I love this contest. This is my third year as a mentor, and each time, it's a glimpse into the agent side of this business: both the joy that comes from reading through the slush and finding stories that demand you read more and the frustration when a story sounds like it might pull you in, but the query fails to deliver what it must to entice you to read more.
As part of the run-up to Pitch Wars, I offered a free query or first-page critique to writers who ordered a new copy of Becoming Jinn or preordered Circle of Jinn (an offer that still stands: email me a copy of your receipt at email@example.com). Between these critiques and the Pitch Wars submissions, I've read more than 100 queries in the past month.
I found myself giving the same advice for revising and polishing queries and figured it was time for a refresher.
1. Give the 3 C's: character, conflict, consequence. Sounds simple, right? It's not. But think of drafting the query pitch in three paragraphs, each one centered on one of those C's. In paragraph 1, lay the groundwork for the character and the world of your story. In paragraph 2, set up the main conflict--the character's story problem that will guide the course of the novel. In paragraph 3, amp this up and take it a step further, giving us the stakes and consequences. These are essential.
2. Tell one main plot thread. Even if you have many subplots and layers, the space of a query only allows for the telling of the main plot. Cut the extraneous and give us a story problem and conflict we can follow. Don't bring up a topic that needs explaining unless you can explain it. Even if it is core to the story, if it's not core to what you are telling us in the query pitch, cut it. We trust that there will be more depth to the story itself. But the query isn't the place to tell every subplot and name every single character (in fact, try to keep your characters to three named ones; it's too confusing and too many people to keep track of otherwise).
3. Avoid "movie trailer" language. "It's a battle of a lifetime"; "Will Mary finally open herself or lose the love of her life forever?"; "XYZ will change the world"; "one woman's journey"; etc. These grandiose statements are cliche and more than that, they don't tell us anything specific about your plot--and that's what a query needs to do. Give us the stakes and consequences specific to your character and your story and eliminate the hyperbole (especially in the form of a question! What if you ask a question about our interest in following this character and we answer "no". Oops. Don't open yourself up to that risk).
4. Give specifics. Building on above, you need to give us details about your characters and plot. Avoid generic language. We need to know exactly what is going on in your plot because that's what differentiates your story from all the rest. Don't say "she'll lose everything she's ever loved". Tell us what it is she loves that she'll lose.
5. Don't apologize for your writing, don't be too familiar, don't be "cutesy." Above all, this is still a professional relationship and you need your query to reflect that. There's no need to say this is your first novel and so you are ready for feedback or for the agent to rip your work apart. Stand behind your work. If you won't, who will? Avoid being too familiar. Be sure to add personalization so the agent knows why you queried them, but keep it on a professional level. And don't worry if your bio is short. Don't pump it up with cute facts about you or your pets or children. It may be cute in query 1, but by the time the agent is reading query 100, he or she is sick of it, and it won't earn you extra points to say you wanted to be a writer since age 3. Most writers have. Only put in your bio things related to writing or the concept of your book (if you are a nurse and writing a story set in a hospital, for example). It's okay if that section is short.
6. Polish, polish, polish. This is your first impression. You don't want to meet your boyfriend's mom with spinach in your teeth and you don't want to present a query with typos or grammatical errors to an agent. This is the first time they "meet" you. Make sure your query is polished in every way. Have many sets of eyes. Hire an editor. It's worth it. (And I say this as someone who offers copyediting services but who also paid for her own query critique and editing.)
Queries are hard, but they are your foot in the door, and they have a lot of heavy lifting to do--so do you in writing them.
I offer query critique services as well as manuscript consulting. Visit my website for more details.