QUERY TIME: Hook, Book & Cook

For me, writing a query letter for my book(s) was more soul-sucking/frustrating/maddening/stressful/{insert expletive} difficult than writing the entire book(s).

Seriously.

The query is a 250-350 (or so) word letter that describes, quite succinctly, what your book is about and why someone (an agent, generally) would want to read it. It’s a requirement if you plan on doing anything with your book — even if you choose to self-publish without an agent, you’ll still need a blurb to get readers interested.

A query letter is meant to pique interest and make someone want to open your pages and read on. But it must be short. And fit to one-page in an email window. And not be sent to multiple agents at once (NEVER, EVER DO THIS, okay?). And be formatted properly (I’ve talked about this before here: How not to become a query cautionary tale, and here: Query, Query, quite contrary). And like much of the publishing business, subjectivity rules, so always have a look at the agent’s bio/agency website/blog to see if he/she has a preference in terms of format.

But it wasn’t until I came across the idea of HOOK, BOOK & COOK that query writing became less painful. This concept is all over the place, so I can neither take credit for it, nor find the first person who came up with this handy and catchy idea to give him/her credit.

So what does it look like? I’m so glad you asked! Let’s start with HOOK.

THE HOOK (first paragraph — approximately 50 words)

Though some people open their queries with the book title, genre, wordcount and why they’re querying a particular agent, in my experience starting right off with the hook is the best way to go. Literally hook that agent in, so she can’t wait to keep reading.

The hook is a one to two line description of the main conflict in your story — the thing that makes it special, and makes someone sit up a bit straighter, lean in towards the screen, and go, “Oh! Wow. I need to know more about this.”

Take your time with your hook. It should be tightly written without any unnecessary detail, be compelling, be descriptive, and tell your reader exactly what they can expect from your book. Tricky, right? You bet it is. But it’s a critical part of your querying journey and blurb writing, so work on it until you get tingles when you read it (also, make sure you get others to read it and ask them if they would be interested to read more).

THE BOOK (second and third paragraphs — approximately 200 words)

This is the meat of your book — again, without drowning the reader in detail, this is where you dig into what happens in your story. It’s the place to introduce main characters and major plot points. It needs to flow easily, with enough information so the reader isn’t confused, but not too much that he loses interest and tunes out. In some ways this is the hardest part of the query, because you’re taking a 90,000-word book and condensing it into about 150-250 words. In both queries I’ve written, I’d say this middle section required the most “love” (merciless hacking) — I easily rewrote it a hundred times (no, I am not joking here) for each book. But the end result was worth it.

This is also where I put in the book’s title, wordcount, and genre if it’s not obvious (but let’s be honest, genre/category should be obvious by now based on everything that has come before — if not, it’s probably time for another — you guessed it — revision), and any comparative titles you have for your book. Comparative titles are important, and again, there are MANY rules around what to use as a comp title — do your research, and for the love of all things good, READ YOUR COMP TITLES before putting them down.

THE COOK (final paragraph — approximately 50 words)

This is your bio, as the “cook” of this book. What makes you uniquely qualified to write this book (do you have a tie-in to the subject matter/story)? Add in any awards or accolades you’ve received (only include ones related to either writing or the subject matter), if this is your debut novel, and what your writing experience has been to this point (I’d probably leave out statements like, “I’ve been writing since before I could walk”). And finally, if it’s true, close out with, “I’m currently working on my next novel” but resist adding any more information about it. This query is meant to be for the book you have ready, not for any other book you’ve written or are writing currently. But letting an agent know you’re taking this whole writing thing seriously is always a good idea.

This format saved me. It offered a way to break down what felt like an impossible task — condensing my book into a short, easily consumable but quite intriguing “pitch” — and gave me a structure I could replicate. However, clever structure breakdown aside, I will stress the point that working on your query until you never want to see it again should be your aim.  IF YOU’VE DONE FIVE REVISIONS ON YOUR QUERY, IT’S PROBABLY NOT READY. If you’ve done 10+ versions and beta readers (particularly those who either, a) have not read your book, or b) don’t read your genre typically) are clear on what your book is about, and what happens, and still want to read … then it’s probably ready. Of course, it’s always possible you’re a genius at query writing, and maybe you nail it on draft one. If that’s the case, please tell me your secrets!

If you’re not a query-writing genius, don’t despair. Most of us aren’t. Like so many things in life, crafting a brilliant query takes practice and hard work. Good luck!

Just start at the very beginning, A very good place to start…


I have just started a new book. What we writers refer to as a “WIP” (Work in Progress). Now, when I say I’ve “started” it, what I mean is I have the idea. I have a few details about the plot scratched down. I have a vision for where it can go. And I’ve done some research because one of the characters is set in a time I’m unfamiliar with.

