From the Query to the Call_The Query Process Made EasyElana Johnson
I wrote this book because I think every writer needs a guide for every step of the way from the time they finish a novel to landing a literary agent or writing their own cover copy in preparation to self-publish.
This book is not about writing said novel. I’m assuming you have that step done. Edited, revised, critiqued by trusted readers. No, this book is about what to do after you’ve written the novel—because sometimes the task of writing a query letter (cover copy) and querying literary agents can seem twice as daunting as actually writing a book!
So roll up your sleeves. I already know you’re a hard worker if you’ve written a novel. Now let the real fun begin—finding a literary agent or putting your book out into the world.
Watch for this symbol through the book. It indicates important tips, links or things to remember.
When I first wrote this guide in early 2009, self-publishing wasn't a "thing." I didn't know anyone who self-published, and it wasn't a route available to authors. Now, however, there are multiple avenues an author can pursue to achieve publication. And Indie publishing is a booming business, which I am a profound part of.
I believe that this guide can help Indie authors write compelling cover copy that will entice readers to buy, the same way I'm advocating those authors who wish to query literary agents are trying to compel them to request the full.
For the purposes of this novel, I'm going to use the terms query letter and cover copy interchangeably. I've written numerous query letters for my traditionally published novels. I've also written my own cover copy for my six (and counting!) self-published titles.
"The Call" portion of this guide won't apply to you as a self-publisher, but I believe the section about writing the cover copy will be an invaluable resource to you as you get ready to put your books out into the world.
Query Letter [kweer-ee let-er]: an inquiry from a writer to an editor [or agent] of a magazine, newspaper, etc., regarding the acceptability of or interest in an idea for an article, news story, or the like: usually presented in the form of a letter that outlines or describes the projected piece.
Your query letter should do three things:
1. Tell about your project (novel, short story, article, etc.)
2. Tell about you
3. Capture your audience enough to request more (for self-publishing authors: entice readers to click buy!)
How to write a killer query letter that will do these three things is discussed in Section Two: Writing a Killer Query.
A few things to remember:
A query letter is the first impression an agent has of you. And we all know you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.
A query letter is correspondence with an industry professional. Treat it as such.
A query letter is not hammered out in a few minutes.
Sometimes it’s helpful to see what not to include in a query letter or to think about what a query letter should not do.
For example, a query letter is not your life story. It’s not how many kids you have, the names of your pets, or if you’ve written seventeen (as of yet) unpublished novels. It’s not the place to tell the agent or reader how much your mom loved your book. Query letters should not be sent with bribes or obvious kissing up.
It’s simple. You need one because that’s how agents and editors find new talent. You need compelling cover copy to reach new readers.
There’s really no reason to be upset that “the system” doesn’t work. Perhaps your time would be better spent learning all you can, improving your craft as much as possible, and learning to work within “the system” no matter how broken you think it is.
You need a query letter because it’s what agents and editors will read, and hopefully by the time you’ve read this e-book and crafted your query letter, those agents and/or editors will be asking to see more. Readers will be clicking buy. I mean, how many times have you read the back of a book to decide if you want to buy it? We all do. So draw in readers with great cover copy.
That is the goal, after all. I like to think of the query letter as the gateway into the publishing world. You can’t get an agent to read your whole book unless you have a killer query. You can't get a reader to buy and read your book without killer cover copy.
So let’s get started!
This section has six parts, outlining the separate parts that I believe make up a killer query. Print out the examples in the Query Samples section of this book. Make notes. Think and think and then think some more about your novel.
When I sat down to write my query, I had about seven successful examples of query letters spread out on my counter. I made notes on what the first line was. The second. How many paragraphs. I had them in digital format and I put the word count at the top of the printed copy. I looked at the last paragraph, how the letter ended, all of it.
Then I wrote my letter by hand, incorporating the common themes I found in the successful query letters. I have achieved good success with my query letters (30-35% request rate) and I believe that you can too.
Query letters should be written in the tone of your novel. Keep that in mind as you go through this studying process. Just because a successful query is over-the-top funny doesn’t mean yours will be—unless you’ve also written a comedy. Remember this, but the query-writing formula doesn’t change because of it.
There’s been some debate about whether or not you need a hook. I’m just going to get this out of the way—I believe you do.
And believe it or not, you probably have the beginnings (if not more) of a hook already. You just don’t know it.
Your hook should:
1. Sum up the novel in one sentence
2. Propel the reader to read the whole letter with interest
Notice I didn’t say it has to make me gasp. Nor do it have to be snarky, snappy or in your face (unless, of course, that’s the tone of your novel). All it needs to do is sum up your novel and make me want to read on. That’s it.
