Tag Archives: Query Tips

Why Query Contests are Awesome

I didn’t get my agent from a query contest, but I entered a bunch of them back when I was querying, and I found contests to be incredibly helpful to me as a writer. But not for the reasons I thought they would be.

Some people do find their agents through contests, but I know I got far more requests querying. When you query, you can pick agents you’re interested in, and who are seeking what you write. It’s a better way to find the perfect match.

Contests are, however, AMAZING for several things:

Feedback – Some contests offer feedback to entrants. These are incredible opportunities! But even contests that don’t offer feedback often will abound with chances for query exchanges or critique giveaways on the contest hashtag.

Community – Contests are often a great way to meet other writers through the social media surrounding the contest. You can learn from tips other writers post, meet potential CPs or beta readers, and simply know you’re not alone in the trenches.

Field Testing – If your query gets picked for a contest, that’s a great sign that it’ll get requests from agents, too. If it doesn’t get picked for one contest, that doesn’t necessarily mean anything—they’re often very competitive—but if you enter a few and don’t get picked, your query or your book may need more work before you send it out to agents. Entering contests is a great, risk-free way to field test your query without closing any doors.

Case Studies in Awesomeness – You can learn a lot by checking out the winning queries in major contests, even if you don’t enter yourself. It can be especially interesting when there are multiple rounds with revisions between rounds, so you can see how the query improves, or if mentors post public feedback you can learn from. You can read the queries (and excerpts, where applicable) and see which ones really want to make you read the book, and learn from what those writers do.

I entered a bunch of query contests when I was querying the novel that got me my agent (the one I wrote before THE TETHERED MAGE). The feedback I got from contests, and from people I met through contests, was absolutely invaluable in improving both my query and my entire novel; I wouldn’t have gotten my wonderful agent without what I learned from them.

I actually entered an early draft of the novel that would become THE TETHERED MAGE in PitchWars when I was still revising it, figuring it would be a good way to test my query at least… and wound up getting requests from all four of the mentors to whom I applied. I had to frantically finish my revisions and send off the full, and wound up getting picked as a mentee… and then got an offer from my lovely agent just a few days later and had to withdraw! But I knew from the huge difference between the judge reactions to that proto-TTM novel and the reactions to my previous novel that I’d finally gotten this right, and this was THE BOOK.

So if you’re a writer looking for an agent, I highly recommend checking out contests. Even if you don’t wind up participating, you can learn a ton and meet great people just by stalking them. (Er, stalking the contests, that is, not the people.) You don’t have to win contests to get published, but they are a fantastic place to find community, learn, and practice, so you’ll be much more prepared to revise your novel into its fully evolved badass form, write a killer query, and get the agent of your dreams.


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!


Honest Answers to Querying Writer FAQs

For fun, here are some honest answers to the questions querying (or pre-querying) writers REALLY frequently ask.

Q. Is my book any good?

A. Yes. But it could be better.

Q. OK, is my book good enough?

A. WRONG QUESTION! It’s never good enough. Back to the revision pits!

Q. How do I make this book better? I’ve looked at it so long my eyes are bleeding.

A. Give it to good, honest CP’s. Take a month or two off from it and start something new (not a sequel). Fall in love with the new thing. Learn from it. Now come back to the first thing, especially if you don’t love it anymore, and you will magically be able to make it better.

Q. But I want to start querying NOW!

A. NO. No exceptions. Take the time off and start something new to get some distance first. DO IT.

Q. OK, I did it. Now, OH GOD, how the HELL do I write a query letter?

A. Go critique other peoples’ letters in a forum or blog workshop somewhere first. Also go look at query contest winners on the big blog contests, and figure out what you like about your favorites. Also, QueryShark.

Q. That’s a lot of information. Can you sum it up in three words?

A. Yes. Character, conflict, stakes.

Q. Ugh, writing a query letter STILL sucks.

A. It will always suck. Go get feedback on yours now.

Q. Does my query letter suck?

A. WRONG QUESTION. Ask yourself, “Is this so awesome anyone in their right minds would immediately NEED to read this book?”

