Nathan Bransford, Author


Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Secret Strength of Killer Queries: Specificity

People often say to me: "Listen, agent person (they don't actually call me this). You agent blogging people always talk about what not to do in a query, why not talk about what people should do in a query!"

The people have spoken. They want things they should do.

And here's what I think is one of the very most important thing to do in a query: be as specific as possible. Allow me to be even more specific: be as specific as possible about the right things.

When I say "be specific" I don't mean that we need to know every character's name and the name of every city and place in the Realm of Unpronounceable Cities and Places. In other words, I don't think it's a good idea for your query to read along the lines of, "Morfor travels to the Uwn'uim Square in the town of Zxcimist in order to meet his brother Phoidum."

When I say be specific I also don't mean that we need to get bogged down in tangential details either, like ages and hair colors and other things characters are doing if they don't play a major role in the story.

Instead I mean this: be as specific as possible about the plot.

I get so many queries that read (literally, though this is made up for the purposes of this post) like this:

Character Name is living peacefully in Hometown. But then a life-changing event occurs that changes everything. Secrets are revealed that turn her life upside down. Character Name faces grave danger as she embarks on a quest to save her people. This novel is filled with humor and passion and suspense and romance, and there's a shocking twist that leaves the reader breathless.

Being vague leaves an agent with so many questions: What are the secrets? What is the life-changing event? What is the danger she's facing? What happens that is funny and suspenseful and romantic?

When all of these key details are kept hidden the query ends up sounding like... well, pretty much every novel ever written. And chances are an agent is going to move on to the next query.

Replace that vagueness with key details and suddenly the query comes alive. Let's try that query about Character Name again, hmm?

Angelina lives with her cats in Moonville, an outer space colony known more for its knitting festivals than anything resembling excitement. But when Moonville is invaded by cat-eating space monkeys, Angelina learns that her cats aren't ordinary cats: they are actually hyper-intelligent feline assassins who can kill their enemies with a flick of a paw. And they need a leader. Angelina has to leave her knitting behind to defeat the space monkeys, and an intrepid and handsome space explorer named Brad may hold the key.

I think when writers face the daunting task of condensing their work down to a few sentences it's tempting to simply say "shocking secrets are revealed" rather than trying to sum up in just a line or two what are, in the novel, complicated and nuanced events. I know it's tricky to do this.

Also, there's a balance between being specific and being concise. You don't want to be so specific that you're boring down to what the character ate for lunch on the way to slay the space monkeys. But it's utterly, utterly necessary to give the agent some glimpse into what actually happens.

As always, specificity wins.






117 comments:

Basil Zyllion said...

Hey! That sounds like my plot!

Ink said...

I'm taking the space monkeys in the tournament. They play above the rim.

Anonymous said...

Ugh! I just sent you a query not five minutes before you posted this. I hope it's specific enough.

J.L. Martin said...

Ha. I love this example. Thanks for posting it.

Susan Wingate said...

I want to by the cat-eating space monkey book!

Surly Jason said...

I like this new positive "do this" more that the negative "don't do that". And I like when I like things.

JohnO said...

Morfor is known as Mofo to his friends.

Carolina Valdez Miller said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Debra L. Schubert said...

"hyper-intelligent feline assassins" - Aha! So that's what my cats are!

Seriously, isn't it amazing how this little letter we call a "query" can be dissected in a thousand different ways, and still be so difficult to get "right?"

My agent asked me to write a query and synopsis before she begins working on her pitch letter. I almost had a coronary. I thought I was done with that, but no - the fun continues...

Sue Eves said...

Excellent! And thereby showing what's unique about your story - I like the Unpronounceables - I think your onto something else.
Thanks for sharing your KQ tips!

vbtremper said...

Since you boiled your helpful query advice down to one word, here's one word from me: Thanks.

Your word really says it all.

David said...

I'd ask for a partial, based on that query. (The reworked one.)

Stephanie said...

OMG, I think you're the funniest person I've ever read!

Stephanie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bane of Anubis said...

