What I’m listening to: Renegade by Styx
The Pitch Wars submission window is almost here! Are you panicked because you don’t feel like your query is ready? Or maybe you think it’s missing something and it won’t come together for you? Maybe you’re like me and procrastinate and now your panicked trying to figure out what the hell goes into a query? Well, *blows on fingertips before setting them on keyboard* Let’s break down the mechanics of a query letter paragraph by paragraph to help you get it Pitch Wars (or agent) ready.
PSSST: You’re going to want to read all of this one. I’ve got major surprises in store at the end from some great writers I think you’ll recognize.
Most fiction queries have a series of elements in common. A bit of setting and characterization. Goal, motivation, and conflict. What’s at stake for the characters and the manuscripts stats section. Though there are several ways to organize these elements this happens to be my favorite.
Mechanics of a Query Letter
P1 – Hook
P2 – Goal and Motivation
P3 – Conflict
P4 – Stakes
P5 – Category, Genre, Wordcount, Comps, Audience
P6 – Bio and Thank you
Let’s look at each piece individually, but I’m going to be succinct as possible because we’re in a hurry, yeah? Because there’s a surprise at the end.
P1 – Hook
Your hook is what pulls the agent (or mentor) in and makes them want to keep reading. It should tell the reader who the main character(s) is, what their current circumstances are, and your inciting incident. This may be spread out over a couple of paragraphs or rolled into one.
A bit of voice can also be helpful, but you don’t want to overdo it, and the query’s tone should always match the tone of the story. You don’t want a funny, lighthearted query if your manuscript is a dark, gritty tear-jerker or, a Silence of the Lambs retelling.
We’re going to use The Goonies as an example:
Dear Agent, Twelve-year-old Mikey and his group of pals—The Goonies––love getting up to mischief in their coastal neighborhood the Goon Docks. When a property manager forces their families into foreclosure in order to acquire the valuable land, the friends would give anything to save the Goon Docks from ruin. Then, Mikey finds a pirate's long-forgotten treasure map in his attic.
P-2 Goal and Motivation
Given the protagonist’s circumstances, what do they want and why do they want it?
You really have to drill this down to the most crucial plot elements and ignore the subplots you’re tempted to include––as important as you may think they are, they will only distract from the main story. This is the meat of the query.
Back to The Goonies:
Realizing that the fabled pirate treasure could keep his family’s home out of foreclosure, Mikey convinces The Goonies to follow the map and search for the “rich stuff” that could save their neighborhood and keep the Goonies together.
What’s stopping your MC from getting what they want. What is keeping them from achieving their goal? Is it internal like trust issues or lack of confidence and/or it could be external like being held prisoner or the obstacles The Goonies have to face?
However, when they set off to find the treasure, they soon realize they’ll have to brave a deadly set of boobie-traps the pirate devised to keep his treasure safe from thieves. But The Goonies aren't the only ones looking for the rich stuff, and the murderous Fratelli family that’s hot on their heels has no qualms about killing kids to get to the treasure first.
What will happen if your protagonist succeeds or fails to overcome the conflict and does/doesn’t achieve their goal? These are the story’s stakes.
Your conflict is crucial to what makes the story worthy of reading, but if you don’t tell us what the consequences are of succeeding/failing to resolve that conflict then the reader gets no illustration of why that conflict is critical to the story. You need consequences in order to drive home the importance of the manuscript’s plot (GMC).
Mikey and the Goonies must find the courage to brave the map’s deadly obstacle course to find the treasure that can save their neighborhood. Or turn back and lose the Goon Docks for good, and with the Fratelli family hot on their heels, turning back could be just as dangerous as pushing forward to find where X marks the spot.
Category, Genre Wordcount, Comps, Audience
Complete at 80,000 words, The Goonies is an MG thriller akin to Adventures in Babysitting meets The Outsiders. I believe it will appeal to fans of Huck Finn who like a more modern bent to their stories.
