Seeing as the other Randoms have covered just about everything there is to know about writing and targeting an effective query, I’ll take a different direction. The best thing I learned about writing queries and pitches was from comparing my totally lame attempt to the one my agent wrote when she sent my story out to editors. I’ll tell you about how I didn’t do anything right when it comes to queries, and how it somehow worked out OK in the end.
1) I only queried five people for my first book, Uninvited—one at a time. It wasn’t because I did my research and thought these people were the best to target. It was because I wasn’t confident about my ability to write an effective query and I was really paranoid about the fact that I’d written a vampire story—like who needs another one of those? So, I queried one person at a time and hoped they were the one. (Feel free to mock.)
2) I only queried people I’d “met.” The first four people I queried were people I’d met at conferences—either from taking their workshop or from getting a critique. I figured mentioning we’d met at a conference would take up some space in the query, and bypass the need for a good hook. (Bad! Bad! Bad!) That’s not to say I sent a query to just anyone—but when an editor said he was looking for “sex, drugs and rock and roll,” I figured I had the first two in my story, and hoped he didn’t mind that the music I referenced was Broadway musicals and not Nirvana.
(By the way, at least all four of them asked for the manuscript—networking at conferences is a good thing!)
3) After three very nice rejections (I’m still waiting to hear from number four) I queried a class instructor’s agent. My instructor wanted to show her agent my story, so I bit the bullet and sent in this:
When Jordan’s charismatic ex-boyfriend, Michael—a new vampire—shows up at her window the night of his funeral asking Jordan to let him in, she’s torn between wanting to get her life back on track and opening her window and letting Michael take her away from the pain. Complicating her feelings are her desire to reconnect with a potential boyfriend, Danny Douglas, and giving one of her new friends, Rachel, the chance to become a real friend like her childhood friend, Lisa, was. When Jordan finally decides being with Michael is not what she wants, she struggles with her lack of willpower to say ‘no’ and continues making alcohol-fueled decisions. And Jordan didn’t count on Lisa finding out about Michael. Jordan didn’t count on Lisa thinking Michael is the answer to her own troubles, and Jordan didn’t count on Michael’s twisted agenda.
The agent asked for a partial, then a full, and then signed me on. I didn’t include the personal info in the above query, but as you can see there isn’t a hook here—it’s just a rundown of events—I even had a typo! (I lucked out and this agent wasn’t a stickler for typos, but some are—have someone proof your query!)
4) Compare that to my agent’s pitch:
Jordan can’t say no.
She can’t say no when faced with the option of drinking a bottle of her mother’s gin. She can’t say no when offered a line of coke. And she can’t say no when random guys bring her into the basement at parties to get with a girl who is known to be a sure thing.
But life wasn’t always like this, there was a time before Jordan felt like her entire life was completely out of control… before Michael. But when a charming, attractive guy wants to be with you, wants to love you… how can you say no?
Michael returns for her just when she thinks her life couldn’t get worse… and when he offers her a very seductive way for her to leave all her pain behind, permanently – will she finally be able to muster the will to say no? A quick read at 50k words – this strong, commercial project (with a slight paranormal hint) will suck you in.
My agent totally downplayed the vampire aspect—and as it turns out, she picked the perfect elements to talk about. Uninvited isn’t really a vampire story—it’s more about a teen’s life spiraling out of control and the vampire is the catalyst for to her to either get her act together—or not.
I think my agent did a fantastic job avoiding an “Oh, please not another vampire story” reaction from an editor. It never would’ve occurred to me to not put a vampire in the query. So if you’re writing about a topic that’s littering the bookshelves—try to rethink it. Give it a different spin—something that won’t make an editor or agent groan as they read the 50th hook that’s crossed their desk about a girl who discovers she’s really a fairy.
5) Confession: When I was querying new agents for my second book—one in which my editor said an offer was forthcoming—I was still paralyzed with fear. So I got help. Luckily for me, I have a friend who is not only a wonderful writer, but she’s also the queen of query letters. She helped me tweak my query and I hooked a wonderful new agent!