Tag Archive | writing advice

Writing the Hook for Your Query Letter

So this is the hardest section of all to write for a query letter. How do you distill your four hundred page novel into three sentences? These three sentences have to make an agent or editor want to request more. The task seems monumental.

First of all, you need a hook, a sentence that tells the agent your story is unique and interesting. For an example, let’s take a look at the classic story, Cinderella. This is what a hook for Cinderella might look like: “In a fairytale world, a young girl (16) is cruelly imprisoned by her stepmother shortly after her father dies.” Or you could say, “A young girl (16), forced to be a slave for her stepmother, is rescued from a life of drudgery by the appearance of a magical being, who transforms her into a beautiful princess.” Just keep brainstorming ideas until you find the best one.

There is no right or wrong way to write a hook. It is just a short sentence that you feel captures the unique and appealing nature of your story. Admittedly, this is a lot easier to do for someone else’s story then your own. I struggle with it as well. Just spend a lot of time on it, polish, polish, polish, and don’t send it out until you feel it is the best possible hook you could write.

The next two sentences (okay you could do three, to bring your total to four, but NO MORE THAN THAT!!!) are a short description of your book. Back to our example. First, our hook, “A young girl, forced to be a slave for her stepmother, is rescued from a life of drudgery by the appearance of a magical being, who transforms her into a beautiful princess.” Now our descriptive sentences, “Suddenly, Cinderella is living a dream, one filled with grand balls, fine food, and the young man of her dreams, a handsome prince. But when her stepmother learns of her deception, and exposes it to the entire world, Cinderella is over come with shame, and wonders how a prince could ever love a dirty servant?”

That’s it. You’ve written the hardest part of a query. Make sure you only focus on your main plot line; ignore all subplots for your query. It also helps if you practice on other novels and stories, before you attempt your own. There are lots of good books out there with exercises to simplify the process. The best one is in Donald Maass’s book Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook (make sure you get the workbook, not the book, although the book is excellent as well). This book is worth the purchase price, just for that exercise alone, but is chock-full of other wonderful exercises as well.

Query Letter Do’s and Don’ts


  • DO NOT query unless you have a complete, polished manuscript.
  • DO NOT send out a mass email, with every agent and your aunt Martha in the subject line.
  • Do not send a query letter that is more than one page.
  • Do not write the query letter from the point of view of the character.
  • Do not be self-critical.
  • Do not, however, say you are the next Stephen King (or whoever). Agents don’t like to work with authors with inflated egos.
  • Do not wait a week and then check to see if it got there. Read the agency’s submission guidelines. If they are a “no response means no” agency, that’s it. If they say they respond to every query, wait the stated time and then another week or two. Then, and only then, may you re-query or send a “nudge.”
  • Do not pitch more than one project.
  • Do not tell the agent your mom, boyfriend, great-aunt Martha, your dog loved your book. They don’t care and it makes you seem like an amateur.
  • Don’t mention subplots.
  • Do not quote your own writing.
  • Don’t include small talk. Get to the point.
  • Don’t use rhetorical questions. (“Would you like to represent the next Nora Roberts? That’s me.” Umm… no.)
  • Do not disparage another author’s work.
  • Do not mention any previous attempts to find an agent.
  • DO NOT send a mean, nasty email if you are rejected.
  • Do not send sample pages if the agency guidelines say not to.
  • Do not say you wrote “a fiction novel.” A novel is always fiction. It is unnecessary to restate that it is fiction. This, too, will make you seem like an amateur. (If you write a memoir, do not call it a narrative non-fiction novel. It is NOT a novel.)
  • Do not enclose a photo of yourself.
  • Do not compare your novel to a movie or TV show.


  • Do personalize your query letter, stating why you chose that particular agent.
  • Do spell the agent’s name right (and make sure the Mr. or Ms. part is right as well!) and make sure that the agent you address the query letter to is also the agent who’s email address you type in.
  • Do be polite and concise. Remember, no more than one page (three paragraphs).
  • Do find good examples of query letters (both online and in writing guides) and copy their format.
  • Do follow standard formatting: Times New Roman, 12 pt., one inch margins, date in the upper let corner, left side justified, right side ragged, single spacing with a double space between paragraphs
  • Do mention your title, genre, word count, and a comparison to another author who’s writing (both topic AND style) is similar to yours.
  • Do put your book title and any other publication credits in all caps.
  • Do give a short author bio.
  • Do include your name, email address, mailing address, and phone number.
  • Do run a spell check before you send it.
  • Do include a SASE if you are using snail mail.
  • Do say if you’ve been referred. (Boy, wouldn’t that be nice?)
  • Polish, polish, polish. A query letter represents YOUR WRITING. Many agents will base their decision whether or not to request pages on JUST your query letter. Polish it as well as you would a manuscript.

