What’s in a Query? Everything and Nothing.
When I tell people that I’ve never written a query that didn’t result in a request for pages, they can’t believe it. When I tell them I only ever sent out three (or six if you count the random assignments I was given to pitch to at conferences) queries, they are shocked.
But here’s the thing: I researched before I sent out my original set of queries. I looked not only at who represented what (which you can generally find on websites) but who sold what (which you can find out on Publishers Marketplace). I don’t care if an agent loves thrillers, if every sale she’s ever made is a cozy, she is probably not going to have the right set of contacts for thriller writers.
Because I belong to RWA, MWA, HWA and ITW, I am involved in a lot of discussions about queries. And I can also say that any query I’ve ever edited for someone has also resulted in a request for pages.
Your query is an enormously important piece of writing. If you’re looking for an agent or editor, it may be the only piece of writing the people you want to take you on ever see. If you’re self-publishing, think of it as your cover copy—it’s the thing that’s going to make readers pick up your book.
A query letter has some basic pieces, but the one most people get wrong is the part that is like cover copy, the part that hooks an agent or editor and makes them want to find out more. Because that’s the trick—it’s not a synopsis that gives away everything in your book, it’s just a taste, a tease, a tempt.
Here's a look at the cover copy for Every Dead Thing, which would make a perfect query:
Former NYPD detective Charlie "Bird" Parker is on the verge of madness. Tortured by the unsolved slayings of his wife and young daughter, he is a man consumed by guilt, regret, and the desire for revenge. When his former partner asks him to track down a missing girl, Parker finds himself drawn into a world beyond his imagining: a world where thirty-year-old killings remain shrouded in fear and lies, a world where the ghosts of the dead torment the living, a world haunted by the murderer responsible for the deaths in his family—a serial killer who uses the human body to create works of art and takes faces as his prize. But the search awakens buried instincts in Parker: instincts for survival, for compassion, for love, and, ultimately, for killing.
Aided by a beautiful young psychologist and a pair of bickering career criminals, Parker becomes the bait in a trap set in the humid bayous of Louisiana, a trap that threatens the lives of everyone in its reach. Driven by visions of the dead and the voice of an old black psychic who met a terrible end, Parker must seek a final, brutal confrontation with a murderer who has moved beyond all notions of humanity, who has set out to create a hell on earth: the serial killer known only as the Traveling Man.
The cover copy answers the three essential questions of a mystery or thriller query. (Different genres have different questions.)
- 1. Who is the protagonist? What drives him?
- 2. What's the conflict? How does he get sucked into something he can't deal with (and, of course, what is it that he's sucked into)?
- 3. What's the setting and mood?
Your query should show the mood of the book—you can tell me it's a humorous cozy, but your query should also be written in that voice. Setting is also important because in your book, setting should be a character (major or minor role, it's up to you, but it's there). You can see from the "bickering career criminals" that there will probably be some black humor and from the language — "shrouded", "fear", "torment"—that it will be grim. That's part of what an agent or editor is looking for. Not only what your story is about, but also that you're the right person to write it.
So take the time, polish your query over and over. Think it over. Send it to friends in a writing group who know nothing about your story. That's important because people who do know will fill in the blanks. Editors and agents don't have time to fill in the blanks. They need you to make it as simple and perfect as you can.
Laura K. Curtis gave up a life writing dry academic papers for writing decidedly less dry short crime stories and novel-length romantic suspense and contemporary romance. A member of RWA, MWA, ITW, and Sisters in Crime, she has trouble settling into one genre.