My Successful Query

The Whole Query, And Nothing But The Query

Presented without comment (for now): My Successful query for my 2017 Pitch Wars book, THROWAWAY GIRLS.

Only ninety-five days stand between Caroline Lawson and graduation from her ultra-exclusive prep school. She’s desperate to leave behind her perfect student-athlete persona and escape the intolerant parents who won't hesitate to put her on lockdown. Especially if they discover their attempt to convert her into straightness didn't actually work. But the haunting absence of two girls—Willa, the girlfriend who bailed for California, and Madison, the friend who's gone missing—puts Caroline’s plans in jeopardy.  

The missing persons posters and limp yellow ribbons strangling every campus tree are a constant reminder of everything Caroline's lost, and her school performance suffers. When her favorite teacher, Mr. McCormack, threatens to speak to her parents about it, she fears he’ll spill everything he knows—the bar she wasn’t supposed to be in, and the girlfriend she wasn’t supposed to have. Suddenly, freedom feels as likely as Madison’s safe return. 

To salvage her future, Caroline blackmails Mr. McCormack into silence. Their confrontation attracts the attention of the detectives investigating Madison's disappearance, and when their questions lead to Mr. McCormack being put on “administrative leave,” it’s clear the cops think he's involved in Madison's case. 

Caroline investigates and discovers Madison isn’t the only missing girl—she’s just the only girl missing from the 1% side of the tracks. The only girl anyone’s bothered to look for. Until now. 

Caroline has to uncover the truth, or she’ll be the reason her teacher spends his life in a cinderblock cell—because every new discovery leads closer to the real connection between the missing girls, and it’s not Mr. McCormack. It’s Caroline.

THROWAWAY GIRLS is a 87,000-word YA mystery told from two points of view: Caroline, and [redacted because slightly, possibly spoilerish,] whose narratives intertwine to show both the disparities between their worlds, and the brutal truths they share.


Queries Deconstructed

The thing about queries (also books) is that they're subjective. If I sent that exact query to two people, odds are good they'd come back with different thoughts. In fact, I did send that query to a few people right before Pitch Wars, and I got several "do not touch a word" and a person who tore it to shreds.

So, take heart, querying writers everywhere-- THE PERFECT QUERY DOES NOT EXIST.

I planned to give you exact querying statistics, but it seems once you don't renew your premium Query Tracker membership, you can no longer view your statistics broken down by manuscript. So, I went through email and did my best. Also, these stats are a bit of an anomaly, because I sent very VERY few cold queries. Most of my queries were from pitmad requests, and then I held off querying while waiting for the Pitch Wars sub window to open.

But, by the numbers, I sent a total of 15 queries and received 11 full requests. Not bad. So, I'd say the query did its job. I sent the same version to mentors when submitting to Pitch Wars.

And then I sent nearly the same version to agents for Pitch Wars submissions! My entry did very well in the agent round, and I received several offers. Why am I being so vague about those numbers? Because some of them are public and easily viewable. But mostly because it doesn't matter. People who got lots of requests got agents. Some of them didn't. People who got fewer requests still got agents too. A higher request rate shows your query and first pages are working, it gives you better odds, but it's far from the whole story. It only takes one yes.

So, get your query to where you feel good about it. Have someone who has not read the book review it, and make sure they can follow your story. (That one is pretty important, because people who've read the book can fill in information without realizing it.) If you're able, send it to a freelance editor whose work you like. Then send out some test queries...or, submit to Pitch Wars. 😍

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But I Don't Know Where To Start

Ah yes. Welcome to writing. "I don't know where to start" is sort of an author mantra. 

The single best query-writing advice I've seen is that every query should answer these questions:

Who is your MC? What do they want and what do they have to do to get it?
What's standing in their way?
What happens in they fail?

That's it. Simple, right?

Editor note: If I were to write my query today, it would look slightly different, as we changed a bit of the focus during revisions with my agent. Revisions: they're only done when the book is in print.

Editor Note 2: Your query is not your whole book. It's just the "hook." That means, generally speaking, you're going to be dealing with only the beginning of the book. The VAST majority of this query is written based on events that happen well-within the first 50 pages of my book. Does that mean every query will be that way? No.

No rule is an absolute. However, if you find yourself writing your query, and much of it deals with events that happen halfway through your manuscript, it could be a sign you've started your book in the wrong spot. Why do I say that? Because if none of the stuff at the beginning of your book is critical enough to include in the query/is not necessary to explain the main conflict, it could be an indicator that it's not necessary, or is mostly setup that doesn't contribute to the story. But again, this is a general statement.

Let's put my query to the test, shall we?

Who Is My MC Anyway?

Only ninety-five days stand between Caroline Lawson and graduation from her ultra-exclusive prep school. She’s desperate to leave behind her perfect student-athlete persona and escape the intolerant parents who won't hesitate to put her on lockdown. Especially if they discover their attempt to convert her into straightness didn't actually work. But the haunting absence of two girls—Willa, the girlfriend who bailed for California, and Madison, the friend who's gone missing—puts Caroline’s plans in jeopardy.  

