Writing a query is one of the hardest things to do as a writer, but it’s also one of the most important. A good query can mean the difference between getting a full request on your manuscript and just another rejection letter. Very often it’s the little things that trip you up, but they don’t have to. I learned the hard way and racked up a fistful of rejections when I first queried. Now you don’t have to.
These are six things I wish I knew before I sent my first query.
1. An interesting subject line can get an agent’s attention
I never hought much about what I put in the subject line for my email queries. I knew enough to put the word Query in the Subject line, but my knowledge pretty much ended there.
During a recent online webinar, an agent suggested that if you use the right subject line, you can get an agent’s attention and jump to the top of the slushpile.
Some agents list on the agency website what they want to see in the subject line for the query. You definitely want to follow those guidelines. Otherwise, you’ll stand out in a bad way.
But, if you know the agent is looking for a YA Fantasy about a prom in space and that sounds exactly like the manuscript you’re querying, by all means, add #MSWL Space Prom to the end of the subject line. That should get the agent’s attention and hopefully move your query to the top of the pile.
If you have a unique title for your manuscript that might just grab the agent’s attention as well, so be sure to add the title to the subject line.
2. Starting a query with a rhetorical question can spell rejection
I read something online years ago that a rhetorical question was a great way to break the ice and introduce the manuscript. What I failed to consider is that by asking a rhetorical question in the query, the agent could say no.
It makes sense though. An agent has an inbox overflowing with queries and they are not going to go away on their own. It’s up to the agent to weed out the ones they aren’t interested in. Sometimes, they will do that just by the opening sentence.
If you start the query with a question, you risk the agent answering no to that question and tossing the query in the rejection pile. I learned the hard way you don’t want to give the agent a reason to say no to your query.
Instead of asking Have you ever wondered why birds fly? Show them in your pitch why they should ponder that question in the first place. If you do that, you may find a full or partial request in your inbox.
3. A hook is a key part of the query
My first queries read more like a cover letter for a job interview than a pitch for a query. I had no hook. As a result, I received a lot of rejections.
Now, I know how to write my queries so the pitch reads like a front jacket copy of a book you’d see in the YA section.
I think about what I’d say if friends asked what my book is about. That’s where I start. The key here is to sell the sizzle, not the steak- meaning don’t give away the ending. I also focus on what the main character wants, why she wants it, the obstacles she has to overcome to reach that goal, and what will happen if she doesn’t reach her goal.
Another way to start your query is to tell a little bit about your main character, what their life is like now, and then give the inciting incident which changes their world. What’s the obstacle they must overcome to return to their known world?
4. Including Comps helps pitch your book
Comps are short for Comparable titles. That was another thing I learned the hard way. My first query letter didn’t list any comps. The second one didn’t include comps either. It wasn’t until I’d written a YA Thriller and had done a lot more research that I even knew what a comp was.
The best comps are books published in the genre you write and are similar to your manuscript. In most cases, you want to include at least two comparable titles in your query.
Why would you include the name of a book that’s comparable to yours in a query letter? The inclusion of comparable titles gives the agent a better idea of what your manuscript is about, and where it should be shelved in a bookstore. Try to use books that have been published within the last five years.
It’s also important to stay away from any blockbuster books like the Harry Potter series, The Hunger Games, and anything written by famous authors like Dan Brown or John Grisham.
5. Researching agents can minimize rejections
When I sent out my first queries, I treated the Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market like it was a phone book. My agent research ended when I found the agent’s address. That’s probably why I got so many form rejections. I had no idea how a targeted submission to the right agent could help me.
An amazing query won’t make a bit of difference if you write Women’s fiction and the agent you’re querying only represents Middle-Grade fiction. You must do your homework. A good way to find agents to submit to is a market guide like the Guide to Literary Agents. But don’t stop there. Look at the literary agency website and read the interviews the agent has given. Another way is to search sites like agentquery.com or manuscript wish list. Both sites allow you to narrow your search by specific genres. Reviewing what they like on social media helps too.
6. Including a Bio was also important
When I sent my first query, I didn’t have many writing credits. Actually, I didn’t have any writing credits. I left the biography section of the query blank. I gave a lengthy description of the book, asked the agent if they wanted to read it, and thanked them for their time. I was very polite. But, I got a lot of form rejections.
Once I did more research, I discovered I should have included my membership in SCBWI and maybe even added I was in a critique group. You don’t want to leave that section blank. If you don’t have any writing credits, list writing organizations where you’re a member, or that you majored in English, or even that you’re in a critique group. That shows the agent you are serious about seeing your work published.
Everyone makes mistakes, especially in the beginning. You can put your best foot forward by researching agents and the query process — learn what you don’t know. Once you have a list of agents to submit your work, always check the agency website for their submission guidelines and follow them.
Good luck and happy querying!