sharing how to research and interact with agents. Her book KEEPER is out with Flux/North Star, and she has wonderful insight into the agent process and relationship.
Okay, now that we have covered all of the house-keeping bits, let’s dive into today’s topic!
First let’s start with the query as a whole. It is generally structured like this:
- Intro & novel details
- Query blurb
Now, this is not a rigid structure. Some authors prefer to put the novel details after the blurb. Some people put the personalization further down. This is just the structure that I personally like, and one that has worked for many authors. Let’s break it all down.
INTRO AND NOVEL DETAILS
The very first line of your query should address a specific agent. Here are some phrases or words you should never use to address a query:
- Dear Agent(s)
- Dear [first name]
- To Whom It May Concern
- Dear Literary Agency
You need to be specific regarding the agent you are querying. Many writers will send out mass emails and blind copy multiple agents. They know when you do this, because the email usually begins with something generic, like “Dear Agent” or “To Whom It May Concern”, as we saw above.
It is also unprofessional to call an agent by their first name. Sometimes, you can get away with this, but I would not advise it. Once you sign with an agent, they often become one of your best friends. But you aren’t there yet. Think of this as a business proposal. You can be friendly, but not too friendly.
Query agents individually, and address your email:
Dear Ms./Mr. [agent’s last name]
The next part of the intro is your novel details. Someone once came up with a perfect name for this section, but I am less eloquent! Basically, this section is where you include the following things:
- The name of the book you are pitching
- The genre
- The word count
- Comp books
“Comp books” are books (or sometimes shows) that are comparable to your manuscript. For example, “The Selection” was pitched to fans of The Bachelor, but in a fantasy world. Comp books are not necessarily critical (in other words they won’t make or break your query), but many agents like to have some idea of the vein your book falls in. It is also good if you can come up with at least one solid comparison within your genre, to show how well you know the market.
Again, some people prefer to jump right into the pitch, and put these things afterwards. It is up to you, but again, many agents like to know what genre they are dealing with upfront. That way, if it is outside of what they represent, they can pass early on. Agents can also usually gage the genre by a pitch, but not always. Including it at the beginning is straightforward, and
Generally speaking, there are also five parts to a query blurb. Now, there is no formula to the “perfect” query. However, there is a structure that works very well. You will see each of the steps called different things, and sometimes there are more than five parts. I am personally going to break it down as such:
1. Hook sentence
3. Inciting event
Let’s begin with the first part, the hook sentence.
This is a sentence that pulls the reader in and grabs their attention. It should be engaging, unique, and show the agent what makes your query (and book) worth pursuing. Agents will typically read through a query and try out the first page or two, even if the pitch was poor. However, some agents get so inundated with queries, they judge purely from the pitch. Furthermore, many agents do not request pages upfront. They only ask for a query, and will contact you to request more material only if they are interested in the concept. This means your query is the only thing selling your story upfront. No pressure, right?
Having a good (no… great!) hook sentence will pull an agent in and encourage them to keep reading. If they like what they see, they’ll move into the next part, the pitch itself.
In some cases, such as with complex fantasy or sci-fi worlds, it’s good to open with a context sentence, such as, “In a world where…”. Now, some people will tell you never to start with that, for fear that you’ll use a Star Wars cliché (a long time ago, in a galaxy… yeah, you get the idea). But, in some circumstances, it is necessary for the agent to know the world, so that when the meet the protagonist, there is some sort of context. With my query for WHAT LIES ABOVE, the hook sentence is also a context sentence, so I kill two birds with one stone. Sometimes, that works. Other times, you need a separate one for each.
Don’t spend too much time on context. A sentence or two (max) should be plenty. Avoid info-dumps at all costs.
Next (or first if you need no context), introduce your protagonist. If your book is dual-POV (like mine), whose story is more central? Generally, one POV bears more weight than the other. If they are equal, choose one to begin with.
Establish age and “ordinary life” (the before). This should take up about one to two sentences. Why should we care about this person? Why should we care about the inciting event which will come next?
Speaking of which…
What happens that throws the protagonist’s life upside down? What unique event occurs that propels the story into action? I will give an example a little bit later, so for now, I’m going to move on to the next part…
What is the problem? What stands in the protagonist’s way? What obstacles or problems does the inciting event create for the main character? It can be described as: What stands in the MC’s way?
If inciting event can be described as, “What event throws the MC’s life upside down?”, then motivation can be described as, “Why should we care?”
What does the protagonist want, and why?
If we continue our thread of thought here:
- What event throws the MC’s life upside down?
- What does that mean for the MC? What do they want?
Stakes would then be:
- What will it cost them if they fail?
Wrap everything up, and leave the query on a note of suspense. A line that leaves the agent wanting more.
In order to illustrate all of these points, let’s break down the original pitch for The Shifter by Janice Hardy. This is actually a MG/YA crossover novel, but it is one of my favorite books. More than that, however, the query is perfect to analyze using the outline I provided above.
