Query checklist for before you ask me for help


  1. Write a story idea that isn’t toxic (no bury your gays, no white savior, no being third-generation American white person with no immigrant background beyond right-wing television entertainment and writing brown immigrant, no “inspirational” fat/disabled/etc. person, etc.).
  2. Make sure you, as a debut writer, are following the rules. Read a few books like yours. You do not get to break the rules until you prove you can sell books. (I don’t make the rules. I just know of them.)
  3. Have smart writer people who are not related to you read your book. Incorporate their feedback. Some of it will be trash. Some will be good.
  4. Read my guides:

Active versus passive verbs

Active versus passive protagonists (also covered excellently here by Sunyi Dean Âû)

The difference between a query and jacket/cover copy

Long modifiers beginning a sentence

Long phrasing

Nouns and verbs

Plot element lists

Ending with a question (most agents say not to, so just don’t)

5. THE FOUR ESSENTIAL PARTS OF THE METADATA ARE: word count, genre, age range, stand-alone [with or without series potential].

THE FOUR ESSENTIAL PARTS OF A PITCH (the book part of a query) ARE: Character, situation, inciting incident, stakes.

Someone (character, including age if mg or ya) is doing something (situation). Something happens (inciting incident). Tension builds. Now (stakes) someone MUST DECIDE whether to DO ONE THING or DO ANOTHER THING (with consequences either way). (See my sample query below. the secret word is quiche.)


6. Make your query LINEAR. If we find out that your character is part tortoise halfway into the first third, you should not begin your query “Jen is part tortoise.” Furthermore, you should not hint at things the character doesn’t know: “Jen doesn’t know she is part tortoise.” This also means no “But Amber learns about the toads when she finds blah blah.” Have her find the thing, THEN learn about the toads.

6. Include information from ONLY THE FIRST THIRD OF THE BOOK. Some backstory exceptions apply for romance, but for fantasy, “Jen doesn’t know she’s an elf” should not begin your first paragraph; part of the point of fantasy is the character discovering her elfdom. Furthermore, how the second or third acts go has no bearing on the query. The query focuses on the who and what is driving the action etc. in the first third of the book.

7. Do not name more than THREE ENTITIES in the first paragraph. We need you to focus us on who is doing things. Throwing names at us doesn’t focus.

8. Make sure your character DOES THINGS. If the world is acting on your character, who is passive, that is boring.

9. Do not comp something you could find in any grocery store from here to the moon. It is too popular. And if you MUST comp ONE of those, DO NOT COMP TWO. You cannot write “[Title] will appeals to fans of ROMEO AND JULIET and WUTHERING HEIGHTS.” You cannot comp Harry Potter and Sarah J. Maas. And if one of your comps won a Nebula in 2018 and the other was a best-seller fourteen years ago, go to the library and ask for help. Do not just go “oh, but [both books are] perfect! I CAN’T CHANGE THEM!”

You can. And frankly, you have to do the work. This is a business, not a lunch table conversation during which your bff dramatically reads aloud the five pages of self-aggrandizing prose you wrote over the weekend while your friends gush over you.

10. Bio: 40ish words unless you’re super amazing. IMPORTANT NOTE: UNLESS YOU ARE A SPECIALIST OR WRITING FROM A MARGINALIZED COMMUNITY, YOU DO NOT NEED TO PROVIDE YOUR BOOK’S ORIGIN STORY. “I wrote this book because I loved [iconic book].” … so did millions of other people. BUT: “I wrote this book because I have spina bifida and I’m asexual and I didn’t see myself in any book.” That is unusual. That draws me in. Also: “I wrote this book because I have an MSW and I have spent 1,400 hours counseling [a type of patient].” That is unusual, and it draws me in.

11. Check the queries here for your genre (only one — agents will FR you for writing “contemporary thriller” or “science fiction suspense” because you need to be able to say your book fits on ONE place on a shelf; a scifi book can HAVE suspense elements, but it’s scifi, not scifi suspense) and age range (a protag older than 18 is generally considered adult; New Adult does not exist in traditional publishing). Read several successful queries to get a feel for what you need. THEN write your query, making sure it is no more than 350ish words and no fewer than 150ish (unless you’ve written a picture book):

Dear agent,

I am querying you because [whatever]. My book, TITLE, is a wordcount stand-alone age range genre [with series potential] in which a whoever must contend with whatever thematic plot element. [THIS IS THE METADATA! YOU MUST HAVE THIS!]