Parts of the Query Letter

There are three parts to the actual query letter and each part is only one paragraph. Query letters must be short. They should never, EVER be more than a page.

The first paragraph is a short intro, with one sentence that lists the title of your novel, the word count, and the genre. The second sentence should explain why you chose to query that particular agent. Personalize it if you can; agents like to know you didn’t just randomly pull their name out of a hat. If, however, the only reason you are querying them is because a search engine said that the agent represents your genre, then I would strongly suggest you leave that sentence blank. Some agents say that you don’t need to do this, that you can jump right into your query, but I will say this: 90% of the request I have gotten are from agents that received personalized queries.

The second paragraph is a short (and I mean SHORT; no more than THREE sentences) synopsis of your novel. It should read like the blurb on the back cover or jacket flap of a book; short, to the point, and most of all, interesting. We will discuss this section of the query letter on Friday.

The last paragraph of the query should have a short author bio, with any publishing credits you might have. What’s that you say? You don’t have any publishing credits? That’s okay; we’ll discuss what to put here on Monday!

And, finally, you have the closing, which I tack on to the author bio. It should read something like this: “Thank you for taking the time to consider my work. Upon your request, I would be happy to send you a partial or complete manuscript. I look forward to your response.” (You have your manuscript done, right? Because you might need to send it in IMMEDIATELY. The partial request I got the day before yesterday came only TWO HOURS after I sent the query. You need to be ready to send it out almost immediately. Some agents say they expect your manuscript within the week, but really, the sooner the better.)

Then you sign your name and include you mailing address, your phone number, your email address, and your website address if you have one. You want to give your potential agent as many ways as you can to contact them!

And that’s you’re basic query letter. Tomorrow, we’ll cover a list of do’s and don’ts for a query letter. Trust me, there are a lot of mistakes a new writer can make that will irritate an agent. Luckily, you have me, with my hard-won experience, to tell you what NOT to do. (To bad no one told me! My mistakes could fill a giant bucket!)

Vetting a Literary Agent you Think you Want to Query

Today’s post is a few days early, due to the holidays! And yes, we will still be interviewing a literary agent on Thursday! Have a wonderful week everyone! 

Remember, when you are selecting an agent, be choosy. You’re hiring THEM to work for you, even though it might seem like the other way around. Don’t just say yes because it was the only offer you got. No agent is better than a bad agent. A bad agent can take your money, negotiate a bad contract, place your manuscript at a poor choice for publisher, and screw up your publishing career for life. There are a lot of fraud agents out there. There are also agents who mean well, but just don’t have the contacts or the experience it takes to be a good agent. Some of these agents might acquire these things over the years. Those who do not will fold.

Here are some helpful tips to make sure an agent is the right one for you:

  • Never NEVER sign with an agent that charges reading fees. Yes, there are a very few legitimate agents out there that charge fees, but it is very few. Why take the chance? In fact The Association of Authors’ Representatives (AAR- the literary agents’ guild) won’t allow any of their members to charge reading fees. It’s best to avoid agents that do.
  • Double check each agent you chose to query with the list of resources below. If they’re listed with at least two, they’re probably legit.
  • Just because an agent is not a member of AAR, doesn’t mean they are not legit. To become a member, you need to make a certain number of sales within a certain time frame, which can be hard for newer agents to do until they become more established.
  • ALWAYS check submission guidelines-both with the agency AND the agent. Sometimes the agent themselves will ask for something different. A good way to check on the specific agent is to use the resources I mentioned yesterday, especially Publisher’s Marketplace. Also, QueryTracker will list in the agent’s overview if they have a blog, Twitter feed, Etc.

Also, one other tip: keep track of who you query, and which agency they are with. Many agencies frown on querying another agent within their agency if the first agent has rejected you. There’s no point in ticking off people at the very beginning of your querying process. Try to stick to their rules and submission guidelines.

Resources for vetting agents:

  • AgentQuery
  • QueryTracker.net
  • Preditors and Editors– This is the number one site for checking an agent or publishers legitimacy. ALWAYS check with them. Their rating criteria are listed here.
  • AbsoluteWrite Water Cooler: These forums are a great place to see what an agent is like to work with. There are threads on most agents, and sometimes some of their actual clients stop by and talk about what it’s like to work with them. There are also warnings posted about bad agents.
  • AAR




Resources for Finding a Literary Agent

When selecting an agent, you not only need to find an agent that looks at your genre of fiction, but you must also make sure they are legit. I’ve compiled many helpful resources over the last four years. To help you, my fellow writers, I’ve decided to put all that information in one place. This post turned out to actually be longer than I expected, so the resources to use for vetting agents will be posted next Tuesday.

