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December 13, 2017

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The Evolution Of My Query

December 13, 2017

This post is going to be physically painful to write, but June Tan's blog post sparked an idea. (She's a lovely person and fellow Pitch Wars mentee, and you should definitely follow her on Twitter.) Anyway, we all know how nagging an idea can be once it sinks its claws into you. It needs an outlet. So, without further ado, let's dive into THE EVOLUTION OF MY QUERY.

 

Actually, scratch that. First, let's take a look at these useful query writing resources:

 

http://pitchwars.org/resources/

(This link hosts a slew of other links, including resources on synopses, pitches, diversity, and interviews with the esteemed Pitch Wars mentors. Definitely worth the click.)

 

http://queryshark.blogspot.com/

(I'm expecting you to comb through every archived post, which will take approximately three years. I'll wait.)

 

Or, you know, you can literally just Google "how to write a query" and thousands upon thousands of websites will pop up. The above two links are the resources I used while writing my query, so I can vouch for their particular usefulness. 

 

Even using those resources, however, my first query was total crap. I wrote a little about it here, but to recap: I cobbled together what I thought was a solid query and purchased a ten-minute Skype meeting with an agent to critique it. It did not go well. But for you, dear readers, I'm going to revisit that terrible first attempt and Ms. Helpful Agent's comments. Yikes.

 

But before all that unpleasantness, let me briefly outline some lessons I learned while query writing. I am definitely not an expert, but these are a few things I wish I'd learned earlier on in the process. Use them as you will!

 

1. Do your research. I know it seems tedious to sift through Query Shark archives after you've finally finished your manuscript and you're itching to send it out into the world.  But trust me when I say you do not want to shoot yourself in the foot with a poorly written query. Most agents have a one and done policy, meaning they won't consider the same manuscript twice. You've got one shot to intrigue them. One shot to persuade them to request more material. This is a nice segue into my next lesson, which I learned the hard way.

 

2. Be patient. Do the research, write the query, and then—THIS IS IMPORTANT—sit on it for a few days. Maybe even a week. Don't look at it. Don't think about it. Put it from your mind completely. When some time passes, examine it with fresh eyes. There's a good chance there are parts that are confusing, vague, or straight up embarrassing. Try to fix those parts. If you're a unicorn and don't see anything embarrassing, get your CP's eyes on it—or better yet, swap queries with someone who hasn't read your story at all. They'll be able to objectively tell you which parts don't make sense. 


 This lesson was my nightmare with Ms. Helpful Agent. I scheduled a meeting with her as soon as I'd finished typing the first draft. DON'T DO WHAT I DID. Take your time. Get it right. And if you can't get it right, refer to Lesson #3.


3. Problems in queries can be due to problems in manuscripts. I go into a little more detail about this later on, but if there's a part of your query you just can't get right, it's worth re-examining that part of your manuscript. For me, my protagonist lacked agency in the middle of the story. That lack of agency reflected in my query.  That being said...


4. Don't be afraid to tell your story. Tell us what happens. Don't assume we know anything. Don't dance around your plot. Don't hide the inciting incident and stakes within unnecessary details and pretty language. I was guilty of both in my first drafts. Later, I realized this was because a) I had a problem in my manuscript, and b) I was afraid of turning agents off with certain elements of my plot. Which was ridiculous. The agent is going to read those plot elements sooner or later anyway, and the right agent won't be turned off. 


5. Queries are subjective. This lesson is both a blessing and a curse. Often—even after countless drafts—people will still find something wrong with your query. And all of them will find something different. One will say you're too vague. Another will say you're too specific. One will love your opening hook. Another will hate it. IT'S MADDENING. YOU CAN'T PLEASE EVERYONE. The flip side, however, is that you don't have to please everyone. It just takes one agent to love your query and request more. Which leads me to my final lesson...


6. Sell your story. Don't tell it. The sole purpose of the query is to intrigue agents enough for them to read your pages and request more. That's it. It's not to explain everything there is to know about your book. As June pointed out in her blog post, the query is a lot like a movie trailer. It's just a taste. As writers, every single detail is important to us. We spend hours crafting our worlds. We gnash our teeth while developing our magic systems. We scream into the void while creating our characters' personalities. Unfortunately, these painstaking details don't matter nearly as much to an agent—at least, not in the query. Give them just enough to make them want to read more. 

