Anatomy of a query

Last Monday I posted about the Blind Speed Dating event at Cupid’s Literary Connection. I was thinking it’d be worth entering with Stars, since I expect that manuscript to be through final revisions and finished by the final round at the end of February (and it’s in decent condition now, anyway, I think). The contest requires a query and the first 250 words, and I think Stars’ opening works better for a contest like this than Secrets’ does.

I didn’t have a query for Stars, so I had to write a new one to enter. At this point I’ve written a lot of queries (or versions of queries) for my own manuscripts, plus helped a number of my critique partners with theirs. I had no idea how to do it with my first ones, and some of those were pretty stiff and cluttered, but I’ve since figured out there’s a structure to a good query that’s pretty easy to dissect.

I think a query should be made up of four (five) parts, each two to three sentences long: backstory/set-up, inciting incident, central conflict and character’s response, character’s decision/challenge and stakes (and then the closing line stating word count, genre, etc).

I’ve really found that breaking down the concept of the query into these parts makes it a lot easier to write. You have everything that’s important to the story but without ending up with extraneous information. The only other tip I’ve heard often mentioned is to make sure your character is active within your query – frame the sentences in terms of the character’s actions or reactions, not in terms of what’s happening to/around them.

This is my query for Secrets, as an example. I won’t claim that this query is perfect, but it shows the four (five) parts:

Seventeen-year-old Indigo Roberts has grown up with mind tricks like telepathy and psychokinesis. Discovered 30 years ago and adopted into the school curriculum, parapsychology is as much a part of daily life as her smartphone. She’s never given it a second thought. [Sets up the world/backstory.]

But her whole perspective shifts after her parents disappear. While looking for clues to aid the police, she is shocked to learn her life was never really what she thought it was: fifteen years ago her parents ran a secret research project to develop new and potentially powerful mind tricks – and Indigo had been one of the test subjects. [Introduces the inciting incidents.]

Now she’s being hunted by their old colleague, who wants something from her and will to do anything to get it – including kill. Desperate to not only protect herself, but also save her parents, Indigo searches their records trying to find anything that will help. [Explains the central conflict and her actions/decisions.] The truth she turns up is worse than she expected. When the colleague takes her best friend hostage, cooperation will mean more than just giving herself up; it might mean putting dangerous powers into a madman’s hands. [Shows what the Big Decision is and what’s at stake and/or what stands in the way.]

WHERE SECRETS ARE HIDDEN is a quick-paced light sci-fi YA, and is complete at 86,000 words. It can stand alone, but also has series potential. I have included the first ten pages below for your review.

I think a lot of writers find queries a real struggle, and it seemed like, when I was first figuring out what to do, a lot of the advice and tips out there is pretty vague in terms of structure, so hopefully this’ll be helpful to some people. :)

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2 responses to “Anatomy of a query

  1. Saybe definitely helped me with my query.
    And from reading through the Query Shark, there was one other thing that was helpful for me to keep in mind, the question: “What are the stakes?”

    • So glad you found it helpful! :) And yeah, that’s a big one I often see pop up in these query contests, that the stakes aren’t clear or are weakly defined. Definitely important!

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