The Battle of the Query

PhotobucketPlease welcome Anne Brown to WU. Anne was one of our finalists in the hunt for a WU Unpubbed Writer. We know you’ll love her essay on, “THE BATTLE OF THE QUERY AS TOLD BY ONE IN THE TRENCHES” as much as we did. And visiting her blog, I just learned she recently had her first creative essay published by Literary Mama! Congrats, Anne!

Enjoy.
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“My story is about a man, a woman, and two dogs. It’s a modern-day retelling of Pride & Prejudice, except the characters of Jane and Mr. Bingley are a tad hairier than in the original.”

Confession time. That is an honest-to-God excerpt from the first query I ever wrote. And, yes, I actually sent it out the door. Ten times.

You probably won’t be shocked to learn I received ten rejections, and you’re probably wondering why you’re reading a post on queries from someone who’s unpublished. Well, thankfully, I’ve made some progress since that abysmal beginning. Although I’m still waiting for the life-changing phone call from Dream Agent, I am finally winning the battle of the query and getting more requests than rejections. Here’s a strategy that has helped me go from public humiliation to killer query.

Step One: Pull Out Some Quirk

Most agents seem to like some degree of weird. So don’t let their first impression be déjà vu. For example, rather than introduce your main character as a middle-aged high school teacher, focus on a weird quirk or trait, such as: “Mary Olson is a middle-aged drama teacher with a paralyzing fear of heights.”

Step Two: Stir the Pot

Next, show agents where they’ll find your main character when the story starts and, most importantly, give them an indication there is some unrest that is about to be stirred up. You can do that simply by using the expression “at first.” For example, “At first, acrophobic Mary thinks her life is perfect—great hair, great job, ground-floor apartment on the Nebraska plains.”

Step Three: Raise the Stakes

Then show the conflict. No conflict, no story. At the query stage, agents don’t care about our craftily constructed themes, our inspired use of metaphor or, by the way, that our story might be a modern-day retelling of Pride & Prejudice. They want to know what’s at stake. An easy way to show conflict is a sentence that starts off “But when” or “Everything changes when.” For example, “But when the circus comes to Omaha, and Mary meets tight-rope walker George Maserati, she risks an anxiety attack for the chance of finding love.”

Step Four: Holy Cliff Hanger, Batman!

Then drop the bomb. Entice those poor unsuspecting agents and make them cry out for more. (This is what happens in my fantasies. Poor agent, somewhere out there, crying over my cliff hanger of a query . . . but I digress.) Leave them wanting more with the classic Batman ending.

Remember the 1960s t.v. show? The Joker would throw a punch at Batman, then the scene would freeze and the announcer would say in an angst-ridden voice: “Will the Joker drop Batman into the vat of boiling oil? Will Batman get the last laugh? Tune in next time for the conclusion of . . .” In a query, the Batman ending could translate into something like: “Mary climbs to the heights of hot circus love, but who will catch her when she falls?”

So there you have it! I’m not saying this four-sentence query should be the end of your drafting process. But it’s a good first draft formula that, in my experience, leads to a door-opening query. And that, as you know, is half the battle.

Photo courtesy Flickr’s woodleywonderworks

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About Anne Greenwood Brown

Anne Greenwood Brown (@AnneGBrown) writes MG and YA fiction. She is represented by Jacqueline Flynn of Joelle Delbourgo Associates, and is the author of the LIES BENEATH trilogy (Random House/Delacorte Press). Her new book THE TWISTED LIFE (Albert Whitman & Co.) is anticipated for March 2016.

Comments

  1. says

    Anne,
    Intriguing post, and one that got my attention. Maybe you should put an ad in Writers Digest: “Queries written. Reasonable rates.” I’d be contacting you for sure.

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  2. says

    Richard–That made me laugh. I’m not sure what “reasonable” means though. How do you put a value on hair loss and anxiety attacks–because that’s what query writing really means.

    Lydia–Thanks so much!

    Deb and Hayley–Yep! That quirk thing helped me find that the elusive query “voice,” too.

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  3. Nina Badzin says

    Bravo, Anne! Great advice for queries and for plot (conflict, conflict, conflict!) I will also be thinking about the canine Mr. Darcy all day. ;)

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  4. says

    Great post. There seems to be a phalanx of resources for learning about query letters, from blogs to certain chapters in books on writing, all the way to whole books written on this topic alone. I’d like to say how refreshing this post was and how well written it was. You got to the point and broke down something that can be complex, into something doable. Thank you. It was well received.
    .-= Daryl Sedore´s last blog ..Conferences or not? =-.

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  5. says

    Excellent post!

    One thing you illustrated but didn’t actually mention: the ‘quirk’ is even more powerful when you put it together with irony.

    So I guess the only thing I would add to your article is that you can find the best quirk for the pitch by thinking about what is ironic in your story.

    (And no, I didn’t think that up myself – I got it from the late Blake Snyder.)
    .-= Camille´s last blog ..The Next Dare and the First Chapter =-.

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  6. says

    Yes! This is great. Getting that query right is HARD. Thank you for this. And the ‘quirk’ thing is spot on. If I were an agent reading query after query, I would desperately need a refreshing dose of originality. Quirk it up!

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  7. says

    Great formula & advice, and holy heck this line is FANTASTIC:

    “Mary climbs to the heights of hot circus love, but who will catch her when she falls?”

    Please, PLEASE write that book. I MUST read about the “hot circus love”!
    .-= Kristan´s last blog ..A few notes =-.

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  8. says

    Thanks everyone–especially you, Therese and Kathleen, for giving me the opportunity to write for WU! Can’t wait to do it again in July!

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