Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Query Letter Writing Process

Let it be known: I like writing query letters.

That's right. I won't deny it any longer. And...well, the contest thingy I have coming up right here on this blog channel? Yup, you guessed it. Related to queries. So let's get started on honing yours.

Some of you are new around here. I'm a bit of a freak in the regard that I enjoy writing query letters. Like, a lot. I usually start writing my query when I start writing the book.

Query Letter Writing Sekrit #1: You don't need every single plot point in the query. We just need the skeleton. And writing the query BEFORE the book -- I mean, how much more skeletal can you get?

I'm pretty good at getting the bones down by now (yes, even agented authors must write blurbs or query pitches). But here's a glimpse into how I developed this lunacy, er, query letter writing talent.

1. Write by hand. There's just something different about writing with a pencil. Number one, it forces my brain to sloooww dooowwn, something I really struggle with.

2. Print out successful queries. Mine is here. I wrote a whole eBook that has an entire section devoted to "queries that worked." (But wait till Friday to buy - there's going to be a sale!) Or click here, where most authors who do an interview for Pat provide their winning query letter.

With the printed queries in hand, I highlighted all the first sentences. I read them. Over and over. I came up with a formula for why they worked. Basically, I found this: a one-sentence hook line for the entire novel.

Mine: "In a world where Thinkers control the population and Rules aren't meant to be broken, fifteen-year-old Violet Schoenfeld does a hell of a job shattering them to pieces."

Then I read the last sentence of the blurb, skipping everything in between. I think this should give the reader a very good idea of what the book is about, just in two short sentences.

Mine: "When secrets about her "dead" sister and not-so-missing father hit the fan, Vi must make a choice: control or be controlled."

Together, they read: "In a world where Thinkers control the population and Rules aren't meant to be broken, fifteen-year-old Violet Schoenfeld does a hell of a job shattering them to pieces. When secrets about her "dead" sister and not-so-missing father hit the fan, Vi must make a choice: control or be controlled."

Everything in the middle came later. Much later. (So much later, that I'm going to blog about them next week. And then I'm going to talk about the "other" paragraphs in a query -- the ones besides the blurb.)

So if you're writing a query, just start with nailing that first sentence and then the last. It should encapsulate the novel, from a starting point to an ending point, with nothing in between. It seems like a small step, but it's really not. And we all need to start writing query letters in small steps anyway, right? Right.

What do you think? Can you take out the middle of your query and still have an explanation of your book from beginning to end? Try it! Post it in the comments, let us see and help. Even agented authors can do this -- and it might really help someone to see something like this from another query that worked.

So let's see what you've got!

94 comments:

Jess of All Trades said...

This made my brain cramp. But it was the most helpful query advice ever. The way you phrased it...distilling from first sentence to last sentence. Awesome. Your are a goddess. *deep breath* Here's what I made:


"No one travels in the country of Tharse, for fear of ancient beasts, dangerously unanswered riddles and roads that have a nasty habit of changing direction – but a journey across the country is the only way fourteen year old Elynor can save her brother’s life. Elynor is not a Chosen One, a hero, or a princess in disguise with magical powers – only a girl who will do whatever she has to do to protect the ones she loves."

Elana Johnson said...

Jess, I think it reads pretty well. I love the hook sentence, with the bit of snap in the voice. The only thing I might do is take out the words "in disguise" in the last sentence. But really, what's 2 words??

Thanks for posting this!

Jess of All Trades said...

Thanks so much! You're probably right... In a two-sentence query, two words is everything, right..? :|

Nisa said...

Help! Is it terrible that I can't seem to summarize my book at all? I don't even know how to get as far as a first and last sentence. Sad huh? I'm so terrified of cramming my whole book into one sentence/query/synopsis that I've been saying I wouldn't do it until I've finished revising. I know I should just do it, but when I think about it, I don't even know where to begin. Everything I think to say would give away things I don't want given away and considering my book has so many POVs and the most major is from the perspective of the villain... well, I'm at a complete loss. Sorry for the rant.

Kristin Rae said...

Thanks for the tips!

And if I could comment to Nisa: just write SOMETHING! TRY it! I've rewritten my mini-synopsis probably ten times, and each time it gets better and better. Keep reading examples of ones that work, and try wording yours in one of those formats but with your story's elements. That's what I did, and I'm really pleased with the latest version.
Good luck everyone!

