Thursday, October 23, 2014

Query First, Please

It's true.
Writing your query first really is the best way to write a book.

For those who call themselves "pantsers", meaning "fly by the seat of your pants", the query may be the LAST thing you write -- because, well, pants.

Looks so lovely and carefree and spontaneous, no? And I love to be all those things, because, well, creativity.


What if, in your splendid creative writing surges, you NEVER narrowed your vision of the actual plot because you were so excited by all the action scenes you were coming up with?
Or if you CAN'T ACTUALLY ARTICULATE your character's motivation?

My first book, which I love and am determined to publish one fine day, had those problems and more.

It wasn't exactly a pants book per say -- I'm a plotter. But, because first book and all, I didn't really know what I was doing. I was consumed by the story, by the relationships I was building, by the excitement of writing the thing.

But when query time came, I was lost. Drowning.

Partly because I didn't know how to write the dang thing, had never even heard of one when I began writing the book. But also partly because I didn't really understand the point of my book.

Now -- as a public speaking coach I have always told my students that they need to be able to summarize their speech in one or two lines -- if they can't, they really don't know what they're trying to accomplish and neither will their audience. Which means their presentations are doomed to aimless meandering in the desert. Yes, I've said that in my more dramatic moments.

I have sent students back to the drawing board a million times to distill and understand the essence of their words so they can be pithy and brilliant.

But alas, I listened not to my own advice. I couldn't give an "elevator speech" about my own book.

Lesson learned. Write the dang query first. Figure out what your character is trying to overcome, what the second plot point is, what the catalyst is, and why we care.

And lest we forget and begin to meander in query desert, it really only comes down to this:
Character, Conflict, Stakes.

Here are some terrific resources for helping you nail it:


 Michelle Hauck (@michelle4laughs) has a semi-regular feature called Query Questions, which features different agents talking about what does and doesn't work in a query. Nice resource because you can also research agents while you iron out the query kinks!

Amy Trueblood's blog features a weekly post called Quite the Query. Go read successful queries that landed agents - very helpful to see how others do it! (@atrueblood5)

Andrea Brown agent Jennifer Laughran (@literaticat) has an Ask Me Anything section on her Tumblr. She answers questions quickly and forthrightly.

Another Laughran resource is her blog, which frequently addresses query questions/issues:

4) Plus there's the master of them all, Query Shark, written by uber agent Janet Reid:
All you have to do is read the blog to figure out what you're doing wrong, but if you're brave, you can submit yours to see if she's willing to critique yours. She's tough, but that's what you need, right?

5) Finally -- an excellent workshopping option and the way I finally got really valuable feedback on that first disastrous query:
The Become an Agent contest.
@SC_Author features it semi-regularly -- next one is probably in January. Agents don't participate -- it's just a terrific chance for writers to pitch in and help each other figure out what does and doesn't work.

Check out his blog:

What do you think? Do you write your query first?


  1. Excellent post, Heather. I really identified with the first book writing thing and the excitement of going with and exploring characters drove me on. Then, querying. Say what? There's right and wrong ways to go about a query? Very helpful post!