 

Alright, that's it for lessons. Let's rip this bandaid off and look at my first attempt:

 

 

Dear Ms. Helpful Agent,

 

Witches. They see patterns in the natural world. They can manipulate those patterns, shape them to their advantage. But nature is a cruel mistress. It demands balance. Lou should know—she was born to die. Her blood is the key to liberating the witches from the Chasseurs, an ancient order of huntsmen ordained by the Church to eradicate the occult in Belterra. 

 

But Lou is no hero. At sixteen, she realized just how much she liked her throat intact and did the only sensible thing: got the hell away from her kin as quickly as possible. 

 

Five years later, she now hides from the witches—and Chasseurs—as a dirty street thief in a faraway city. When a heist goes terribly wrong, however, her life of anonymity is shattered by the attention of a Chasseur. His relentless pursuit rivals only Lou’s trickery, and soon the two find themselves in a publicly compromising situation. With no other options, Lou is faced with an impossible choice: marriage, prison, or worse—the stake. 

 

Marriage to a Chasseur would mean real protection from the witches…if she can convince him she isn’t one herself.

 

Steeped in French folklore, LA DAME BLANCHE is a 96,000 word NA fantasy romance with series potential. 

 

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Shelby Mahurin

 

 

Now for Ms. Helpful Agent's notes:

 

 

"Beginning didn't immediately draw me in. It's a little vague. I don't really understand what is going on. Refocus the first section."
"I'm confused on the series of events. The series of events isn't coming through clearly."
"If this is a romance, put a little more romance in the way you describe the characters. Include more about their relationship and initial conflict. Talk more about the heist that throws her in Reid's path. Why is Reid our compelling main man?"
"Get more specific about why she's on the run, why she's the secret to saving them. Be specific and concise."
"Open with Lou and why she is in danger. End with oh no--they have to get married! And then the consequences of not marrying him."

 

 

GAHHH I hate reading those comments again, but they were necessary. Because let's be honest: this query doesn't work. But I am so, SO grateful for that Skype meeting. It prevented me from sending that terrible first attempt out to agents. Let's unpack it a little further: 

 

 

Dear Ms. Helpful Agent, [I did get this part right. Always include a greeting. Keep it professional.]

 

Witches. [This is a great example of a poor hook.] They see patterns in the natural world. They can manipulate those patterns, shape them to their advantage. But nature is a cruel mistress. It demands balance. [All of this sounds interesting and pretty, but it bogs down the query, where every word is precious. Show the world-building and specifics of the magic system in the pages instead.] Lou should know—she was born to die. Her blood is the key to liberating the witches from the Chasseurs, [it's a usually a good idea to limit world-specific vocabulary] an ancient order of huntsmen ordained by the Church to eradicate the occult in Belterra. 

 

But Lou is no hero. At sixteen, she realized just how much she liked her throat intact and did the only sensible thing: got the hell away from her kin as quickly as possible. [This paragraph gives us our first taste of my MC's voice, but it's distracting and frankly not enough. I don't show the agent a glimpse of her daily life before the inciting incident. I don't tell the agent what she wants. I don't really accomplish anything but confusing the timeline.]

 

Five years later [again with the confusing timeline], she now hides from the witches—and Chasseurs—as a dirty street thief in a faraway city. When a heist goes terribly wrong, however, her life of anonymity is shattered by the attention of a Chasseur. [This is my inciting incident, and it's vague. NOT GOOD.] His relentless pursuit rivals only Lou’s trickery [what does this even mean, Shelby?], and soon the two find themselves in a publicly compromising situation [be specific, Shelby!]. With no other options, Lou is faced with an impossible choice: marriage, prison, or worse—the stake. 

 

Marriage to a Chasseur would mean real protection from the witches…if she can convince him she isn’t one herself. [While this line is intriguing and everything, AGAIN, it isn't enough. It tells the agent nothing about what happens after the marriage, which is essentially the entire plot of the book. More on this below.]

