Query Tips, in Convenient Bullet Point Form

Writing queries was never my favorite part of being a writer, and I don’t pretend to be an expert, but I did learn some things during my time in the querying trenches. Here are some of them:

  • There are three things your query must clearly convey: character, conflict, stakes. Focus on those. They’re so important they’re the only things I’m bolding in this post.
  • Character: Give us a sense of what it’ll be like to be with your MC for the length of a book. If you talk about a love interest, don’t forget to give us at least a couple words about them to let us know what they’re like, too (besides “hot” or “cute”).
  • Stakes: Make them high, specific, and personal. Don’t forget emotional stakes can be more compelling than life-or-death ones.
  • Conflict: Make sure to tell us both about external and internal conflicts, ideally in such a way that we can see for ourselves how the external conflict will make the internal conflict even worse (or vice versa). Also make sure you show how your character has agency in this conflict.
  • Avoid vagueness. This doesn’t mean you have to lay everything out in precise detail, but you can’t be vague or resort to cliche phrases.
  • Don’t try to be too clever (especially with your first line). Let your story speak for itself.
  • Write tight. Skip subplots, don’t overexplain the setting/backstory… focus in on that core conflict.
  • Mention as few proper nouns (characters, place names, names for special SFF elements) as possible.
  • Keep it crystal clear. It should read well on a skim-through, because sometimes it may not get more than that.
  • Make sure whatever is awesome about your story is coming through organically in the query. If its strongest hook is its humor and wit, get that in there. Lyrical voice? Ditto. Terrifyingly creepy mood, or breathtakingly realized setting? Yes. But don’t force it if it won’t go.
  • Focus on the main character. If it’s multi-POV, make that clear.
  • Make it clean and error-free. Read it aloud to make sure it flows well. Your query is a writing sample.

There’s more, of course. For instance, getting your query critiqued by knowledgable fellow writers is a must… never send out a new version of your query without getting eyes on it first!

And don’t shy away from accepting that sometimes a problem in your query is actually a problem with your book. In writing Twitter pitches for an early version of one novel, I realized that the most interesting, high-stakes conflict—the one I wanted to put in the Twitter pitch—wasn’t given a central place in that draft of the book. I revised the book to focus on that conflict, and it was much better. Boiling your book down into a query can teach you a lot about how to make your manuscript better!

I could go on, but this is long enough already. Keep calm, query on, and good luck!

Published by Melissa Caruso

Fantasy author of the Swords & Fire trilogy: THE TETHERED MAGE (Orbit, 2017), THE DEFIANT HEIR (Orbit, 2018), and THE UNBOUND EMPIRE (Orbit, 2019), as well as the Rooks and Ruin trilogy, beginning with THE OBSIDIAN TOWER (Orbit, 2020). Melissa's debut, THE TETHERED MAGE, was shortlisted for the Gemmell Morningstar Award in 2017. Melissa loves tea, adventure, and the great outdoors, and has been known to swordfight in ballgowns. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband, two superlative daughters, and assorted pets. Represented by Naomi Davis of BookEnds.

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