top of page
Search

QUERY WARS

Updated: Sep 18, 2023

HOW I TURNED MY DISASTER QUERY INTO A REQUEST MACHINE


Howdy! If you’re here then I'm sure you’re here for the goods. The querying goods. The secret secrets to getting that precious full request.

Well, don’t get your hopes up too far.


brown skinned woman saying pump ya breaks boo during talking head segment of a reality show

Query writing was obviously created by some super evil demon entity because BOY HOWDY it is hard af. I won’t claim to be one of those newly agented authors who know everything about writing queries and who states that they can give you a fool proof plan to guarantee querying success *deep breath* BUT what I can do is show you my original zero request query in comparison with the query that got me agented and talk about what I changed in order to turn my query from a zero into a hero.

BUT FIRST

There is A LOT of advice on how to write a query letter. And I mean A LOT. And there are an abundance of links and blog posts and youtube videos and interviews and reddit forums and facebook groups and group chats and on and on and on. There is a mysterious air to query writing, to getting down to those juicy, juicy, sweet 250-300 words that will seal the deal to your dreams.

And of course, because this is the internet, I will be adding onto an already overabundance of stuff, but hopefully I can break down the query letter into simple puzzle pieces for you to fit together, all while allowing you to learn with me as I grew from my first to last letters.

PRE-QUERY DUE DILIGENCE

SPREADSHEETS. Everyone loves to hate them and no one quite understands them completely (or maybe that’s just me). Okay, so you don’t have to make a spreadsheet but I did find this to be incredibly useful. One fun way to propel yourself through the end of revisions is to start your querying due diligence. Querytracker, manuscriptwishlist(dot)com, mswishlist(dot)com, twitter, publisher’s marketplace, all great sources for gathering information about literary agents, agencies, client lists, deals and manuscript wishlists (detailed information about what kind of books the agents are looking for).

BUT GUESS WHAT?! I’ve done the work for you!! As part of my website and newsletter launch, I’m including a FREE querying spreadsheet template to help you get started on your super sleuthing querying research!

Click this link to find the template. Once you make a copy of the template you should be able to make changes and edit it to your heart’s desire <3


blond white woman claps excitedly with mouth open very wide

WHAT IS A QUERY LETTER?

I think most aspiring writers have at one point or another, sat in their room, head in the clouds, imagining the day in which they would see their books on the shelves. But how to get to that point? Once you’re done pouring your blood sweat and tears into your book and editing and revising and editing and staring at it and crying and threatening to delete it forever, and finally you look at your shiny finished manuscript and wonder how the hell you’re supposed to turn it into a book deal, it’s time to start querying.

Querying is the process of pitching your book to literary agents who may in turn, offer to represent you and get your story out in front of publishers. 250-300 words to encompass the entirety of your novel, simple right?

So how should it be structured?

STATS


Often referred to as the “stats,” your query should include the pertinent information about your book. Genre, age category, word count, title (in all caps), comps (italicized). A highly talked about piece of this literary puzzle, this information can be included at the top or the bottom of the query letter. More on this later. Genre: Though seemingly simple, this can be tricky. Often, our books are so much more than a one word description. Complex stories should be described as such. For example, at its core, my book is a Contemporary Fantasy, however it also has elements of horror and mystery so I included those as well, particularly for the agents who were looking for books that blur genre lines. If your book fits soldily in one genre, that’s great! But if it’s a little blurry, it’s okay to expand upon that in your stats paragraph.

Age Category: All agents aren’t the same. Some represent children’s books only, some rep anything above middle grade, and so on. When reading your letter, agents want to know where your book will sit on shelves and they want you to know that as well. Marketing your book to agents accurately and within the right age category can make or break your chances. I’ve seen plenty of cases where authors who started querying their books as one age category, and then after feedback realized that it was actually a different age category, changed this in their query letter and saw a drastic change in their request rate. Needless to say, it’s best to know this with certainty before querying.

Word count: This is a tough one. It is true that some agents will auto-reject books with a word count over a certain number. Industry standards for word count by genre and age category can be found easily on the internet and though it may feel like an assault on our creative freedom, so much goes into determining the industry standard. Books wildly outside the standard will be much, much harder to sell to publishers and when it comes to word counts way above the standard, you may find that no one is willing to publish books this length for debut authors due to printing prices and wanting to make sure that they can get a return on their investment (you).