Here is the link to the original query, shared (and annotated) by Janice’s agent Kristin Nelson: http://nelsonagency.com/2009/04/janice-hardys-query-pitch-blurb/
Seventeen-year-old Nya couldn’t find good luck in an empty pail [introduces the protagonist]. As one of the city’s many orphans, she survives on odd jobs and optimism — finding both in short supply in a city crippled by a failed war for independence [the “before”]. Then a bungled egg theft, a stupid act of compassion and boys unable to keep their mouths shut, expose her secret to the two most powerful groups in Geveg: the pain merchants and the Healer’s League [inciting event]. They discover Nya is a Taker, a healer who can pull pain and injury from others. Trouble is, unlike normal Takers she can’t dump that pain into pynvium, the enchanted metal used to store it [conflict]. All she can do is shift it from person to person, a so far useless skill that’s never once paid for her breakfast.
When an accident floods the city with injured and Takers start disappearing from the Healer’s League, Nya’s talent is suddenly in demand. But what she’s asked to do with her healing ability feels as wrong as fish with feet [more conflict]. That is, until her sister Tali goes missing — then walking fish don’t sound so bad after all [motivation]. Because finding Tali means taking on the League, and to do something that stupid she’ll need what only her “useless skill” can get her. As her papa used to say, principles are a bargain at any price, but how many will Nya have to sell to get Tali back alive [conflict and stakes]?
Hopefully this gave you all a good idea of the general outline. It can be very helpful to list out the steps and pattern your query after it. Or to find real-life successful queries and mirror them. However, I wouldn’t become so fixated on the method that you pin yourself into a box. Your query should be lively and engaging and unique.
If you are interested in seeing a break-down of the original query for Marissa Meyer’s Cinder, reference this post (https://www.caitlinlambert.com/single-post/2017/01/27/Querying-Part-3—Writing-a-Killer-Query-Letter), which appeared on my site Quills & Coffee about a year ago. It contains similar information as what I’m covering here, but with different examples, and a slightly less thorough outline.
One last tip…
Janice Hardy (from the example above) actually happens to be a friend of mine, and during a discussion we were having about queries once, she gave some really solid advice that stuck with me. Now, I want to pass it on to you all!
CUT THE DRAMA
What exactly does this mean?
Well, many writers attempt to make their queries very drama-heavy. I did this with my query, which is actually what spurred this comment from Janice in the first place! I used extremely flowery language and tried to make everything intriguing, to the point that it become muddled and confusing. The pitch was hard to follow and used very vague language, all in the name of “drama”. I thought it would hook interest. Instead, it had the opposite effect. Thankfully, I got some honest feedback on it, and that query version never saw the light of day.
However, the principle is very important. Queries need to be straightforward. Yes, they should be intriguing, but the information needs to be laid out in a way that is easy to follow. It needs to reveal key plot points and events. You should, contrary to what many writers believe, tell the agent the inciting event in your book. No, you do not spoil the ending. But in trying to be “intriguing”, I held back practically every key piece of information from my query. This strategy is not a strong one.
Instead of working towards dramatic, try for engaging. Tell the agent what makes your book unique. As the writer, we know every little facet of our books. Agents and readers do not. They don’t know what you mean when you say, “But when a terrible event befalls [MC]…” What is that event? Specify. You aren’t killing the intrigue. You’re spinning a good, solid pitch.
Alright, we’ve now passed the most important part of the query – the pitch. We’re almost to the end of the query!
Next is your bio. I am not going to spend a lot of time discussing this part of the query, but I do want to point out a few do’s and don’ts:
- DO share any serious publications or awards
- DON’T include publication in an anthology where nearly every contestant was published (generally, these are known as vanity presses, and there are a few tell-tale characteristics: they have a massive anthology with hundreds of poems, claiming each is part of a small fraction of winners, yet you must pay $50 or more to buy a copy)
- DO include professional organizations (SCBWI, etc.)
- DON’T include why you wrote the book, unless it is non-fiction and you have relevant experience to reflect on
- DON’T say that your children love the book
- DON’T say this is the first manuscript you ever wrote
- DON’T include your age (this tends to happen when the writer is very young or very old; it is a matter of preference, and it is up to you, but I would not recommend it… let your work stand on its own, regardless of your age)
- DO include a relevant degree or certification
- DO include previously published books
Thank the agent for their time. Here is the line that I always sign my queries with…
I have attached [whatever the requested pages are; do not include this line if only a query is requested] as requested. Thank you so much for your time and consideration.
[Your real name, not a pen name or pseudonym]
And that’s it!
I know this is a lot to digest, and querying in general can be very overwhelming. Just remember to take your time when preparing your query letter. Many writers rush in their excitement to send out their book, but that can be detrimental. Generally, you only get one chance with an agent. It takes months and even years to write and polish a book. Don’t lose chances by taking only a few hours to write its query.
I hope you found this post hopeful! Thank you again, Rae, for having me! If you all have any questions, feel free to leave a comment or find me on my social media (linked below).