I think all writers by now understand the importance of having their finished works critiqued by some folks they trust to give solid, actionable commentary. You know, stuff like: “we need more tacos in this section!”; or “why’d the killer wear blue boxer briefs instead of green ones, it makes no sense”; or “your use of the reflexive pronoun instead of otters is troubling, very troubling.”
Well, you take some of the advice, you toss the others. Though if, like me, you actually paid a professional editor to review your work, I’d suggest you get as much out of that as possible. Seriously, put aside your squirmy, meak, placid little “oh no, please don’t hurt my feelings” side and look at their comments with a steel backbone, use as much of it as you can. You need to get all the benefits you can out of that relationship.
Now, take your queries and get them critiqued as well. Treat them exactly as you treat your novels.
I’ve gotten really valuable insights on my SUMMER query over the past few weeks. I’ve written, re-written, and thrown everything but the kitchen sink into it to try and master the fine art of query writing and put together something that will entice an agent to read more. I’ve now got this (which is, once more, changed from the previous versions… and note I just made changes to it again when I posted it here):
When unrepentantly single programmer Hammond falls in love for the first time with a woman named June July August, he learns that summer is where magic still lingers.
June is a free spirit who enjoys sketching while naked, loves waffles, and whose mother told her long ago she was a witch. With her encouragement, Hammond discovers he can see the truth of things, the hidden secrets that people and objects have, their histories, their desires. And he finds a truth even June doesn’t want to believe: there is more than one reality, and knowing the truth can open doorways between them. But opening a door to another world has consequences, and June disappears, pulled through the crack he opened.
Now code-warrior Hammond must follow her into Summer, where magic is real, technology limited, and fortune tellers run the local newspaper. Each choice leads inexorably towards the midsummer festival, when the magic of the land will be renewed in an ancient ceremony. But he’s not the only one looking for June. Others seek her as the one destined to replenish the magic; or a barrier to possessing it for themselves. Without its magic, Summer—and their own world—will die.
SUMMER is an Adult Fantasy novel that is complete at 136,000 words. Readers who enjoyed Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore will find it has a similar tone of voice, and it plays on my love of works that straddle multiple genres, mixing portal fantasy with romance and geek humor.
Hook, moment of crisis, stakes. Paragraph 1 is the Hook, paragraph 2 the moment of crisis, and the final paragraph the stakes. It’s a simple formula, and it’s not always easy to get your queries into that format, but if you can, I think they become stronger. You’ll have to massage and work and stroke the words until they take the right shape, but you’ll find it in the end.
Also: don’t neglect the fourth paragraph, the part that details your novel, the genre, length, and gives a little taste of what other titles it may be like, or comparables. That will help an agent see more of its potential. You don’t need to brag about how it’s “just like Harry Potter, only better, it’ll be a huge hit!” But adding a little something stating “Readers who have enjoyed X, Y, Z title(s) will find…” is great and gives them something they can grab onto in terms of determining how your novel fits into the marketplace.
The next question as always is: where do I get critiques? Where do I go to find people who will give me help with my own queries?
Well, my friends, I have the answers you’ve been seeking.
If you’re a regular user of the Reddit website, there’s a number of subreddits where you can post for critiques.
/r/writing, is one of the main forums for writers on Reddit, and you can use the weekly “critique thread” to request a critique on your query as well. Do not post outside the weekly critique thread, though.
/r/yawriters holds a regular Query Critique thread and have stated all are welcome to participate, not just authors of YA literature.
/r/fantasywriters allows folks to post query critique requests.
/r/destructivereaders allows people to post query critiques.
/r/queries was created specifically for this purpose, but it’s a pretty dead forum at the moment.
/u/mnbrian is a reddit user who has stated he’s happy to give query critiques for fun.
Beyond Reddit, there are the following places.
http://kristavandolzer.blogspot.com/ – Krista van Dolzer runs an occasional “Agent’s Inbox” on her blog. Folks post (the number of posts she will accept for each contest is usually limited, so get in quickly when she starts ones), critique each other, then a real agent critiques their queries and picks a few winners to send them partials or fulls. The contests are only a few times a year, and depending on the agent involved, the genres allowed might be restricted.
https://operationawesome6.blogspot.com/ – Operation Awesome runs a regular Pass or Pages contest. It’s similar to Krista’s, but with multiple agents giving critiques and saying whether they would have requested more or passed.
http://agentqueryconnect.com/index.php?/forum/2-aq-connect-query-critiques/ – This is a forum you can join where folks post critiques and, based on recommendations, post the edits in the same thread so they can continue to improve them. I highly recommend checking it out.
https://querytracker.net/forum/ – another great community where you can get assistance from other writers in creating that perfect query.
http://queryshark.blogspot.com/ – The query shark will occasionally run a query critique based on submissions they’ve received, but it’s mostly useful for getting examples of what to do and not do. And if you don’t want to wade through every entry, intrepid redditor /u/Byeka has distilled the entries into much easier to read notes here: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B7a9YgWTV1I5SzF0Vy1Rdl92ems/view
http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/guide-to-literary-agents/successful-queries – Writers Digest does a series on successful queries, with the query shown and the agents comments. Again, not a place where you can get your own query critiqued, but very helpful in giving you some insight into these tricky little bastards.
And good luck with yours. Pay particular attention to the writers digest and query shark entries above, you’ll get excellent examples of working queries so you can frame yours in similar ways.