 

Steeped in French folklore, LA DAME BLANCHE is a 96,000 word NA fantasy romance [LOLOL, if only NA fantasy was a real thing] with series potential. 

 

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Shelby Mahurin

 

 

PHEW. Glad that's over. This is where I learned Lessons #1, 2, and 4—do your research, sit on your first draft, and don't dance around your plot. 

 

Now please join me in replacing the bandage and never looking underneath it again. On to my second attempt, which I won a query critique for in Pitch Wars:

 

 

Dear Pitch Wars Mentor,

 

Louise le Blanc was born to die for her people. Unfortunately, she was also born with that pesky, intrinsic desire to live, so she escaped her clan of witches before they could sacrifice her at sixteen. Three years later, she has created a new life for herself as a thief in Cesarine’s criminal underworld. Most days she spends avoiding the constabulary and Chasseurs, an ancient order of huntsmen ordained to burn women like her.

 

When a heist goes terribly wrong, Lou’s shadow life is destroyed by the arrival of the Chasseurs. Among them is Reid Diggory, tall and handsome and fierce in his conviction that witches are evil. Despite mistaking her for a common thief, he takes a troublesome interest in Lou, and she is soon forced to trick the straight-laced Chasseur into public scandal to avoid capture. Her deception backfires, however, when the Church intervenes and imposes an ultimatum: Lou can either marry Reid to save his reputation, or she can go to prison.

 

Unexpected heat sparks between the two after their wedding. In spite of Reid’s puritanical beliefs, Lou cannot help but be drawn to his strong, steady presence, so at odds with her own unpredictable nature. But her husband is still dangerous. He’s just as likely to tie her to the stake as to protect her if he learns her true identity—and that’s nothing to what the witches will do if they find her. They still hunt her to complete the blood ritual she once escaped…a ritual that will end not only Lou’s life, but also Reid’s.

 

Steeped in French folklore, LA DAME BLANCHE is a YA romantic fantasy that should appeal to readers of Sarah J. Maas and Naomi Novik. It is complete at 96,000 words with sequel potential.

 

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Shelby Mahurin

 

 

This version is better, but still not there. The mentor who critiqued it had really insightful feedback, most of which can be summarized by some parts of the query being too specific and some being too vague. Isn't that the worst? Alas, it's also completely accurate. I'm still learning Lesson #4 (don't be afraid to tell your story) and beginning to suspect Lesson #3 (there might be a problem with your manuscript). Let's unpack this second version:

 

 

Dear Pitch Wars Mentor,

 

Louise le Blanc was born to die for her people. Unfortunately, she was also born with that pesky, intrinsic desire to live, so she escaped her clan of witches before they could sacrifice her at sixteen. Three years later, she has created a new life for herself as a thief in Cesarine’s [first word beginning with C] criminal [second word beginning with C] underworld. Most days she spends avoiding the constabulary [third] and Chasseurs [FOURTH], an ancient order of huntsmen ordained to burn women like her.

 

When a heist goes terribly wrong, Lou’s shadow life [what does this even mean?] is destroyed by the arrival of the Chasseurs [too vague here—what actually happens?]. Among them is Reid Diggory, tall and handsome and fierce in his conviction that witches are evil. Despite mistaking her for a common thief, he takes a troublesome interest in Lou, and she is soon forced to trick the straight-laced Chasseur into public scandal to avoid capture. [Why is she forced to do this? This is hard to follow.] Her deception backfires, however, when the Church intervenes [the mentor suggested making this more specific and naming the Bad Guy, instead of having several vague villains] and imposes an ultimatum: Lou can either marry Reid to save his reputation, or she can go to prison. [Why does Reid need to save his reputation here? Is it a class thing? A church thing? Specify why.]

 

Unexpected heat sparks between the two after their wedding. In spite of Reid’s puritanical beliefs, Lou cannot help but be drawn to his strong, steady presence [why? Strong, steady presence gives us literally zero details about their relationship], so at odds with her own unpredictable nature. But her husband is still dangerous. He’s just as likely to tie her to the stake as to protect her if he learns her true identity—and that’s nothing to what the witches will do if they find her. They still hunt her to complete the blood ritual she once escaped…a ritual that will end not only Lou’s life, but also Reid’s [woahh that's out of left field—and not in a good way].

