Last spring, I followed up the #RevPit annual contest with a post on common query mistakes I saw in entries and what could be done to correct them. These topics covered the basics: stakes, motivation, conflict, and tension. This winter, I read and analyzed ten more query letters for our #10Queries mini event, and I was able to dig a little deeper into what made or broke those letters.
If you’ve already read up on query letters and gotten the basic form down, this post is for you. You see, there’s more to a good query letter than just making sure you include all the right pieces. If you learn how to use those pieces to their fullest advantage, you can boost your query letter from one that’s only okay at best to one that communicates clearly and stands out from the ones around it.
The Eight Boosters
1: Prove you have a compelling premise.
When I read queries for #RevPit events, one of the things that makes me want to read more of a story—even if the query letter isn’t flawless—is proof of a good premise. This holds true into the rest of the querying process. If an agent looks at your query letter and doesn’t see anything particularly intriguing or unique in the story you offer, they won’t have any reason to believe that readers will be interested in the story either.
So what makes a premise compelling? It might be the way you present a new concept—or perhaps an old concept in a new way. It might be characters going through relatable struggles, or a mystery we can’t help but want the answer to. Don’t try too hard to prove your premise is unique, though—after all, everyone out there is trying to prove their story is the next best thing. The best thing you can do just might be the simplest: think about why you find this story special and why it’s near and dear to your heart as a writer. The things that make you love it just might be the things that make agents and readers love it too.
2: Show how genre expectations are met.
When I was reading queries for the #10Queries event over the last couple of weeks, I notice that some of them weren’t taking full advantage of genre expectations. For example, I saw one query that listed fantasy as the genre but didn’t give clues in the rest of the letter as to what made the characters’ world and journey that of a fantasy novel. In another instance, I saw a letter that was missing the genre, and when I made an assumption based on the content of the letter, the author clarified for me why it was a different genre—with valid reasons that weren’t clear in the query.
When you introduce your story to agents through your query letter, they’ll be watching to see if it’s a marketable story for that genre—and if they’re a good match for your story, they’ll know the genre well. Prove you also know your genre by working the key elements into your query—for example, making the alternate setting and/or magic system clear for a fantasy novel.
3: Let your character’s personality shine through.
Some of my favorite queries to read have been those that reveal the voice and personality of the MC. It’s easy to focus on the content of your query letter and making sure you have all the right pieces in the right places. These are absolutely important things to confirm. At the same time, though, you can go above and beyond by taking that letter and filtering it through the voice and personality of your character.
What I don’t mean: writing the letter in first person. This is creative but not proper, and most agents do not want to see it. What I do mean: looking at the conflict of the story the way your POV character would. What do they see as the goals and obstacles in their journeys? Focus on those. What kind of language and wording would they use to describe the main conflict? Use similar language and wording to describe it in the letter. Make sure that the main character you introduce in the letter is the same one they’ll get to know in the pages of the book.
4: Address multiple main characters in terms of their shared story.
How should you handle the query letter when you have multiple MCs? If you give each of them as much space as one usually gets, you’ll wind up with too long of a letter, but if you only share a partial arc for each, the agent won’t know where they’re headed or how their stories are connected—and a disjointed query letter will be less than helpful in selling your story.
The strongest multiple-POV query letters I’ve seen have been the ones where two MCs each get a paragraph for their context, goals, and stakes to be set up. Then, the following paragraph(s) show how tensions rise in the central conflict that they’re both a part of. If they share goals, this will be pretty straightforward. If their goals conflict, use the contrasting goals to your advantage in showing how the story has high stakes and tension for both of them.
5: Don’t spend too much time on setup.
In some of the query letters I’ve read, I’ve seen what I assumed was the inciting incident and central conflict of the story only to find out when reading the first five pages that the story actually started in a far different place than I assumed. Sometimes, this is caused by the letter focusing too much on what happens later in the book, but more often, it’s caused by the letter focusing too much on what happens before the heart of the story occurs.
So how do you avoid this? When you think about your story, think about the conflict and goals the main character faces for the majority of the story. This is the conflict that the bulk of your query letter should focus on. No matter how interesting the setup is that gets the MC to that point, that setup should still only have a brief mention in the letter. Let the reader enjoy the details when they read the actual book.
6: Identify the inciting incident.
In the previous point, I referred to the inciting incident and how I looked for it in the query letter. Do you know what your story’s inciting incident is? Is it clear in your query? The inciting incident is the moment that brings your main character from the status quo they’ve been living in to the conflict that takes them through the rest of the story. While specific definitions and locations differ, most people agree this generally occurs in the first act of your story.
This is important to make clear in your query letter. After you introduce your main character, introduce the moment that changes everything and forces them into the plot. Then, make sure that any future plot points you include are introduced as ways the stakes are raised—not as new inciting incidents. This will help the agent better understand why the MC is on the journey they’re on in this story.
7: Save those plot details for the synopsis.
A lot of really big, important things happen in your story, and it’s easy to want to mention them all in the query letter. I’ve seen many authors do this, giving what essentially becomes a mini summary of parts or even all of their story. Don’t do this—like I mentioned before, stick to information that shows the stakes and rising action/tension. The query letter isn’t there to summarize what happens in the book. It’s there to identify the character, conflict, and stakes of the story, essentially creating a teaser for where the book will go.
So what do you do with those plot details? Put them in the synopsis. Unlike the query letter, the synopsis is there to summarize your story, giving all the major plot points and progression, usually in a page or two. If you feel stuck trying to cut down the details in your query letter, why not write the synopsis first? Once your summary is in place, you can identify those key elements to transfer into the query letter.
8: Avoid leaving key information too vague.
Some authors, in an attempt to stay mysterious and keep their story’s big spoilers secret, stay very vague when mentioning what problems their MCs must face. They describe the enormity of the stakes and the impact on MC, but they never actually explain what those stake are—or what inciting incident creates the situation. The problem is, without any details to connect to, the agent won’t feel that same enormity and impact.
To balance giving enough information without revealing too much, stick to being honest and direct about the inciting incident, main goal of the MC, and stakes. When faced with a situation where you really don’t want to give something away, you still should describe more than just the impact. For example, if you don’t want to reveal yet that the antagonist is the main character’s father, don’t just call him “a terrible enemy.” Be as specific as possible with a phrase like “someone the MC never expected or wished to see again” or “a nightmare from her past.” That way, you raise curiosity (e.g. “Who didn’t they want to see again?”) while also implying the emotions (e.g. “Wow, seeing someone again that you didn’t want to see must be terrible”).
Putting It All Together
It’s unlikely that you’ll get your query letter right on the first try—or even the third or fifth. In the annual #RevPit contests, I’ve worked with authors through five to ten drafts of their query letters—all after the revisions they put in to catch my eye in the first place. Make sure you put on a revision mindset for this process. It might take multiple drafts to address and incorporate the different boosters on this list, and that’s okay. Take breaks if you need them, get an outside eye on the letter if it all starts to blur together, and be patient with yourself. Practice makes perfect, and that applies as much to a good query letter as anything else in life.
If you’re not yet sure if you have the basic format of a query letter down, refer back to my first post or drop me a line below. I can point you to the best resources I have—and I’m always happy to schedule a query & page edit if you need individualized help getting your letter ready.
Curious about my full list of #10Queries tweets from February 3? You can find them all in the Twitter thread starting HERE.