Bio and Thank You
I’m a recently retired eighth-grade teacher who lives in Oregon with my family and I spend my days nursing an obsession with fables of pirate treasures hidden along the Northwest coastline. I’ve included the synopsis and first ten pages for review as per your guidelines. Thank you for your time. Sincerely, Sally Smith
Lets put it together…
Dear Agent, Twelve-year-old Mikey and his group of pals—The Goonies––love getting up to mischief in their coastal neighborhood the Goon Docks. When a property manager forces their families into foreclosure in order to acquire the valuable land, the friends would give anything to save the Goon Docks from ruin. Then, Mikey finds a pirate's long-forgotten treasure map in his attic. Realizing that the fabled pirate treasure could keep his family’s home out of foreclosure, Mikey convinces The Goonies to follow the map and search for the “rich stuff” that could save their The Goonies together from having to move away from each other. However, when they set off to find the treasure, they soon realize they’ll have to brave a deadly set of boobie-traps the pirate devised to keep his treasure safe from thieves. But The Goonies aren't the only ones looking for the rich stuff, and the murderous Fratelli family that’s hot on their heels has no qualms about killing kids to get to the treasure first. Mikey and the Goonies must find the courage to brave the map’s deadly obstacle course to find the treasure that can save their neighborhood. Or turn back and lose the Goon Docks forever, and with the Fratelli family hot on their heels, turning back could be just as dangerous as pushing forward to find where X marks the spot. Complete at 80,000 words, The Goonies is an MG thriller akin to Adventures in Babysitting meets The Outsiders. I believe it will appeal to fans of Huck Finn who like a more modern bent to their stories. I’m a recently retired eighth-grade teacher who lives in Oregon with my family and spends my days nursing an obsession with fables of pirate treasures hidden along the Northwest coastline. I’ve included the synopsis and first ten pages for review as per your guidelines. Thank you for your time. Sincerely, Sally Smith
Boom. Query formula you can apply to your own query in no time with all the common elements, and it’s under one page. Again, there are many ways to organize a query. This is by no means the only way to do it. Make sure you do plenty of research to decide what works best for your manuscript.
Now…for the fun stuff. I was looking at my own query for my debut and thought, “Hmm, maybe I should share this with the hopefuls.” But why only embarrass me when I can embarrass other mentors, too?
I found a handful of current and passed mentors that were game to share the queries that landed their agents and I can tell you that nearly every Pitch Wars mentor said something along the lines of, “Oh, man. I don’t think my query was very good back then.”
To which I responded, “but it got your agent’s attention, didn’t it?”
Let me start by putting my own head on the chopping block first.
Dear Ms. Hernandez, Engineer Avery Barrows has fought with her body issues as far back as she can remember. Men, especially, haven’t been kind to her, or her curves, and this quick-mouthed, plus-sized heroine is determined to find the confidence to be herself as she and her best friend travel to New Orleans for some shenanigans. Still, body issues or not, even curvy girls need a little slap and tickle once in a while…So what’s a smart woman with a little extra gotta do to get laid? Not much if you ask Declan McGinn, frontman for the local rock band, BlackSmith. With a body made for depravity and a voice as tempting as the devil himself, Declan prefers his women as curvy as his guitars. Naturally, Avery has his attention from the jump, but Declan has his own demons to contend with. Set against a backdrop of sinful music in sexy New Orleans, fire erupts when opposites collide and Avery learns to rock her curves in Declan’s capable hands. When they discover a soul-deep connection neither was prepared for, Avery unearths a fear of rejection that runs more than skin deep, and Declan discovers her life in the light of day is no place for a man who lives in the dark. With the vacation’s end looming heavy, and their worlds so far apart, attraction alone won’t burn away their darkest fears. Avery and Declan must choose––give in to the insecurities threatening to rip them apart, or embrace a love as elemental as the sultry NOLA night…Damn it. It was only supposed to be a vacation. MOONLIGHT & WHISKEY is an adult contemporary romance complete at 90,000words. A stand-alone with series potential, it will appeal to fans of Kylie Scott’s Stage Dive series as well as the curve-conscious supporters ofJulie Murphy’s Dumplin’. I believe it will resonate with readers who likematerial steamier than women’s fiction, but still want the curve appeal of books like Good in Bed as part of the new ‘curves are sexy’ body-positive revolution. I was chosen as a 2017 PitchMadness finalist and a 2016 PitchWars finalist with this manuscript. I am a member of the Romance Writers of America, I have degrees in both sociology and accounting, and I know something about living large in a size six world. I am pleased to offer the full manuscript for review at your convenience. Thank you for your time and consideration. Sincerely, Tricia Lynne
Ooophf, that hurt.
Now, how about this one. Does anyone recognize this past mentor?
Dear [agent], French kissing reminds Stella Lane of a shark getting its teeth cleaned by pilot fish. It’s no wonder she’s better at Econometrics than sex. Convinced her lack of skill is preventing her from forming meaningful relationships, she propositions Hapa escort extraordinaire Michael Larsen for hands-on bedroom lessons. With his financial burdens and family obligations, the last thing Michael wants is another commitment. He’s spent the past three years with a strict single session policy for clients, but Stella’s quirky, straightforward manner charms him into making an exception, especially when their first night ends in disaster. As Stella’s anxiety-caused intimacy issues take them out of the bedroom and into a fulltime practice relationship, they both struggle not to fall in love. And fail. But deceptions run deep when Stella withholds her autism labels from Michael, and he hides the desperate events that pushed him into escorting. Crushed beneath secrets they each fear will drive the other away, they must overcome their insecurities and learn to trust. Complete at 89,000 words, THE KISS QUOTIENT is an #ownvoices adult contemporary romance that can be conceptualized as a gender-swapped Pretty Woman meets THE ROSIE PROJECT. This manuscript was selected for PitchWars 2016 and won first place in RWA’s Sheila Contest. I’m a member of RWA and a former spreadsheet monkey. My ASD diagnosis is new, and Stella’s struggle toward openness mirrors my recent experience. My current labels include Aspie, Hapa, feminist, and hopeless romantic. Thank you for your time. Sincerely, Helen Hoang
One of my all-time favorite books.