Title: Here is where your creativity can really shine. Most agents say that they will not request or reject a book based on a title alone and for some this is the least important part of the query! However, there has to be something said about the power of an eye-catching title. Something that makes the agent go oh I HAVE to find out what this is about. It’s not necessary (admittedly mine is about as regular as can be) but if you’re dying to have your voice shine from the subject line of the email, this is one way to do it.

Comps: A controversial topic, for sure. BIPOC and other marginalized authors are really put at a disadvantage when it comes to coming up with comp titles for their books. Often, there aren’t any books or media that can accurately compare to our books, especially not pieces of media that feature relevant representation. Keeping that in mind, agents are often looking for comps that can describe aspects of your book. So instead of saying that your book is X meets Y, pick out what specifically about your comps describes your book. Ex: TITLE has the magic of X, the family dynamics of Y, and the dark academia vibes of Z.

Sometimes TV shows, movies or even songs are perfect comps for the vibes of your book but agents also want to know where it fits in the current literary market; so always be sure to include a book, preferably less than two or three years old, with decent sales. Try to avoid breakout stars and super-sellers as these are outliers and can make it seem as though you aren’t in tune with what the market is really like.

STATS Paragraph example:

Dear Agent,

I am pleased to bring you [TITLE], my [word count, age category, genre]. It has the characteristics of COMP/author, the vibes of COMP/author, and the emotional stuff like that in COMP/author.

THE BODY

The body of your query letter should encompass the first third of your book, right up to the inciting incident. (There are certain circumstances where there is an exception and mine is one of them! More on this later 👀) It isn’t a synopsis and shouldn’t reveal EVERYTHING. Instead, it should be more like what you might find in the blurb on the inside cover or back of a book that has been published. You want to entice the agent, make them NEED to read your pages in order to see what your book is all about.

Your blurb should be voicy but professional, not written from the perspective of your MC, and easily digestible. A common mistake, particularly from authors writing fantasy, is including too much world building. If your query includes too many fantastical words and features from your book, the agent is likely to feel overwhelmed and concerned that you aren’t able to be concise. You want to draw the reader in and give them just enough information, but not so much that they lose focus.

A SIMPLE BLURB BREAKDOWN

Ideally, your 250-300 words will be split into 2-3 paragraphs.

The first paragraph should show the agent who your MC is in their regular life and what about their life is destined to change.

The second paragraph should show how your MC will solve the problem that they are facing and what obstacles are in their way.

The third paragraph should tell the reader the stakes. What your MC stands to lose if they fail.

BIO


This is where you put all of your relevant information. This should be written in first person and should be kept as brief as possible. If you’ve got extensive writing credits then why are you reading this blog post lol you don’t need me. But if you, like me, are a total noob and don’t have anything writing related to put here then just something short and sweet about your life, your pets, your job, or whatever makes you an interesting person will suffice.

If you’re writing from the perspective of one of your marginalizations then this is where you can tell the agent why you are the right person to be telling this story IF YOU WANT TO. You are never, ever, ever, obligated to disclose your marginalizations! This is a personal choice and if an agent specifically asks you to disclose this information then you should be running far, far, away from that person.



lizzo meme from tik tok video were she dances to about damn time

OKAY HERE IS WHAT WE’VE ALL BEEN WAITING FOR: MY FIRST, VERY BAD, NO GOOD, TERRIBLE QUERY LETTER

Dear [Agent],

Some secrets can’t be taken to the grave.

When her grandmother goes behind her back and enrolls her into an elite mountainside boarding school and then promptly kicks the bucket, Harper Elizabeth Scott must decide whether or not she’s willing to uproot her life and fulfill the dead woman’s mysterious wishes.

Enter: Black Mountain Academy—a metaphorical den full of snakes and home to the one boy Harper hoped she would never see again. Isolated and surrounded by secrets, she will stop at nothing to reveal her Grandmother’s tangled web of lies. But strange impossibilities imply that magic may be at play, and Harper begins to wonder whether her grandmother had been lying after all.

Lost, love sick, and grieving, Harper confronts her past and uncovers a decades long feud and an ancient prophecy. When she learns that the boy she loves wants her dead, she is forced to accept her magical gifts.