Brilliant... I'm taking the killer cats.

Sam said...

I agree with Surly Jason.

Explicating good query form is quite useful for those of us about to query.

Moira Young said...

Amen.

Thanks for this. It's very easy to want to write the query like jacket copy. There's a big difference between trying to catch a potential reader's attention, and trying to garner an agent's interest.

So will Angelina's story be your next venture after the Jacob Wonderbar series?

Elise Logan said...

Great advice. And, yes, now I want a book about cat-eating space monkeys. Darn you.

But what about for non-fiction? Can we have a "do" for non-fiction?

Tracy said...

Feline assassins vs. space monkeys? I love it! (There are also a few colorful adult jokes that could be made out of that battle, but I'm keeping it PG)

I think the hardest part for us writers is realizing it's okay to not be so secretive about the key parts to the story. When we're writing, we try so hard to take the reader on a fun journey without making it so obvious where the story is going as to have them grow bored with it. Then when it gets to the query process it feels like, "if I tell you all the really good parts, why would you sit through the whole story?"

writeidea said...

I hope you wrote that book. It sounds funny.

Kristin Laughtin said...

Yes! I see a lot of general examples of this on blogs like Query Shark. I find it a bit annoying to read "But when her major life-changing shocking secret is revealed" and still have no clue what the secret actually is. (Perhaps these people are trying to follow cover copy too closely, and fear revealing the secret as a spoiler. Spoil us!)

Double points for working in space monkeys.

Susan Quinn said...

I am so not showing that book to my cats. I don't want to give them any ideas.

Seriously, when does Jacob Wonderbar come out? Because you're a funny man, Mr. Bransford.

MeganRebekah said...

LOL! All I could think of was Laser Cats from the SNL skit with Andy Samberg.

Myrna Foster said...

You should write that book. I'd read it.

Thank you for being helpful.

worstwriterever said...

I expect to be reimbursed for the damage done to my keyboard after I sputtered into laughter.

Dripping, sopping corn flakes and electronics do not mix.

Rick Daley said...

I would totally read the monkey-killing space cat book.

TraciB said...

Thanks for the pointers, Nathan. I'm ready to start querying for my novel, and your wildly entertaining example gives me an idea about how to proceed. (No cat-eating space monkeys in my book, sadly, but there is kudzu, a corpse and a pumpkin cannon...)

Linda Godfrey said...

I think you have invented a sparkling new genre, Nathan; craft cozy fantasy! Must be a market.

Ulysses said...

"Angelina learns that her cats aren't ordinary cats: they are actually hyper-intelligent feline assassins who can kill their enemies with a flick of a paw."

... Um... but that IS an ordinary cat.

And I'll take Ninja Cats by 5 points. Their point guard is a rebound genius, and I heard that the starting center for the Space Monkeys is out for five days with Hairballs-by-proxy (consequence of an all-feline diet).

annerallen said...

What a fun and useful post. Being postive IS the best way to get your message across.

JohnO said...

@Rick: It's actually cat-eating space monkeys, but I think Nathan could pitch it either way. Maybe a choose your own adventure?

Anonymous said...

I hope your wife appreciates how adorable you are.

Anonymous said...

When I started reading this, it reminded me of some of the "stories" read in my writing group. Those "stories" did not have a plot. They did not have a problem. I wonder how many queries you receive that are not detailed because the book is missing a plot.

Livia said...

You know, I actually wanna read that manuscript. Cat assassins? space monkeys? Please send me the first 3 chapters. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

It seems like the key is to still have SOMETHING that will make the agent want to read some of it, right? In your example, some new guy may have the key to fixing everything, that's about perfect. So, it's good to leave something unanswered, otherwise why bother reading the book, right?

When I queried my first book, I found out that I had revealed every bit of information, including the ending , and that was a big no-no. I really wanted them to know the ending wasn't what you'd predict, but maybe I should have written, "The ending isn't what you'd predict."

Seems like a tough balance.

Mira said...

