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.