Query help: How I fix queries
Last year, I helped 21 writers get at least one pages request. Many of those writers got several requests. One of my earliest paying clients (for her syn) is up to something like five full requests. And speaking of five, that’s the number of writers I helped get agents.
- Those writers checked their queries against my checklist, ensuring they’d included necessary information such as genre, age range and word count. I do not work queries whose books don’t conform to industry length expectations. Some freelance editors will take your money and give you a better product that still has no hope of getting requests, let alone representation. I’m not predatory, so I won’t do that. So whether you’ve written a 120K adult contemp (20K too long; gut or split) or a 46K adult genreless (too short, too nomadic), I’ll tell you you need to do the work on the book first.
- They gave me their checklist-improved queries. I checked them against that checklist for things they might have missed: a stakes sentence, character agency, telegraphing adverbs, verbs versus nouns, long modifiers (particularly starring gerunds) beginning sentences, proper nouns, etc. Without a stakes sentence and agency, your query won’t get much interest because what decision does the agent wonder about your character facing, and who wants to read a character who does nothing? If you use nouns where you should use verbs, your query is going to read like a list of facts rather than a series of actions. And if you use telegraphing adverbs, you’re blunting tension and telling the reader to skip certain language in favor of what comes after it. So, for example, “after the death of her brother” uses a telegraphing adverb and blunts tension by turning someone dying from an action into a fact. All that checking took less than a minute. (Marking things up took longer.) Also, I verified that their query covered between 1/3 and 1/2 of the book.
- Depending on how bad things were, I either tossed it back to them with basic instructions (marking up a passive character is of only so much benefit) or worked it through, marking up an average of 66 percent of the language. Some queries came back to the writer with more markup than original text, and that’s fine. Any writer who is willing to do the work can get a request as long as the book is there. The process will take longer, but it will finish.
- They worked on what I gave them, then came back to me with a revised query. (At this stage, crucially, they did not rewrite the query. They worked with the text we had, modifying things rather than ripping them out and starting over.) And we went back and forth from there until I felt they were ready for an appointment. During this process, their word count bloated to 300+, and sometimes 350+. And that’s fine.
- During the appointment, we nailed down the final bloated text, then chopped it, sometimes in half. Among the things I looked for: unrepeated details, process language, worldbuilding that felt unnecessary. I wish I could be more specific, but some things at this stage are still hard to script. The goal is to get down to as linear and showy a path from character and situation to inciting incident to stakes while maintaining between one and three narrative threads (arcs, if you will).
- I also looked at their first eight lines, or up to their first page for things like verbs, detail saturation, modifiers, punctuation, flow and logic. I rarely looked, and I rarely look, at more than the first page because anything I think you mess up there I’ll think you mess up everywhere else too. So those writers used the lessons that felt right and discarded the ones that felt wrong.
In many cases, I also looked up their comps and did a bit of work on their syn. But the query is the big thing. A syn need only function, and many agents don’t care a ton about comps. A query, though, has to be on its game.
At its longest, this process took more than a dozen hours over two months (when I was still working on it). At shortest, it took perhaps three hours. On average, it’s more than five hours. It’s a lot. It’s an investment. And when you invest five hours in a document you can then precision-fling at five dozen agents, that’s generally a good investment.
Good luck <3