Emily K. Thiede

Fast-talker, kitten-tamer, book-lover, author

Hey, let’s talk about queries. Evil little suckers, aren’t they?

I loathe queries. When they’re mine, at least. Months of carefully crafting a story, with all its layers and themes and emotional motivations, and then we’re expected to condense it down to 250 words? Ugh, misery.

I think we should all just write each other’s queries, honestly. It’s so much easier. Which is why, though I hide from my own queries, I really like helping other writers with theirs. Especially if I haven’t read their MS. It works. I promise.

If you’re struggling with your query–and who isn’t?– come and walk with me for a little while.

Remember, a query’s job is to get a reader interested, not to tell them everything that happens. I like to imagine the movie voiceover guy, saying something in his booming, ominous voice, like, “In a world darkened by war, one boy has the chance to defeat the empire that killed his father, but to rid the galaxy of evil, he may have to pay the ultimate price.”

 

Sure, you’ll need a little more than that for a successful query, but not much.

Ideally you want the body of your query to be two or three paragraphs, and you almost want them to feel like one long thought, each statement leading into the next, rather than a bunch of disjointed facts.

I’ve done a number of query critique giveaways over the past year and I’ve hammered out a pretty solid method for drafting (other people’s) queries. Again, it’s MUCH harder for your own, and I get that. But hopefully this will help. Let’s start with a template.

A Basic Query Template

 

HOOKY OPENING LINE.(Optional) NAME, a CHARACTER DESCRIPTION who MORE CHARACTER DETAILS, wants to GOAL, but when SOMETHING HAPPENS, they HAVE A PROBLEM.

Which is bad because WHY. Now, in order to SOLVE THE PROBLEM, CHARACTER will have to DO A THING or else CONSEQUENCES.

So, we need the following bits of info:

Paragraph 1-ish
Who:
Goal/Wants:
Problem:
Paragraph 2
Big new problem:
Big new choice and potential consequences:
Let’s try a few, with movies because two hours is easier to hold in our brains than entire novels!
CLUELESS
Formula:

CHER, a WEALTHY CALIFORNIA TEEN who IS COOL, wants to BE POPULAR, but when A NEW GIRL SHOWS UP, Cher STARTS TO WONDER IF SHE’S SHALLOW.

Which is bad because SHALLOW IS KIND OF HER THING. Now, in order to FEEL BETTER ABOUT HERSELF, CHER will have to CHOOSE BETWEEN POPULARITY AND ALTRUISM or else SHE MIGHT FEEL SHALLOW AND/OR LOSE HER FRIENDS.

Okay, that’s terrible, but we figured out the key info. Now let’s un-terrible it.

Better:

Cher, a wealthy California teenager, wants nothing more than to be popular and adored by her peers. But when a hopelessly clueless new girl shows up, Cher begins reexamine her priorities… and herself.

Suddenly, Cher is torn between the easy, uncomplicated world of Bronson Alcott High’s popular kids, and being someone who actually makes the world a better place. But will becoming a better person mean giving up her friends and her social life for good?

ARMAGEDDON

Formula:

HARRY, an OIL DRILLER who IS A ROUGHNECK, wants to RAISE HIS DAUGHTER AND DRILL OIL, but when NASA TELLS HIM AN ASTEROID IS HEADED FOR EARTH he IS APPARENTLY THE ONLY GUY WHO CAN STOP IT WHICH IS RIDICULOUS BUT A VERY FUN MOVIE IDEA.

Which is bad because HIS OIL GUYS ARE A MESS. Now, in order to SAVE THE WORLD, HARRY will have to WHIP HIS GUYS INTO SHAPE AND MAYBE DIE TOO or else HUMANITY IS DUNZO AND HIS DAUGHTER IS PART OF HUMANITY SO THAT’s VERY BAD.

We have gathered our kindling. Let’s light that fire!

Better:

Harry, a roughneck oil driller, has his hands full trying to raise his daughter on an oil rig, but his life gets infinitely more complicated when NASA shows up. An asteroid is speeding toward Earth, and they say Harry is the only one who can stop it.

Now Harry has to turn a bunch of misfits into astronauts before time runs out. If Harry fails, the planet–and his daughter–are doomed. But what if the only way to save all those lives is to sacrifice his own?

Okay, your turn!

Step 1: Jot down your basic MS information according to the bullet points above. Then play Mad Libs and just shove them into that formula. Good! Now walk away!

Step 2: Come back and look at it. Does it make sense? Hey–hands off the keyboard! I said, “Does it make sense?” not “Is it good.” So, does it make sense? If so, great. If not…. does… your book make sense? Sorry, I had to ask. Sometimes, (not always) writing a query can make us realize that part of our book still needs work. If you’re confident that’s not the case, and your query makes sense, then you may now cut the blah phrases like “is bad because” and write them in your own words. Don’t add anything exciting yet, though. Done? Now walk away.

Step 3: Read it again. Does it make sense and sound less like a robot wrote it? Yay! Do you like it as is? Double yay! You have a query! If it still feels dry and bland (as it probably does) then go ahead and sprinkle in a few fun bits of information. NOT five paragraphs of backstory–Think “cool, voicey character trait or fascinating tidbits of worldbuilding!” Now, walk away again.

Step 4: How’s it looking now? If you like it, send it to a friend and get some honest feedback. If you hate it, hide it in a dark dropbox folder and get to work on your own version. Hopefully this exercise helped you zoom in on the key information, and that will make it easier. And hey, if you give up in a few hours and throw your laptop out the window, at least you have one query saved to work on later.

Happy querying!