How about this one by a former mentor and All The Kissing Co-founder?
Dear Agent, Exiled beast charmer Leena Edenfrell is in deep shit. Empty pockets force her to sell her beloved magical beasts on the black market—an offense punishable by death—and the Charmers Council hires a lethal assassin to exact punishment. With the realm’s most talented murderer-for-hire nipping at her heels, Leena makes him an offer he can’t refuse: a promise to procure a handful of mythical creatures in exchange for her life. For assassin Noc, murder comes easy and pays well. But only fools pass up the chance to own rare and powerful magical beasts, even if that means lying to one enchanting charmer. Agreeing to Leena’s terms, Noc plans to keep the bounty live on her head until the creatures are his. Two paychecks, one job, no sleep lost. To hunt for creatures, Noc and Leena embark on a quest across the countryside of Lendria. But traps capture more than beasts, and ensnared hearts are hard to untangle. Banished by the people she loved, Leena has no desire to take her heart out of exile, yet Noc is nothing like the monsters on the Council — or so she thinks. Bound by the magic of the assassin’s oath, Noc can’t renege on the contract for Leena’s head unless he’s willing to sacrifice his own. But neither can tame their growing feelings, and the ever-watchful Council demands blood. With Noc’s hands and heart tied, and Leena dodging enemies at every turn, no manner of beasts or money can protect their hides. DANGEROUS BEASTS is an adult fantasy romance complete at 86,000 words with series potential. It’s J.K. Rowling’s FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM meets Amanda Bouchet’s A PROMISE OF FIRE. I am a copy editor and author of several small business articles with a bachelor’s degree in English Literature. Per your agency’s guidelines, I’ve included the first five pages of my manuscript and the synopsis below. Thank you for your consideration.
That first line, tho. Did she get your attention?
How about this one?
Forty years ago, Kastien slew a god. He lashed out in rage and grief with a sharpened hunk of fulgurite, piercing Divine flesh and proving humanity’s bastard overlords could die. Together with his wife, Val, he freed half the continent using the fulgurite’s power to walk through walls and defy gravity. The new Commonwealth hailed Kastien as Godbreaker, but now the only title he gives a damn about is Husband. His knees ache every Void-damned time it rains, and he longs to retire with Val. But when a plague sweeps the nation, boiling blood and burning eyes to ash, protecting the home they forged means embracing the violent legacy he’s tried to bury. As traditional cures fail, the Commonwealth’s leaders suspect this disease isn’t a pathogen but a weapon—one unleashed by the Divines. Now, husband and wife must return to the birthplace they did their best to burn to the ground, risking a second war to attempt the impossible: abduct a god and force them to produce a cure. The catch: Kastien and Val will need all their powers, but overusing the fulgurite’s unstable magic will turn them to stone. Their plan goes to the Void when they discover plague ravaging the gods’ cities, weaponizing the infected against their Divine masters. Worse, the gods combating the sickness are being hunted and murdered in manners reminiscent of Kastien’s kills during the war. To stop this mysterious new godbreaker and obtain a cure, Kastien must set hatred aside and protect the last Divine healer. If he can’t quiet the old rage and find space for trust, Val and everything they’ve spent their lives building will fall to dust and shadow.
Another attention-grabbing first line! That one belongs to the amazing Ian Barnes.
See if you can guess which mentor the next one belongs to…
Dear Ms. XXX Thank you for your interest in reviewing my query and materials after connecting through #DVPit event yesterday. I appreciate your time and interest. As a reference, the tweet is included here: Checking 'one-night stand' off her list was supposed to distract her from job worries and a harrowing past, but by the time she does, Professor Naya Turner no longer wants to be distracted…and that scares her more than anything. #DVPit #R #CON #OWN #POC #IRMC Dr. Naya Turner is a workaholic professor juggling the emotional scars of abuse and the threat of unemployment. In an attempt to reclaim her social life and rejoin the dating pool, she adds ‘sex with a stranger’ to her to-do list. When Mr. Right Now turns out to be Mr. Right, she may have to add Trust someone to the list. Jake is sexy, funny, charming, and an out-of-town visitor—the perfect opportunity for Naya to temporarily shed her inhibitions without consequences; however, walking away from him is not as simple as she expected. The man who made her laugh, instilled her with confidence, and showed her the best sex of her life has an unexpected and complicated role in the future of her career. On top of that, the ghosts of her traumatic past abruptly shift into a looming threat, which Naya must manage while making the choice between risking her professional reputation and being with the person who makes her feel like she’s finally living again. Naya’s raw vulnerability along with the couple’s playful banter and heated sexual encounters, depict a flawed, professional woman finding what she needs when she least expects it. THE PROFESSOR’S LIST is a contemporary romance novel, complete at 90,000 words that will appeal to fans of the relatability of Mariana Zapata’s characters (Dear Aaron, Wait for It), the heart and resilience of characters in Kennedy Ryan’s Long Shot, and the heat and banter of Christina Lauren’s Wild Seasons Series. New to fiction, I have worked at colleges and universities for fifteen years and have a Ph.D. in education. My published works to date are academic (three journal articles and a forthcoming book chapter) and about military students in college. Regardless of the response, thank you for your time and attention. I look forward to hearing from you if the novel is of interest and I have attached the first fifty pages of the manuscript.
