Hook 'em in: a three step process to writing a great query

The first thing any writer who wants to be published has to learn is how to put together a good query. Nearly every journal, magazine, editor, publisher, and reviewer wants you to send a query first. Often you'll be asked to include a synopsis.  For newer writers or writer who haven't submitted for a while, these terms can be both daunting and confusing, and they aren't made easier by the fact that words can mean different things in different contexts.

Queries

Think of a query as a proposition. It is the first presentation of you as an author to an editor and you’re proposing that they consider taking the next step and request a whole article or manuscript. Depending on what you’re sending a query for, it can be an idea that you’re pitching as a freelancer, or it can be a single page cover letter which proposes that they request a full manuscript. It must be concise.

Why Do Queries Matter?

Most publishers, agents, reviewers are busy and inundated with requests for their attention. Few will read an entire manuscript without having had a query first. So if you want your manuscript read, you need to query. Queries tend to be used as a first gate to assess how well you can write, how marketable your idea or manuscript is, and your overall professionalism. They are used to demonstrate your ability as a writer, to generate interest in the work, and to convince the recipient that you are professional enough to be a good long term risk. You will be judged by it.

Format 

The format of a query is fixed. It should have three paragraphs: the hook, the proposal and mini-synopsis, and the credentials or biography.

1.  The Hook

A bad or nonexistent hook will end your chances immediately. Generally speaking, it should be a single sentence. If your first sentence doesn’t grab attention, and isn’t well-written, the rest of your query won’t be read. It should be provocative, and ideally, topical.  Here are a few examples of hooks for well-known novels:

House of Sand and Fog: When Massoud Amir Behrani, a former colonel in the Iranian military, sinks his remaining funds into a house he buys at auction, he unwittingly puts himself and his family on a trajectory to disaster; the house once belonged to Kathy Nicolo, a self-destructive alcoholic, who engages in legal, then personal confrontation to get it back.

The Kite Runner: An epic tale of fathers and sons, of friendship and betrayal, that takes us from Afghanistan in the final days of the monarchy to the atrocities of the present.

The Da Vinci Code: A murder in the silent after-hour halls of the Louvre museum reveals a sinister plot to uncover a secret that has been protected by a clandestine society since the days of Christ.

Different types of hooks

• Era and location openers
• Character openers
• When/how/why formula
• Question
• Informative
• Attention grabbing:

2. The Proposal and Mini-Synopsis The proposal is generally one sentence put into the second paragraph. This is where you tell the publisher or editor what you’re offering. You need to be very clear, and include a title, a word-count, and a summary of what you’re proposing.   This is followed by a mini-synopsis, which is your entire novel condensed into 2 or 3 sentences. You’ll want to provide a little information on the protagonist, his or her dilemma, and how the dilemma is resolved. That’s character, conflict, resolution. It should sound exciting and should be brief – one paragraph of about 3-4 sentences is ideal.

3.  The Credentials/Bio This is the simplest part of your query, but get it wrong and all your earlier good work will be undone. Here you have to state your qualifications. This is especially important if you’re pitching a nonfiction book. All credentials must be related to writing or to the topic in your book. Competition wins, kudos of any kind, and publications are all relevant.

Finish with a good clean close that thanks the recipient for their time. If you’re querying for nonfiction, you’ll need to include a full outline, table of contents and one or two sample chapters. Fiction should be complete and as ready for publication as you can get it, and you should let the recipient know that the full manuscript is available upon request.

That's it!  Easier said than done, to be sure, but well worth taking trouble over.  Otherwise it won't matter how good your writing is - it won't get a look in.

Magdalena Ball runs The Compulsive Reader http://www.compulsivereader.com. She is the author of a number of novels, poetry books and a nonfiction book.  Find out more about Magdalena at http://www.magdalenaball.com

8 comments:

  1. Maggie, this is great information on writing queries. Nailing the query is the first step submission process and it puts fear in most of us writers. :)

    If you can write tight, it's also advisable to briefly mention your book marketing plans.

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  2. Queries, short synopses, and blurbs are the hardest things to write (harder than the book sometimes!) Good tips, Maggie. Thanks!

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  3. Your advice is terrific, thanks for a great post!

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  4. Can you imagine being an editor--busy, busy--wearing many different hats--and they get a query that doesn't tell them what is wanted? Ask for what you want. If the recipient has another idea for you or your material, they'll let you know. Thanks, Magdalena!

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  5. Clear, concise and easy to understand. I was going to write "easy to follow" but then realized that even with your great advice, Maggie, it can be quite hard to do. Those hooks and short synopses take practice, practice, practice. :-)

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  6. Great guidance on writing a query letter. I totally agree that without a good query, they'll never see your manuscript.

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  7. Thanks for the step by step process of writing a query. Bless you.

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  8. Terrance, glad you found Maggie's post helpful. Thanks for stopping by!

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