Okay, there is something seriously wrong with me. Why, out of all of that, am I most left with this desire to start calling you "agent person."

OMG, I have to call you that. I just do. I do, I do.

So, agent person (!!!!!!), thank you so much for this post on what to do, a post I think is totally on target. I've read some of the queries on your forum and at Rick D's query slushpile, and there are some that do exactly this!!! I don't know how you knew that, you must go to the forum and look at queries there too, because this is great advice.

And I'll echo the other posters, that book is the funniest thing I've ever seen. You must write that.....agent person.

T. Anne said...

Morfor, Phoidum? It's OK Nathan, I use word ver to name my characters too. ;)

I think as writers we find it difficult to condense all the complexities of our novels into a single paragraph. This shows why it's very important to get it done and do it right. Doesn't hurt to make it sound exciting either. Great post.

SammyStewart said...

Space Monkeys! Brilliant!

D. G. Hudson said...

Thanks for elaborating on what does work in a query. It's difficult to reduce so many words and thoughts into a brief summary of the story.

In the meantime, it also forces me to analyze other elements of the novel (theme, story arc, etc.) That helps me in trying to achieve specificity for the query, and the short synopsis.

Thanks, Nathan, for keeping up the writing posts (especially for those of us not sports-minded), while running your basketball challenge.

Nathan Bransford said...

anon-

Good point - I think it's okay to leave the ending a mystery in the query, but everything else in the plot (inciting incident, complications, character arc) should be included.

Kristi said...

Great - I was trying to keep my space monkey book under wraps and now everyone will be writing about them. Maybe I'll make them vampire space monkeys instead. :)

Cashier said...

Thanks for the advice and example.

jjdebenedictis said...

Focusing on the story's inciting incident and then outlining a few key complications--to give the agent an idea of how big a story will bloom out of the premise--is probably the most economical way (in terms of space on the query page) to get that agent interested in reading more.

Boy, that was a long sentence.

Marsha Sigman said...

I would actually read that.

Margaret Yang said...

I have read on other agent blogs, "Make your query read like back-of-book jacket copy."

And then they wonder why they get queries like your first example.

Your advice? Way better.

J.J. Bennett said...

This post was so.... helpful Nathan! Thank you...thank you... thank you!

I think writers don't want to give too much away and that's their downfall. We all like to experiance the story for ourselves, however nobody will experiance it if you can't get the darn thing published.

Again many thanks...

Author Guy said...

How about I take your query and write a novel about it?

Sandy Shin said...

Thank you! This post is very, very helpful! *goes to specific-ify query*

Clara said...

I´m just going to say that was the best god damn story idea I´ve ever read lol.

Sarah said...

Oh, shades of Dave Barry! You should definitely have an occasional Ask Mr. Agent Person post.

Gwen Stickle said...

Thank you for the post.

Kristin said...

You used the random name generator didn't you?! Hilarious query, Nathan! Great post.

Bethany said...

Dear Agent-Type-Person,
Thanks for giving me a chance to review your opinion on specificity. However, I detest cats. I'm gonna pass.
Hugs and bubbles!

R.S. Lorée said...

When do I get to read about Angelina, and more importantly, does she use her knitting needles like the weapons of a kung-fu master?

Laraine Herring said...

I use your blog as a teaching tool in my advanced creative writing classes. You validate what I tell them (they never believe me!) ;-) and you do it with style!
Thank you!

Angie Muresan said...

Nathan, you sure are hilarious! Why don't you write a book?

Grimmster24 said...

I have a cousin who lives in Uwn'ium. Hm, small world.

KIDDING, of course, Nathan. Thank you for posting. Your advice is ALWAYS helpful.

Cat Moleski said...

Yes! "be specific about the right things" I don't think a lot of new writers get this. Thanks for making it clearer.

Thermocline said...

Weird. I've been reading your blog for a while and I thought monkeys always won with you. Now it's specificity? Great. Just great.

Katrina said...