EXAMPLE: I am querying you because you represent adult fantasy. My book, SCOTT IS NOT A PORTAL FANTASY HERO, is a 115,000-word stand-alone adult fantasy with series potential in which a queer man must make life-or-death decisions after he finds himself in a nightmarish realm.

[Introduce your character and situation by SHOWING what they like/dislike/do. if the book is for children, state the character’s age. if it isn’t, indicate where they are in life.] [do not use more than two names. focus on ONE entity. we need to get a feel for this character. we do not need their five closest friends or w/e.]


Scott has been sales director of a software company for a decade. He travels to conventions a few times a year, always remembering to bring back some trinkets for his kids and a pamphlet for his husband. He loves the change of scenery, but he doesn’t love spending time away from the life he’s built.

[Inciting incident:]


Then his company is bought by Super Computer Inc. The CEO guts the travel budget and repurposes a meeting room into a virtual technology conference center. Scott smiles as he packs his suitcases away, tells his family they’re not getting more loot, and settles in for sitting down and navigating the next conference floor from his office.

Two weeks later, GlobalTechCon arrives. Scott sits down to virtually walk the showroom floor. The guide tells him to touch the lower-left corner of his screen so he can feel how smooth a product is.

He does so, and he’s yanked through the screen and into a jungle with four acquaintances from previous conventions.

As they hunt for food and get their bearings, they figure out three inconvenient truths: First, the acre of jungle produces only enough food for one person a day. Second, they are far hungrier than normal. And three, the portal will reopen only after four of them die.


EXAMPLE (emphasis mine because 90 percent of query writers don’t know to include this):

Now Scott ***********must decide whether to*********** reject those limits and fight his way out with his new comrades — risking starvation — or choose the only clear option for getting out of there and eat/bury four innocent people … or be buried and eaten by the guilty one.

[Comps and bio:]

TITLE may appeal to fans of [plot/book element of, if you like] recent title by noniconic writer and [plot/book element of, if you like] recent title by noniconic writer. [bio: lead with shiniest thing. I am a human who lives in place and does things. I have academic whatevers and whatever writing credentials. i blog/tweet/whatever at these urls. YOU DO NOT HAVE TO BE AMAZING HERE. THIS PART IS JUST STUFF. YOU HAVE TO BE AMAZING IN THE PITCH.]

EXAMPLE: SCOTT IS NOT A PORTAL FANTASY HERO may appeal to fans of [idc i wrote this thing as an example. Do the work. Ask a librarian. Check Novelist, BookBrowse, Literature-Map.] I am a person who lives in place. I have a degree from whatever. I recently passed 1k (bro) twitter followers. I run a feedback group.

Thank you for your time.


Writer McWriternose

— — —

250ish-word pitch. Could cut some things, but it clearly communicates character, agency and stakes. It verbs things up and shows Scott living, then facing tough decisions. And that’s the job.

Now. If you do all those things BEFORE you come to me, you will save both of us a lot of pain and heartache. 95 percent of the queries I see are broken in a way this guide addresses.

thank you, and have a pleasantish [time unit]


Every POV must have a stakes sentence. POV sentences can be combined, but you cannot have a POV character without a decision to make.

Every POV initial paragraph must start with the POV character’s name.

If you start a paragraph with a character’s name, the agent will assume that paragraph is from that character’s perspective. If you do not, the agent will probably assume the POV has not changed.

Sample concept outline:

15-year-old Justine [show character, situation].

15-year-old Jodie [show character, situation].

12-year-old Melva [show character, situation].

[inciting incident]

Now, with thing bearing down on them, Justine must decide between thing and thing. Jodie must choose if she wants to thing or thing. And Melva has to decide: thing or thing.

I write mostly data-driven stuff.