Q. Seriously?! THAT’S the bar?!

A. Yep. Terrifying, isn’t it?

Q. Dude. I should just quit.

A. NO. No quitting. BACK TO WORK.

Q. I sent out my query letter. WHEN WILL AGENTS GET BACK TO ME?!?!

A. Never. They will never get back to you. Your suffering is eternal.

Q. NOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!

A. Or you could check QueryTracker.

Q. Argh, now they’re getting back to me and it’s all rejections! Does my query suck?

A. Yes. Or else your book isn’t ready.

Q. How do I know which one?

A. Get feedback from someone whose judgment you trust who will be honest with you. Then listen to it. Then revise.

Q. I’m getting requests! OMG OMG!!! What do I do?!

A. Keep calm and query on.

Q. HOW LONG CAN IT TAKE AN AGENT TO READ ONE FREAKIN’ PARTIAL?!

A. Ten thousand years.

Q. Will they EVER get back to me?!?!

A. Not always. Non-responses on fulls are a thing.

Q. SERIOUSLY?!!?!? That is the WORST THING EVER!!!

A. Yep.

Q. Can I nudge?

A. On your full? After 3 months or according to guidelines. No sooner. Get your finger off that send button. (Smacks)

Q. When do I give up on this book and move on?

A. You should already be writing the next book the minute you start querying. If your book isn’t getting the response you want, stop. Pause. Look at it. HARD. Make it better. Make it better than that. Then try again. Chances are it’s not hopeless, you just queried it too early.

Q. I looked hard, and, um, I think it might be crap. NOW should I move on?

A. If it’s actually crap and you’re not just having a low moment, sure. If you’ve got a new book that’s better. (If not, why weren’t you writing it all this time, hmmm?) If it might not be crap, or you don’t have anything else ready, BACK TO THE REVISION PITS!

Q. You say that a lot, don’t you?

A. There’s a reason for that. Every book can be better, always. MAKE IT SO.

That was fun! What did I miss? Got any suggestions for more Honest Writer FAQs I should add?


Dear Newbie Querier Me, Part Two: Forget Personalization

(This is another thing I wish I could go back in time and tell myself at the beginning of my querying career.)

Dear Newbie Querier Me,

I know you keep reading that you need to personalize each query to the specific agent you’re querying. I know you see agent interview after agent interview where they talk about what a difference good personalization can make. But listen to me carefully now: that advice is for other people. Not you. For the love of chocolate, stop trying to personalize your queries.

You didn’t meet those agents at conferences. You don’t have a referral. You aren’t going to impress them by saying you love their famous client, because everyone loves their famous client, and besides, their client you love is a picture book author and you’re writing YA. I know they say to let them know why you’re querying them in particular… but the fact is, for almost every agent you query, the answer is because I read everything about you I could find on the web and you represent my category/genre and seem really cool.

That is not actually useful or interesting information. Skip it and get to your story.

Most of all, Newbie Querier Me, don’t try to make charming small talk or any such crap. You can’t do that. Sure, you read success stories about people who did that in their query letters and it worked out for them, but those people probably did not grow up in Massachusetts. You live in a state where making small talk with strangers is considered an invasion of privacy and kind of rude. You never learned how to do it without sounding like a creepy stalker. Stop trying. Just stop.

If you want facts and figures, consider this, Newbie Querier Me: You will spend hours personalizing many queries. You will get many agent requests. You will never, even once, get a request on a query you personalized. You suck at this. Stop shooting yourself in the foot. No one will notice if you skip the personalization, but they sure as hell will notice if you screw it up.

Love and Kisses,

Future Agented You

(PS) To those reading this who are not me, if you’re one of the lucky ones who actually has specific connections to mention (met the agent at a conference, have a referral, etc), or who is good at this personalization stuff and not intimidated by it, go right ahead and do it! Don’t let my pathetic failures hold you back if this is an area where you can genuinely shine.

But if you’re like me and you dread the personalized section of your query, do yourself a favor and leave it out. Just make sure you get the name right, and do your research to make sure the agent is seeking what you’re querying and is a good fit for you. It’s your story they really care about anyway.


The Dreaded Vagueness

Whenever I did pitch workshops of any kind, I kept seeing the same crucial piece of feedback appear over and over again, both on my own pitches and others’: don’t be vague. If you read a bunch of query or pitch feedback by people who know what they’re talking about, one thing rapidly becomes apparent: vagueness is the enemy.

This drove me nuts, especially for Twitter pitches or other short forms. How specific did they think I could be, exactly, in 140 characters? Not to mention that it seemed to directly conflict with other sage advice — not to try to fit everything in to your query. I struggled with this paradox for a long time, trying to give specific details while keeping my pitch tight.

Then I had an epiphany. The rule wasn’t be specific. It was avoid vagueness.

The problem with vagueness is that it makes your pitch sound like every other pitch out there. Consider this:

Protagonista’s world is turned upside down by a startling discovery about her secret past. She must come to terms with her own powers before a sinister enemy destroys everything she loves.

Okay. That could be a great book, or it could be a terrible book. We don’t know. More to the point, it could be about 500 different books.

If you were giving feedback on this pitch, you might ask things like “How is her world turned upside down? What discovery? What secret past? What powers? Who’s the enemy? Who or what does she love and how are they at risk?” And the poor writer might wonder how they were possibly supposed to answer all those questions in two sentences.

