Anatomy of a Winning Query
Have you noticed that agents tend to talk a lot about what not to do in a query, but less about what makes a great one? It think it’s because the good ones are each unique; it’s hard to come up with a formula that makes a terrific query. But the unexciting or badly composed queries have a lot in common with each other; many people make the same mistakes, and we’re just trying to help you avoid them. It’s much easier to say what not to do than describe what to do!
Nevertheless, I’ve been wanting to write a post answering the question, “What makes you immediately want to say YES to a query?” Yesterday I got the perfect opportunity. I received a query that made my heart palpitate and my fingers stumble all over each other as I typed the response requesting a full manuscript. I couldn’t wait to read the book. Why? What made me have that reaction? I’ve tried to analyze it, and here’s what I came up with:
1) The first paragraph put me right into the middle of a provocative scene. The writer described, in first person, something that had happened to her that was fascinating. Not something general like “I had cancer” or “I was a teenage model” but an actual scene like from a novel. It was brief, only a few sentences, but it completely grabbed me, partly because of what the scene was, and partly because…
2) It was so well written. The author’s voice came through; immediately I could tell she was educated, a bit sassy, unafraid to speak the truth. The words were simply put together in a pleasing way. They spoke loud and clear: GOOD WRITER.
3) The book she was pitching happened to be an area of interest for me–a spiritual memoir–and an unusual one. She’s had a unique journey and she has a fun way of telling about it. I love the freshness of it.
4) The topic she’s writing about happens to be one that I think is selling strongly right now.
5) The query was clear, to-the-point, and well organized. The first few paragraphs gave an overview of her story so I’d know what her memoir was about. She wrapped up that section with a really funny hook (or log line) that summarizes her book. She briefly described the structure of the book and the themes it encapsulates, and she defined her target audience (a pretty big one). Then she told me about herself: her degrees, her writing credits, and her awards. So she told me everything I needed to know in her query, while keeping me interested the whole time.
6) The author is fresh from an MFA program, which by itself wouldn’t necessarily draw me in, but combined with her obviously compelling writing (even in the query) and the fact that she won her university’s most prestigious writing award last year, it impressed me. I could see potential beyond this one book because she’s more than a person with a story to tell; she is a writer.
7) Did I mention she was a really good writer? Even in the query, her way with words had its way with me.
8) The book she was pitching immediately seemed like it could be really big. I felt like she was tapping into something many people could relate to. It brought to mind Eat, Pray, Love and The Glass Castle, two of my favorite (not to mention bestselling) memoirs. I could envision a review in People magazine.
This is the most important part: It’s not the query, but the book. The idea was strong and fresh; the writing in the pitch was so good that it seemed likely the writing in the book would be strong. The query is important in that it shows me your writing skill. But in the end, the query’s not the thing. The book is. Do I want to read it? Do I think others will want to read it?
These are the things that drew me in, but there is also something indefinable about why a query grabs me, just like you can’t always describe exactly why you love a particular book, movie or TV show. It’s just so good, you’re tempted to say. Sometimes all the elements combine together to hit you in your sweet spot. When that happens, it’s pure magic.
Now I’m off to read the manuscript, which is already resting securely in my Kindle. Lucky me.
8 Tomorrow: What will happen next if I absolutely love the manuscript? A look at the agent process.
Rachelle Gardner, Christian literary agent, WordServe Literary Group, Colorado.