A Pretty Much Foolproof, Never-Fail, Silver-Bullet Query Opening

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Hello there.

A few days ago I posted about my move to Folio Literary, and what I’ll be seeking.

As I rev up the ol’ query inbox (which is already rumbling with submissions), I figured I’d take a moment to talk a bit about the query letter.

How— I mean, for serious, how on earth— does anyone write a query letter?

It seems so difficult. Not only are you trying to put your best foot forward and stand out from the dozens— no, HUNDREDS UPON HUNDREDS— of other queriers, you’ve got to summarize your manuscript (impossible), make it sound exciting (huh?), comp it to other titles (um), talk a bit about yourself (embarrassing), and keep it all under half-a-page (yeah okay no).

As if writing the book wasn’t hard enough in the first place.

A lot has been written on strategies for great query letters. There are templates and forms online, webinars, talks, and even whole conferences dedicated to the subtle art of the pitch. I myself have gabbed on for hours about this subject without taking a breath. So how best to break down all this information, to actually put it to use?

Where, John (you might be heard to ask), does one *start*?

Though there are many paths up the mountain, for the sake of expediency, allow me to offer a…

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Firstly, and I can’t stress this enough (and believe me I’ve tried)— open your query:

Dear [Actual Name of Agent],

That is, the name of the agent you are querying, spelled correctly, as opposed to…

Dear Agent,

Dear Sirs,

Dear Ms. Cusick,

Dear Mr. Quetip,

Or just…


…which makes me feel like I’m being pursued by a creditor.

Some agents prefer last names, others are less formal. Me, I don’t mind “Dear John,” despite the connotations of heartbreak. But it’s hard to go wrong with a Mr. or Ms. followed by the agent’s surname.

Next, I recommend following a little formula. Ready? Don’t panic because it kind of sounds like math.

Here it is:

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So, X (your main character or protagonist) is Y (in the general place, time, circumstances of the protagonist’s every day life when the novel begins) until Z (the thing that makes the story a story happens).

Here are some examples.

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Harry is the main character. At the beginning of the novel he’s a sad British boy (as opposed to an awkward pale girl or rambunctious mouse). That is, until Z: the thing that makes the story a story (and not just a boring portrait of a sad British boy’s life) happens.

Reading the above, I already have a sense of the genre, style, and even the market for the manuscript proposed, and the querier has only written a *single line*. Now, the writer has room to go into more detail, offer comp titles, and give a short bio. He or she has hooked me right out of the gate, without preamble. And if this first line sounds good, I’ll be much more interested to read whatever comes next.

Here are a few more examples:

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Get the idea?

So, if you find yourself stuck with your query letter, try this formula.

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If you know any other query tips or techniques, or of useful online resources for query letter templates, etc., please post them in the comments!

Interview with Rahul Kanakia

RahulKanakiaRahul Kanakia and I started working together last year. In April his debut y.a. novel, ENTER TITLE HERE, sold to Disney-Hyperion, and will pub next fall. Pitched as Gossip Girl meets House of Cards (I KNOW RIGHT), the novel takes the form of an unpublished manuscript written by over-achiever Reshma Kapoor as she launches a Machiavellian campaign to reclaim her valedictorian status after being caught plagiarizing.

I’ve blabbed before about how awesome Rahul’s blog is, but today one of my fav writer/thinkers treats us to his insights on writing, sociability, and finding an agent:

When and how did you start writing?

Rahul: I started when I was a senior in high school. I’d always harbored a vague ambition to write stories (ever since I discovered, by reading the submissions guidelines for the official D&D magazine, DRAGON, that it was actually possible to sell a story for money to a publication), but I’d never gotten around to actually do it. I can’t say why I decided to start writing one, but I know that I finished my first story on or around December 20th, 2003, and promptly submitted it to the highest-paying science fiction magazine that I could find (where it promptly earned me the first of what are, at last count, approximately 1,240 short story rejections).

Can you remember the first book that made an impact on you? Who were your childhood storytelling heroes?

I’d say that it was probably Isaac Asimov’s Foundation. My mom gave it to me, saying that she’d read and enjoyed it when she was a girl my age, living in India. That novel led me to read all kinds of science fiction writers. I loved Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Anne McCaffrey, Mike Resnick, Mercedes Lackey, and all kinds of other writers. In terms of children’s books, I really enjoyed British boarding school books (again, this is the influence of my mom) like the works of Enid Blyton. Oh, and, of course, I enjoyed Astrid Lindgren.

Can you talk us through the writing of your first book? What were the key moments?

I got the idea while I was reading this Michael Lewis’ compendium of financial reportage surrounding the 2007-8 financial panic and collapse. And during one of the stories, the journalist writes about protests in Korea by students who feel like they’re being forced to study too much. During the protests, they marched down main thoroughfares, chanting “We are not study machines!”

Something about that phrase was really evocative for me, and I thought “study machines, study machines…there has to be something I can do with that.” And I started developing this sleek dystopian story involving people being forced to study really hard.

But then, as I was thinking about it, I was like, “What? This doesn’t need to be dystopian at all. This is real life. Here in this world, in our country, there are kids who feel compelled, by society, to study allll the time. So I decided to write about one of them.

The actual writing took place over 31 days, from the end of December to the end of January. I wrote most of it while I was on a family vacation in India. A significant chunk, maybe a third, was written while we were at a rented villa in Sri Lanka that had its own beach and private chef. Now that’s a writing retreat.

Was it hard to get an agent ? Can you talk us through the process?