With blood on her hands and steel in her eyes, Harper will risk it all to fulfill her ancestors prophecy and defeat an evil secret society—even if it means adding “murderer” to her college apps.

Complete at 99,000 words, BLACK MOUNTAIN ACADEMY is a standalone with series potential. It is a poignant #ownvoices, QBIPOC young adult contemporary fantasy novel that takes a magnifying glass to American history and racial injustice a la Ace of Spades while combining the witchy coming-of-age story in Sabrina with the ancestral magic of Legendborn.

I live in Coastal NC with my husband and twin daughters where I co-own a beachside ice cream store and work full time on my next magical YA novels. I love reading, watching true-crime documentaries, and cuddling my two aloof but beautiful cats.

Thank you so much for your consideration

Okay, did you let that sink in? Even now, at first glance, this doesn’t immediately read as a terrible query in my opinion, but let’s break down why this isn’t the query that got me 30 requests and why this query likely wouldn't have gotten me agented.

Some secrets can’t be taken to the grave.

There isn’t anything inherently wrong with this hook although I've read that they aren’t being used as much anymore. If you’ve got something really strong then I think there is still some merit in including a line to really suck the agent in from the beginning. This is still a hook that I would use for this book today but maybe for marketing, not for the query letter.
 

When her grandmother goes behind her back and enrolls her into an elite mountainside boarding school and then promptly kicks the bucket, Harper Elizabeth Scott must decide whether or not she’s willing to uproot her life and fulfill the dead woman’s mysterious wishes.

Starting off the body of my query letter with the grandmother instead of my main character was my first mistake. Agents want to know who your story is about immediately. Your hook is going to be your voice and the voice is an extension of your MC. For the people writing multi POV books, first off HOW, second, it’s generally suggested that you narrow them down to the POVs that most drive the plot forward and typically two at most but try to stick to one if you can.
We will see that my biggest, BIGGEST, mistake in this query letter is VAGUENESS. Everything is so vague, so general, that it is nearly impossible to differentiate my story from the other thousands of YA Fantasies.

“...must decide whether or not she’s willing to uproot her life and fulfill the dead woman’s mysterious wishes.”

While this does encapsulate the decision that my main character needs to make, it lacks the urgency and creativity that would make an agent keep reading.
 

Enter: Black Mountain Academy—a metaphorical den full of snakes and home to the one boy Harper hoped she would never see again. Isolated and surrounded by secrets, she will stop at nothing to reveal her Grandmother’s tangled web of lies. But strange impossibilities imply that magic may be at play, and Harper begins to wonder whether her grandmother had been lying after all.

Lost, love sick, and grieving, Harper confronts her past and uncovers a decades long feud and an ancient prophecy. When she learns that the boy she loves wants her dead, she is forced to accept her magical gifts.


With blood on her hands and steel in her eyes, Harper will risk it all to fulfill her ancestors’ prophecy and defeat an evil secret society—even if it means adding “murderer” to her college apps.

Here I have highlighted every point in which I was plagued by being unnecessarily vague. Secrets, tangled web of lies, strange impossibilities, ancient prophecies, evil secret societies… if you’ve never read a YA Fantasy then this is honestly great! It has all the hallmarks of a story™️! BUT for agents, who read thousands of query letters a year, this falls flat. It blends in with every other story.
Ultimately, there is nothing in these paragraphs to distinguish my story. I don’t get to the heart, the themes, or even the voice. There’s no sense of urgency because there isn’t really anything to root for. I do not invoke a NEED for the reader to figure out what happens, and this is partly because despite how vague I am with the specific details, I still manage to give away way too much of the “plot”.
Written in this way, with the vague tropey nature of every other story in the world, it is easy for the reader to guess what happens in the end, even though in truth, they have no idea. Why? Because what I’ve written is like walking around without your glasses. You can kinda guess what’s going on behind all of the fuzzy blobs, but you could never know the true picture, the true details without putting your glasses back on and smoothing out the blurry edges.
 

Complete at 99,000 words, BLACK MOUNTAIN ACADEMY is a standalone with series potential. It is a poignant #ownvoices, QBIPOC young adult contemporary fantasy novel that takes a magnifying glass to American history and racial injustice a la Ace of Spades while combining the witchy coming-of-age story in Sabrina with the ancestral magic of Legendborn.