Christina Lee said...

Elana, I was so going to beg you for help with my newest since you did a bang up job with my last one! And reading your "story" again on querytracker always gives me hope to push ahead (esp. the 150 queries part) :D

I tried to put mine here but had trouble with your formula, which tells me I suck again :D So now I have to go away and work on it--thanks!

Scott said...

Hey, now, what's with this sale on the e-book? Do I get a refund? : ) Kidding.

I finally honed down the opening paragraph of my own query into something that zings with me. Whether it zings with an agent, I have no clue . . . yet. I still have to work on the middle part. Sigh. Oh well, at least I have someone's handy-dandy e-book to help me along the way.

S

Brandon said...

This is awesome advice! I love when you can break down success into something like a formula or a set of key components. Writing is obviously a venue for individuality and style, but there's nothing wrong with breaking down some good writing basics into measurable pieces.

Thanks for the tips! I may have to devote some time to a query letter soon, even though my book is very barebones at this point. :)

Kerri C at CK Farm said...

Ha when reading this I said to myself "She is a goddess!"

I was just working on my query when I decided to take a break and blog and GLAD I DID!!

Awesome post!!!!

So true about writing your query before the story. It was actually my lightbulb moment last week and I was going to post about it lol!

Lisa Amowitz said...

Perfect timing,E, My WIP is FINISHED. I'm going to have the first 500 read at the SCBWI conf this weekend and then...I'm hopefully ready to get the show on the road.

Only...I HATE writing query letters as much as I LOVE doing designing banners. But I'm going to get started with the advice you gave her, O great and wise Query Queen. Bless you!!!

Frankie Diane Mallis said...

Oh wow this couldn't have been more timely for me! Im right in the middle of working on my query as I finish my revision too. Awesome advice. Oh I need help!

Kara said...

This is really awesome advice. I have to start drafting a query soon and I'm actually looking forward to it!

Bish Denham said...

Okay, I will brave the hostile waters with this query opening.

He’s vain. He’s headstrong. He believes he has a destiny. His peers think he’s a coward, and will never be a good provider. The adults worry he won’t live to see grandchildren. He is, Marvin P. Tinkleberry, hero.

Stina Lindenblatt said...

Great advice! I hate writing the final sentence of the query. Other than the hook, it's seems to be the most critical. I keep wondering if mine's too vague because I don't mention the bad person specifically. It pretty much gives away the ending if I do. And I've heard that's not cool. ;)

Linda Kage said...

You know, your advice sounds pretty dang awesome...and so simple. Focus on the hook line and last line; worry about the rest later. I just might be able to do that!

Thanks. I love it.

Jonathon Arntson said...

You make it sound so simple...thanks!

Also, you seriously like writing query letters? Freak. Just teasing. Yup.

Stephanie Thornton said...

This is great! I hadn't consciously done the second sentence part, but I checked and my whole novel is encapsulated in my hook and the last sentence of my blurb.

Yay!

PS- I love writing queries too. Don't tell!

lbdiamond said...

Oh, sigh. I just got feedback from an intern who said I'd be better off starting over with my query letter because I didn't build my world enough for a YA paranormal query. She picked every sentence apart. Good on the one hand, completely devastating on the other. How do I put the pieces back together? How do I get past the slush pile???? (Plus, she thought "adventure" fit my ms better than "thriller." Is there such a "genre"?)

I'm not getting it. I think what I write is clear, but I get feedback like I'm writing in a different language or something. It makes me wonder about my ability to communicate at all.

Back to the drawing board--an just when I thought I'd hit a winner.

Shannon O'Donnell said...

Elana, you are the ruling Queen of querying. I ordered your book after you critiqued my query letter and am hoping to memorize it! Ha ha. Thanks for the awesome post. :-)

Kristi said...

You are truly the Query Goddess -- now I'm going to look at mine to check the 2-sentence thing. Also, that's so sweet of you to tell people to wait to buy your book, but I can attest the book is worth every penny. Can't wait for the contest!

Shelli said...

great advice - as usual :)

Jennie Englund said...

Super useful!

You and Suzanne Young and your Love of the Query... you crazies, you!!!

catwoods said...

I love writing query letters too. Maybe I should consider non-fiction writing...