But as for how much I’ve written? About 200 words.

I need to write about NINETY THOUSAND MORE.

When I told (bragged) to my husband the other day that I got my first line nailed, he looked at me, raised an (ever supportive) eyebrow, and said, “You’ve written one line?” BUT IT’S THE MOST IMPORTANT LINE, I said. He smiled and nodded as I tried to explain why (this has always been true for me — even in journalism school, when we were on crazy tight deadlines, I couldn’t write a word of a story until I had that first line).

So I thought, why not share my process for how I go from the first word to the 90,000? If for no other reason, it allows me to procrastinate for another few hours on what I should actually be writing, which is … you got it … the book.

IT ALL STARTS WITH THE IDEA.

I have a folder on my laptop titled “Book ideas (that suck)” — and you guessed it, it’s full of book ideas that, well, blow chunks. At first I thought they might be good, even great, but after spending a little time thinking through plot and realizing just how wrong I was, off they go to the file. However, every now and then I have an idea that works when I take it through the first test. It has legs, and with some work, I can see how the story can go from good to great.

This is how I feel inside when I figure that out:

 

Okay, so I have the idea. I write a short blurb and vet it through my critique partners, my agent, and my husband (who is always my toughest critic, which is only one of the reasons I adore him so) — if everyone thinks it has merit, I give the story a (usually crappy but hey, it’s a start) title in Scrivener and figure out what I need to know to start writing.

And let me tell you, there’s A LOT to sort out before the writing begins.

WHO THE HELL IS THIS BOOK ABOUT?

Your characters need to feel like real people. And to do that, you need to build them one layer at a time. Things like giving them names, sorting out how they look, determining their quirks, who their best friends are, what they do for a living, where they grew up, when their birthdays are, where they live, how they live, what they like to eat, drink, do for fun, what makes them angry, what makes them cry, what they like to wear, what they do that pisses others off, what they were like in high school (if you’re writing adult), what people love about them, what people hate about them …


(This is how I feel when I start thinking about all these details … a little dizzy and most definitely overwhelmed…)

It’s time-consuming, creating the main players in your story and their world(s), but it’s important to do it so you don’t end up with cardboard characters no one wants to spend time with.

WHAT THE HECK HAPPENS IN THIS STORY?

Then comes plot. Ah, plot. You can have the best characters, the best setting, the best title, the best hook (more on that in a minute), but without a solid plot, you will be lost. There’s a lot of talk about pantsers vs plotters — pantsers write “by the seat of their pants” whereas plotters do the opposite, with every detail sorted out in advance of writing a single word — and I’ve done it both ways. But I’m most comfortable taking a hybrid approach — a “plantser” I call myself. I like to have a strong outline, with plot points clearly stated and characters worked out, but I give myself some flexibility as I write. Sometimes I’m in a scene that I’ve worked out point by point, and a character unexpectedly jumps out from behind a tree and beckons me to follow her. Which I ALWAYS DO, because this generally leads to an even better scene.

THE HOOK (A.K.A “THE THING THAT MAKES YOUR STORY DIFFERENT”).

The hook is the thing that when you share it, it makes someone sit up a little straighter, lean in, and with eyes wide say, “Wow … tell me more!” It’s critical in today’s book market, and until you have it (in my opinion) you’re not ready to start writing.

This is surely how I look when I figure out my hook …

It’s what makes a writer vibrate a little, the hook, because you spend so much of your story figuring out how to tease it and reveal it, and this is FUN. Now, this all depends on genre, of course, but for those of us who write commercial fiction in any genre, hook is a big deal.

CLOSE TWITTER, FACEBOOK, PINTEREST, EMAIL, RIDICULOUS “WHO ARE YOU?” QUIZZES, AND POTTERMORE (I’M IN GRYFFINDOR, IN CASE ANYONE CARES) … AND START WRITING.

First, comes the panic. The “even though I’ve done this X number of times before, I’m pretty sure I don’t know how to write a book” feeling. This is when I typically need my CPs and husband to CALM ME THE EFF DOWN (see gif below for how this stage generally looks), and remind me that yes, I can write a book. I’ve done it a few times already. So stop panicking (procrastinating) and get to it.

So once I’ve found some inner peace, have the idea, the outline, the plot points, the character details (including setting), and I’ve managed to find time to focus … I start writing.

This is how I EXPECT things to go at this stage:

 

This is how I KNOW it goes, based on experience:

But in the end, despite my greatest attempts at self-sabotage (via procrastination), I end up with this:

And there is no better feeling. Turning an idea into a stack of papers and thousands of words, that swirl together to tell a story? A story crafted out of the depths of your brain?

Awesome.