I'm new to your blog and love it. I was wondering ... have you done any blog entries about what happens when your agent starts pitching your book? Mine is about to start, and I'd love to know how that works, from an agent's point of view.

Terry said...

This was immensely helpful. Thank you. It cleared up a lot for me.

Em-Musing said...

Ah yes, specificity. It works in all areas of life.

G said...

Thanks for the tip. I know the last time I did querying, they were vague as all get out.

lora96 said...

Knitting festivals. I love your laugh-out-loud synopsis. Very illustrative.

Regan Leigh said...

"Good point - I think it's okay to leave the ending a mystery in the query, but everything else in the plot (inciting incident, complications, character arc) should be included."

Thanks for this added comment. I've often wondered if the ending can be left a mystery in a query.

Moses said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Moses said...

Queries, yadda yadda.

Queries, yadda yadda.

I just want to read the space monkey book.

Joanna said...

That how-not-to-do-it sounds like one of mine. Your lastest positive advice is well taken. Gotta' go now, it's back to the synopsis / query writing pit for me!
Joanna van der Gracht de Rosado

Moses said...

Nathan, I've heard agents disagree about whether book jacket copy is a good model for queries. Your thoughts about this? Thanks very much.

Andrea Franco-Cook said...

Thank you for the helpful information Nathan. I bookmarked this post for future reference.

Nathan Bransford said...

moses-

It's a start, but I tend to think queries are somewhat of a different beast. Queries are shorter, more to the point, and need to reveal more about the plot. Blurbs also tend to use review-type words (heartbreaking, hilarious, poignant etc.) and those don't really belong include in a query.

Susan Quinn said...

Nathan -
Have you seen this?

The End of Publishing As We Know It

S.D. said...

I starred this in Google Reader :D

Ink said...

Susan,

That rocked. Very nicely done, indeed.

Martin said...

This is why it's impossible to write the "perfect" query, or even just have one query while shopping a book. If you read Noah Lukeman's ebook on queries, he says the EXACT opposite. He says to him, the point of a query is to generate all those questions you listed in the beginning of your blog post so the agent will want to ask to see more, be that synopsis, partial or full. We're helpless no matter what we do or how much research we drill through. I think I prefer the old transom approach -- tie a rock to your manuscript, toss it in and run. About as effective.

Nicole L Rivera said...

Thanks for the advice. I feel like the query is such a daunting task. Your post finally made all the stuff I've been reading on how to query finally click. Awesome :)

Anonymous said...

My perfect query letter just got thrown into the trash can. At least I was laughing as it disappeared into the deep dark can.

Nathan Bransford said...

martin-

I think the trick is to get the agent to ask "What happens next" questions rather than "What in the world is happening" questions.

Martin said...

Oh, I'm not disagreeing. And I wasn't trying to take shots at Mr. Lukeman (who's book "The First Five Pages" is a must read, IMO). My point was more that when you can find such diverging opinions between obvious professionals (in this case yourself and Mr. Lukeman) then there obviously is no "right" way to do it. It's a crapshoot. Just my opinion, of course.

justajo said...

Hmm. Oops. Not specific.

Mira said...

Martin, well, I see it differently.

Just write an extremely good book. That's the one right way. That's not a crapshoot - an extremely good book will find its way to publication, one way or another, if the author is persistent.

A good query is the icing, and it makes the cake look delicious and pretty, but if a cake is good enough, it's yummy even without icing.

Anonymous said...

Your next contest should take a well known movie, like Nemo or something, and have us write a query for it. It would be interesting to see the different views on the same story.

Nick said...

Space monkeys = Jacob Wonderbar sequel? Hrm...

JTShea said...

The first Russian in space was a dog. So the USA responded by sending up a cat? No, actually a space monkey.

Marilyn Peake said...

Love your example query. LOL. That's hilarious. Great details, although I want to know: What is Angelina knitting? :)

SAMUEL PARK said...