I wrote ETH in January of 2013. At that point, I had another novel that I’d submitted to a contest for YA novels by people of color. I lost that contest, but I did become a finalist. And the winner of the contest, Valynne Maetani, knew John (she was about to sign with him) and offered, out of the blue, to put me in touch with him. I think it’s the most thoughtful writing-related thing that anything has offered to do for me. Anyway, he liked that book and wanted to sell it. I revised it throughout summer of 2013 and it went on submission to five editors in October/November of 2014, and was rejected by all of them. At that point, John had read ETH and both he and I were more excited about that, so we revised it and it sold in May of 2014.

Getting an agent was definitely happenstance. I’d previously queried 93 agents with that first book. I’m still surprised that John saw something in it that 93 other agents didn’t.

Describe your writing day. Where do you write? How do you organize your time? Where do you look for inspiration?

In general, I think writers really overstate how much time they actually spend writing. I was recently talking to a group of YA writers and one of them brought up her brother, who’s a restaranteur and works sixteen hours a day, and someone else said, “Yeah, but that’s how it is in creative professions, right?”

And I was like, “Alright. Come on. Let’s level. None of us work sixteen hours a day? It’s more like two, right?”

Then everyone looked at me like I was crazy and someone stepped in to change the subject. But I am still firm in my belief that most writers either really exaggerate how much time they spend writing, or their writing time also involves a lot of internet-browsing and Twitter time.

Each Thursday, I decide how many hours of writing I want to do on each of the coming seven days. Then I keep track of whether or not I actually do that many hours and how many days in a row I’ve managed to meet my goal. In terms of actual goals, I usually try to go for 15 hours in a week, though sometimes I hit 18 or 20. When I write, I use the Freedom app to turn off my internet, and I wedge my phone into the folds of the could cushion, so I can’t see it or easily extract it.

Inspiration is tricky. I’m not sure about that. Often I’m inspired by garish stories that I read in the Lifestyles section of the newspaper. Other times I’m inspired by books that I’ve read.

Can you tell us about your next book?

Nope. I have no idea what it’ll be.

Are there any tips you could give aspiring writers who are looking to get published?

Yes. Write hard. Read good. Keep trying. All of that is good advice.

I’d also say that it’s not a bad idea to try to meet other writers. Now, this is not necessary. I didn’t know that many other writers before I started publishing, and writing is one of the few creative professions where it’s possible to get really far even if you have zero connections. In fact, most writers get their agents through blind querying.

But if you go out and meet other writers and befriend them, either in person or on twitter, they can be of help to you. First of all, you’ll often find that if you stay friends with aspiring writers for a few years, then some will break out, find agents, get book deals, etc. And the ones who move ahead can help the ones who’re still struggling to make it. Also, the more contacts you have in the book / publishing world, the more anticipation there’ll be for your book when it actually releases. It’s hard to overstate how many books there are. And most of them are just a name, a title, and a blurb. If, on the other hand, even a few people look at that name and say, “Hey, I know that person,” then that helps.

Now I know that someone out there will read what I wrote and get super-depressed because many writers are anxious and depressive and introverted. Please don’t. I’m not saying that you need to be the coolest and most popular person in the YA world. You don’t. I’m saying to take baby steps. Get on Twitter. Follow other YA writers. Tweet at them once in awhile. I think you’ll be surprised by how little time it takes before you start to get somewhat friendly with them.

Can you describe three aspects of writing craft that have been most important as you’ve developed as an author?

Write in scene. It took me years to learn this. Narrative summary can be bold and have a good voice and be interesting, but it’s rarely surprising. It doesn’t include those chance side-characters and little bits of setting and gesture that take the book in surprising directions. If you write in scene, you’re giving yourself a chance for something to happen.

Choosing what tense to write in has become an extremely maddening problem. People will tell you to write in past tense like it’s extremely simple, but I find it maddening. If I’m writing in past tense (particularly in the first person), then when is the narration situated? Why is the narration proceeding chronologically? Why isn’t the narrator living up things with bits of future knowledge? Also, how can there be any character change: the person telling the tale is, throughout, the person who’s already changed.

On the other hand, present tense isn’t more satisfying. It’s too artificial and too constricting. It feels like it limits you too much to a given moment. It doesn’t allow you to break out of the moment and float more freely through the character’s psyche and their life.

Finally, I have a continued problem with description. Things are important. Objects are important. They’re an important part of life: our choice of objects and surroundings tremendously influences our mood. And they’re also intrinsically interesting. No one wants to just be with heads and words all the time. What I like about novels is that they affirm the importance of the physical world. They affirm the importance of tiny details and little gestures. They’re about what it’s like to be living life in a particular body in a particular place at a particular time. However, I’m terrible at describing things. I just don’t see them in my mind’s eye very well. It’s something I’m working on

Which favorite authors would you invite to a dinner party? What fictional character do you wish you’d invented?

I’d invite Ayn Rand to a dinner party, because I read Old School, which describes a dinner meeting with Ayn Rand, and it seems magnificent. She just so totally believed in her own philosophy. How could that fail to be endearing?

I’d also invite Tolstoy, because, judging by his essays, he always had something interesting to say. I don’t know whether I’d invite bearded old prophet Tolstoy or younger more literary Tolstoy, though. Maybe I’d invite them both.

ENTER TITLE HERE (Disney-Hyperion, Fall 2015) on Goodreads.

Read some of Rahul’s short fiction at Clarkesworld and Birkensnake.