Query Tips and FAQs
Anxious about querying/Pitch Wars? Take a deep breath, look at these flowers, and then read my blog post below. Photo by Kate Ota, Stuttgart Germany, 2013.
With Pitch Wars just around the corner, Twitter is flooded with people asking for help writing their queries. Queries are a really tough format because they need to be short, include enough information to make sense, be interesting, and have voice. It’s no easy feat, but as someone who has queried two novels in the past and had some success with requests, I can offer basic tips to get you started.
Format and Content
If an agent’s website (or for Pitch Wars, a mentor’s website) doesn’t specifically ask for a certain format, the following is what’s generally expected:
Dear [Agent, be specific with their name here! For Pitch Wars: Dear Mentors],
Plot/character paragraphs (no more than ~3 paragraphs): This must include: Who is the main character? What do they want? What choice must they make/problem must they solve? What are the stakes? Generally, don’t go beyond the 20% mark of the novel in terms of content.
Metadata paragraph: [Title] is a [age group] [genre], complete at [word count]. It is [comparison title 1] meets [comparison title 2] and would appeal to fans of [comparison title 3, ideally the most recently published].
Bio paragraph: Tell the agent about yourself. Do you have publication credits, a popular website, a degree in writing or English? What’s your day job? Does the day job relate to the content of the novel? (It doesn’t need to!) Do you spend your free time doing anything else besides writing? Do you have cute pets? Don’t go overboard here, two sentences is enough. If you have a ton of pub credits (like a bunch of short stories in anthologies or magazines) pick three which had the widest audience or were most recent.
Thank you for your time and consideration,
Total length: for Pitch Wars it’s 250 words. For agents in general, don’t go much more than that. 300 would be the max.
Some agents like to know why you chose them. This information will not make sense in a Pitch Wars query, since you’re sending to all your mentors at once. However, for an agent, any specifics you want to include should go first, and should be to the point. Don’t say “because your website says you rep my genre.” They know they rep your genre. If you include personalization, make it specific. “You rep my favorite book, X, whose female lead has magic powers like my character, Y.” “You tweeted that you’d love to see more witches, which are abundant in my novel, Z.”
Common Query Questions
What’s the right word count for my genre? Check out this article from Writer's Digest.
Can I see some real examples? Check out Query Shark, the website by agent Janet Reid. Read as many posts as you can!
What if my novel has multiple POVs? You can mention it has multiple POVs in the metadata paragraph. You can either introduce some of your POV characters with their own short paragraphs or explain one central plot and character. If there are more than three POVs, focus on one central character because they query will not have enough space for everybody.
I don’t have any publication credits, do I say that? You don’t need to. You can either not mention it at all, which the agent (or mentor) will understand means you don’t have any credits or you can phrase it as “this would be my debut novel.”
What if I self-published before this? If you self-published the story you’re querying, it doesn’t qualify for Pitch Wars. Many agents also don’t want to work on a previously self-published work. If you are querying a different project from what you previously self-published, that’s fine. Some agents want to know how that self-pub fared; some don’t care. Some will hold bad sales against you. Usually their website offers insight into their self-pub-past preferences.
How do I find comparison titles? Comp titles are the hardest part for me. I generally go for content/tone comparisons because those give the most information about what the reader is going to get. You can also have comparisons for style, if you have an unusual format (like verse or complex timelines), or specific elements (it has the world building of X with the quirky humor of Y). Finding specific titles is a matter of searching and reading. In the Before Times, you could ask a bookseller or librarian about new books in your genre with elements you have in common. Nowadays, it’s up to good ol’ Google. Amazon has the most up to date information about best sellers in obscure genres, but don’t compare to mega best sellers. If you say it will appeal to fans of Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Bible, no one will believe you. On the other hand, an obscure comparison will be meaningless. Find a happy medium with comp titles in your age range and genre: It has rich world building like K.A. Doore’s The Perfect Assassin and would be found on the shelf with Rebecca Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning. Choose titles that have sold reasonably well and came out in the last 2-3 years. You can push that for an older comp if it’s absolutely perfect, but try to keep it to one old comp and the rest are new.
What if I use a pen name? If you have a pen name, you can sign your query with that, but an agent will eventually need to know your legal name to sign with you. Make sure the name you sign with matches your email’s name.
Can someone else query for me? I suppose they can, but I’ve never read anything from any agent that suggests they like that. Usually, they advise against it. If someone wants money to query for you, run away. Fast.
Do I need to hire a professional editor before I query? No. And doubly no for Pitch Wars, editing is the name of the game. However, your manuscript should be as polished and clean as you can make it. I highly recommend joining critique groups to help with this, and beta and authenticity readers are also a huge help. However, paying a professional editor is not necessary.
What if my project is the first in a series? This is tricky, you don’t want to gush about how you’ve written all 18 of a series before the first even sold. It scares agents. If it’s the first in a series, you would include in your metadata paragraph that is has series potential. If it is not in a series, the phrase to use is it’s a stand-alone.
I have really intense world building, how do I fit that into the query? You can slide in hints of the world building, but you’ll have to save the complexities for the synopsis and the book itself. The query needs more about the main character and the plot than the world building. If the agent (or mentor) reads your query and can’t name the character, their want, their choice, and their stakes, they won’t care about the world building because they won’t know what happens.
Do I say how it ends in the query? No. Generally, you only discuss content that’s in the first 20% or so of the novel. Act 1, if you’re into that structure. The stakes mentioned can hint at what would go wrong later, but you shouldn’t tell us if it actually goes that way. You do, however, discuss the ending in the synopsis. Synopses will be a separate post.
I'll end by reminding you that no matter what you read, even if you read it here, whatever the agent's website says they want is the correct thing to send them. Follow their rules! They have a reason they want it their way, so just do it!
Want help on your specific query? DM me on twitter and I can take a look. Have a question I didn’t cover? Write it in the comments and we’ll discuss!