How about another non-romance query for you…consider me hooked.
Dear Ms. Richter, Tris, a homeless heroin addict and one-time graffiti artist, struggles to survive on the streets of Boston. Desperate to escape this harsh reality, Tris immerses himself in his inner world of sketches and classical painting. But he can’t hide in his art forever. When Mia Clarke, his drug dealer and former partner in both love and graffiti, secretly enters one of his paintings into an online art contest, the image goes viral, sparking a widespread search for a troubled loner with a singular gift. But not everyone searching for Tris means him well. A posh art dealer with a trail of disappearing protégés, a social network moderator obsessed with the anonymous contest entry, and a groundskeeper required to evict the homeless are all circling in on the abandoned utility room under a Charles River bridge where Tris has been staying. Unaware of his pursuers closing in, Tris must shake his demons or risk losing not only his life's work and the person he loves, but the very life to which he clings. While Mia, weighed down by her guilt, must fight to save the man she wishes she didn't love—for herself, for him, and for the daughter he never knew he had. Complete at 80,000 words, ONLY WHEN I FALL is upmarket literary with elements of suspense and a touch of fabulism. It was a recent Pitch Wars selection and was the top Adult entry in this year’s Query Kombat. Multiple third-person POVs alternate with chapters in the second person depicting paintings that are moments from the artist's life seen through his creative lens. A full-time writer and some-time artist, I spent many nights during my youth as a graffiti artist on the streets of Boston, where I saw the effects of drug abuse and homelessness first hand. Thank you so much for your time and consideration, Ernie Chiara
How about a little YA for you from a current Pitch Wars mentor and wonderful person.
Dear (agent’s name), I'm excited to be querying you today with The Liars Beneath, a YA mystery with strong romantic elements. After a tragic accident ends her best friend’s life, 17-year-old Becca Thompson succumbs to her grief the only way she knows how: by wallowing in it. She’s a fragment of the person she once was—far too broken to enjoy the summer before her senior year. But when Ben McCain, her best friend’s older brother, returns home, Becca has to face her new reality head on. Becca isn’t interested in Ben’s games, especially since he abandoned his sister during the months leading up to her death. But when he begs for her help in uncovering the truth about what really happened the night of his sister’s death, Becca finds herself agreeing, hoping to clear up the rumors swirling in the wake of her best friend's accident. An unhinged ex-boyfriend, secret bucket lists, and garage parties in the Iowa farmlands Becca calls home, soon lead her to the answers she’s desperate to unveil. But nobody is being honest, not even Ben. And the closer Becca gets to the truth, the more danger lurks around her. Clearing her best friend’s name was all she wanted to do. But Becca soon realizes the truth she craves might be uglier than the lies her best friend kept. At 87,000 words, THE LIARS BENEATH will appeal to fans who love Karen McManus' Two Can Keep a Secret, and Sarah Lyu's, The Best Lies. THE LIARS BENEATH is told in non-linear format, with alternating time lines, where the past eventually meets the present. I am a published adult romance author through Bookouture, Sourcebooks, and soon Tenacious Books, where I write under the pen name, Heather Van Fleet. THE LIARS BENEATH is my third written YA novel that l hope to someday publish under my real name, Heather Powell. Thank you so much for your time. Heather Powell aka Heather Van Fleet
There you have a few successful queries from Pitch Wars mentors that helped them land an agent. Can you pick out the common elements in each? They’re all pretty damn amazing. I don’t know what these mentors were talkin’ bout with this, “I might embarrass myself.”
Insert eye roll.
Y’all are fantastic and thank you to Ernie, Ian, Helen, Denise, Maxym, and Heather, for letting me share these with Pitch Wars hopefuls.
If I manage to round up any more mentor queries, I’ll be certain to post them here. Good luck, hopefuls. I can’t wait to read your words.