 

Steeped in French folklore, LA DAME BLANCHE is a YA romantic fantasy that should appeal to readers of Sarah J. Maas and Naomi Novik. [Yayyy, I found comps! Sorta.] It is complete at 96,000 words with sequel potential.

 

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Shelby Mahurin

 

 

This is where it gets harder. We're forced to read between the lines a bit. At this point, I still haven't given the agent enough information about Lou. What does she want after the marriage? What stands in her way? What happens if she doesn't get it? In short—agency and stakes. There's also an imbalance between romance and plot. I focused too much on the former without giving the latter the page time it needed. Also, this is around the time I discovered Lesson #6 (don't tell your story—sell it).

 

I took the mentor's feedback seriously and wrote a third query before submitting to Pitch Wars. Though it still wasn't perfect, it did result in 4 out of 6 mentors requesting my full manuscript. Let's take a look:

 

 

Dear Mentors,

 

Life for nineteen-year-old witch Louise le Blanc is dangerous in Belterra, where the Church rules with an iron fist. Huntsmen roam the cities revered as holy men. Creatures of the occult burn without trial. And the Archbishop, the Church’s austere patriarch, revels in violence. But the Archbishop and his huntsmen aren’t the worst of Lou’s enemies: her own kin also hunt her, determined to use her unique blood to end the Church’s persecution. To survive, Lou hides her magic as a thief in the criminal underworld. But there is a difference between surviving and living—and Lou wants to live. With abandon. With passion. Without fear of martyrdom or the stake.

 

Her dreams are shattered when the huntsmen bust a robbery, and she catches the attention of the Archbishop’s golden boy, Reid Diggory. Despite mistaking her for an ordinary thief, Reid is hell-bent on bringing Lou to justice. When Lou tricks him into public scandal to relieve him of his holy post, the two are forced into an impossible situation—marriage.

 

Marriage to a huntsman could provide real protection from the witches—if she can convince him she isn’t one herself. The secret proves difficult to keep as Reid stokes a fire in her she never knew existed, and Lou dares to dream of passion once more. But her husband is still dangerous. He’s just as likely to tie her to the stake as protect her if he learns her true identity—and that’s nothing to what the witches will do if they find her. With enemies closing in—and more than her own life at stake—Lou must decide who she can trust before it’s too late…but she’s not the only one with a secret.

 

Steeped in French folklore, LA DAME BLANCHE is a YA romantic fantasy that should appeal to readers of Sarah J. Maas and Naomi Novik. It is complete at 100K words with sequel potential. Due to your love of fantasy and strong heroines full of agency, I believe it will be a good fit for your wish list.

 

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Shelby Mahurin

 

 

Getting better! Let's take a closer look at specifics:

 

 

Dear Mentors,

 

Life for nineteen-year-old witch Louise le Blanc is dangerous in Belterra, where the Church rules with an iron fist. [This first sentence packs a punch. It reveals Lou's age, her French-inspired name—which actually does some world-building—and her identity as a witch.] Huntsmen roam the cities revered as holy men. Creatures of the occult burn without trial. [These two sentences may not seem necessary, but they do a good job of revealing Lou's daily life. Also notice I replaced Chasseurs with huntsmen.] And the Archbishop, the Church’s austere patriarch, revels in violence. But the Archbishop and his huntsmen aren’t the worst of Lou’s enemies: her own kin also hunt her, determined to use her unique blood to end the Church’s persecution. [This is another critical sentence. We learn that not only is the Church after Lou for being a witch, but the witches themselves are too. We also learn why—because she can somehow end the Church's persecution. I intentionally left the how part vague. The query's purpose is to intrigue, not reveal everything.] To survive, Lou hides her magic as a thief in the criminal underworld. [There's another taste of her every day life before the inciting incident.] But there is a difference between surviving and living—and Lou wants to live. With abandon. With passion. Without fear of martyrdom or the stake. [And here's what she wants. If this still seems vague, it's because it is. There was something wrong with my story. I didn't see it until Jamie, my PW mentor, pointed it out later.]

