Query Writing 101
When you’re ready to submit your novel to an editor or an agent, you start off by sending a one-page letter called a query. The purpose of the query is to make the editor or the agent request more, whether it’s some sample chapters or the full manuscript. However, to do that you not only have to hook the reader’s interest, but you have to reveal enough specifics about the plot so they can decide if they can sell it or not.
The query itself should be no more than five paragraphs and fewer than 500-words. Your first paragraph should introduce your protagonists and make the reader want to know more about them. Your next two or three paragraphs should be a mini-synopsis of the plot. The trick to these paragraphs is you want to be as specific as possible to the stakes, but not give away the entire book. The last paragraph is your biography, if you have one, and a summary of the main points of your book, like title, word count, genre, and a market comparison.
The key to the hook is to entice the reader and set the stage of your book. Here is the first paragraph of the query I’m writing for a small-town romance:
When Wynn Bradley comes back to Oklahoma to help her parents with the ranch after her father’s accident, she soon realizes they don’t just want her to do errands and cook dinner. They want her to marry Leo Taylor—the man she left at the altar. She would have given the marriage her all—even if she died inside a little each day—except she overheard him telling his best man that he was only marrying her for the ranch.
In this paragraph, we know who the main characters are, the setting, and there are a few intriguing points to hook the reader. Why would Wynn die inside each day if she had married Leo? How is Leo going to react now that she’s back?
The Mini Synopsis
The next couple of paragraphs are going to show what’s going on in the book. In addition, it should also be clear what the protagonists want and the stakes if they fail. Here are my next three paragraphs for the query:
Now five years later, the ranch is in trouble financially and with her father no longer able to take an active part in the daily farm routine, they have two choices. They can sell it, which would break her mother’s heart, and quite literally kill her father. Or they could keep it in the family, if, according to her parents, Wynn and Leo would stop their nonsense and just settle down.
But Wynn has a life in New York and it doesn’t involve horse manure, feeding hungry ranch hands, and dealing with an arrogant rodeo star whose sexy voice still makes her tremble inside. And although Leo is bitter about being humiliated on their wedding day, he has never stopped thinking of her as his wife and refuses to consider a “married in name only” type of arrangement.
When a series of accidents lead a trail of sabotage to their doorstep, it’s clear someone is actively working towards ending the Tristar Ranch. As Leo and Wynn are forced to work together, the old attraction flares and Wynn wonders if they can make a marriage work. When her job in New York demands she comes back, she can’t let her family down, not when they are so close to finding out who wants to shut them down. But if she doesn’t, she’ll lose her career and be forced back into the life she had desperately escaped from.
In these paragraphs, it’s very clear that this is a romance with a bit of mystery or suspense added to it. We also know that there is some family drama going on, and that Wynn is going to be facing some hard choices about her life.
The last paragraph of the query is a brief summary of the book’s selling points and a call to action. For example:
Sweet Home Cowboy is a 60,000-word romance that would appeal to readers of Carolyn Brown and Kate Pearce. I’m a USA Today best-selling author and a 2018 finalist in the RWA’s Rita award for erotic romance. May I send you the complete manuscript?
Remember to italicize the title of your book, if you’re following the Chicago Manual of Style. (Note: italicized words are not italicized when in a paragraph that is in all italics, per above example). Some people advise all caps for titles as opposed to italicized. Just be consistent, whatever you choose. Round your word count to the nearest thousand, and don’t forget the dash between the number and word. Notice how I didn’t compare the book to anything specific? However, I mentioned two New York Times bestselling authors in the genre. That shows the editor/agent that I did my market research, and this helps them decide if they can sell the book. Carolyn writes for Forever and Kate writes for Zebra. If the editor or agent I was sending this to has contacts at those publishing houses, I’ve made their job a little easier.
If you’re wondering what to put in your biography if you don’t have publishing credits, you can skip that part of the last paragraph completely. If you still want to put something in, make sure it’s relevant to the book. For example, if I were a cowboy or worked on a ranch, I could put that in. Another good thing to add to your biography is any trade organizations that you belong to like Novels Inc, the RWA/MWA/SFWA, or SCBWI.
You want to end your query with a call to action because you want to put the answer to question in the agent/editor’s mind. “May I send you the complete manuscript?”
You want them to think, “Yes, you may.”
USA Today bestselling author, Jamie K. Schmidt, writes contemporary love stories and paranormal romances. Her steamy, romantic comedy, Life’s a Beach, reached #2 on Barnes & Noble and #9 on Amazon and iBooks. Her Club Inferno series from Random House’s Loveswept line has hit both the Amazon and Barnes & Noble top one hundred lists and the first book in the series, Heat, put her on the USA Today bestseller list for the first time. Her dragon paranormal romance series from Entangled Publishing, has been called “fun and quirky” and “endearing.”