How to Survive the Query Trenches (plus a peek at a successful query letter!)

how-to-query-novel-ya-buccaneers

First of all, a big congrats to Rachel and her upcoming debut THE LOST PLANET! As a major sci-fi geek myself, I’m so very excited to read this book!

Since THE LOST PLANET is a middle grade science fiction novel, I thought I’d dust off my own MG SF query letter for our January edition of Learn the Ropes. And so, this post is for all of you wading through the query trenches or getting ready to jump in, which is so very exciting! 

A little background info… Back in 2009 (whoa, has it been that long?), I started my agent search for my very first novel, a middle grade space opera. It took me an angst-filled year of querying—I picked up dozens of rejections along the way—before I received my first offer of representation in April 2010. At which point I fainted. So without further adieu, here is the exact query that I sent to my now-agent Jim McCarthy of DGLM:

Dear Mr. McCarthy:

Since you represent one of my favorite YA authors, Carrie Ryan, I hope you will consider for my manuscript for your list. THE COSMIC CHRONICLES OF DANNY J. SINGER is a MG science fiction novel, complete at 61,000-words. An excerpt of this book received the grand prize in the Maryland Writers' Association's 2009 Novel Contest.

Twelve-year-old Danny Singer doesn't think aliens are real—until he finds one knocking on his front door.

Obviously, Danny freaks out about this intergalactic visit. After all, he’s about to get abducted, right? But weirdly enough, the alien isn’t interested in abductions or the typical take-me-to-your-leader stuff. Instead, it insists on delivering an urgent message.

In a matter of weeks, a swarm of gigantic space bugs—the Locusts—will devour the Earth as their next meal. And even worse? The Locust King, Abaddon, is coming straight for Danny and his mom.

Yeah, Danny starts freaking out again, but he has to pull himself together. To protect his sick mother, he agrees to join the Titanian Knighthood, a society of alien warriors who defend the solar system. His training starts immediately and Danny soon discovers why he's on the Locusts' most-wanted list. Turns out, Danny's dead father was once a Knight himself—in fact, he was the one who stopped Abaddon from conquering the galaxy fifteen years ago. Now, Abaddon is back for revenge and he has a few bones to pick with Danny's family.

Armed with a mystical sword, Danny must defeat the Locusts before Abaddon destroys him. Failure isn’t an option: the future of the Earth—and his mom—are on the line.

I am a freelance writer with publications in Highlights and Boys’ Life. I am also a member of SCBWI. Upon request, I'd be pleased to send you a full manuscript. Thank you for your consideration.

Sincerely,

Caroline Tung Richmond

Looking back now, I’d definitely change up some of the word choices and maybe trim down the letter as a whole. Overall though, I think it’s a workable query because it got me to that important next step—full requests! This version of my query garnered me a 40-50% request rate, which blew me away because I received nothing but rejections for months upon months. That’s definitely one lesson I learned: if your query isn’t getting you decent request rate, change it up! Experiment! Eventually you will get there.

And now, here are three more tips from a query trench survivor like me:

Tip #1: Personalize each query if you can.

You don’t have to personalize every single query, but whenever possible I tried to connect with each agent somehow. Maybe I was a fan of his blog or maybe I really liked one of her clients’ books. With agents receiving tens upon thousands of queries every year, my hope was to set myself apart a little by showing I had done my research.

Tip #2: Start off with a one-line hook.

Like I mentioned above, agents get a ton of queries every day. Every hour even. So after awhile, their eyes start blurring and their stomachs start grumbling for a Snickers bar—and that’s when the killer one-line hook comes in. As writers, we only have a few precious seconds to grab an agent’s attention—so make those seconds count and hammer out the very best hook that you can.

Tip #3: Be kind to yourself.

I can only wish that my publishing journey has been as pleasant as a sunny stroll through Netherfield with Mr. Darcy on my arm. Truthfully though? It has felt more like a muddy obstacle course with a plate of cookies thrown in here and there to keep me going. (Publishing “cookies”—like nabbing an agent or selling your first book—taste very delicious!)  Anyway, I don’t say this to be a Debbie Downer but there will be times when you may want to curl up in bed and run away to the circus. Publishing is tough, so very tough; and querying is oftentimes the hardest part of that process.

When you reach moments like these, remember to be kind to yourself. Pop open that wine; and treat yourself to some good ol’ retail therapy. And when the going gets really tough, I want you to open up your manuscript—the one you’ve been pouring your soul into—and I want you to say, “I did it. I’m a writer. And I. AM. AWESOME.”

Because you are! Do you know how hard it is to finish a book, much less revise it? Do you know how much courage it takes to put your work in front of an agent and say, “Here is my heart! Do with it as you will!” You are a writer, and you are awesome. And no one can take that away.

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And so, to all of you querying this year, I wish you the very best luck! I will be cheering you on the entire way, and waiting at the finish line with a big platter of cookies. Your choice. J