Until recently, I didn’t quite understand how writing a query was. How hard can it be, I wondered, to write 300 words after you’ve completed a 100,000 word novel?
The answer is quite very indeed super hard. And all that work is just a ritual dressing, preparing your query for slaughter (or worse, indifference) as it floats in a sea of slush. Writing a query feels like quite the Sisyphean task indeed.
I think I’m finished with mine, though seeing how the the first round of submissions goes it might still need some revision. Those 300 words have taken me something like 20 hours. I have used feedback from my writer friends, taken great advice from the writers at Absolute Write, read every entry on Query Shark, googled my fingers off, and follow Sara Megabow‘s Twitter, among others.
But this article is perhaps the most useful of all. Dozens of agents talk about common mistakes and what they would like to see. The below quote, from Amy Boggs, is as clear and eloquent advice that I have found. More cake, less sprinkles please.
So the biggest mistake folks who follow guidelines make is talking too much about things that aren’t their story. Sometimes queriers do this by talking more about themselves than about their story (note: I represent fiction only; things are different in the non-fiction realm). Others have long, disconnected lists that really ought to be cut or woven together with the description of the story (a list of settings/countries, a bullet-point list of characters, a list of themes summed up into abstract nouns (“It’s about Truth, Justice, Freedom, Reasonably-Priced Love!”)). Some just end up running down the events that occur rather than telling me what the plot arc at the heart of the story is. The bulk of a query should consist of 1) the main character, 2) what happens to complicate their life, 3) what goals they now have in response to that complication, and 4) the main obstacle between them and their goal. That is the cake of the query; everything else is just frosting and sprinkles.