Who is my MC? Caroline Lawson. Perfect prep-school student-athlete. But that's not quite all. The word "persona" gives us more insight into who she is and how she feels about her current place in the world. Later in the paragraph, we get mention of her girlfriend, who's left for California, and a friend who's missing, and we know both those things haunt her.

Hopefully, we have a solid idea of who Caroline is by now, or at least enough to ground her character in the query.

What does she want/what does she have to do? This question, in simple form, should tell your MC's goal. Your MC absolutely, 100%, must have a clear and identifiable goal. For Caroline, she wants to get away from her shit parents, and she needs to graduate to do it.

What's Standing In Her Way?

Ummm....lots of things.

But the haunting absence of two girls—Willa, the girlfriend who bailed for California, and Madison, the friend who's gone missing—puts Caroline’s plans in jeopardy.  

The missing persons posters and limp yellow ribbons strangling every campus tree are a constant reminder of everything Caroline's lost, and her school performance suffers. When her favorite teacher, Mr. McCormack, threatens to speak to her parents about it, she fears he’ll spill everything he knows—the bar she wasn’t supposed to be in, and the girlfriend she wasn’t supposed to have. Suddenly, freedom feels as likely as Madison’s safe return. 

To salvage her future, Caroline blackmails Mr. McCormack into silence. Their confrontation attracts the attention of the detectives investigating Madison's disappearance, and when their questions lead to Mr. McCormack being put on “administrative leave,” it’s clear the cops think he's involved in Madison's case. 

There's a lot of bolding there. There are lots of things standing in Caroline's way, and as our story progresses, she gets additional goals, and the stakes get higher. 

What's standing in Caroline's way? To start, she's heartbroken. Her girlfriend dumped her and left for California, and her best friend is missing. Because of that, the persona she mentioned earlier is slipping. Her grades are suffering, and her teacher threatens to tell her parents.

This is bad. Mr. McCormack knows not just about her slipping grades, but about other things that will make absolutely sure her parents never let her leave the house.

So what's a girl to do? She blackmails her teacher to keep him quiet. Except, directly as a result of her actions (character agency) the cops see the confrontation, and now her teacher is in trouble (added complications and rising stakes.)

What Happens If She Fails?

Or, what are the stakes in your story? This is a spot where a lot of queries struggle. You must have stakes. Even quiet, character-driven stories have stakes. It doesn't have to be the end of the world, but it has to matter to your main character. It has to be something important enough to change them as the story unfolds. (That, my friends, is a character arc.)

Caroline investigates and discovers Madison isn’t the only missing girl—she’s just the only girl missing from the 1% side of the tracks. The only girl anyone’s bothered to look for. Until now. 

Caroline has to uncover the truth, or she’ll be the reason her teacher spends his life in a cinderblock cell—because every new discovery leads closer to the real connection between the missing girls, and it’s not Mr. McCormack. It’s Caroline.

What happens if Caroline fails? We actually have multiple stakes going on here. We have Caroline struggling to graduate so she can achieve her initial goal. We have the potential for her teacher being implicated in her friend's disappearance, but even more importantly, we have the issue of her missing friend. The cop's questioning gives Caroline the first hint the things Mr. McCormack knows about her, and/or the places she's been, may play a role in her friend's disappearance. That means she's now personally tied to, and perhaps involved in or responsible for, what happened to her friend. That moment gives her the impetus to go from concerned friend to active investigation.

And what she discovers is her friend is not the only girl to go missing, and no one else is looking for them. Except Caroline. (The "1% side of the tracks" line gives us an idea of the themes that come into play in the book.) 

So, not only is Caroline the only one looking in the right places, she's the only one who knows what the right places are, because she is the connection between all the missing girls.

If Caroline fails, not only does she not graduate, not only does she fail to get away from parents she desperately needs to leave, but she'll also fail to save her friend, and all the other girls like her. 

The Housekeeping

THROWAWAY GIRLS is a 87,000-word YA mystery told from two points of view: Caroline, and [redacted because slightly, possibly spoilerish,] whose narratives intertwine to show both the disparities between their worlds, and the brutal truths they share.

This is where you write your title, your word count, your genre. I used this space to point out this was a dual POV manuscript as well. On some versions, I used comp books, and this is a great place to list those as well. 

I also had a few editors who'd expressed interest in seeing the book when it was available. Absolutely mention those somewhere in the query if you've gotten those requests.

And if you're curious about the redacted part and how a POV could possibly be spoilery--it's because the POV character is never named, (don't ask why I insist on making writing so complicated) so I had to use a description of sorts.

Final Verdict?

Is it perfect? Absolutely not. 

Say it with me: THE PERFECT QUERY DOES NOT EXIST!

But, I think it works! It answers the most important questions--it gives my MC, their goal, and the stakes. It sets up the premise. It has enough intrigue (I hope!) to get people to want to read more.

And that matters more than anything. The sole purpose of a query is to get agents (or mentors) to want to read more.

If you can do that, it's pretty damn close to perfection.

 


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Andrea ContosComment