Let’s explore some examples.
1. “In a world where Thinkers brainwash the population and Rules are not meant to be broken, fifteen-year-old Vivian Schoenfeld does a hell of a job shattering them to pieces.” (29 words - Possession by Elana Johnson)
2. “Sixteen-year-old Annie Jenkins must control the magic to balance the realm—it's too bad her unknown abilities are hidden beneath her inhalant addiction.” (23 words)
3. “Sixteen-year-old Penelopie Baker has died 67 times, and it’s about to happen again.” (13 words)
4. “When a girl looks into a boy's eyes, she hopes to see his soul, but when sixteen year old Emerson Taylor kisses a boy's lips, she also sees his past.” (30 words)
~courtesy of Katie Anderson, author of Kiss & Make-Up
5. “Kate Lowry didn't think dead best friends could send e-mails.” (10 words)
~courtesy of Lisa and Laura Roecker, authors of Liar Society
These examples accomplish both items above with ease. You can get a general idea about each novel from the single sentence. I included the word counts of each sentence, just so you can get a general feel for how long they are. There are no hard and fast rules about this, but I recommend a sentence of no longer than 40 words. That’s a pretty long sentence.
Basically, you want your hook to be the answer to the question: “What is your book about?”
You should have seen my panic face the first time I was asked that. I was like, “Well, it’s about this magician guy, and he well, he’s immortal, and he hates it, and there’s this girl and she can turn him back into a mortal. Or somethi
By the end, people were more confused than satisfied. And these were people that liked me, were interested in the book enough to ask about it, and I couldn’t even answer their simple question.
That’s what your hook needs to do. Answer the question: What is your book about?
Look at the examples again. Do you want to read more? Depending on the genre you enjoy, perhaps. There is an entire section devoted to researching agents, so if you’ve done your homework, you’ll be sending your query to those who are interested in your genre. You want the reader to need to read on. Not want, need.
In fact, that first sentence should not only sum up the book, it should springboard the reader through the rest of the letter.
Final words on hooks:
Your hook should not be a question
Grab, entice, get out = one sentence
Mimic the tone of your novel
Ready to start crafting your hook? Click here for a group of worksheets you can print and use.
Once you've hooked the agent to read your whole query letter, you've got to deliver. You can't just have a hook and then let everything else slide. Following the hook, you need to get to the problem. This requires a little bit of setup. You may have noticed in some of the example hooks, the age of the protagonist was included. Of course you should specify the genre, but the agent knows right away which age group you’re writing for when you include the age in the hook. Little details like that contribute to the setup in your query.
In the setup, you have a few goals:
1. Provide a few details about who your main character is. You've hooked the agent to find out more about your main character, so give them what they want.
2. World-building information if pertinent. For fantasy and science fiction, a little taste of the world would go in the setup section of the query. For mystery, horror, thriller or other genres, including the setting here wouldn't be a bad idea.
3. The catalyst that moves the main character into the conflict.
In each of the examples below (which are numbered to go with their hooks from the first part of this section), I’m going to expound on what each sentence brings to the table as far as setup. The same as in writing, what you include in the letter should have a purpose for being there.
1. “After committing her eighth lame crime (walking in the park after dark with a boy, gasp!), (details = Vi dislikes Rules and breaks them, world building = the Rules are lame) Vi is taken to the Green, a group of Thinkers who control the Goodgrounds. (world-building) She’s found unrehabilitatable (yeah, she doesn’t think it’s a word either) (details = Vi is snarky) and exiled to the Badlands. (world-building = exiled to another land) Good thing sexy Bad boy Jag Barque will be going too. (catalyst to the conflict = exiled to the Badlands with a Bad boy)” [3 sentences, 58 words]
2. “Whenever she's high, Annie has vivid visions of a death she can't remember and a guy she's never met. (details) When she meets Jonathan Clarke, the ghostly boy from her hallucinations, she realizes her drug use has masked the abilities she's inherited from her magic-keeping mother. (Details = Annie inherits magic. World-building = magic-keeping mother) Wielding magic isn't everything it's cracked up to be; Annie discovers her newfound powers can't cure her terminally ill mother. (More details = Annie's mom is sick. World-building = magic can't fix everything. Catalyst to the conflict = magic can't fix everything, Annie's powers are new and she can't do what she wants with them.) [3 sentences, 65 words]
3. “She can feel death approaching like you can feel rain falling on your skin. (details + world-building = Penny feels death) Penny thinks the 68th death will get her one step closer to being able to reclaim her lost life, but she’s dead (lol) wrong. (details = Penny’s lost life, catalyst to conflict = her death won’t help her reclaim her lost life) Because the death she feels is not her own, but that of a friend. (catalyst to conflict = death of a friend)” [3 sentences, 52 words]
4. “Emerson Taylor is sixteen and a kissing virgin, much to her complete and utter horror (details = Emerson hasn’t kissed a boy) - until one day when she and some friends play an innocent game of Spin the Bottle. While her first kiss is brief and nothing special, what she discovers shortly afterward is definitely special.
