This Thanksgiving, I have so much to be thankful for. I made amazing friends in the writing community. I wrote a book. I got a kickass agent.
So today, I thought I would give a little bit of that gratitude back to the community, or pass it on, by crafting a blog post on how I structured my query letter for BLOOD HEIR.
Oh, and yes, there will be Wonder Woman references. (This whole post is just an excuse for me to add random WW pictures to my blog.)
Actual footage of me in the Query Trenches.
A query letter is essentially the same as a cover letter for a job. You need to sell yourself and your book within half a page, therefore it stands to reason the query must be as succinct, hook-y, beautifully-written, and polished as possible. (Needless to say, your manuscript has been polished to a shiny perfection at this point.)
The components of a query letter will boil down to (and this may change based on the agent’s preference, so do your research for each agent):
- Hook, and book sales pitch;
- The stats;
- Brief bio/industry creds.
Let’s go through each of these elements, starting from the most important aspect…
1. Hook, and Book Sales Pitch
Some authors may prefer to start with this right off the bat; others may prefer to do a the stats/personalization/brief bio first … it’s really all up to you (and the agent’s preference, if any).
The book sales pitch is a ~250-word “summary” of your book that is, in fact, not a summary. What you will attempt to do with the book sales pitch is to show the agent your protagonist, the stakes, a brief glimpse of the world, and entice them to read more (that’s right, leave ’em hangin’ a bit! After all, they make us wait for months for a reply! 😉 ). Here’s how I would recommend structuring it, using snippets from my own by way of illustration.
1. Hook. Start with a single fact about your book that is the most interesting and attention-grabbing. Ideally, it will be either a fact about your MC, or a fact about the world that relates to the wider conflict your MC will undergo later on.
Born with an unusual power of controlling blood, seventeen-year-old Anastacya Mikhailov has never believed herself to be anything more than a monster.
This is how I decided to start mine, and I’ve received comments that it is a great hook. Right off the bat, I tell the agent to expect blood magic in this book. I focus on my protagonist with an introduction on a defining feature/burden she has had to carry her entire life. I show a glimpse of her internal conflict and demons. And, the agents probably did not get this, but the element of blood magic relates to the greater societal conflict in my world, as well as the overall conflict of the story/plot. Every single word I write is carefully-chosen, every phrase carefully crafted to pack as much meaning and as many themes into this first sentence as possible.
2. Inciting Incident. This doesn’t have to come right after, but definitely should be featured in the sales pitch. How does the adventure start for your protagonist? What pulls him/her from his/her normal life? The easiest way to think of this is by using a “when this happens…” sentence. For example, the inciting incident in The Fellowship of the Ring using a “when” sentence: “When Bilbo Baggins vanishes in a puff of smoke on his 111th birthday, Frodo inherits a mysterious ring.”
Continuing with my query, I wrote:
Her curse rings true when an accident in the dead of the night results in the death of her father, the Emperor of Cyrilia. Branded a murderer and charged for treason, she is alone, hunted, and on the run.
3. Mission/Motivation. This can come before the Inciting Incident, but I structured mine so that the character’s motivation stems from it. What is driving your protagonist to persevere through this adventure? Remember, the Inciting Incident is just that — an incident. We need to get to know your protagonist more. Is he/she the type of person to run from the II? Does he/she face it head-on? Or does she take her sweet time to plan vengeance?
But Ana knows what she saw that night: the scent of poison in Papa’s blood, and the face of a murderer vanishing into the dark.
In her despair, a new resolve drives her to the slavers’ mansions of Salskoff, where the most ruthless criminals lurk amidst glittering opulence and dark violence.
It’s pretty clear to see that Ana’s motivation stems from the fact that she might not be the true murderer. An exiled princess? Accused of murder and treason? But she might be innocent?! Tension, tension, motivation! (And here, I added a little bonus punch of worldbuilding, which I’ll get into later on.)
4. The New Guy. Okay, this section name sucks, but I really didn’t know what else to put. And it’s totally optional. But I’ve noticed that, for a lot of queries, authors tend to throw in a “girl meets boy” or “girl meets girl” scenario. Basically, most manuscripts don’t survive on a single protagonist alone; we need the supporting cast. Sometimes, the New Guy can be the love interest, or a friend, or a friendly enemy. But he/she should be essential to your plot in some way. Don’t just throw someone in there for kicks.
There, Ana makes a bargain with Ramson Quicktongue, a handsome yet dangerous underground crime lord: help her find the true murderer and clear her name in exchange for her alliance.
I wove in Ramson because he is absolutely essential to my plot — and this shows the plot progressing. It’s not just, “Ana meets Ramson Quicktongue, a handsome conman.” No; she’s actively tracking him down and making conscious decisions on her mission. And, as an added bonus, I think this reveals even more about my protagonist: she’s a girl who can stand up to a dangerous crime lord. Fun stuff.
5. Worldbuilding. This does not have to come in the assigned numbering order, but is also pivotal to making/breaking your query. Particularly for fantasy writers (like myself), we are selling a whole new world in our book, and it must absolutely shine through our query. The sales pitch (and the entire query) should seek to build broad brushstrokes of your world through beautiful words. I already wove this in a bit through the last sentence of my #3 quote, but I also found a chance to sneak some worldbuilding in here:
With Ana’s powers and Ramson’s wits, they navigate frozen tundras prowling with icewolves and moonbears, and elude capture from the Imperial Guard.
