As most of you probably know I grew up in a pretty small town. Population 3,000. Which I actually thought was respectably large until my college adviser called it “Mayberry.”
Small town living for me meant that every trip to the movie theater (20 miles away) or bookstore (40 miles away) was a huge deal. We’d go with my Mom to the “city” for school clothes or Christmas shopping, and if I wasn’t being a terror, she’d drop me off at the bookstore for half an hour. When she’d pick me up, my routine typically included introducing each book and it’s unique strengths and greatness to my family, a plea for Taco Bell (didn’t have one of those back home either), and settling in to read all the way home.
Problem is… I am so not the kind of person who can read in the car. I could maybe make it through the first page but then I’d be cracking a window and complaining of a stomach ache so bad that it could only mean something terminal had taken root in the last two minutes. I was a bit of a drama queen, I admit, but my childhood tendency toward the dramatic was being totally fueled by the crushing realization that I wouldn’t be able to read my new books until forty-five minutes later when we finally got home.
That’s how excited I want to be about queries.
Every time I open a new query I’m hoping to find an absolutely spectacular letter, concept and sample. I want to be so excited about a story that I hit refresh 6 million times a day looking for those requested materials (yes, that happens… Quite often if I’m being honest). So! Here is a look into how I look at queries and a few tips on how to make your query stand out as something to get excited about.
The Concept & Industry Standards
Industry Standards- If a manuscript is hugely over or under word count standards (we’re talking 140k and up or 10k and down) I’ll go ahead and reject based solely on that. This may sound harsh, but I cannot tell you how many times I’ve absolutely loved a concept only to find out the manuscript is longer than the Game of Thrones series in it’s entirety. (I’ve looked it up, and yes I’ve had queries for manuscripts that were longer than that entire series combined) It’s heart breaking and I almost never hear from those authors again when I suggest an edit, so I don’t look closer unless the manuscript is within 10-15,000 words of the industry standard. And if it’s outside of the standard range by this much, I’m going to be super picky about the concept and writing.
Concept- This one is pretty basic. If I’m intrigued by the concept and interested in what you’re story is about I’ll keep reading. Check out my #mswl posts or submissions page to see more about what I’m currently looking for.
If you’re idea seems like something I would fall head over heels for, this is where all of those query writing blog posts and #querytips that you’ve read come into play. The best query advice I’ve ever heard was to go into a bookstore and read the back of as many books in your genre as you can. Those little summaries are created with the intention to draw people in and make people buy the book, so modeling your query after them is a fantastic place to start. Let’s say you’re in the bookstore finding way too many books to buy, but you’re not sure how to bring that back to your story. Look at how these summaries utilize the story’s character, world and conflict. How do they go about introducing these three elements? Notice the flow of the words and the order. What stands out to you about each and what tricks can you utilize in writing your own query?
A couple of other hints for querying me….
- DON’T TELL ME HOW THE STORY ENDS. Oh goodness gracious, this is a really big one. Your query letter is meant to entice the reader into the story. If you tell me the end I will be hard pressed to find enough enthusiasm to request more pages. (This is not applicable for the synopsis, which is separate from the query letter and should totally tell me how the story ends)
- Keep the bio at the end of your letter. Don’t get me wrong, I think you’re awesome and I want to hear about you and your accomplishments, but I have a very short attention span when I’m excited to jump into the story stuff and so I will lose focus and skim to the story stuff if you start your letter with your bio.
- Please don’t start your letter by insulting me. Yes, it’s happened. More than once. I don’t read past the first sentence or two if you take this approach
- I’d advise against writing as your query as your character. I won’t automatically reject a query written like this, but it will probably hurt you in the long run. You want your story to really shine and muddying that focus by having the reader trying to wade through the voice and figure out who the character is makes it so the story isn’t getting it’s due amount of attention. If your story can’t shine, I can’t be amazed by it and so I won’t end up requesting more.
The Sample Pages
Sometimes I break reading queries into two rounds. Typically I’ll do this if I don’t have a ton of time and there are other things pulling at my attention (i.e sitting in a waiting room, gridlock traffic, or a busy coffee shop). If I love everything up until the sample pages and I’m in one of these situations, I’ll mark the query as a “maybe” and come back to it when I can devote my full attention to the reading. Here’s a quick rundown of five things I’m looking for when I’m reading those five pages…
- Hook/Pacing- does your story start in the right place? Do we have time to get to know the character a bit before her world comes crashing down around her? How much is actually happening in these pages?
- Character- Do I like the main character? Is there something about the character that feels real? Is he or she showing signs of being a well-developed character?
- Setting/World building- Is the world confusing or clear? Is there a unique-ness to these elements that speaks to the story or author? Does the setting reflect the tone? (I’m obsessed with stories like these)
- Voice- Is it adding to the story or distracting from it? Is it genuine? Clear? Consistent?
- Basic Writing – Does the author know all the standard grammar stuff? Does the writing flow? Or is it broken up by lots of short sentences? Lots of subject/verb beginnings? Info dumps? Passive voice or overuse of telling?
As always, know that the publishing industry is incredibly subjective. What I may pass on might be the perfect fit for another agent. If you receive a pass email from me, remember that you’re awesome for having written a story and having the guts to put it out there for the world to see. You’ll find your perfect agent match whether it be on this book or the next. The key is to keep trying, keep writing, keep querying and never give up hope. Soon enough you’ll have some farm kid who begs her Mom to make a special trip to the bookstore forty miles away so she can get your book the day it comes out. Hopefully that little girl doesn’t get car sick.