People often say to me: “Listen, agent person (they don’t actually call me this). You agent blogging people always talk about what not to do in a query, why not talk about what people should do in a query!”
The people have spoken. They want things they should do.
And here’s what I think is one of the very most important thing to do in a query: be as specific as possible. Allow me to be even more specific: be as specific as possible about the right things.
When I say “be specific” I don’t mean that we need to know every character’s name and the name of every city and place in the Realm of Unpronounceable Cities and Places. In other words, I don’t think it’s a good idea for your query to read along the lines of, “Morfor travels to the Uwn’uim Square in the town of Zxcimist in order to meet his brother Phoidum.”
When I say be specific I also don’t mean that we need to get bogged down in tangential details either, like ages and hair colors and other things characters are doing if they don’t play a major role in the story.
Instead I mean this: be as specific as possible about the plot.
I get so many queries that read (literally, though this is made up for the purposes of this post) like this:
Character Name is living peacefully in Hometown. But then a life-changing event occurs that changes everything. Secrets are revealed that turn her life upside down. Character Name faces grave danger as she embarks on a quest to save her people. This novel is filled with humor and passion and suspense and romance, and there’s a shocking twist that leaves the reader breathless.
Being vague leaves an agent with so many questions: What are the secrets? What is the life-changing event? What is the danger she’s facing? What happens that is funny and suspenseful and romantic?
When all of these key details are kept hidden the query ends up sounding like… well, pretty much every novel ever written. And chances are an agent is going to move on to the next query.
Replace that vagueness with key details and suddenly the query comes alive. Let’s try that query about Character Name again, hmm?
Angelina lives with her cats in Moonville, an outer space colony known more for its knitting festivals than anything resembling excitement. But when Moonville is invaded by cat-eating space monkeys, Angelina learns that her cats aren’t ordinary cats: they are actually hyper-intelligent feline assassins who can kill their enemies with a flick of a paw. And they need a leader. Angelina has to leave her knitting behind to defeat the space monkeys, and an intrepid and handsome space explorer named Brad may hold the key.
I think when writers face the daunting task of condensing their work down to a few sentences it’s tempting to simply say “shocking secrets are revealed” rather than trying to sum up in just a line or two what are, in the novel, complicated and nuanced events. I know it’s tricky to do this.
Also, there’s a balance between being specific and being concise. You don’t want to be so specific that you’re boring down to what the character ate for lunch on the way to slay the space monkeys. But it’s utterly, utterly necessary to give the agent some glimpse into what actually happens.
As always, specificity wins.
Wanda B. Ontheshelves says
I was talking to my friend about heaven the other day –
– or rather, how when you're a kid and your pet dies, adults tell you, "Patches is in cat heaven now," "Tippie's in dog heaven." Well, you could have atheist parents, but that's not the point I'm trying to make.
So I was prefacing everything I had to say on the subject with "this sounds stupid, but" and "I know this is dumb," etc.
I feel that way sometimes about what happens in my novel. Like I still want to shield the specifics, because maybe it sounds stupid or is dumb, even though it is meaningful to me.
Sheri Larsen says
Spastic cats and helmet-wearing, killer monkeys…Right on! Love the function of this post–to the point. Thanks, Nathan.
My favorite line: The cats can kill with a flick of paw.
Thank you for this post on queries.
So………….Is there a space monkey killer kitten book? Cause that was strangely interesting….lemme know if you come up with it
Katrina L. Lantz says
Nathan, thank you for continuing to write helpful tips on how-to-query. As one who has been politely rejected a lot (including once by you), I find your insights helpful as I try to learn the ins and outs of this complicated publishing world.
Looking forward to reading your YA book. It sounds delightfully bizarre. (How's that for a cliche book review?)
Give the juicy stuff!!!!
Erin Edwards says
I'm late to comment – but I just had to, because I think this is just about the best blog about what an agent actually *does* want that I have ever seen.
Melanie Avila says
This is great! I hear 'be more specific' from a lot of agents (on their blogs) but rarely does anyone actually show what you mean by that.
Hmm… show don't tell rears its ugly head YET AGAIN. *scurries off to edits*
I did notice, however, that the handsome Brad may hold the key, but what key and how?
That's a line I've had difficulty facing, and find many people with different opinions on. Yes, we want to be specific, but do we want to 100% give away the ending? Won't that kill your connection to the novel if you actually get to reading it?
So, based off your example – specifics, specifics, but maybe leave a couple of things explained in plot-points but not 100% revealed? Mine's a mystery (kind of) so with a book like mine, it just feels like I'm killing the pace/point of the book by taking it so specific right through to the end.
Thanks, Nathan. I enjoyed your whimsy in example and your specific instructions on what to do. I hope space monkeys visit me soon. There are too many cats in my neighborhood and my little dog is outnumbered. Maybe he is keeping a secret?
C. K. Bryant says
I have a question. About 6 months ago, I signed a contract with a publisher for my adult fantasy. After going through some major edits and rewrites, the publisher decided to make some financial cutbacks and dropped two of their new authors. I was one of them. 🙁 My book was only days away from going to the printer for the ARCs. It's ready. Should I mention this when I query an agent, or will it work against me?
Thanks for your time, Nathan.
Nathan Bransford says
I'd mention it.
C. K. Bryant says
I know this is old, but @ Mira, a good book doesn't matter if nobody looks at it because you haven't come up with the right pitch.
I swear, it's harder to write than the novel, sometimes.