Launching Query Boot Camp
One of the number-one frustrations we hear from writers is that their query letters go unanswered or elicit only form rejections. For authors determined to land an agent, this can feel especially disheartening--but Reedsy wants to help.
We’re launching a new initiative here on the blog: Query Boot Camp. Every month, two brave authors (who shall remain anonymous), will volunteer their unsuccessful query letters and opening pages for review by Reedsy advisor and editor Rebecca Heyman.
Rebecca’s clients have landed partnerships at D4EO Literary Agency, New Leaf Literary & Media, the Jennifer Lyons Agency, Miller & Browne, Donadio & Olson, Literary Arts Representatives and more, and now Reedsy is bringing you the tips and wisdom that helped them succeed...for free.
Why Query Boot Camp?
First, if you’re an author who has queried unsuccessfully, we want you to have an opportunity to get fresh eyes on your agency submission. But more importantly, we believe that authors can learn a lot from each other. Every manuscript and letter is unique, but certain practical guidelines can help you avoid the pitfalls that lead to unanswered queries.
Query Boot Camp is a community learning initiative. We’re here to help you shine brighter and get better results. We ask that comments be kept positive and that you help us foster a feeling of support for the authors awesome enough to let Rebecca evaluate their query materials. With that, and with special thanks to our first submitters, let’s get started!
Author 1: Contemporary YA
Author 1 is one of the rarest creatures in the writing wild: The pages are among the strongest I’ve seen, but the letter is a downright disaster. Let me elaborate on the good news first. Chapter 1 opens on our MC reluctantly dragged into the spotlight when his brother has a seizure in the middle of the school cafeteria. As he’s helping manage the situation, Cute New Girl arrives. The author beautifully articulates the emotional and physical complexity of the scene, and the writing oozes authenticity, voice, and movement.
Now, to the query.
The first sentence of a query letter is called the “hook”, and should do just that: hook an agent’s interest. But the first sentence in Author 1’s letter talks about the agent’s web site guidelines instead of serving the story. The remainder of the paragraph elaborates on awards the author has received for this work’s first chapter; that information belongs in the bio paragraph. The synopsis contains several typos, and leads with a troubling statistic about word count (the book is too short). The bio rightly focuses on the author’s publication credits, but feels self-congratulatory. Finally, there is no need to include your photograph in your signature.
How could we fix Author 1’s letter to ensure an agent will read on far enough to peruse the fantastic opening pages? Start with the hook. Ask a dynamic question (e.g., “What happens when...?”) or set up the agent’s expectations by using a thoughtful comp. A comp (“comparable title”) is a book, movie or TV show that shares a similarity with your book. Stylistically, Author 1 should feel comfortable comp-ing YA stalwart Jandy Nelson (yes, the pages are that good); it would also be useful to find a comp about a sibling pair where one sibling suffers from an illness or disorder.
But even if Author 1’s query opened with a strong hook and a couple great comps, we would still hit a road block at word count. Clocking in under 40,000 words, this book is simply too short. I’d recommend soliciting critical feedback to determine where and how to expand this beautifully written novella into a more industry standard-length manuscript.
Author 2: Adult Speculative Fiction (SciFi)
Like Author 1, Author 2 misses a huge opportunity by opening the letter with a “Hello, my name is...” introduction instead of a hook. While we get a good comp title, DIVERGENT, the author misspells Veronica Roth’s last name. The rest of the first paragraph is devoted to Author 2’s (not good) marketing plan.
The next paragraph is the synopsis, but it’s set off with an unnecessary header. While reading, I was instantly struck by similarities to THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU—a comp title that says more about this plot than the entire first paragraph of the query. Author 2 should definitely consider reframing the first paragraph around a hook like “THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU meets DIVERGENT in [TITLE OF WORK], which follows [MC name] as he joins the ranks of a clandestine organization whose divine influence is secretly being harnessed for sinister ends.” Already, that single sentence tells me I’ll be following the MC through some kind of interesting initiation process, and of course the movie reference gives me a strong through-line of suspense and action.
There’s no bio paragraph here, probably because this is Author 2’s first book. But don’t let that prevent you from including some key information about yourself. You don’t have to pretend to have publishing credits, and you don’t have to feel bad if you don’t. Keep it short and sweet, and you’ll be fine. Finally, while thanking an agent for her time is always wise, do not ask for referrals or favors of any kind in case of a “pass”. An agent doesn’t make money reading through the slush, and doesn’t owe you anything—especially more time.
Author 2’s opening pages reveal that the book actually starts in the wrong place. The best opening for this novel is actually in the middle of page 5, when one of our characters forgets to go to work—and goes a little crazy. The writing here is well-paced and compelling, and draws us easily into a world that feels familiar, but slightly eerie and strange. Since I have questions about the structure of the book this early, and because the manuscript is a little on the long side for a debut, I would recommend soliciting editorial feedback for structure, continuity, pacing and other story elements.
Boot Camp Recap
A query letter is a business document. It starts with a hook, details the facts about your manuscript (title, genre, word count), then elaborates on the plot as succinctly and specifically as possible. It demonstrates your working knowledge of both your book’s genre/comps and the agent’s specific tastes. The query is courteous, humble, useful, confident and essential.
Knowing when you’re ready to query and writing a great letter can be difficult. At Reedsy, we have some of the industry’s best editors just waiting to help you polish your manuscript and query letter; in fact, “query letter review” is now a searchable service on our marketplace. You can also submit your query and first 10 pages to firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to be considered for a future installment of Query Boot Camp.
Remember, the #1 way to secure agency representation is to write a great book!
Want to learn more about Query Letters and how to apply to Reedsy's Query Bootcamp? Click here!
Query Boot Camp Vol. 2, focused on Thrillers, is out! Have a read here.