Query Boot Camp Vol. 2: Thrillers
Here is our editor Rebecca with the second installment of Query Boot Camp, focusing on… thrillers! If you missed the first installment of QBC, or you’re not sure what this segment is all about, check out the introduction to Rebecca’s first post here.
I’m so excited to bring you this second installment of Query Boot Camp, and want to start by thanking you for the comments, shares, likes and support for Volume 1. A few of you expressed concern that without seeing the query letters directly, the article feedback was less meaningful. But to respect the privacy of our authors and their work, I’ll continue to “narrate” what I see and relay the important bits as needed. Think of all you can learn about a book from a thorough Amazon review; that’s the same idea we’re working with here.
Special thanks to the authors who submitted letters and excerpts for this month’s entry. Let’s get started!
Author 1: Adult Suspense/Thriller
The premise for Author 1’s novel is ultra-compelling: a car accident victim characterized by “an insane mix of pride, envy and opportunism” vows to destroy the perpetrator of said accident, ultimately leading to a “battle to the death out on the highway.” Cool.
The query has two major problems. To start, the opening 2/3 of the letter seems bent on convincing me how devastating car accidents can be, rather than selling me on the hook, which is buried four paragraphs in. I always encourage authors to bring the heat early; snag your reader’s interest with an opening line that really pops, then move on to details about title, genre, word count, and why you’re querying this specific agent.
The second big hurdle for Author 1’s query is word count—125,000 words, to be exact. There is no earthly reason why a debut in any genre should be more than 80-90k words. I know, I know—some blog you read convinced you SciFi/Fantasy can clock in above 100k, and I’m sure there are exceptions to the rule you’d love to hurl at me like bricks. But as a debut novelist, you have to prove your ability to write a tightly-woven, smartly-told story, and you should be able to do it in 80-90k words or fewer. A sprawling word count in Suspense/Thriller puts me on high alert for poor pacing—a death-knell in this genre.
So far, the letter is poorly organized and the word count is far too high, but I like the premise. I will read on, but cautiously… Uh-oh.
The opening line involves our protagonist waking up. As if that weren’t thrilling enough, when said character finally rolls out of bed, we get a play-by-play of his morning trip to the bathroom.
Not to be outdone, the following pages offer paragraph upon paragraph of italicized text, signaling our MC’s memory of the previous day’s events. Here’s a tip: If the most important thing to happen to your protagonist is recalling a memory, you are starting your book in the wrong spot. Make that memory the start of everything, in a proper scene that sets the stage against which the rest of the plot will unfold.
There are some other unfortunate troubles in these opening pages, not the least of which are exclamation points! All over the place! And badly formatted dialogue!! This author has a cracker-jack idea, and I suspect his writing of the villain is stronger than his portrayal of the hero, but all in all, the manuscript and letter need some in-depth revision before moving on to query.
PRO-TIP: Learn from example. Here are 22 of the best psychological thrillers that you can read to learn how to write a thriller.
Author 2: Adult SciFi Thriller
Buried deep in Author 2’s query is a really valuable pair of comp titles: “BLADE RUNNER meets FRANKENSTEIN”. While normally I’d encourage authors of adult fiction to cite comps from the past 10 years, both of these titles are canon, and seeing them side-by-side is evocative and interesting. I’d love to see this clever mash-up moved toward the beginning of the letter, along with other key facts like title, word count, and audience.
At present, almost the entire letter is a synopsis—and not a bad one, per se, but a misplaced one; generally we look for a 10- to 12- sentence synopsis in the second paragraph of a query.
The author shares the perfect amount of biographical information with a touch of cheek to demonstrate her personality, and mentions the manuscript has been “shortlisted twice for national unpublished novel competitions”.
Yet a problem persists: Despite all that the author does well, this query doesn’t read like the business document it has to be. Writing a query marks your transition from being “just an author” to “an author trying to enter the market”. I need this author to prove she’s aware of the industry, or I can’t trust her to be a good partner in the agent-author relationship. How can she prove it? For starters, she can detail title, genre, audience and word count: simple, essential pieces of information a query can’t be without.
This novel’s opening pages are crisp and clean, though the author falls into the common SciFi trap of capitalizing universe-specific words that don’t actually require it. If “hypercars and hoverboards” are as commonplace in this book’s world as regular cars are in ours, there’s no need to distinguish those words with capitalization; doing so makes the prose feel labored and the world-building shallow, even though it’s clear the world in this manuscript is richly imagined.
Query Boot Camp Recap
Including the right information in the right order is a key factor in writing a successful query. Your opening paragraph has to do a lot of heavy lifting, including hook an agent’s attention, communicate key details about your book, and articulate why you’ve selected this specific agent to query.
Have questions about the query tips in this article? Ask in the comments below, or find us on Twitter at @RFaithEditorial and @ReedsyHQ. And remember, if you want to submit your query + 10pp for possible use in a future installment of QBC, send your letter pasted and pages attached to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Learn more about Reedsy's Query Letter Review here!