Complete at 99,000 words” Rookie mistake: no one should be querying an incomplete book which means that agents can safely assume that your book is complete at the word count you provide. No need to tell them what they already know.
“Standalone with series potential” This is a phrase that, in my opinion, is often thrown around too quickly in the writing community and particularly by people who are giving out querying advice.
What does “standalone with series potential” really mean? If your book is a standalone with series potential, this means that right now you could publish your book and no one would be left with any questions. It ties off with a nice, pretty bow, and though you could, theoretically, continue to write the story and turn it into a series, if you don’t, no one would be the wiser.
Unfortunately, this phrase has become something widely used by people who have zero intention of their book being a standalone. Self-proclaimed query experts will hop onto twitter dot com and tell everyone and their momma to put “standalone with series potential” in their query letters that way agents won’t auto-reject because series are harder to sell than standalones.
Newsflash??? Agents are smart people. They get hundreds of queries a month and they know what’s up. Particularly if they are also asking for a synopsis. (don’t be the guy that gets rejected because your query and synopsis are contradictory) Now, I fretted over this line, torn between my gut feeling that my book simply couldn’t standalone in its current state, and following the hoards of advice that I saw saying that I would be condemning my book to a death sentence if I dared to describe my book as the first in a series.
Ultimately, I lost that internal battle for my first query, convincing myself that since the main mystery in the book gets solved, it could standalone (even though it ends with the introduction of a completely new mystery. Reader: I was clearly, very wrong)

And lastly, calling my own book poignant was a ~choice~. A self indulgent choice that, while true *flips hair*, might not be received well by agents who haven’t read the story and are jaded and tired of self-aggrandizing debut authors… but I digress.

Okay great, now that we’ve all seen my vague, no good, very bad, first query, it’s time to get to what we’ve all been waiting for:

THE QUERY THAT GOT ME 30 REQUESTS AND MULTIPLE OFFERS



morgan freeman clapping at an awards show

Dear AGENT,

I am thrilled to bring you my 99,000 words YA #ownvoices Contemporary Fantasy, BLACK MOUNTAIN ACADEMY. Blending fantasy, horror, and mystery elements, it has a diverse, queer cast and a fat, black-biracial, and bisexual main character. BLACK MOUNTAIN ACADEMY uses a zodiac magic system to examine racial injustice a la Ace of Spades and combines the witchy coming-of-age story in The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina with the ancestral magic of Legendborn. My pitches on Twitter have garnered the attention of two editors. I have included their information below the query.

The North Carolina mountains harbor secrets that transcend generations and the grave.

Seventeen-year-old Harper loves her grandmother’s stories about pretty brown girls with magic in their blood—but she’s a realist. Harper’s only goal? To make it through the rest of high school unscathed. That is, until Gigi secretly enrolls her into an elite boarding school in the North Carolina mountains and then promptly kicks the bucket.

A dream mars the night of GiGi's funeral with an ominous message and a symbol which haunts Harper's waking life. When static builds underneath Harper’s skin and the sky begins to mirror her emotions, she’ll have to decide: follow the clues laid out by her late grandmother, or risk losing control of her power and hurting the ones she loves. Enter: Black Mountain Academy, home to Kai Matsoukas, Harper's one true love turned mortal enemy. When hostile classmates and teachers cause an increase in Harper’s magical episodes, she becomes desperate for answers about her new power and uncovers the truth of a local legend.

One-hundred years ago, twelve black women hung from a cliff, the symbol from Harper’s dreams painted on the sacks covering their faces. Somehow, Harper is connected to these women. Perhaps they had the same static in their veins that buzzes in hers. When Harper receives a threatening message, it’s clear someone doesn't want her digging for answers and she’ll have to decide how far she’s willing to go to discover her own identity. Harper may not know who she really is, but she does know one thing for certain: she’s willing to kill to survive.

Like my main character Harper, I am plus-sized, queer, and black-biracial living in the south. These days my partner and I co-own a beachside ice cream store while I work full time on my magical YA novels. I love reading, crochet, petting my cats, and watching my twin toddlers slowly take over the world.

