The body of a query should be 250 words—or less. So that’s probably only a ribcage and the heart beating inside. Everything else is chopped off and discarded. Throw away the torso, arms, and legs. Maybe add a lung, though, because your story should breathe. But, wait—there’s got to be a brain in there, right? Your book should be smart.
So, 250 words is the heart, the brain, and a lung or two.
That’s easy enough, right? Ha.
I certainly wouldn’t claim to be an expert on queries. But I am fascinated by them—after all, everything rests on that crazy thing once you’ve finished your book and you’re hunting for an agent. I have spent countless hours obsessively scratching and redoing, incorporating feedback, and choosing every word like it’s the shiniest red apple at the top of the tree. I am naturally verbose, so I am constantly removing any less-than-perfect words.
Here’s a good question to ask yourself when you’ve finished a query draft: Does this even make sense? And, as the writer, you really might not have a clue.
So you have to find readers who know nothing of your story. And then you must believe them when they say, “I have zero idea what is happening here.” This is usually followed by: “What does your main character want? What’s in your character’s way? What happens if your character doesn’t get what she wants? You know, silly. The stakes?” These are great questions to hear when you’ve never seen them before and you’re just starting out, but if you have seen them before, and you thought you covered these things in your query, it can send you into a huge spiral of self-doubt about your whole book and your ability to write.
This is when you must determine two things: Is your messy query evidence of a messy book? (Are things missing or unclear in the novel itself? Perhaps your book is confusing, the arcs are missing, your characters aren’t appealing, there are plot holes, there’s no conflict, etc.) OR maybe you’re just not a great query writer…yet. Writing a novel and writing a query are two separate challenges, that’s for sure.
It was both for me at the beginning; I had issues with my book, plus I was pretty bad at writing queries.
I was writing a character-driven novel. And my MC was reactive, rather than proactive, a lot of the time. Her wants—internal and external—weren’t that concrete. “But,” I thought, “I’m writing real life. A contemporary story. Not everyone’s trying to save the world.” But this is pretty hard to pull off.
I had to accept this wasn’t the most exciting read—at least after a conflict-filled first chapter when the momentum was taking an immediate downturn. My main character needed more agency. All of this was evident in my actual query. So I made changes to the novel. (Unfortunately, I had sent out a number of queries before doing this, and I think it hurt me. And, even now, I’m still working on this issue in my book.)
After reevaluating my novel, I then had to tackle my issues with query writing. The heart, the brain, and a lung. I was adding earlobes and toenails. I had the unfortunate and, well, arrogant belief that my book was far too complex to reduce to 250 words. I couldn’t possibly leave out this and that, so I would miraculously find some way to squeeze it all in. I could do it!
I couldn’t. I dropped characters I loved. I dropped a major (major!) part of the plot. I included the inciting incident, the main conflicts (internal and external), and stakes. I focused on my main character and showed her arc. I couldn’t give too much away, even if I wanted to, but I also couldn’t be vague. Ack—it was a difficult balance. There were a number of ways I could write the query, and I gave them all a shot. There was no magic formula that worked for me, although I tried hard to answer those questions above. I finally had a draft that seemed to capture my book, and it was stripped down to—what?—248 words? This was a huge triumph for me. (Also: I could still add in one adverb and one sparkly adjective somewhere! It wasn’t easy, but I controlled the urge.)
Readers got it. They offered minimal suggestions. I knew it wasn’t perfect, but I felt closer.
I took time away and came back to it and asked myself, “Would I want to read this book?” Over and over again, I asked myself this. I did want to read it, for the same reasons I wanted to write it. At least I could feel the thought behind it, its heart, and its breath—the life—of the story. I wasn’t completely confident, but I hoped that at that point most of the agent responses I would get would be subjective—and not based on a terrible query. At least this one would adequately represent the book I was trying to sell. I got lots of rejections. But I also got a solid number of requests.
There’s not just one way to write your query. I think you can get two very different critiques and both of them can be helpful and right. You have to decide what works best for your story.
I have read—and studied—so many queries at this point. Some I admired tremendously, but they didn’t move me much. I can also remember reading a few queries on message boards and instantly thinking, “If I were an agent I would totally request that.” Then I read other writers’ comments, surprised that many were so critical. Whether a query is successful to a reader is definitely beyond merely understanding the story it presents.
It’s subjective! And that’s a good thing. All of this would be so boring if everyone wanted to write and read the exact same things.
I’ve learned so much throughout this query-writing process. I’ve learned to have a query in my head (if not on paper) before I even start writing something new. It helps me zero in on the goals I have for my book, put all the major pieces in place ahead of time, and forces me to take a hard look at what will make it a compelling story. So, it’s different than an outline or a synopsis. What is the pulse that beats through your story? What makes it breathe? What makes it important and unique? Maybe this won’t work for die-hard pantsers, but I like the direction it offers me.
So, my two pieces of advice:
A big number one: Make sure it makes sense. I’ve read a lot of other writers’ queries that I don’t understand, and if I have to struggle to fill in some confusing blanks, I know no agent has time for that. If it’s confusing, you might be trying to cram in too much. Or, it could be evidence that the book itself is not ready to query.
Number two: I doubt someone will be interested in your book if it doesn’t move them. (And certainly what moves one person doesn’t necessarily move another.) But it’s important to make sure that what you love about your book comes across in your query, so someone like you will read it and think, “Wow. I love this!” (And that’s the agent you want!) It is HARD to move someone with a query. It is so hard to put a heart, brain, and lungs into 250 words. But it’s definitely worth the effort of 58,247 queries to get closer.