But the real answer is not to try. You don’t need to answer all that stuff. In fact, you shouldn’t, because some of it should be a surprise. The problem isn’t that you need to spell all that stuff out — it’s that you made all these vague references in the first place, inviting questions you don’t have room to answer.

Instead, hone in on three things: character, conflict, stakes. You don’t need to be specific about your villain, your world design, your secret startling revelations… but you do need to be specific about what your hero has to lose and the choices they must make.

That vague pitch could be any of the following:

When mean girl Protagonista learns she’s doomed to die on her 16th birthday, she has 72 hours to make amends for all the wrongs she’s done or the curse will pass to her little sister.

Protagonista’s longtime crush has finally asked her to the prom. But when she learns he’s a super zombie in disguise, accepting his love could doom her entire school to become a feeding ground for the undead.

Protagonista’s zesty spice blends can mystically cure diabetes and baldness. But unless she can whip up a recipe for forgiveness, her vengeful ex will publicly reveal her past as a stripper to drive away her fiancee.

These are not knock-your-socks-off pitches, but you can at least imagine what the book might be like… something you can’t do with a super vague pitch like the first one. Spelling out the conflict and stakes precisely gives the reader something to latch onto. Vague euphemisms for general story themes give them nothing.

So when you find vagueness in your pitch, kill it! But that doesn’t mean you have to explain everything. It simply means that if you spot vague, cliche phrases in your pitch, you should try again.


Dear Newbie Querier Me: Part One – Do It In the Right Order

While I was querying the book that landed me my awesome agent, there were several moments when I wished I could go back in time and give Past Me querying tips. I don’t possess the power of time travel (which is just as well, really, as I’d age myself out of existence in short order just trying to cram more hours into my day), but I can pass these tips on in hopes that others starting out on the querying trail may find them useful.

Making my list of things I wished I’d figured out earlier, I discovered that it’s embarrassingly long, so I’m breaking it into a series. In this first post, I’ll address my first newbie mistake: doing it in the wrong order.

So… okay, Past Me. You think your novel is polished and ready. (You’re wrong, but that’s another post.) You’ve written a query you’re happy with. You’ve researched agents. You’re ready to go. What do you do first?

Think carefully. Here’s a hint: the answer isn’t “Send my query out to my dozen top choice agents!”

First and most important, Past Me: for the love of chocolate, DON’T send out a query without getting feedback first. You may have just read through the Query Shark archives and feel like you know what you’re doing, but you are not equipped to spot certain kinds of problems in your own query. There are lots of great places to get fabulous query feedback — AgentQuery Connect, awesome blog workshops hosted by generous writers, feedback contests like Become An Agent, and more. Comb Twitter and find them. Use them. Don’t get cocky — this is too important.

Okay, Past Me, you’ve gotten feedback and polished your query. Great! But wait — it’s still not time to send it to agents. Do a contest or two before you query. You can learn whether you’re ready, make connections, get feedback, and pick up all kinds of great querying tips, all while risking nothing. Contests close no doors. Querying does. And besides, Past Me, I happen to know you’ll meet people through contests who will give you advice that will prove absolutely essential to getting an agent.

Now you’re ready. Query in batches. Send out 6-8 queries, then wait for responses. (I know you hate waiting, Past Me, but wow are you going to have to get used to it.) If you get no requests, STOP. Get feedback. Fix your query. Maybe fix your book. (Hint to Past Me: FIX YOUR BOOK.) Then try again.

If you do get a request or two, don’t get overconfident and send out a dozen more queries immediately. I know you’re an optimist, Past Me, but remember: you never stop learning. Keep those batches small so that when you inevitably think of ways to improve your query or your book, it’s not too late.

Finally, Past Me, who did you pick to query first? As it turns out, it doesn’t matter, because the agent you’ll wind up with is actually a way better match for you than the first agents you queried. But I’ll give you this tip: for your first batch of queries, or when testing a new query, pick a mix of agents you’d love to work with who also happen to be fast responders. For this first batch, only pick non-responders if they periodically post where they are in their query pile or have a fairly short “if you don’t hear from me within X days, it’s a rejection” window. You want to get a sense of how well your query is working quickly, so you don’t have to wait two months before sending out the next batch. Remember, you can send out more queries while agents read your full, so you’re not risking your chance at an agent by not querying them first — in fact, you may have a better version of the query to send them after the first round.

These tips on order might not work well for all queriers, of course. Everyone’s different. Maybe you aren’t into contests, or have some other system for who to query first that meets your needs better. That’s fine.

Except you, Past Me. Trust me, your current plan of not getting feedback and ignoring contests is not a winning strategy — but luckily, you’ll figure that out pretty quickly. Stick with it, keep learning, stay humble, and it’ll all end happily ever after.

How about you, writers? What order did you do things in? And what would you tell Past You to do differently?

More posts in the Dear Newbie Querier Me series to come, focusing on different topics!