A few years ago, I was working on developing my query writing skills. For those that don't know what a query is, it's your selling letter to try and land an agent or publisher for your work.
Now, I know this site is mostly for self-published and indie writers, but that doesn't mean this isn't useful information. The story I posted was pinned to the site as a permanent article, and to date, had hit over 1000 views. The people there are an amazing source of information, and I consider it a huge pride point that something I wrote has been attached permanently to the site.
*Note: To use the links included in the post, you will need to register for an account at absolutewrite.com. It is free, and worth it.
Evolution of a Query
As one writer so eloquently posted, “writing a query letter is harder than writing a book.” After spending some time on my latest query, I couldn’t agree more. Writing a book offers a person a nice amount of freedom. Sure, you have to make sure it’s a finely tuned piece of machinery before trying to get it published, but it’s still your story, and follows your rules.
A query is from an entirely different universe.
As I’ve quickly learned, being a solid writer is one thing. You can have all the talent in the world, and be an absolute wizard with the written word, but trying to translate that into being a strong query writer is like trying to figure skate for the first time after years of playing hockey. Sure, you can throw a big hit, skate like the wind, and break the glass with a powerful, testosterone-fueled slap shot. But taking that 60-minute game of rough and tumble antics and turning it into a finely-tuned two-minute ice dance routine that captivates an audience is…well…hard.
Thankfully, the world is full of wonderful coaches, and the writing world is no different. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned in life, it’s that having an open mind and listening to the people who are trying to help you will only make whatever you’re doing better. You may not agree, and you may not like it, but listen anyway. Even a rejected idea is something to learn from.
And so, I’ve decided that, in appreciation to all of the wonderful people who have been patiently helping me through this process, I would create this, the Evolution of a Query.
I feel I should throw a disclaimer in right about here. The end result I’ve manipulated myself into writing here is by no means perfect. It won’t be the saving grace for anybody, and it’s not going to make everyone’s writing suddenly easier or stronger. Only hard work, thick skin and an open mind will do that. But this is a way for me to show my appreciation to all those who helped me get through this, and to those people I can only say, thank-you. Everything here is a compilation of my words, my thoughts, and your efforts at helping me take those words and thoughts and craft them into something more than words. Something useful.
When I first created my query, I’ll admit, I thought it was gold. Sure, I knew there would be a few things wrong, and that some people wouldn’t like it. But overall, it was solid, and a few hours reflection would make it just what it needed to be.
Well, Query Letter Hell showed me just how wrong I was. Thank God for that. Feel free to take a read:
Dear Mr. / Ms. *********
My 58,000-word novel, A House on Fifth Street, is a Young Adult fantasy shaped in the mold of a modern day Alice in Wonderland, with an underlying influence of A Series of Unfortunate Events. The story is a stand-alone novel, developed through the power of a boy’s love for his lost brother, and the perils he faces while searching for his sibling in the most surprising of places.
What would you do if you brother suddenly went missing? For Daniel Pilkin, the answer was an obvious one. Find him, by any means necessary..
Daniel Pilkin has spent the past few weeks wandering around the city, searching for any clue that may lead to his brother’s safe return. His brother’s strange disappearance has haunted Daniel’s family, and, other than Daniel himself, everyone has abandoned all hope of ever finding the Chase Pilkin again. Daniel, however, refuses to give up. Each day he spends searching for a hint of Chase’s whereabouts, and each day he is sent home with nothing but frustration and a growing sense of impending doom. Nothing, that is, until an unnatural wind pushes him towards a small, broken bungalow in the middle of two Victorian mansions; a mansion where nothing is ever as it seems, and the clues Daniel has so desperately sought after lie deep in the bowels of a series of worlds he has never seen before.
I published my first short story in May of 2007, entitled Zombiquin, in the magazine Encounters, produced by Sam's Dot Publishing, followed by Shadow Puppets, in the magazine Beyond Centauri, released in July of 2009. Alongside various creative writing and children's literature courses, I have also successfully obtained a degree in Elementary Education, during which time I had a few pieces selected for publication in post-secondary anthologies.
A House on Fifth Street is my second completed novel, a work that I have taken a great deal of care in creating and rewriting over the past three years. I have received literary representation for a previous novel through the Phenomenon Literary Agency, which unfortunately closed before my first novel, Dreamshaper, was released. Dreamshaper was subsequently released through a smaller publisher, and copies can still be found on several bookshelves, and within the libraries of several schools, as well as town and city libraries. Although I will be submitting query letters to a few different agencies, I strongly believe A House on Fifth Street would be a wonderful fit for your collection.
