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Writing A Successful Query Letter

Writer's Block by Melissa RossIf you’ve heard about query letters, no doubt you’ve heard how annoying, infuriatingly difficult, and soul-sucking they are to write. And every word of that is true. Writing my query was a brutal process, but if you want to get an agent; there’s no getting around it.

It’s commonly assumed a query is a novel’s summary, detailing the swathes of characters and plot mechanics and crazy-cool worldbuilding that folks love to gush about. It’s actually the opposite; a query is the novel’s most compelling elements, stripped down to the core. At a glance, agents need to know what your novel is, why they should care, and that you have enough of a firm grasp of the material that you can pitch it in 300 words, convincing the agent to read it.

A few weeks back, I signed with my awesome agent, John Jarrold, who represents such folks in the business like John Gwynne, Richard Ford, Melinda Snodgrass, and dozens other awesome writers. And I did it using this query letter, which also got me twelve full manuscript requests and a handful of partial requests from big name agents (who represent NYT best sellers, books adapted into film and TV shows, etc.). It’s not perfect, but it’s one way that worked, and I’ll explain why I think it did.

Accused mass murderer Kira Vijov used to be a respected Rogueman, enforcing the law across the Intergalactic Sprawl. Now, stripped of his rank, he’s just another exiled gun for hire and only his sister Ashby believes he didn’t massacre all those people. Still a Rogueman at heart, all Kira remembers is waking up inside an impenetrable vault among blood and bodies, with the memory of a colossal ship in the sky.

When that same ship appears on the other side of the galaxy and people start to vanish, including his sister, the Sprawl comes to Kira for help. He agrees to hunt down the killers who destroyed his life and took Ashby. But the locals make their own rules on the edge of the galaxy, and Kira is going to need dangerous allies to survive. Even if it means getting his hands dirtier than a Rogueman ever should. As the mystery unfolds and his past with it, Kira starts to question his own innocence. He’ll have to decide between saving his sister and uncovering a terrible secret that’s been decades in the making. A secret he might just be part of.

THE ROGUE GALAXY is 105,000 words and is SEVEN meets LEVIATHAN WAKES with a dash of MASS EFFECT.

I believe this query worked because I didn’t bog the agents down with names, factions and jargon (you’ll notice I never named the planet Kira goes to, the people he meets up with, the vault he wakes up in, or what was inside the vault). I gave them the bare minimum for ease of reading, which demonstrates a basic understanding of my world.

Paper stack by Dee dlsInstead, I focused purely on character. I said who Kira was (an augmented soldier), what his conflict is (he was found guilty of mass murder) and someone that meant something to him (his sister). I did the best thing I could to make the agent care about the character and his situation by showing the things he lost and things he misses (and, by extension, the reader will want to see him get those things back).

But to state these things is not enough: you have to escalate, upscale, shatter the status quo. I’d established a state of normalcy, then introduced new information with each sentence: something important has happened (the ship has reappeared), the person he cares about is his danger (his sister), and now he’s going to go on his quest that’s about much more than him (saving his sister’s life). It’s not enough to show that Things Are Happening. You need to give the agent a reason to care that these Things Are Happening and for them to want what Kira wants, because then they’re intrigued by his fate and will read on.

For my protagonist to travel the universe for revenge or prove himself right would not hook agents. People are drawn to other people and their relationships, even on a subconscious level. I believe what grabbed agents was Kira’s relationship with his sister, and determination to get her back. It provided an unselfish, human side to him that’s easily relatable.

But of course, your character needs to do things. This was the hardest part of the query, and it took me forever to get right. I avoided non-specifics that added nothing but words to the query (i.e., “he must sacrifice everything”, “he must do the impossible”, or the worst of all: “chaos ensues”). You’re just wasting words that provides zero information. I instead stuck to very specific events that couldn’t apply to any other query, and would stick in agents’ minds. I think that additional escalation and conflict (being forced to work with dangerous, terrible people, something that goes against everything Kira stands for) captivated agents because it teased at a sign of (hopefully interesting) things to come and some internal character conflict.

Computer Keyboard by Marcie CasasI could be a little more loose and ambiguous at the end, but since it’s the finishing sentence it really needs to hook the agent. I think I did this by honing in on the question if the main character is really guilty of mass murder (the inciting conflict), and highlighting that finding the answer to this ultimate question could cost him the person he cares most about (his sister). “He’ll lose everything,” says a lot, but tells you nothing about personal conflict, or what’s important to him. Stakes mean nothing if there is no weight behind it, or if we don’t care about the people involved. This is what I’ve been trying to achieve with this whole query, and according to multiple agents I (somehow) managed to do just that.

Now, while the comp titles are less important than the bulk of the query, they do give an idea of where your novel sits on the shelf, and the sort of readers who will be buying it.

The comparison to non-novel material was a risky one, but I think it worked because it shows an appeal to fans of cinema and video games. But I choose these comp titles not just because of genre, but aesthetic. The novel is a grand, sprawling space opera, but I choose Mass Effect because a large part of my novel is about a crew of misfits banded together on a starship, and much like in Mass Effect, their relationships develop, demons from their pasts return to influence their decisions, and the (often exuberant) places they go changes them. I could have used any space opera as a comparison, but I settled on Mass Effect because of these specific reasons.

8 Typewriter by Maria Francesca RinaldiLike David Fincher’s Seven, my novel is a murder mystery. And in Seven, as detective Mills and Somerset discover increasingly gruesome murder scenes, their moral compasses start to change and pull them apart, as does the way they approach the case. My novel has a very similar approach, each character having their ethical boundaries tested and changed as they get closer to the truth, which forces them to do outlandish things that causes conflict between them.

It goes without saying that the novel also needs to be good. A query letter only gives a rough indicator of how good. Again, they’re tough to write, and I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the multiple revisions and help from a number of awesome beta readers. Reading successful queries helped me out, and I hope I returned the favour and inspired some of you here.

Now get writing!

Title image by Fabio.

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2 Comments

  1. Bernie Anes says:

    First of all, congrats on landing an agent!

    On subject; I was kind of hoping for some examples of successful non-urban fantasy query letters on a fantasy-focused site since they’re hard to come across, specifically behemoths that cover multiple important POVs just to get an idea of how the story was handled in the letter. For instance, I’d kill to see the query letter that landed Joe Abercrombie his gig but really having a bucket of them would be best to better see patterns in successful ones.

    • Jeremy Szal says:

      Hi Bernie,

      Thank you!

      Well, my query letter is for a space opera novel, so I guess that’s non-urban fantasy. 🙂 But from what I’ve gathered from folks who write lots of PoVs; they focused on a single one for their query, that of the main character. Your query has to be tight enough as it is, and mentioning several characters in detail *will* work against you.

      Joe actually couldn’t get an agent, and he had a friend of his future editor send her The Blade Itself (the man himself told me this when I asked him). But yes, more example of successful queries would be good.

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