So I have some incredible news. I made it into Nightmare On Query Street. I know, I know, it’s very excited. For a while I was on the edge of my seat. The authors who run this event only chose thirty-six entries out of two-hundred and fifty-nine. Out of those I think only about six adult novels made the cut and from those only two thrillers. Not the best odds, eh? Contests are notoriously YA and MG dominated.
When I visited the blog and saw TIMBER POINT was the first title listed I almost passed out! I felt something like this…
This is what I pitched…
TITLE: TIMBER POINT
GENRE: Adult, thriller/mystery
WORD COUNT: 86,000
I mentioned in my last post, Nightmare in October – Come to Query Street… if you dare!, that we had to write a fear paragraph. The main character’s greatest fear. I thought it might sound better coming from Shawny Daniels, my MC.
Here’s it is…
Growing up on the streets has a way of making you hard. As a cat burglar people would think I’d be afraid of getting caught, afraid of the cops, but I’m too smart for that. Okay, maybe I feared people getting too close, but that’s not a real fear. That all changed when I got that first midnight phone call. A cold, hard shiver raced down my spine when I heard his eerie voice. The voice of the serial killer whose trophy box I’d accidentally stolen. He called to tell me he’d found me. Me, the so-called “expert” cat burglar.
And he’s coming to take his box back.
Next came the query. After I worked with my mentor (a query master) I ended up with a kick-ass query. I still need to shave off a few words, tighten it up a bit. Tip: You want your query as tight as possible. Every word must do its job, just like in your writing.
I learned so much about queries by working with a mentor, Melinda O’Neill. Queries come easily to her, an oddity among writers. Thankfully for me, I snagged her to help with mine. She told me the key formula for query letters… HOOK, BOOK, COOK. Easy enough to remember, right? But what the heck does it mean? Don’t panic. I’m going to share this little nugget of information with you.
By using this formula you can turn any blasé query into a super-star. Thus, gaining you many, many requests. And, in turn, representation, if you can back it up with your manuscript.
Let’s break it down.
HOOK: Hook the agent right away and force them to read on. This is the most important sentence you will ever write, so spend time on it. Your future depends on it. Typically agents give each query about eight seconds. If you don’t hook them right away… rejection. It’s not that they are being unfair. They simply are too busy to read every word of every query. They get hundreds a week and need to draw the line somewhere. Unfortunately, it makes our job a lot harder– but not impossible. Remember that. Nothing is impossible. Especially in this business. Dreams come true everyday.
BOOK: Tell them about the MC and the book’s stakes. This is the meat of the story and what drives your plot forward. The stakes must be real stakes, too, not something mundane like, “If she doesn’t find her true love she’ll be destined to a life of sadness.” Boring! You want something life or death, something disastrous for your MC. To put it another way, the stakes must FEEL like life or death for your MC. Does it help to think of it that way?
COOK: You are the cook. In other words, your bio. Here it’s better to brag (modestly, don’t sound like a pompous ass) and sound confident. Obviously, don’t make things up. It will come back to bite you. If you’ve published short stories or articles in literary magazines or anthologies here is where you’d want to tell them about it. Typically you wouldn’t mention any books you’ve self-published unless you’ve had huge sales. But if you did have a ton of sales agents and editors would most likely be seeking you out, so you wouldn’t be querying anyway. That’s the kind of numbers I’m talking about.
If you don’t have anything traditionally published, don’t freak out. With fiction it becomes less important. Use the bio to tell the agent something about yourself. If you are an ex-cop for instance and you’ve written a police procedural than you definitely want to mention it. But what if you’ve never worked a job that relates to your book and you’ve never had anything published and your blog numbers aren’t really that impressive? By the way, your blog does not count as “published”. If you have a very successful blog with tens of thousands of followers, though, definitely include it. Editors look at those numbers and see dollar signs, potential buyers for your novel as well as future books.