One good way to learn how to query is by reading the descriptions of books that sold (Deals) in Publishers Marketplace. Agents often draw from the sold book's original query to create that blurb (which is usually what he/she passed on to the editor before the sale). If you read those queries, you may notice they're not incredibly earth-shatteringly original, but always of-the-moment and very specific.

ephemerling said...

Nathan,

Thanks for the advice. I have seen basically the same thing before, but not exactly this way. When the time comes for me to query, I will keep it in mind.

John Jack said...

I find composing a pitch either before or after free writing allows me to determine what's important to a story and what's not. Composing a synopsis either before or after also provides me with a filtering mechanism for narrowing focus.

Regardless, for me, a pitch is like an opening, it must do one thing, establish rapport between the text and an audience.

An example pitch's log line for _The Great Escape_: Allied prisoners plan a mass escape from a high-security Nazi POW camp populated with notorious escape artists.

Anonymous said...

Or.... how about this:

MeyowYum is Cat-eating Space Monkey whose planet was recently destroyed by the hyper-intelligent feline assassins...also known as The HIFS. Armed only with her blunt teeth and sharp wits, MeyowYum must find a new home for her dying family. But standing in her way is a strange yarn-spinning human and her overly-emotional, protective boyfriend.

~John Reason.
Cowardly anonymous blogger, and defender of the Cat-eating Space Monkeys.

Donna Hole said...

You're wasting your talents on Jacob Wonderbar. Now, get busy on that cat-eating space-monkey book.

BTW: when is your book surfacing for sale?

Thanks for the insider advice Nathan.

........dhole

Anonymous said...

Good advice. I'd like to encourage agent-persons to spend the 30 seconds to 1 minute extra it takes to read the two-page synopsis I included (it gets very specific).

A good agent will read the synopsis.

Nathan Bransford said...

anon-

True enough, but it's the author's job to make the agent want to read the synopsis.

mkcbunny said...

I just went through this very revelation about my query.

Despite my years of studying queries and reading agent blogs, and the fact that I ran the query past several people before sending, it suffered from vagueness and arty presentation.

When I submitted the query in an online forum those folks gave it to me straight, and their big criticism was lack of specificity. ("Sounds great, but what does it mean?)

The interesting line in reworking the query was the one between, "I'd like to hear a little more about A and B" and "I don't understand what's happening with A and B." I found that if I told a bit too much, it generated too many questions about what was happening. But if I told just the right amount of information, it was specific enough to generate interest in knowing more. That seemed to me to be the right place to leave it: with the reader (agent) wanting more.

Now I am ready to being querying again.

Claire Dawn said...

I love that story idea. I hope that's what your next book is about. Cat-eating space monkeys RULE!

I just wrote a query for fun. (I know, what kinda sicko writes a query for fun?)

My novel is only on the first edit, so it's at least 6 months from ready. I'm thinking if I edit my query every other month til the novel's ready, my query should be kicking some space-monkey butt by the time I send it out!

K.L. Brady said...

That is a great post. I've helped a few authors with their queries the main issue I have is always pulling out the specifics. It's like they generalize because they're afraid of giving away the plot, but if you do so to the point where the story sounds bland you haven't saved yourself from anything...except maybe a request for a partial or full. I'm going to forward the link to some folks, and say, "See? Told ya so!"

jongibbs said...

This is excellent!

Thanks for sharing, Nathan :)

Kimberly Kincaid said...

I'm starting a knitting festival- anyone else in?

You don't think the feline assassins will find out, do you?!

Seriously...great advice, Nathan. In a world where agents receive hundreds of queries weekly, we really *do* have to stand out (in a good, pronounceable way) in order to grab attention.

Gotta go. The space monkeys are coming, and they're MAD... ;)

R.S. Lorée said...

Martin: I think that's the way it is with everything in writing. There are "rules" you can follow, but none of them are unbreakable. I think you should only try to bend the rules if you know the rules first. Some of the best authors step outside the box, but when doing so, they must be extra careful that they do it well.

And I second that Noah Lukeman's "The First Five Pages" is a must read for all writers.

Valerie said...

Thank you for the specific advice on writing a specific query!

ryan field said...