BREAKDOWN

I am thrilled to bring you my 99,000 words YA #ownvoices Contemporary Fantasy, BLACK MOUNTAIN ACADEMY. Blending fantasy, horror, and mystery elements, it has a diverse, queer cast and a fat, black-biracial, and bisexual main character. BLACK MOUNTAIN ACADEMY uses a zodiac magic system to examine racial injustice a la Ace of Spades and combines the witchy coming-of-age story in The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina with the ancestral magic of Legendborn. My pitches on twitter have captured the attention of two editors. I have included their information below the query.

In this version of my query letter, I decided to put my stats paragraph at the beginning. A HUGE draw to my book is that it blurs genre lines while also including the rep that is important to me. Additionally, I wanted to find a way to tell the agents about my magic system (something unique that can help my book stand out in a crowded market) without overloading my blurb with fantasticism. After many, many tries and TONS of feedback, I finally landed on this. Often, authors are discouraged from talking about their themes in the query letter, but I think that if you can sneak it in there (like via comps in this example) instead of including an entire extra paragraph about why the book is important to you, you should be able to grab the agent's attention without turning them off.
*And remember when doing your pre-querying due diligence to see if the agent has any special additions that they like to see. Some agents love when their author includes information on why they decided to write their particular book so it just depends.
By this point in my querying journey, I had received two editor likes during pitch events! I was excited to include this information in my query and I found that Anahita’s (@ana_scribe on twitter) query letter blog post was incredibly helpful when trying to figure out how to do this.
 

The North Carolina mountains harbor secrets that transcend generations and the grave. Okay, what can I say? I just can’t deny myself a good hook! I revamped my old hook and decided that despite more recent advice stating that hooks are going out of fashion, this felt true to me and my story. So with this I say, follow your heart but be sure to keep it short and punchy.

 

Seventeen-year-old Harper loves her grandmother’s stories about pretty brown girls with magic in their blood—but she’s a realist. Harper’s only goal? To make it through the rest of high school unscathed. That is, until Gigi secretly enrolls her into an elite boarding school in the North Carolina mountains and then promptly kicks the bucket.

This time around I made sure to start off by showing who exactly my MC is. Including their age allows the agent to place the MC in their correct age-category and I was still able to showcase Harper’s relationship with her Grandmother (a driving force of the story) but this time as an important part of the MC and not the other way around.
In the first version of this query I fail to talk about the magical elements until the second paragraph and even that reveal is so vague that it’s hard to get invested. In this version I put the magical element in the very first sentence which helps to solidly place the query into the fantasy genre.
I’m also explicitly stating the MC’s goal. Now, you don’t have to be quite so literal, BUT you should use the first paragraph to tell the agent what your MC wants. In the first version I talk about the decision that my main character is going to have to make but that doesn’t actually show what she wants or why this decision might steer her onto a path that defies that.
 

A dream mars the night of GiGi's funeral with an ominous message and a symbol which haunts Harper's waking life. When static builds underneath Harper’s skin and the sky begins to mirror her emotions, she’ll have to decide: follow the clues laid out by her late grandmother, or risk losing control of her power and hurting the ones she loves. Enter: Black Mountain Academy, home to Kai Matsoukas, Harper's one true love turned mortal enemy. When hostile classmates and teachers cause an increase in Harper’s magical episodes, she becomes desperate for answers about her new power and uncovers the truth of a local legend.

In the first version of the query, I completely bypass the increasing tension with the magic and how that affects Harper’s decision and consequently, what the actual decision is. At first glance it seems like the decision would be whether or not my MC should go to this new school, when in reality the decision is whether she should investigate this magic and potentially uncover things that she’d rather not know OR stick to what she wants (to go to her old school and keep her head down) even if it means hurting the ones she loves.
So, towards the end of the paragraph “magical episodes” is another incident of being too vague. I fought a lot with myself over whether I should have been more specific here but ultimately, I wanted to leave a little bit to the agent’s imagination, and a little bit to be surprised by, especially as we move into the next paragraph. Additionally, “uncovers the truth of a local legend” seems vague here but makes more sense as we progress.
 

One-hundred years ago, twelve black women hung from a cliff, the symbol from Harper’s dreams painted on the sacks covering their faces. Somehow, Harper is connected to these women. Perhaps they had the same static in their veins that buzzes in hers. When Harper receives a threatening message, it’s clear someone doesn't want her digging for answers and she’ll have to decide how far she’s willing to go to discover her own identity. Harper may not know who she really is, but she does know one thing for certain: she’s willing to kill to survive.