6. Raised Stakes. Here’s where we’re building to the section of your sales pitch that corresponds to the climax of your manuscript. What are the ultimate stakes for your protagonist? What has all of this adventuring led to — what has your entire book built up to? Introduce this, but do not give the answer and the ending. Structure it in a way that raises questions.
Yet when Ana’s search lands her in the lair of the most powerful slave trader in the Empire, she uncovers a horrifying truth. A new monarch stands poised to lead the empire to a path of hatred and divisiveness …
Tip: You need to raise questions, but don’t be too vague to the point that it reads like a book blurb. It’s a fine balance between not giving away the entire conflict/stakes and making it concrete enough so that it doesn’t sound cliché. My previous line was: “A greater conspiracy looms over Cyrilia, and Ana must stop it before her empire falls to darkness.” However, after I read it over and over again, I decided it was too dramatic/vague/cliché-sounding. After all, any book could have a greater conspiracy, and any protagonist must stop his/her empire/kingdom/world from “falling to darkness.” This new line (which I ultimately used) hints at one of the key themes that Blood Heir strives to embody (in short, love trumps hate), therefore it makes the sentence mine.
7. The Final Choice. What is the final challenge/conflict that your protagonist must resolve? This is what we’ve been building towards throughout the entire query, and the entire book. Ideally, this should be an ultimate choice and open question that should reflect both the external conflict and the internal conflict. I’ve seen a lot of queries use sentence structures like, “Protagonist must choose between X and Y before Z” or “Can Protagonist do X before Z, or will she choose to Y?”
… and Ana must stop her before Cyrilia falls to darkness. But first, she must come to terms with the monster she thinks she is and the heir she was destined to be.
Here, I gave a concrete goal to an external conflict. And then I wrapped it up with the internal conflict that is equally important to my story. (A good tip: your protagonist’s external journey/conflict should sync up with his/her internal journey/conflict. I made sure mine did just that, which is why the ending worked out nicely, with a little bow on top.) I also do a callback to the first line of my query, so the internal conflict for my protagonist also comes full-circle. Yay!
You’re going to have those agents lassoed like no other! (I know that’s cheesy but jUST TRY AND STOP ME)
2. The Stats
This is a simple form introduction to your book’s stats, which include name, genre, word count, and comps. Some writers prefer to put this at the very beginning; I simply chose to start most of my queries with the Sales Pitch. (Note: Some agents have specific preferences as to whether the stats should come first, the bio second, the sales pitch third … and so on. So, iron rule of querying? Do your research!!!)
BOOK NAME is a GENRE with series potential?*, complete at WORD COUNT words, which will appeal to readers of COMP 1 and COMP 2. I’ve included MATERIALS REQUESTED (sample pages, chapters) for your review. Is this a multiple submission query?**
* If your book has series potential, definitely note it down. If agents are impressed by your work, they’ll likely consider a series … because more books = more money! (I learned this at a writer’s conference.)
** General rule of thumb is that agents want to know whether you are submitting just to them, or to multiple agents. Most people will submit to multiple agents at once, so be sure to note that down in your query.
This is so, so important to your query! The agent will want to know why you are querying them! Yes, we research by agency and pick out the ones we think will best represent our work; yes, we spread our nets wide and query up to 40+ agents at a time. But every single query must be personalized to the best of your ability. (Remember the Iron Rule?)
Research the agent. Read their interviews, their websites, their Twitters, their blogs, their Manuscript Wishlists… and pick out some things that resonate with you and/or your book. And tell them why your book should be of interest to them.
This should be one paragraph. I chose to put all of my “personalization paragraphs” last, because I wanted to end strong, and make sure I spent my last words convincing the agent that my book was right for them. (Tip I learned at business school presentations: You tell them what you’re going to tell them, you tell them, and then you tell them what you told them.) Some people might prefer to put it first, but I always thought that if your Hook/Sales Pitch resonated with the agent already, the Personalization section might be a stronger finish. Ultimately, it’s up to you, as long as you obey the Iron Rule (what does the agent prefer?).
Chris Pine Agent, I love you am querying you because…
4. Brief Bio/Industry Creds
Some agents may require this, and it’s essential for nonfiction writers (that’s a whole other world…). For fiction writers, if you have industry creds, by all means throw them in here — like a brief resumé. If you don’t have any industry creds (like me, and other new writers!), then just write a 2-3 sentence introduction on your background, and why you chose this book. For most of my queries, if the agent did not request a bio, I didn’t put one. If they did request, I just used a few snippets of the materials you can find on my website. 😉 (I’m not lazy; I prefer to view this as efficient!)
Tip: Industry creds = pieces of written work for which you received compensation. For example, I wouldn’t advise to put your high school magazine publication in here. But, to each his/her own.
“My name is Diana, Publisher of High School Magazine Stories–”
“Prince. Diana Prince. She was just the … unpaid secretary.”
I hope this was somewhat helpful! I know most of you probably only came for the Wonder Woman comps (and I totally don’t blame you), hehe. Now, go forth and slay, writers!
(Note: This is a metaphor for slaying, not for … your relationship with future potential agents. Nope. [No agents were harmed in the making of this blog post.])