Kayeleen said...

Well, here is what I have so far. I think the hook needs some work.

Dawn has lived her life under the shadow of a curse--she will prick her finger on a rose and sleep forever--so with no friends, no life outside her home, and not content to sit at home and wait for the inevitable like her parents seem to be, she sets off into the fairy woods, determined to find her own solution. Dawn never dreamed she would find a hideous monster, a ridiculous prince, and ultimately, herself, on the journey she takes to avoid her destiny.

Voidwalker said...

I've kept my query letter writing on hold lately. I'm more of an OCD Outliner, but I'll have to try my hand at this approach of Alpha & Omega query letter synopsis. I like it.

Lynnette Labelle said...

Great post. Looking forward to the next one about the rest of a query.

Lynnette Labelle
http://lynnettelabelle.blogspot.com

Carolyn V. said...

I am so not ready for a query yet! But this is an excellent post. Thanks Elana!!! =)

Elana Johnson said...

Bish, I really like yours. I might take out a couple of things though...

He’s vain. Headstrong. Believes he has a destiny. (I took out the "He's" at the beginning of these. I think they read snappier.) Everyone thinks he’s a coward, and will never be a good provider. The adults worry he won’t live to see grandchildren. (I'd cut this in favor of getting to the fantastic hero bit.) He is, Marvin P. Tinkleberry, hero.

lbdiamond said...

Okay, went back to the drawing board:

Whaddya think?

As the third year anniversary of her father’s disappearance looms, sixteen-year-old Nickie Leone develops unexpected feline traits he inherited to her.

Had she known about the existence of shapeshifters, maybe she would have been prepared when she grew whiskers and pointed ears. But her father ran away before he told her because a rival threatened to kill him. Too bad the rival wants to use her as bait to lure her father out of hiding. Without her dad, Nickie is left to figure out how to adapt to life as a shapeshifter on her own—until seventeen-year-old Xavian sees her newly formed appendages and offers to help. He can transform his body too and since he has connections to others with the same ability, she could use his advice.

Now Nickie must pair up with Xavian and find a way to win her father’s freedom—before she becomes a captive and her father becomes a murder victim.

Elana Johnson said...

Kayeleen, I might cut a little of yours too...

Dawn has lived (sugg: lives) her life under the shadow of a curse--she will prick her finger on a rose and sleep forever--so (delete) with no friends, no life outside her home, and not content to sit at home and wait for the inevitable like her parents seem to be, (delete) she sets off into the fairy woods, determined to find her own solution. Dawn never dreamed she would find a hideous monster, a ridiculous prince, and ultimately, herself, on the journey she takes to (I get what you're saying, but maybe, "...herself as she attempts to avoid her destiny." would roll a little better. Maybe?) avoid her destiny.

Paul Greci said...

This is great advice!!

I came up with a one sentence log line for my book before I started querying.

Sandra said...

lbdiamond, may I nitpick your first sentence? Nickie inherits shapeshifting powers from her father; he passes them down to her.

I'm still playing with my two lines, but I'll post them later if I come up with something worth posting.

lbdiamond said...

To Sandra: Yes! Nitpick please! I'll take any and all feedback offered! :)

It helps me to improve--BTW, the first sentence needs a tweaking, I think. ;)

Falen said...

huh, mine does not. I already knew i had to re-write it, so this will help.
Thanks!

(I also write mine on paper, it's so much easier!)

Lady Glamis said...

Genius, Elana! I really need to buy your book before I jump into the trenches.

Kimberly Franklin said...

You're making me thing? What kind of blog is this??? GAWH!

I'll have to come back with mine. I'm kind of excited to see what I come up with. : )

Robyn Campbell said...

Elana, I am buying your book (hubby made me wait until Christmas credit card charges are paid.) I can't wait to get into it. I dub thee, QUEEN ELANA! Queen of the query. Hmmm, pretty fancy huh?

Here's mine.


Seventy Two Hours follows Anna and Claire, two 13 year - old girls one a diabetic, as they set out on an end of summer endurance horseback ride alone in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and everything that can go wrong, does go wrong.

Give it to me. :-)

Danyelle said...

Elana, you are made of awesome!

>.< My two sentences don't exactly make sense, but if I use sentence numbers 1,2 and the last two, it's all good.