I'm going to save this post for the next time I have to tackle back cover copy.

GhostFolk.com said...

You'll have to excuse me if I am a little bit breathless.

CONGRATULATIONS! I just got out of the acquistions meeting and we are offering a three-book deal for the MOONVILLE series, provided the author will provide a minimun of four knitting patterns per volume and will agree that no cats will be killed in any of the three continuing stories and that the cat-eating space monkeys will be rounded out to full characters showing positive trends and friendly acts at least among their own kind.

Potential corporate sponsorship all requires that the author agree to allow the publisher to insert a brandname cat food of its own choosing. We look forward to hearing back from you in five minutes.

Nathan Bransford said...

ghostfolk-

ACCEPTED. Purina here I come.

Jacqueline said...

I love space monkeys!

Wanda B. Ontheshelves said...

I was talking to my friend about heaven the other day -

- or rather, how when you're a kid and your pet dies, adults tell you, "Patches is in cat heaven now," "Tippie's in dog heaven." Well, you could have atheist parents, but that's not the point I'm trying to make.

So I was prefacing everything I had to say on the subject with "this sounds stupid, but" and "I know this is dumb," etc.

I feel that way sometimes about what happens in my novel. Like I still want to shield the specifics, because maybe it sounds stupid or is dumb, even though it is meaningful to me.

Oh well.

Sheri Larsen said...

Spastic cats and helmet-wearing, killer monkeys...Right on! Love the function of this post--to the point. Thanks, Nathan.

Tambra said...

My favorite line: The cats can kill with a flick of paw.

Thank you for this post on queries.

Best.
Tambra Kendall
www.tambrakendall.com

Bmadsen said...

So.............Is there a space monkey killer kitten book? Cause that was strangely interesting....lemme know if you come up with it


Great post!

Katrina L. Lantz said...

Nathan, thank you for continuing to write helpful tips on how-to-query. As one who has been politely rejected a lot (including once by you), I find your insights helpful as I try to learn the ins and outs of this complicated publishing world.

Looking forward to reading your YA book. It sounds delightfully bizarre. (How's that for a cliche book review?)

christina said...

Give the juicy stuff!!!!

Erin Edwards said...

I'm late to comment - but I just had to, because I think this is just about the best blog about what an agent actually *does* want that I have ever seen.

Thanks!

Melanie Avila said...

This is great! I hear 'be more specific' from a lot of agents (on their blogs) but rarely does anyone actually show what you mean by that.

Hmm... show don't tell rears its ugly head YET AGAIN. *scurries off to edits*

Aaron said...

I did notice, however, that the handsome Brad may hold the key, but what key and how?

That's a line I've had difficulty facing, and find many people with different opinions on. Yes, we want to be specific, but do we want to 100% give away the ending? Won't that kill your connection to the novel if you actually get to reading it?

So, based off your example - specifics, specifics, but maybe leave a couple of things explained in plot-points but not 100% revealed? Mine's a mystery (kind of) so with a book like mine, it just feels like I'm killing the pace/point of the book by taking it so specific right through to the end.

Deborah said...

Thanks, Nathan. I enjoyed your whimsy in example and your specific instructions on what to do. I hope space monkeys visit me soon. There are too many cats in my neighborhood and my little dog is outnumbered. Maybe he is keeping a secret?

C. K. Bryant said...

I have a question. About 6 months ago, I signed a contract with a publisher for my adult fantasy. After going through some major edits and rewrites, the publisher decided to make some financial cutbacks and dropped two of their new authors. I was one of them. :( My book was only days away from going to the printer for the ARCs. It's ready. Should I mention this when I query an agent, or will it work against me?

Thanks for your time, Nathan.

Nathan Bransford said...

c.k.-

I'd mention it.

C. K. Bryant said...

Thanks Nathan.

Anonymous said...

I know this is old, but @ Mira, a good book doesn't matter if nobody looks at it because you haven't come up with the right pitch.

I swear, it's harder to write than the novel, sometimes.

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