Why My Query Worked

“You want to work on shaping your query into a voice-y, delicious, sticky introduction to your book.”

We’re finally approaching my favorite time of the year: autumn. I’m such a sucker for pumpkin spice, sweaters and scarves, apple cider and pumpkin picking, Halloween… you get the picture. It’s especially cool to think that this time last year, I was drafting the MG fantasy project that would get me my wonderful agents! I wrote PRUE LATHAM while waiting to hear back about last year’s Pitch Wars thanks to the awesome #WriteTheWait challenge. If anyone is applying to PW this year, I’d totally recommend it, by the way. You worked hard on your last book, now dive into another idea if you can – that idea just might be an amazing book in the making.

But today, I promised a query letter breakdown! Below is my standard query for PRUE – the one I sent to tons of agents, including the two who ended up signing me, Claire Draper and Zoë Plant at the Bent Agency. Sometimes with my queries, I put the metadata paragraph introducing the book’s title/genre/word count/comps first, usually when I had a #MSWL or Twitter pitch request to mention. Most of the time, though, I just started with the pitch – I personally really like this way because it most mimics that experience of opening a book jacket to read the cover copy. It’s like agents have the opportunity to shop at a bookstore of unpublished novels 🙂

Not that this is the Best Query Ever or anything, but you don’t need to write the Best Query Ever to get requests. You need to follow the rules and introduce your main character, what she wants, and what will happen if she doesn’t get it. This isn’t an announcement of your whole book’s plot; in fact, the story and its complications should evolve as readers get further into it. This is the premise, the very beginning – probably the thing that got your interest as you started to write it, honestly.

PROTAGONIST + CONFLICT + STAKES = what needs to be in a query. Here’s the standard one I sent out for PRUE:

Dear Agent,

In eleven-year-old Prue Latham’s home of Hallowstown, a place where magic sings in the air and each day is a perfect, crisp slice of autumn, everyone’s a witch – including her.

Now that she’s in sixth grade, she’s finally old enough for real magic lessons, something she’s been waiting for with about as much patience as a hungry vampire. But when her first attempt at a simple summoning spell goes terribly wrong, making her the class embarrassment to everyone but her best friend Sammy, she’s saddled with extra homework, and even worse, an ache in her heart that can only come from wanting her mother’s comfort.

Fueled by this desire to see her mother, a werewolf who lives far away, she accidentally casts a magical wish that traps the whole werewolf pack in Hallowstown. But the town’s ancient wards cannot accommodate both types of magic, and soon everything descends into earthquake-starting, magic-shattering, school-cancelling chaos.

Now Prue, along with Sammy and her first crush, Holly, must find a way to reverse the wish and save Hallowstown before the full moon. If they’re not successful, the competing witch and werewolf magic will destroy each other, leaving Hallowstown, and everyone Prue loves, to crumble to dust.

PRUE LATHAM AND THE WOLVES OF HALLOWSTOWN, a standalone MG fantasy with strong series potential, is complete at 48,000 words. Fans of the whimsy tone of A DASH OF TROUBLE by Anna Meriano and the immersive setting of James Nicol’s THE APPRENTICE WITCH will enjoy Prue’s story. Additionally, it will add to the growing canon of queer characters in MG.

I’m a recent graduate of Mount Holyoke College, where I studied film. Last month I attended the 2nd annual Rainbow Weekend, a writing intensive for queer writers of MG and YA hosted by authors Amy Rose Capetta and Cori McCarthy, on scholarship. I am queer like Prue, so I would consider PRUE LATHAM an #ownvoices manuscript, and in addition to MG, I write YA and Adult fiction. I have pasted [whatever their sample guidelines are] below. Please note that other agents are considering the project, and thank you so much for your time!

Now, I’ll go paragraph-by-paragraph to break it down:

Dear [agent name – I usually put first names to be friendly yet professional, also I didn’t always know the agent’s pronouns],

In eleven-year-old Prue Latham’s home of Hallowstown, a place where magic sings in the air and each day is a perfect, crisp slice of autumn, everyone’s a witch – including her.

[I started with a sticky sentence that gives an intro to Prue, my MC, and what’s cool about her (she’s a witch!) and gives a taste of the setting – she’s not just a witch in any world, she’s in Hallowstown, which is AUTUMN ALL THE TIME. I mean really, who wouldn’t want to live there? The goal with this pithy opening was to make agents read on to see more about the premise/plot. By “sticky,” I mean attention-grabbing. You hear “Hallowstown” and (hopefully) go ooh, what’s Hallowstown? What’s the story about this little witch who lives there?]

Now that she’s in sixth grade, she’s finally old enough for real magic lessons, something she’s been waiting for with about as much patience as a hungry vampire. But when her first attempt at a simple summoning spell goes terribly wrong, making her the class embarrassment to everyone but her best friend Sammy, she’s saddled with extra homework, and even worse, an ache in her heart that can only come from wanting her mother’s comfort.