Oh, that’s another tip. Agents do not want authors whose only interest is to sell one book. They want career authors. You may want to also get that across in your query, too. Tactfully.
So let’s say you have nothing– no publishing credits, no exciting past or present job. In this case, you’d write something personal– be fun and light– and tell them why you are the right person to write this novel. Let me give you an example because these paragraphs are often hard to write.
Example: “Sharing my life with an obsessive-compulsive husband and two spoiled overgrown Rottweilers, who never miss a chance to bump me off the sofa, keep story ideas flowing. Especially since I write crime fiction.”
Then move on to your light brag… (in the same paragraph) I’ve taken x,y,z classes, have immersed myself in the writing community and have a degree in English Literature, and so forth. I’m sure many of you have at least taken one writing course, right? You don’t need that degree in English Lit., I just threw it out there. You could also mention what groups you belong to, but if they are not recognized groups like Mystery Writers of America or Sisters In Crime, for example, than just say you belong to several writing/critique groups. Without publishing credits/education/recognized groups/ conferences/workshops, you want to stay brief.
Then hit them with the reason that you are the right person to write this novel… (Still in the same paragraph. Your bio should only be one paragraph in length.) Example: “I’ve walked among the good and the bad, both of which helped inspire this book.” Or, “…both of which helped me create three-dimensional, believable characters.” Or, “…the good and the bad, and this book is loosely based on some of the stories I’ve heard.”
Think of your query as a mini-story. It must flow and ebb, have a beginning, middle, end, just as you would with a flash fiction piece. This tip helped me a lot, too, to think of it as a story in and of itself. I’m hoping it will do the same for you.
Here’s my query so you can see the formula in action…
(HOOK) Master cat burglar, Shawny Daniels, never really believed she’d get busted by the cops. Her mentor taught her “fearlessness rules”. When she breaks into a house and finds a secret room with an aquarium filled with cockroaches– roaches like she heard about on the news– she instantly knows this time is different. There are some people more dangerous than cops– serial killers.
(BOOK) (This is your transition sentence ->) Shawny tries to put the break-in behind her until a strange package appears on her doorstep, a mutilated chipmunk inside. He’s found her. When the midnight phone calls start, she knows he’s not going away. She listens as his demon-like voice whispers how she inadvertently stole his precious trophy box– and he wants it back.
(New paragraph needs a transition sentence. Here it is->) The only problem is, she can’t find what he wants. Did she drop it when she ran from the house? Even as the killer’s threats escalate going to the cops isn’t an option without risking her freedom. She may not have a choice, though, when her “helpful” best friend fixes her up on a blind date with Detective Levon Samuels. Ordinarily Shawny would rather drink bleach than date a cop, but Levon could help get this psycho off her tail.
(STAKES) (Transition sentence->) Shawny didn’t count on falling for Levon any more than she did breaking into a serial killer’s house. Now she’s juggling being stalked by a killer, dating the lead detective on the case and trying to hold on to her own heart. Plus, the closer she gets to Levon and the case, the more she realizes she’s responsible for the killer’s next victim. If she doesn’t find the trophy box, the killer’s coming for her. If she doesn’t come clean with Levon more will die. And if she does, she could lose the only man she’s ever loved.
COOK: Here’s where I put in everything I discussed above. In the interest of time I won’t repeat myself.
Well, what do you think? Have I helped you with your query? Queries are one of those things that once it clicks you’ll have it forever. They are tough, maddening, make you want to rip your hair out, but I’m here to tell you there is light at the end of the tunnel. (Cliche, I know, but it fits.)
I hope this post helps to light your way. Have a wonderful weekend, everyone. And don’t forget to leave me a comment below. What struggles have YOU had with query letters? If you found this post helpful why not share it on your favorite social media site.
One last thought: I have also just learned a fabulous way to write synopsis’, and I bet you’ve never heard this strategy before. I’ll share in a later post so stay tuned.