*weeps* You mean after we're agented and published we still have to write these things? :'(
On the plus side, they get easier with practice. :D

Kristi said...

Wow...someone who likes writing query letters!!! And to think I didn't know those people existed! :-)

Thanks for this awesome post. I know I will refer to it over and over again.

You have some great tips and when I get time I most certainly will try them out! I'm in the beginning of my latest WIP and now would be the perfect time!!!

Thanks for sharing! Sounds like a book I need for my office!

Tamika: said...

This post is must be bookmarked!

I'm glad you cleared up the question when to write a query, I would have assumed you would begin after the novel was finished.

Like my daughter says, "I'm so new."

Your book is is next for my Kindle purchase!

Jen Chandler said...

I would have never thought to do this. I'm going to try it when I get home. Thanks for this :) I need all the help I can get with my query. I'm confident in my story. My query, however, always seems to fall flat.

Jen

L.T. Elliot said...

You and Your Query Book = WICKED AWESOME!

lynnrush said...

Wow. You LIKE queries???? LOL.

Hey, we each have our own gifts, right? **smile**

Nice work. This is a great post about queries. Very helpful.

I remember the process all too clearly (and my 'rejections' file on my computer is very full!).

Write on, my friend.

Steena Holmes said...

You. Are. AWESOME! I posted a link over on my blog telling everyone to come here!

Ok, here's my stab...

Keeping a secret for thirty years is not the easiest thing to do, especially when it’s regarding a child you never had, but Rachel Hanlin somehow manages to do exactly that. Until Nathan accidentally stumbles across a box of hidden journals and confronts Rachel about the secret she’s kept from him, forcing her to confront her biggest fear – losing the child she always knew.

Karen said...

This got tagged AND starred in Google Reader.

Okay, I actually haven't started working on my query letter yet, but you make a good point about writing it before you even finish the novel. Weekend project for when I'm home moping because an ice storm is most likely keeping me from the Austin SCBWI conference. :(

Jessica said...

Awesome exercise! I'm going to include this post in my query linkage on Friday. I LOVE this idea!

Mary Aalgaard said...

Elana, Thank you so much for connecting with me. You have the best profile descrip! Your humor is delightful. I don't have even one spare min. now, as I type at record speed. I just got home from a workout. I'm hungry, need a shower, and must return to the cold to pick up the children, bring them to the Y, pick up the biggest kid, return home and teach four piano lesson!!

I'll be back!

Kasie West said...

Wow, you ARE good at writing queries. I hate writing them. But I like your formula. And I do like the idea of writing them with just the idea of your book in mind. I bet that really helps weed out all the junk. Hmmm, maybe I'll try that on the book I just started. Thanks for the tips.

Nisa said...

*deep breath* Here we go with attempt #1.

In a time when Vismour prospers, few look for signs of change and fewer still accept what they discover, so it is no surprise that none of the city's leaders want to help solve what they see as an irrelevant mystery. Dark works spread across the city like fire across dry fields and, in the end, it is impossible to deny the bloody force spilling across the land.

Southpaw said...

I'm gonna try this, it sounds so easy.

Kristen Torres-Toro said...

My time is coming back up again. Thanks for this post!

Tabitha Bird said...

Great advise. I am going to try this one. Sound so easy. Second thoughts... wanna write mine for me :)

Jemi Fraser said...

Great advice! I haven't done the query for my ms yet. Now I've got a good place to start. Thanks :)

Katie Ganshert said...

You like writing queries!? I knew you were a strange bird, Elana (Jimmy Buffet!)

I'm SO happy I don't have to write queries anymore!!!

ali said...

Fun! Fun! Oh Goddess of the Query. Queretha? Hmm ...

Here's my first and last sentences:

It’s time for the devil’s daughter to join the family business of ruining lives and stealing souls, but sixteen-year-old Desolation Black wants to be good. With the help of angel and love-of-her-heart Michael, Lost Soul James, and good-girl Miri, Desi will fight the demons of hell and her own father for freedom of all people—including the right to choose for herself the kind of person she will be.

Journaling Woman said...

Elana, My first time here and your blog excites me. I'm almost speech...less or word...less, but not.

I am drinking in your information and will return to catch up on the past.

Mary Campbell said...