When Emerson kisses a boy, she can see his past. (details + world-building = she can see the past with a kiss) And it doesn't take her long to figure out how to kiss and steal test answers, gossip and secrets... (world-building) But the kiss that will rock her world is the kiss she carefully plans after her BFF disappears without a trace.(catalyst to conflict = her BFF is gone and she’s going to use her “kissing power” to find her) ” [5 sentences, 99 words]
–courtesy of Katie Anderson, author of Kiss & Make-Up
5. “Not even on the anniversary of their disappearance. Of course, that was before this message from Grace appeared in her inbox: (details = who the dead girl is)
I shouldn't be writing.
They'll hurt you. (details = find Christian, dead girl might not be dead)
Most girls would ignore the warning and go straight to the police.
But Kate isn’t most girls. (catalyst to conflict = what is Kate like? What will Kate do?)
Instead, she decides to channel Nancy Drew, pearls and all. (catalyst to conflict = she’s going to solve the case) Of course, Kate’s pearls are faux, her skirts are way shorter and she’d take everyone's favorite teen detective in a girl fight, but you get the idea. (details = Kate is made of spunk)” [93 words]
–courtesy of Lisa and Laura Roecker, authors of Liar Society
All of these examples drive the reader toward the conflict. That's what you want your setup section of the query letter to do. Don't bog us down in too many details. Don't introduce your entire cast of secondary characters. Don't try to impress with single sentences that are 65 words long or the cool names of your universe far, far away. Just lay it out. Remember, you want to get to the conflict.
Think of the setup as a bridge from the sharp hook to the cliffhanger conflict. And no one wants to spend their time on the bridge.
Final words on the setup:
Stick with the main character, introducing a secondary character if necessary.
Get there quick = 3-5 sentences / 75 – 100 words
Give only the important details that build character or setting
Ready to start crafting your setup? Click here for a group of worksheets you can print and use.
So you've hooked and setup your query letter. Now to the part that everyone wants to read—the conflict. Every novel needs it. In fact, the more conflict, the better. In the query letter, you want to highlight the main conflict, not every single one in every single chapter. You can't even do that in the synopsis, so don't try.
Main conflict [meyn kon-flikt]: The central thing that prevents the character from getting what they want.
If you didn't setup what the character wants in the setup, you can do it during the conflict.
In the examples section, I’ve included the hook and the setup so you don’t have to go back and find them.
1. Hook: In a world where Thinkers brainwash the population and Rules are not meant to be broken, fifteen-year-old Violet Schoenfeld does a hell of a job shattering them to pieces.
Setup: After committing her eighth lame crime (walking in the park after dark with a boy, gasp!), Vi is taken to the Green, a group of Thinkers who control the Goodgrounds. She’s found unrehabilitatable (yeah, she doesn’t think it’s a word either) and exiled to the Badlands. Good thing sexy Bad boy Jag Barque will be going too.
Conflict: Dodging Greenies and hovercopters, dealing with absent-father issues, and coming to terms with feelings for an ex-boyfriend—and Jag as a possible new one—leave Vi little time for much else. (she
’s got problems. Lots of them.) Which is too damn bad, because she’s more important than she realizes. (Whoa. She’s important? How so?)
Vi’s main conflict is that she doesn’t know who and/or what she is. How important she is. But everyone else does. And it’s not something she’s going to like…. This is all established in a mere 42 words.
2. Hook: Sixteen-year-old Annie Jenkins must control the magic to balance the realm—it's too bad her unknown abilities are hidden beneath her inhalant addiction.
Setup: Whenever she's high, Annie has vivid visions of a death she can't remember and a boy she's never met. When she meets Jonathan Clarke, the ghostly boy from her hallucinations, she realizes her drug use has masked the abilities she's inherited from her magic-keeping mother. Wielding magic isn't everything it's cracked up to be; Annie discovers her newfound powers can't cure her terminally ill mother.