Time to get writing …

Querying: Sticks and Stones (and dodgeballs)

About a week ago I finished revisions. For the eighth (give or take) time. Honestly, I’m not sure there’s a single word in my manuscript that I haven’t touched or retouched. I was lucky through this round to have fresh eyes on the story, and can’t thank my critique partners (Abby, Rosey, Kate, and Kristy) enough for sticking with me (and not telling me to STOP.SENDING.THEM.EMAILS).

So now I query. And toughen up, because I forgot how hard querying can be. I liken it to putting a bunch of strangers in a room, handing out rocks, and asking them to throw the stones at you (repeatedly) … for fun. Or like playing solo against a really good dodgeball team, sort of like this:

 

Why do we do this? Because let’s be honest, no one NEEDS to write a book. No one NEEDS to be published. Authors do this for all kinds of reasons, probably ranging from “why not?” to fulfilling a lifelong passion that won’t let them rest. As for me, I write because I love it. Stones and all.

There’s this pervasive saying amongst authors looking for agents … it’s always some variation of keeping at it until you find the right agent for your book. Which basically suggests there’s a right fit agent for nearly every book, and every writer. I’m here to suggest that is simply not true. I wrote two books when I was in middle school. My mom had both bound, and my daughter loves reading them with me (she’s also quite impressed by my illustrations of mice, toadstools and ice skating elephants). However, I guarantee there is no right agent for those picture books. They are not books that have (much of) an audience outside the walls of my home. And that’s okay.

Believing this ‘right agent’ myth is akin to believing there’s a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, or that it’s good luck when it rains on your wedding day. While there’s nothing wrong with a little magic, and having a positive attitude goes a long (long) way, it also pays to be realistic … even if I desperately want for there to be unicorns, fairies, pots of gold, and for Hogwarts to send me my admission letter by owl.

I do believe there is an agent for (nearly) every well-written, thought-provoking, fresh concept, well-told story out there … as long as its author is prepared to do the work, and refine the manuscript until it’s so shiny it hurts to look directly at it.

So as I sit here today, a few queries out, a full manuscript requested (and subsequently rejected), I remind myself that my book is only as good as the work I’ve put into it (which, for the record, is a lot). And that hopefully there is a right agent out there who sees its potential and wants to team up with me in making it even better.

And that maybe this time I’ve been smart enough to hand out soft rubber balls, rather than stones …

 

 

Query, Query, quite contrary…

Uncooperative. Defiant. Insolent. These are other words I’d use to describe the query letter. Two hundred and fifty words. One page. Should be easy, right? After all, I just wrote 70,000 words. But as I’m learning the things that should be easy are, well, often not.

I read a lot about how to write a query before I ever put one word down. I obsessively read through queries on sites like Query Shark and Slush Pile Tales – both places where brave wanna-be authors can submit queries for (torturous) helpful critiquing. I learned some key things, like you should never (EVER) start a query with a rhetorical question (Seriously, never do this. This is a guaranteed way to get an instant rejection). That 250 words is not many, so use those words wisely (don’t mention sub characters or the fact you have a dog named Earl, which also happens to be the name of your protagonist…). Never write ‘Dear Agent’ as your salutation. And for the love of G_d, never send a mass query out. All these things make agents prickly. And a prickly agent is not going to give you a second glance.

But I also left my ‘research’ confused. Some agents say a four-paragraph query format is best (title/word count/genre, hook, synopsis, author bio); others long for the ‘unorthodox’ query. As long as you don’t write it in your main character’s voice. They hate that. Even if it’s a most clever book about a crime-fighting parrot. Or a vampire who is allergic to blood (also, vampires are out).

So after I couldn’t possibly cram any more query stuff in my brain (I was dreaming about it, for reals), I started writing. And re-writing. I emailed my writing buddy and critique partner with each version. She kindly gave me feedback. Multiple times. Then I rewrote some more. And more. And then a little more. Finally I had something I thought worked. So I sent a few query letters out (happy to report out of my first three I received two instant rejections and one request for a full manuscript) and let the words marinate a little more. Then I rewrote it again. And you know what? I bet it isn’t the last time.

I think I’m on version number 123 of my query letter. It’s better than version 90, and definitely WAY better than version 10 (if I can even remember that far back…). The other piece of advice I gleamed on queries is to make each one custom to the agent you’re querying. This is obvious, of course, but I have a feeling many don’t do this (see ‘Never send a mass query out’ above). I have a spreadsheet with all the agents I’m going to query, with links to interviews and articles where they delve more deeply into what they’re looking for, and other tidbits helpful in customizing a query letter. I have a word doc for each and every agent I’m querying. And I send one email at a time. Not only does this help me keep track, it ensures I’ll never send the wrong letter to the wrong agent.

Because the number one thing agents have to say? You have one chance to make an impression. (So don’t screw it up).