[Now we know some more about Prue and her problem – the deep-rooted problem she comes into the story with. Not only is she terrible at magic even though she’s a witch in a town full of witches (gasp!), she’s missing her mom. Where is her mom? What is she going to do about this feeling?]

Fueled by this desire to see her mother, a werewolf who lives far away, she accidentally casts a magical wish that traps the whole werewolf pack in Hallowstown. But the town’s ancient wards cannot accommodate both types of magic, and soon everything descends into earthquake-starting, magic-shattering, school-cancelling chaos.

[Poor Prue! She acts on her feelings and accidentally creates a big mess. This paragraph also weaves in some world-building, which can be tricky to put into a query without overshadowing the protagonist, what they want, and what they’re going to do to get it. From this paragraph, we know that magical wishes are a thing – and they’re dangerous. The town also has wards around it, implying that werewolves aren’t allowed in Hallowstown for a reason. So it’s a big problem – Prue’s big problem – that werewolves are in the town and magic is going haywire. She created this mess and now she has to deal with it.]

Now Prue, along with Sammy and her first crush, Holly, must find a way to reverse the wish and save Hallowstown before the full moon. If they’re not successful, the competing witch and werewolf magic will destroy each other, leaving Hallowstown, and everyone Prue loves, to crumble to dust.

[Stakes! Lots of juicy stakes! This book happens to have pretty obvious stakes because Prue needs to literally save her world and everyone she loves from destruction. But stakes are inherent to every book. Don’t worry if yours is, for example, a quiet contemporary. What must the MC do and what will happen if they fail? That’s the tease you want to end your pitch on. Prue and her friend and first crush (carefully weaving in a hint of a little romantic subplot!) need to save the town. They have a concrete deadline and a concrete mission. My goal was to make agents say ooh, I wonder how Prue’s going to figure this problem out – I want to request so I can read and find out. This is the hook pulling them in, hopefully.]

PRUE LATHAM AND THE WOLVES OF HALLOWSTOWN, a standalone MG fantasy with strong series potential, is complete at 48,000 words. Fans of the whimsy tone of A DASH OF TROUBLE by Anna Meriano and the immersive setting of James Nicol’s THE APPRENTICE WITCH will enjoy Prue’s story. Additionally, it will add to the growing canon of queer characters in MG.

[To-the-point metadata paragraph. You want to let agents know the title, the age category and genre, how many words it is (by the way, in editing this further with my agents the word count went up like 10K) and comparative titles – the rule I stood by with comps in my queries were for them to be recent (like the past two years or so of publishing) and specifically related to the book (so not just, this book is MG, therefore kids will read my MG, even though it’s in a different genre). With this one, I knew I wanted to highlight the whimsy, winsome tone and the setting, so I found recent, magical MG books that fit the bill. By the way, those books are great and you should read them both!]

I’m a recent graduate of Mount Holyoke College, where I studied film. Last month I attended the 2nd annual Rainbow Weekend, a writing intensive for queer writers of MG and YA hosted by authors Amy Rose Capetta and Cori McCarthy, on scholarship. I am queer like Prue, so I would consider PRUE LATHAM an #ownvoices manuscript, and in addition to MG, I write YA and Adult fiction. I have pasted [whatever their sample guidelines are] below. Please note that other agents are considering the project, and thank you so much for your time!

[Keep the bio paragraph short and sweet and, if possible, relevant to the project – also include writing credentials if you have them! It was important to me to mention that the project was #ownvoices, but that was a personal decision.]

Warmly,
Trisha Kelly
she/hers

So, there you have it! Like I said, not a perfect query, but a pretty balanced one that focuses on Prue, her conflict (inner and outer) and her personal stakes. This is her story and the query definitely shows that. It’s also short and to the point – there are a ton of other details I could have included (this query doesn’t even mention the villain that emerges in the story!) but you don’t want to bog down your query with so much information the agent feels confused or bored.

Also – and this is why I believe queries are the sort of thing that benefit from tons of small, word-level tweaks even when you’ve got the meat of the pitch down – I worked to infuse bits of personality and imagery into the whole pitch. This isn’t just telling you what the story is like, it’s showing it. For example, it isn’t just autumn 24/7 in Hallowstown, it’s that “each day is a perfect, crisp slice of autumn.” Prue isn’t just excited for magic lessons, she’s been waiting like “a hungry vampire” for them. She doesn’t just create chaos with her magical wish, she makes “earthquake-starting, magic-shattering, school-cancelling chaos.” It literally ends on a chilling (hopefully!) visual: this amazing, magical town, and everyone in it, crumbling to dust. You want to work on shaping your query into a voice-y, delicious, sticky introduction to your book.

Whew! I hope that was at least a little bit helpful. When writing a query, remember to get outside feedback as well! Other writers (agented or not; honestly, your ability to critique a query has nothing to do with whether you’re agented – in fact, nearly everyone who critiqued my query was unagented), readers in your life, family members and friends. Everyone has read a book jacket at one point or another, and if they’re confused or bored, listen to them! It takes patience to put together a query that sticks, but once you get that pitch down, there’s so much you can do with it.

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