 

Her dreams are shattered when the huntsmen bust a robbery, and she catches the attention of the Archbishop’s golden boy, Reid Diggory. [Here's our inciting incident. It's more specific this time, but it could still improve.] Despite mistaking her for an ordinary thief, Reid is hell-bent on bringing Lou to justice. When Lou tricks him into public scandal to relieve him of his holy post, the two are forced into an impossible situation—marriage. [I included the holy post bit to remind mentors/agents why him being involved in public scandal would be such a big deal, and also why marriage would be a practical solution for saving his reputation.]

 

Marriage to a huntsman could provide real protection from the witches—if she can convince him she isn’t one herself. [TENSION. DELICIOUS TENSION.] The secret proves difficult to keep as Reid stokes a fire in her she never knew existed, and Lou dares to dream of passion once more. [This line is weird. It serves its purpose in revealing the romance, but it still does little to tell us about plot. Like, what actually happens? I'll reiterate: there was something wrong with my story.] But her husband is still dangerous. He’s just as likely to tie her to the stake as protect her if he learns her true identity—and that’s nothing to what the witches will do if they find her. With enemies closing in—and more than her own life at stake—Lou must decide who she can trust before it’s too late…but she’s not the only one with a secret.

 

Steeped in French folklore, LA DAME BLANCHE is a YA romantic fantasy that should appeal to readers of Sarah J. Maas and Naomi Novik. It is complete at 100K words with sequel potential. Due to your love of fantasy and strong heroines full of agency, I believe it will be a good fit for your wish list. [Personalization is important in a query. Show the mentors/agents/whoever that you've done your homework.]

 

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Shelby Mahurin

 

 

I realize this blog post is now bordering a novel, but I promise we're almost there! With all the changes I made to LA DAME BLANCHE during PW—including adding another POV—my query obviously needed reworked. Again. Only this time, Jamie helped me, which made the whole process easier. (Notice I said easier, not easy. Query writing is never easy.) I mentioned a couple of times in my query notes that I just couldn't fix the "what does Lou want?" problem. Jamie pointed out why immediately: Lou didn't want anything for a good chunk of the book. She didn't have any goals after the marriage. She literally just sat around Chasseur Tower and fell in love with her enemy-turned-lover husband. THIS WAS A PROBLEM IN MY MANUSCRIPT. And guess what? My queries reflected it (Lesson #3).

 

In writing my final query, Jamie and I first crafted my pitch for the agent showcase:

 

For her sixteenth birthday, Louise le Blanc’s mother gave her three things—a sacrificial altar, a ritual knife, and a wicked scar. Lou’s death could end the ancient war between the Church and witches, but when she falls in love with one of the Church’s huntsmen, she’s forced to choose: her coven or her heart.

 

Then we recycled bits from my Pitch Wars query and wrote new bits to reflect Reid's POV. The final product is below. I'll tell you now that it's still not a perfect query. I'll also tell you that it resulted in 13 out of 16 agents requesting my full manuscript (81%). This all leads back to Lessons #5 and 6—queries are subjective, and their sole purpose is to get an agent to read your pages. If your query does that, it's a good query.

 

Without further delay, my final query:

 

 

Dear Ms. [Agent's Last Name],

For her sixteenth birthday, Louise le Blanc’s mother gave her three things: a sacrificial altar, a ritual knife, and a wicked scar. Lou’s death would have ended the ancient war between the Church and witches, but Lou refuses to become a martyr. Forsaking her coven, she escapes to the gloomy city of Cesarine and hides her magic as a thief in the criminal underworld. But life in Cesarine has its own dangers. Huntsmen roam the city revered as holy men. Witches burn without trial. And the Archbishop, the Church’s austere patriarch, revels in violence.

As a huntsman, Reid Diggory lives by one verse: thou shalt not suffer a witch to live. He's devoted his entire life to eradicating the occult and making his surrogate father, the Archbishop, proud. Finally given the chance to capture a witch of his own, Reid is devastated when a foul-mouthed thief thwarts him—and doubly devastated when she too disappears. Hell-bent on bringing her to justice, Reid vows she won't escape again. But when Lou tricks him into public scandal trying to avoid capture, the two are forced into an impossible situation—marriage. 