Thank-you for considering A House on Fifth Street. I can be reached by email at ********, by phone at *****, and at the mailing above.
Now, I know what you’re all thinking. Glorious, right? Yeah...gloriously awful. It’s an atrocity of unmitigated levels. Within an hour of posting this piece of (insert words of crude wisdom here) to QLH, I was treated to a variety of opinions on just how bad it was, all done with a much finer level of grace than my query itself.
Much advice was given, all of it was read, most of it was taken into consideration, and very little was actually used. I did manage to at least take out the rhetorical question. Here was my next effort. For time’s sake, from this point on I’ll leave out the technical details about word length and genre.
Dear Ms./Mr. *******
Daniel Pilkin was only ten years of age when his twelve year old brother vanished without a trace. Despite the agonizing frustration of weeks of fruitless searching, Daniel refuses to give up on his brother. One clue, that’s all he wants; just a sign that Chase is still out there; a sign that arrives in the form of a most unusual place—A House on Fifth Street.
The broken down house appears to be nothing special, but Daniel soon learns there is a deeper truth beneath the broken windows and abandoned exterior. Within this house, Daniel finds his clue; a picture of his brother on a wall in the basement, stuck on a poster with the word MISSING above his smiling face—one of six posters in all, each bearing that same sinister word above the photo of another lost child. Beyond the wall, a portal of other-worldly secrets awaits him; an entrance to an ancient labyrinth and a world of underground lakes and giants; worlds of terrible dangers and surprising allies. Through the house, he learns of a plague of evils that has been set loose upon the children of the city for the past thirty years, trapping them and holding them prisoner against time itself; a curse brought on by the selfish scheming of a dark man known only as the Gloom.
Facing a house of hidden secrets, the fate of these children now rests in the hands of a young boy determined to find his lost brother, even if it means plunging straight into the heart of the house itself, and into the waiting arms of the Gloom. If he fails, he will become one of the missing children himself, pulled into the Gloom’s lurking spell and lost to the world, just another piece of the dark man’s conquest of children everywhere.
Yeah, I’m sure you can imagine the responses from that. Not a lot of difference between the two, yet somehow I was sure I was going to be praised for the amount of positive work I had put into the new version.
Not so much. Thankfully so. Remember how I said to be a writer you need to have a thick skin and an open mind? Well, I’m more glad than ever that I developed those particular skills early on in my quest to write.
Finally, I at least found the courage to admit that I wasn’t listening. These fine folks were trying to point that out to me, and it was about time I started. Of course, listening isn’t the same as doing, and I learned that lesson even more on my next attempt.
Dear Ms. /Mr. *******
Daniel never believed in magic and ghosts, but that’s a hard certainty to hold onto while standing inside a living house that's trying to communicate with him. It has to be magic, some sort of curse placed on the house, like in the late movies his parents try to keep him from watching. What kind of person has the power to do that? Maybe the same kind that likes to kidnap children, kids like his twelve year old brother, Chase, who Daniel hasn’t seen in weeks.
The answer, Daniel learns, is a horrible man called the Gloom, a man who has kidnapped not one, but six kids. Bent on terrifying and enslaving children, the Gloom has used a dark spell to bewitch the house, forcing the first of the captured children into the very essence of the house, like a soul being forced into a new body, and creating a way station between other-worldly prisons; an ancient labyrinth, a world of underground lakes, and the tunnels of a giant troll.
Haunted house or not, Daniel knows he can’t just walk away. His brother needs him, and, unless this house is lying to him, Chase is inside here somewhere. Chase has always been the stronger of the two of them, but now Daniel can’t let that be an excuse. It’s up to him to find that strength within himself if he is going to save his brother.
This house—this strange, possessed house—seems determined to help him, or at least the kid trapped inside the walls does. Maybe it’s a trick, the same one all the kids who have disappeared have fallen for, but after giving Daniel the knowledge that Chase is indeed one of the Gloom’s six victims, he can’t just walk away. Even if it means battling a labyrinth’s guardian spider, braving waters crowded with enormous, blood-sucking leeches, surviving an encounter with a giant troll, and besting an enchanted game, he will find a way to break the spell and free his brother.
However, unknown to Daniel, a mistake in the Gloom’s casting inadvertently caused the spell to invoke a failsafe upon its inception. It is the spell that has trapped the lost children, keeping them from the grasp of the Gloom. By freeing them, Daniel only brings them closer to becoming true victims of the Gloom, who—while disguised in the form of the second missing child—manipulates Daniel's decisions. In the end, Daniel must make the difficult choice to sacrifice the first of the kidnapped children, the one possessing the house, in order to save the rest.
