A Journey Through The Query Trenches

The trenches are real and they suck. When I was a baby writer, I naively assumed that the writing of The Novel would be the hardest part. Oh how I laugh at myself now! The query letter, if you know what it is, feels every writer with dread unparalleled. Newbie writers gawk when I gleefully tell them that actually the 250 word pitch is infinitely harder than the 90k manuscript. I see the light drain from their eyes, then disappear completely when they realise that not only does it SUCK, it’s unavoidable.

But, since it’s unavoidable, let’s embrace it. Many writers — myself included — at one time or another flail and complain and cry about Whyyyy? This is a stupid skill! Just read my damn book already! But the query letter is the reason why, and that’s why it’s important.

It is the pitching equivalent of the back-cover blurb of a book, and the agents you query are perspective readers. The sole purpose is to tell them what your book is and why they should pick it up. That’s it. Easy. (Ha.)

So, let’s do this. Here are the four main iterations of my query letter since I realised I actually needed to pitch my book if I wanted to get it out there (which was a whole journey in itself but a post for another day)

QUERY ONE: SPRING 2016

WORD COUNT: 417

This version was written and distributed very resentfully. As you can see, I didn’t even attempt comps. This is the written equivalent of babbling very loudly in someone’s face then legging it in the opposite direction. I can be snarky about it now, but at the time I thought it was the best I could do. I didn’t research properly to understand what a query letter is and needs to be. At this point I just wanted to forget about the damn thing and move on. It showed in the book too.

It is basically a summary of the story. That’s it. I don’t trust the story to speak for itself, or myself to speak for it.

I sent it to nine agents, and either received for rejections or no response at all.

QUERY TWO: SEPTEMBER 2018

WORD COUNT: 297

This version was born after shelving the book for two years. I felt passionate that I wanted to try again, and that this book deserved my attention. This was my Pitch Wars query, and I really tried this time. I sought feedback and agonized over the construction of this letter for months. Constantly. And I couldn’t quite hit the mark. No matter what I did, it wouldn’t come out quite right.

It was this query that made me realise that my book started too early, that my inciting incident was in the Third Act and that’s what I felt made it interesting.

Unfortunately, that didn’t do my novel much good in its present state.

You will also notice that I was querying Moon Path as YA. Not only did my feedback throw up that my novel was starting in the wrong place, but I was also telling my story wrong. I wanted to start in Act 3, which made it a different character’s story with a different focus, and that would make it MG.

It wasn’t as scary a revelation as it could’ve been. I knew what needed to be done, I was excited to go back to this book, and I gave myself a deadline.

If you cannot wrangle your book into query form, please consider that it might be your book and not your query that’s the problem. AND THAT’S OKAY! EVERYTHING IS FIXABLE!

QUERY THREE: SEPTEMBER 2019

WORD COUNT: 261

During the early prep season of Pitch Wars 2019, I was lucky enough to get a query critique from an author I admire greatly. She was one of my mentor picks the previous year, and when I saw she had a slot open for a submission package, I LEAPT. At that point, I was all but done with my rewrite — that’s complete rewrite from absolute scratch January through September — and I was pumped to really nail it this time!

Except I got the critique before I had my query. Oops. Time to get to work. I didn’t have time to agonize over this time. I sat at Starbucks for an afternoon with a Venti Breakfast Tea, bashed it out, sent it off.

It felt much easier, and that was my first sign. The story was clear this time, I knew my hooks, I knew what the trailer would sound like for the movie (TIP: Read your query in Movie Trailer Voice for best effect) It’s impossible to ever feel good about a query, but I felt like the basis was strong enough that the feedback would be useful.

The first thing I saw when I got the critique was This query is doing its job, which was such a first for me! But there were still critiques:

In a query, we need only the following elements:

  • Who is the MC?
  • What do they want and how do they intend to get it? Who/What is trying to stop them?
  • What happens if they don’t get it (AKA the stakes)?
  • Then a brief bio with the word count and title.

Looking at your query specifically, let’s break this down:

  • Who is the MC: Laurie
  • What do they want: To keep their imagination and save their imaginary friend How do they intend to get it: ? Unclear.
  • Who or what is trying to stop them: Laurie’s brother? This was a bit obscure in the final paragraph.
  • What happens if they don’t get what they want: Bye bye imagination and Joanna!

I think most of the pieces are there! But I’d love to see Laurie’s goal a bit more clearly, as well as what’s preventing him from it. You mention the brother, but can you clarify a bit in the next pass? “Laurie must make a choice—keep his imagination and save the life of his friend, or [fill in about brother].” Something like that! You have the set up of this, but I think it can be executed stronger.

So I went back and tweaked and I ended up with what you see above, and feedback was overwhelmingly positive and I submitted to Pitch Wars.

And nothing.

Not a single nibble.

I was entirely deflated. It was less obvious what was wrong this time, and I felt like the world was trying to tell me that it was still my book, all over again. And I knew I wasn’t going to rewrite it again. This was it. The End.

LUCKILY I still had my intensive workshop approaching and I’d already submitted Moon Path for critique. I went into it feeling crappy about the book, but at least I could learn some things I could carry to the next one.

It energized me. It showed me that my story had potential, that I had to keep persevering and keep working, and that it was worth it. It was not my book, it was my query.

So I set to work.

QUERY FOUR: OCTOBER 2019

WORD COUNT: 220

On the Friday, we had a lecture about pitching and about finding The High Concept Hook. That is what makes your book unique, that is what is literally going to hook a stranger’s interest.

Think about Hallmark movies. They’re as generic as they come, so how do you pick between them? You read the high concept hook. A CEO gets trapped on a Christmas Tree farm and has to choose between the ditzy baker and his big-city life, for example. (You can tell this isn’t my genre! but GOOGLE HALLMARK MOVIES)

I really struggled to find mine, and I was lucky enough to find someone to sit with me for many hours as I told them my story and we hooked out the hook, piece by piece. For three hours of work, I was sure the material we’d found was thousands of words long! But when I came to compile it into the rough shape of a query, it was the shortest one yet.

It felt weird to me. It definitely didn’t come naturally, it wasn’t the way I wanted to present my story BUT isn’t about you, the author, it’s about the stranger deciding whether your book is worth picking up. I decided to trust that strangeness.

My previous query but too much emphasis on plot (Laurie’s 14th birthday and the panic that induces) and not enough on concept (the loss of imagination, the choice between the past and the future). This version conveyed everything that makes the story interesting and unique, and steers clear of generics. A birthday is not unique. Imagination-stealing pills are. Ish. But that’s another post.

Note, also, comps. I still hate finding them, but good comps are worth their weight in gold.

The Light Between Worlds is the only other book I’ve read that is told in a dual timeline, and even though it’s YA and mine’s MG, the comp sets up immediate expectation for flashbacks and back and forth, rather than them coming as a shock.

The Giver conveys the genre, the strange meld of science-based coming of age fantasy (which is not a genre)

A Monster Calls is a recent MG that deals with heavy subjects in a young-reader-friendly way, and shows grief being dealt with by the imagination.

I chose my comps so they would convey the clunkier aspects of my book in a simple way which say, “Hey! They did it first!” The aspects which might‘ve made a reader baulk if the expectation hadn’t already been set up.

I will repeat: Comps are worth the time and the grief it takes to choose them

My final query stats are:

17 queries sent

1 partial request

5 full requests

8 form rejections

It should also be noted that I re-queried one agent who was subjected to the first terrible version of both my book and my query. Whilst it didn’t end in an offer of rep, I went from form rejection to encouragement on my full, and I consider that almost as much an achievement as my offer of rep ^^

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