Marriage to a huntsman could provide real protection from the witches—if Lou can convince Reid she isn’t one herself. The secret proves difficult to keep as Lou begins practicing magic in secret within the heart of the Church, determined to prepare for her mother’s inevitable return. As time passes, however, Lou discovers yet another danger lurking: her own growing feelings for her husband. But Reid is still dangerous. He’s just as likely to tie her to the stake as defend her if he learns her true identity. With enemies closing in—and more than her own life at stake—Lou must decide who she can trust before it's too late…and she's not the only one with a secret. 

Steeped in French folklore, LA DAME BLANCHE is a YA fantasy complete at 103,000 words that should appeal to readers of Sarah J. Maas. In November 2017, LA DAME BLANCHE was showcased in Pitch Wars. Due to your Manuscript Wish List asking for high-concept novels with original magic systems and strong romance, I believe my manuscript could be a good fit.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Shelby Mahurin

 

 

Let's unpack this one

 

last

 

time:

 

 

Dear Ms. [Agent's Last Name],

For her sixteenth birthday, Louise le Blanc’s mother gave her three things: a sacrificial altar, a ritual knife, and a wicked scar. [MUCH hookier first sentence. Sell, sell sell!] Lou’s death would have ended the ancient war between the Church and witches, but Lou refuses to become a martyr [minimal backstory—just enough to grasp what's going on]. Forsaking her coven, she escapes to the gloomy city of Cesarine and hides her magic as a thief in the criminal underworld. But life in Cesarine has its own dangers. Huntsmen roam the city revered as holy men. Witches burn without trial. [The last four sentences paint a picture of Lou's daily life before the inciting incident—they also sell the overarching conflict.] And the Archbishop, the Church’s austere patriarch, revels in violence [introduction of villain].

As a huntsman, Reid Diggory lives by one verse: thou shalt not suffer a witch to live [introduction of second protagonist—also hooky]. He's devoted his entire life to eradicating the occult and making his surrogate father, the Archbishop, proud [glimpse of his daily life]. Finally given the chance to capture a witch of his own, Reid is devastated when a foul-mouthed thief thwarts him—and doubly devastated when she too disappears [inciting incident]. Hell-bent on bringing her to justice, Reid vows she won't escape again. [This is one sentence that doesn't technically need to be here, but it still serves as a transition.] But when Lou tricks him into public scandal trying to avoid capture, the two are forced into an impossible situation—marriage [HOOK, HOOK, HOOK]

Marriage to a huntsman could provide real protection from the witches—if Lou can convince Reid she isn’t one herself [STAKES. TENSION]. The secret proves difficult to keep as Lou begins practicing magic in secret within the heart of the Church, determined to prepare for her mother’s inevitable return. [And there it is—FINALLY. Lou has agency. She has a goal. She's doing something.] As time passes, however, Lou discovers yet another danger lurking: her own growing feelings for her husband [hint of romance]. But Reid is still dangerous [gasp]. He’s just as likely to tie her to the stake as defend her if he learns her true identity [stakes]. With enemies closing in—and more than her own life at stake [how am I just now seeing this pun?]—Lou must decide who she can trust before it's too late…and she's not the only one with a secret [INTRIGUE]

Steeped in French folklore, LA DAME BLANCHE is a YA fantasy complete at 103,000 words [LOL at that word count increase] that should appeal to readers of Sarah J. Maas. In November 2017, LA DAME BLANCHE was showcased in Pitch Wars. Due to your Manuscript Wish List asking for high-concept novels with original magic systems and strong romance, I believe my manuscript could be a good fit [personalization].

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Shelby Mahurin

 

 

Aaaaaand there you have it! The EVOLUTION OF MY QUERY. If you succeeded in finishing this blog post, I have no doubts you'll succeed in writing a stellar query. It's all about perseverance. Which you obviously have in spades. Go forth an conquer, friends. 

 

Happy writing!

x Shelby

 

 

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