By this point, my confusion had grown, rather than diminished. I had thought I was listening, but my queries weren’t being received with any more praise. People told me to give lots of detail about my plot, tell about the main character’s actions, and to not be afraid of giving away the secrets of the story. As writers, I think we can all say that, at least at first, that is a hard concept to follow through with. After all, I don’t want to just tell you what happens. I want you to buy my book and find out for yourselves. Which brings us to the vicious circle of writing.
To find out the secrets, you have to buy the book>>to buy the book, it has to be published>>to be published, it has to be worth reading>>to be read, it has to make sense>>to make sense, the secrets need to be revealed>>to find out the secrets, you have to buy the book.
Well, avid readers, if there’s one piece of advice I may offer, it’s that circles suck. If you want to establish yourself as a writer, you need to break free of that circle, and start making the right moves. The circle is safety, and in this case, safety means failure.
With that realization in mind, and after a few more failed attempts, I finally got to work on not just listening, but learning, and my real query began to finally take shape.
The first thing I would recommend is that people read the thread posted by writer katiemac. She has created a gem of a thread that, if followed, makes the query world a much simpler world. In her thread, she suggests that writers simplify their story into three basic questions: what have become known as the katiemac 3:
1) What does the protagonist want?
2) What does s/he need to do to get it?
3) What will happen if s/he fails to get it?
Now, there is much more behind those questions, but I won’t be the one to steal away her thunder. Right now, every single writer reading this thread should stop and go read hers. It’s a wonderful piece of work that, if you follow it, will make your query letter writing process much easier. You can find her thread here:
After several frustrating attempts, and several strong word choices that definitely don’t belong in my middle grade fantasy novel, I finally actually took stock and realized I had been lying to myself. I thought I was following the three questions, but I wasn’t. I was trying way too hard, when what I needed to do was simplify. There’s a reason the acronym KISS works so well...there’s nothing quite as pleasant.
So, I erased everything I had worked on, and started here:
What does the protagonist want? Daniel wants to find his brother.
What does he have to do to get what he wants? He must defeat the Gloom.
What will happen if he fails? His brother will be lost forever.
After 3 days of listening but not learning, I finally got it. And the real work started then and there. I don’t mind telling you, if I had really been learning earlier on rather than just listening, this Evolution of a Query post would have been a whole lot shorter.
And so the work finally began.
As I sit here writing this, my query is still not perfect. Quite frankly, any writer worth their salt knows that “perfect” is a terrible word, and that there is no such thing as a perfect query, and more than there’s a perfect story. There are queries that work, queries that are awesome, queries that will blow your mind, and queries that are successful, but there are no perfect queries. So stop looking for one, and stop trying to create one. Just stop. Create the one that works for you, and the one that works for your story. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it does have to be good.
I started writing this as a way to take a break from my actual query. As it stands, it currently looks like this:
Ten-year-old Daniel Pilkin wants his brother back. Two months is a long time without your big brother, and Daniel’s world feels broken. By accident, Daniel stumbles into the very same trap that stole his brother away, the cursed house belonging to a man called the Gloom.
Strangely enough, the house's curse may be just what Daniel needs. It's alive, filled with the soul of one of the Gloom's first victims, a boy who knows the truth. The Gloom has been using a dark spell to catch kids, trapping them in weird mazes and underground caverns, trying to take their souls to make himself immortal.
Caught in the spell, Daniel knows he has to stay ahead of the Gloom. It would be crazy to try and get past the maze’s giant spider and the leech-filled lakes by himself. Just the thought of it made his skin itch. He might not trust a house built by the Gloom, but if he can free some of the other kids, he might have a chance. If he failed, Chase, along with five other children and Daniel himself, would disappear forever.
It’s not done, but it’s something I’m becoming proud of. I’m still getting some advice on it, and I’m still working on being an active listener, rather than a passive one. But compared to where I started, I’m a lot further towards losing my newbie status than I was a week ago.
So thank-you, Query Letter Hell, and thank-you to everyone who makes it Hell. Without your careful help and guidance, and often harsh but realistic critiques, I would still be hiding behind an atrocity of writing, and sitting in the safety of a circle of failure, rather than working to break free of it.
PS. For anyone who wants to see all of the steps I’ve gone through so far, and shake your head at the calamities I created earlier on, here is the link:
My advice? Pay more attention to the critiques than the queries, and instead of just listening, do. Stop taking shelter in safe circles, break free, and work, work, work.