We have a great library system in suburban Kansas City called the Mid-Continent Public Library. There is a fairly new branch called the Woodneath Story Center where they’ve been having some great programs for area writers. Woodneath is about 30-40 minutes from my home, but when my work schedule permits, I take part in some of their events.
Two years ago, I took part in a seminar led by Sam Weller about the Ray Bradbury method of writing short stories. In early October, I attended an appearance by author Ridley Pearson. For the past three years, literary agent Sorche Fairbank has come in from New York to conduct query workshops for local writers.
I attended her latest workshop on Sunday. These are my notes.
1. You should lead your query with the most interesting or most important thing. If you have any kind of personal connection to the agent (met in person, common acquaintances, etc.), you should lead with that. In her experience, 80-90% of queries have no personal connection.
2. There are four things your query needs to communicate to the agent
- Genre/Audience – can be done through statement of genre and age category, comp titles, or made “painfully clear” through the content of the query itself
- Synopsis of the book – mini-story of book rather than full blown synopsis, communicate protagonist (or main POV for multi-POV stories), antagonist, conflict, and general idea of character arc
- Platform/Author bio – connection between you and your story, platform crucial for non-fiction queries, agents don’t care where you went to school unless it has bearing on ability to write this story, if you have a well-known writer who has agreed to blurb or a celebrity who has agreed to do something to boost sales include that info here
- Sense of the writer’s narrative skill – query should provide evidence of writing well
3. The focus of your query should be one of the “4 S’s”
- Story – highlight the plot of your book
- Someone – highlight character
- Setting – highlight the story setting
- Style – highlight writing voice
In her experience, 80% of queries highlight character
4. Synopsis portion of query should consist of 2-3 paragraphs, possibly including a logline (1-2 sentences summarizing the main idea of the book. Logline should not include name of character(s) or age(s).
5. Miscellaneous notes:
- no typos, one can be overlooked, but agent fears that errors in one-page query might be multiplied over a 300-400 page manuscript
- limit named characters in your query to no more than three, also don’t include more than three plot points in the synopsis portion of the query
- be a storyteller in your query
- word choice matters – certain words convey ‘story’ better and/or more vivid than others
- active vs. passive verbs and word choices
- suspicious vs. mysterious
- find vs. discover
- decide vs. vow
- saw vs. watched
- no cliches or cliffhangers (“you won’t believe what happens next….”)
- avoid phrases that don’t say anything (“changed her life forever”, “his life would never be the same”), use writing ability to show how life changed forever instead
If you’ve researched query writing to any extent, you already know to avoid things like trashing other authors or the publishing industry, boasting about your book, making unreasonable sales promises, etc. According to Sorche, if you’ve done that, your query is already better than 80-85% of all queries. Following agency submission guidelines, being professional, and being error-free go a long way in making your query stand out.
My personal highlight of the session was where she asked us to rework our loglines according to the instructions she laid out for us. I felt like mine was already pretty strong after #PitchSlam, but removed character names and ages as she had specified. Mine was one she selected to read in front of the group – when she called it “damn near perfect,” it made me feel like I might not be that far away from my goals after all.