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!

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One comment

  • Gina Smith August 11, 2014  

    I love this concept! Have not heard it expressed like this. Thanks! I also mentioned in a blog post how the query letter was definitely more painful for me than the entire novel. Title, opening line, closing line were a breeze. Query, not so much.

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