Okay Elana, I've worked on this all afternoon. Here goes:

Cinderella Slavik Style

Put upon, overworked Vasilissa dreams of a hero who will rescue her. But when her nine year old siblings disappear, Vasilissa is pulled into an adventure shrouded with mystery and enchantment.
Folklore and Legend collides as dark factions battle for power.
When Vasilissa finally comes face-to-face with real live heroes, not only do they not rescue her, she may be the hero they've been looking for.

Kelly said...

Yay! Yay! Advice on queries! Just what I'm working on.
Here's what I've got so far for my chapter book...
No one likes to be teased, and this includes Stefani Lucas. Stef loves rock music and the very cool color of black, in fact that’s all she wears. When classmates tease her about her wardrobe and even double dares her to (gasp!) wear another color, Stef wonders if she should give in and try something new. New clothes and a surprise performance by her dad’s band at the grade school help Stef and her friend Gabi realize it is better to just be yourself.

Hilary Wagner ~ Writer said...

Elana,

What a cool post! So I've combined the 1st & last line of my original query, which landed my agent and got a book deal! Does it still hook you??

xoxo -- Hilary

"As a girl, still at the age when toys were the appropriate gift, I hated getting dolls. I've completed NIGHTSHADE CITY, an 80,000 word novel, focusing on fighting for what you believe in, the true meaning of family and refusing to let a few decide the fate of many."

Janet Johnson said...

It sounded so easy in your blog, but I'm sweating after the effort. I know it needs work, but here's my attempt:

Unable to ride a horse or wield a sword, fifteen-year-old Prince Bob---a.k.a. Prince Charming's little brother---is as steeped in failure as his bother is in success.

When war threatens his country, and his own brother gets him dismissed from his captain's post, Bob has two choices: stay home and accept his failure or find a way to prove himself.

Amy Tate said...

You are the Queen of Query land, Elana. I've lamenated your ebook, girl.

Terri Tiffany said...

I'm going to go try it now. I dread and hated writing mine. It resulted in one full request but that's it. I wish they were easier to write! WHINNNNEEEEEEE!~

Mary Aalgaard said...

Alright, my query letter.

If only Kathryn could figure out a way to help her mom, to get inside those dark recesses of her mind and bring her back out, and home from the state hospital for the insane. Then she could, what? Marry the doctor's son; go off to college - for what; contribute to the war, but girls don't go to war, afterall, War is Not for Girls. (that last part is the title. It's not really two concise sentences, but there it is.)

Stephanie L. McGee said...

Great post. Gonna bookmark!

DL Hammons said...

Will you please just write my query for me??? Really, I suck at this. No joke.

Please, please, please, please, please, please, please, please, please, please, please, please!!!

Kelly said...

Here I read your advice and forgot to post just my first and last sentence.. Doh! And I see my first sentence needs work now....

Natalie Aguirre said...

Thanks for your great post. It's time for me to work on my query and I'm avoiding it. I'm going to check out the queries you recommend working on and start working on mine. Thanks so much for posting on this.

Melissa said...

Wow, I've never thought to work on the query before the book was finished! Must try this soon. Thanks for the fabulous advice:)

B.J. Anderson said...

Yes, you are the queen of queries, and you proved it the other day when you took a look at mine for me. Thank you so much! I rewrote it about a hundred more times and I think it might just work.

Tiana Lei said...

I actually haven't written a query yet. Next on my to-do list! I don't know if you do blog awards or not, but I left you one over on my blog. You don't need to do anything about it if you don't want to, I just wanted to give you some recognition :) http://www.tianalei.com

Lisa and Laura said...

You are a freaking genius. Genius I tell you!

GunDiva said...

Love the information. I'm terrified of even beginning a query letter. But. With your tip, I might have a starting point.

Elana Johnson said...

Steena, yours sounds really great!!

Mary, I might take some words out of yours too...

If only Kathryn could figure out a way to help her mom, to get inside those dark recesses of her mind and bring her back out, and (delete) home from the state hospital for the insane. Then she could, what? Marry the doctor's son; go off to college - for what; contribute to the war, but girls don't go to war, afterall, War is Not for Girls.

Janet, I think yours is fan-freaking-tastic!

Kelly, you did not just (gasp!)! I (gasp!) in my query. That's it. We're querymates. :) :) :)

Ali, you should send just those two sentences. Srsly. They're amazing!