One-hundred years ago, twelve black women hung from a cliff, the symbol from Harper’s dreams painted on the sacks covering their faces.
Ahhh yes, the big kahuna. This sentence is the driving force of my query and this is why it is controversial and wasn’t included in the first query version: this happens after my inciting incident. EVERRRYYYYY querying resource out there says to NOT write the query past the inciting incident because you don’t want to give too much away.

There are two major factors that should be considered here:

  1. My book’s first act is too long. This is something that I will be getting into in my HIGMA post but one thing to consider when writing your query is that if you cannot seem to keep it to the first act/up to the inciting incident, then maybe you need to look back at your draft and consider if there is an issue with the pacing.

  2. HOWEVER, I obviously was able to garner interest and offers even though my book wasn’t perfect and needed work with the pacing. Here’s the deal: I knew this going into querying. I knew that my pacing was off but at that point, I also knew that I wasn’t able to fix it on my own and part of why I was ready to look for an agent is because I knew that the heart of my story was strong, the concept and overall plot was good, and I wanted a collaborator who understood the heart of the story and who’s editorial vision aligned with mine and who could help me elevate the story to its potential.

    1. Sometimes when we’re (especially marginalized writers) writing our stories, we don’t follow the typical 3 act structure and we shouldn’t always be expected to fold ourselves into the white-washed version of story-telling that is often shoved down our throats.

    2. At the end of the day, a query letter is a sales pitch. You are crafting a letter meant to entice the agent, capture their attention, and make them NEED your story. If there are aspects of your story that are huge selling points and they fall beyond the inciting incident, don’t be afraid to include them, but also be sure not to spoil too much of the story or give away the ending. If I had never included this aspect of the story in the query letter, I promise that I wouldn’t have had nearly a fraction of the success that I did because this is the sentence that sells the book. This is the hook. The juice. The sweet, sweet, secret to my success.

 
**Just to reiterate, I’m not saying that you should include every single detail that you think is interesting about your book! 99% of the time, you should stop at the inciting incident! However, if you’ve thought long and hard about it and find yourself like me, unable to sell the pitch without going a little farther in, then I am living proof that it is possible to get away with it. But this is the EXCEPTION, not the rule!

Like my main character Harper, I am plus-sized, queer, and black-biracial living in the south. These days my partner and I co-own a beachside ice cream store while I work full time on my magical YA novels. I love reading, crochet, petting my cats, and watching my twin toddlers slowly take over the world.

I toyed with many ways to include my personal connection to this story and why I am the best person to write about these subjects and ultimately I decided that including the information in my bio would be best. I am completely comfortable with sharing these identities which is why I included them but I would like to reiterate that you NEVER have to do this. If someone demands that you expose things about yourself that you’re not comfortable with, then that is a big ol’ red flag.

Wow, if you read this far I am both appreciative and terrified. I hope that this was helpful in some way??? I am by no means a querying expert and there are a thousand and one minute differences that could have made my query better or worse in a million different ways.

Query writing has a steep learning curve but it is possible to practice and hone it into something that gets requests. Personally, I had tons of versions in between these two polar opposites and I relied a lot on my friends and the help of some critique giveaways to really help me see it as objectively as possible.

I would recommend having people who haven’t read your book read the query as they can tell you more definitively if the query makes sense and is getting the gist of your story across.

Querying is hard. It is really, really hard and confusing and exhausting, but you are not alone. There is an amazing community of writers who are going through the trenches (or who have recently been there) and they are an invaluable wealth of information. Lean on each other, uplift marginalize writers, and persevere.

Best of luck in the trenches!! Because ultimately, querying and publishing success is not foolproof. You can consume all of the querying and craft advice in the world. You can hone your craft for eons and get an MFA in creative writing, you could write a perfect book, you could do it all and do everything right, but publishing success will ALWAYS include at least a little bit (or a lot a bit) of luck.

In the meantime, I hope to hold out my hand in anyway I can, so keep an eye out for my next newsletter and blog post: HOW I GOT MY AGENT (TWICE) because boy oh boy do I have a cautionary tale to tell you.

xoxo -Jordan B. Seltzer

Liked this post???

Feel free to subscribe and share it with your friends!




62 views0 comments

Comments


bottom of page