Thursday, November 5

What's in a Query?

Writers from all over the world, listen up! Now that you've finished your first novel and have popped your champaignes and danced around your bedroom celebrating the premature achievement of your novel's completion, it's time to sit back down and face reality. I know it really feels good to know that you've finally dotted your last period and can call yourself an author, but believe me, your journey as a writer has just begun. The grueling process of editing is awaiting you at the threshold of success (or failure, whichever applies).

My editing process took 3 years. Yup, you heard me. THREE YEARS! My first revision added 20,000 words to my manuscript, increasing my word count from a meager 70,000 to 90,000. My second revision slashed 10,000 words from my manuscript, and my third revision got it down to 75,000. And that was when I felt good. Then there was the polishing process in which I had to read my manuscript so many times till I was basically skipping pages near the end. I dotted the I's and crossed the T's, corrected grammatical errors, and made sure my characters were coherent. I mean, there was a time when one of my main characters suddenly had a different name halfway through the novel. And there was another time when a dead character actually came to life without my knowing in one chapter and died again for the rest of the novel. Creepy? Well, it happens.

And once the editing process is done, it's time to query. Writing the query letter is an art by itself. Within one page, you must hook your reader and sell your manuscript. It's not about your story, it's about how to tell people about your story. In other words, don't worry about whether or not your story is good enough. Instead, worry about how you relay your story within one page to an agent. So here's the basic, fail-proof formula to writing a stellar query:
  1. Address your agent by first or last name, and not Sir or Ma'am.
  2. Go straight to your hook, which is a summary of your book in not more than 4 small paragraphs. If you can fit everything in 2 paragraphs, you'll make your agent happier. Don't worry about giving out the ending or minute details. Just a rough frame of what your book is about. That's all. Simple, right? Not really. Most writers have the tendency to go on and on about their book, which is a direct dive to Failureville. Basically, introduce your characters, their conflicts, and what they need to do to resolve it. That's it.
  3. State your word count and genre. Well, this is pretty flexible. Some writers don't even have to define the genre of their book. Not necessary. This is because in today's publishing industry, the agents really don't care what genre you say your book is. Ultimately, the publishers decide. So you may think your book is sci-fi, but in the end, it is published as horror. This is because it is really hard to define a book's genre nowadays. About word count, just make sure you don't give your agent a heart attack by giving your first novel a 90,000 or 120,000 word count. That will guarantee a form rejection. Just know that the requirement word count of a novel is around 75,000 to 80,000, no more, no less. And if your novel, no matter how stellar you think it is, is over that limit, it's time to trim the fat from the bacon. Go back to your editing process and do what you have to do.
  4. Tell the agent a little about yourself. Don't overdo this. Mention your writing achievements if you have any. And completing your English 101 paper is not one of them. And if you don't have any, just tell the agent which school you graduated from, what you do and so on. Make it three sentences or a short paragraph.
  5. End your query with a thank you and mention that it is part of a multiple submission. This will cause the agent to act faster on your query if it is good because there is competition.

So that's it. And just to illustrate, I will include my initial query for my debut novel below. I welcome suggestions, criticism, and hate mail. So here goes:

Dear Adam:

Housekeeper, Eleanor Rose, is witty, gentle, hardworking, and a remarkable cook. To the people of Amalga, she’s a petite old lady who wouldn’t even hurt a fly. And to the Cunninghams, she’s the perfect housekeeper—at least until they found her holding a bloody knife next to the dead body of Katherine Cunningham, her employer’s 12-year-old daughter.

When Eleanor is arrested, Vincent Lee, a young journalist, is assigned to cover her story. His research leads to a startling discovery: This is not the first time Eleanor is arrested for the death of a child. In fact, Eleanor was found guilty for the murder of her only son thirty-nine years ago. He was twelve when he died.

Through his interviews with Eleanor within the confines of the penitentiary’s visiting hall, Vincent finds the truth hard to digest. Nothing is what it seems. Behind Eleanor’s actions is a painful secret that, if revealed, would challenge the moral obligation of every mother to her child. It would give love a new meaning.

And now Vincent will have to make one important decision: to run the story and defy what he believes is right, or to sacrifice his career and protect the one thing that will also give him a second chance in life.

The Housekeeper's Son, a 75,000 word work of literary fiction, explores the power and vulnerability of a mother's love for her child. I am a corporate writer in the nutraceutical industry and a graduate of Utah State University where I received my Master of Arts in Communication. This query is part of a multiple submission.

I look forward to hearing from you. Thank you.

Christopher Loke

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