Nisa, yours looks really good as well. :)

And yes, Danyelle. I just sent off three pitches/query blurbs for NOVELS I HAVEN'T EVEN STARTED YET. So yeah. All authors have to blurb. Might as well get used to it, right? Right.

Karen, tagged and starred?? *humbled*

Thanks to everyone who shared and commented today! You guys are the fabulousestness!

Lorel Clayton said...

I'm amazed by your love of query writing and really hope it will rub off on me. Right now I approach it as I would a Huntsman spider (a tarantula we get in the house here in Australia sometimes).
By the way, I gave you a blog award.
http://lorelclayton.blogspot.com/2010/01/i-love-awards-really.html

Bethany Wiggins said...

How come I've never read your query before??? It rocks! Just like the book.

Christina Farley said...

I cannot write a query to save my life (or books!). I have this one book I wrote 2 years ago but still haven't shopped it around because I can't get the query right. It's that bad. Believe me, I'm reading your blog!

Emma Michaels said...

You have gotten an award for being cup-cake sweet from my blog: http://emmamichaels.blogspot.com/2010/01/cupecake-award-amazing-night.html

Jenn Johansson said...

Very cool, Elana! I, too, am one of the oddballs that enjoys writing queries. Great tips!

Mary Campbell said...

You didn't comment on my query attempt Elana. Was it just too terrible?

Bish Denham said...

Thanks for your suggestions Elana!

Natalie said...

I had to go back and check. Nope, neither of my queries did this, (but I kind of think both of them stunk). This is a great idea.

jbchicoine said...

What a great way to re-evaluate my query--yet again. Thanks for the suggestion!

Elana Johnson said...

Ack! Sorry, Mary, my eyes just had a lot of fur on them last night, and I glazed over it.

Put upon, (I'd start after this with "Overworked") overworked Vasilissa dreams of a hero who will rescue her. But when her nine year old siblings disappear, Vasilissa is pulled into an adventure shrouded with mystery and enchantment.
Folklore and Legend collides as dark factions battle for power.(I'd delete this. We're just going for two sentences, the beginning and the ending of the blurb.)
When Vasilissa finally comes face-to-face with real live (delete) heroes, not only do they not rescue her, she may be the hero they've been looking for.

So just a few suggestions. It's fab!

Mary Campbell said...

Thank you so much Elana - you're full of awesomeness!

Janet Johnson said...

Thanks, Elana! I'm loving your blog. Super helpful. :)

Susan J. Reinhardt said...

Thanks for commenting at my blog. Great advice. Queries and pitches give me nightmares. Maybe now they'll turn into sweet dreams. :)

lexcade said...

you've helped me realize my query has no personality. at all.

lisa and laura recommended you. i'm so so glad they did!

Michelle H. said...

I love your query advice. I usually try to write my query before I start the first chapter of the book. That's when my mind is focused on the gist of the plot.

For the one novel, the query was so awesome I had requests for partials and fulls on the same day I sent it out. But for the second book, for some strange reason, I waited until after writing the story to do the query. It was twice as hard to focus my query on just one hook and absolutely sucked. Ugh!

Carla Gade said...

Excellent advice. Thank you!

Corra McFeydon said...

A handmade trackback since I can't figure out how to do it the official way. :) I mentioned this article at my blog in a january in review post. Cheers! - Corra McFeydon

Kristi Faith said...

Grr I'm so late! Well, if you still have the kindness to critique, here goes nothing.

ps-this is my very first query every written...ever. Please do not be gentle-ya know, so I can learn. :-)

When a new drug hits the streets of a rural town in Nevada teenagers start dying at an alarming rate. Sixteen-year-old Moira Ward's first assignment as a PI for The Company: find the "cook" of this new drug and prevent more teens from dying. Not so hard if she can keep herself alive in the midst of drugs, parties and sex long enough to find him.

Karen Lange said...

Bookmarking this! I dislike queries, so need to take this in slowly and work on it. Thanks so much for sharing,
Karen

Julie Wright said...

I'm querying again since my agent and I broke up and love your attitude. Thanks for the advice.

Bose said...

This is the first time I have visited your site and I am amazed at the amount, the value and the clarity of the information you have provided.
Letter writing

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