To find agents:

  • Querytracker.net– Organize and track your query letters to agents and publishers. Other than Publisher’s Marketplace, this is the single most helpful resource I’ve come across in the querying process. You can search for agents by genre, see other writer’s comments about them, and see statistics for query response, response time, submission response time, response to certain genres. They also have an awesome system for keeping track of who you have queried, and what their response was. The only draw back is if you want to use the tracking system for more than one project, it costs $25 a year.
  • AgentQuery-Agent Query offers the largest, most current searchable database of literary agents on the web. They offer in-depth info on each agent, more so then querytracker. Also, they try to only list legit agents, so it can also be used as a source to verify an agent. (More on that tomorrow.)
  • Literary Rambles– Spotlighting children’s book authors, agents, and publishing (for YA, MG, and picture book writers) An excellent resource that targets just agents for children’s books. EXTREMELY in-depth information for each agent they spotlight. HIGHLY recommended.
  • Writer’s Market– A searchable database for agents. I used their books when I couldn’t depend on our spotty internet. I will say that I’m not sure the online subscription is worth it. You can get the same info from the first two resources I listed and for free.
  • Association of Authors’ Representatives, Inc- These agents are the best of the best. They have to be legit to belong to the AAR, and they also have to have made above a certain amount of sales. You can also search by genre here.
  • Publisher’s Marketplace-Track Deals, Sales, Reviews, Agents, Editors, News. This is an invaluable resource. This is the only place where you can see the approximate number of sales an agent has made and the approximate worth. Also, many times an individual at a big literary agency will have a page here where they ask for different submission package materials then their agency and will also give their personal email address. The only draw back is that to see the deals, you have to subscribe at $20 a month. You can subscribe to the Publisher’s Lunch newsletter, which comes once a week and is free. They will post the biggest deals of the week in there.


Selecting an Agent to Query

So installment two in my series about the querying process, is about how to select an agent. So there are several ways that you can go about selecting an agent. Here’s the problem. Some agents want aspiring authors to approach them because their manuscripts are similar to what they represent. However, other agents will turn you down for this very reason, because they don’t want your book competing with the ones already on their list. (“Their list”, by the way, is what they call the clients and books they represent.) I’ve had this happen to me, so I know this is true, although you don’t hear it mentioned in books on writing. The problem is, you never know which kind of agent they are until after you hear back from them.

For lack of a better place to start, I always start with agents that represent books similar to mine. The best way to do that is to look through those similar books until you find an acknowledgement page. Lots of times the author will thank her agent. Then you have an agent to query! (Tomorrow, I will talk more about how to find the agent’s email or snail mail address, how to keep track of your queries, and how to find agents that don’t have clients similar to you.)

Don’t just pick one agent; select several. If there is one agent you really really want to work with, you can query them exclusively, but most writing guide books don’t recommend this (although, I have done it). Normally I pick three or five, the best of the best, to query first. Usually, these are agents that represent famous clients, or work at big literary agencies. To put it bluntly, they are the ones I have a slim chance with.

Then after I send those out, I wait. When a rejection or request for more comes in, I send out another query. I like to send them out in batches, because then, if something seems to be not working, you can tweak it as you go, instead of exhausting all of your chances at once. You might get lucky and score an agent with your first query, but realistically, it will probably take LOTS of queries before you have a positive response. Did you know it takes, on average, one hundred queries on a single project for an unpublished author to find an agent? Don’t give up, keep trying, and keep sending them out. And in the meantime, the best way to stay busy is to start your next manuscript. If you do sign with an agent, I guarantee you that they will ask to see more examples of your work. You want to have something to show them, don’t you?

Conflict vs. Tension in Your Writing

Okay, everyone, The Literary Mom has been doing lots of “mom” stuff, and is exhausted. Please enjoy this article I wrote last year about conflict vs. tension in your writing, and have a nice Wednesday!

One of the most important elements in fiction writing is conflict. You can’t write a good story without it, period. But conflict has a counterpart that is equally important; tension. What’s that you say? Aren’t tension and conflict the same thing? No, they’re not, and here’s why: tension is what your readers experience when waiting for the conflict they know is coming.

As I get nearer and nearer the black moment (You don’t know what that is? Stay tuned for tomorrow’s post!) in my NaNo novel, I’ve been thinking more and more about tension and conflict. Today, I had a breakthrough. I realized I had my two final scenes in the wrong order. The way I had it originally had the most conflict. However, today I realized that if I reversed their order, it will actually increase the reader tension. Reader tension is what keeps the reader turning the page, even when it’s one in the morning and they know they have to get up at six for work.

Sometimes, you have to hint to your readers that a big conflict is on the way and then delay it. The delay is what creates the reader tension. They know it’s coming, but when? They continue reading, breathless and anxious, waiting for that ugly conflict to pop out from behind a bush and scream “BOO!!”

Pen Vs. Computer; Which Do you Prefer?

My son and I are feeling better, but still not great. Plus, it’s cold and snowing, and the bad weather is killing my daffodils. It’s more a tea-with-honey and lay under the blankets morning then a write a post morning, so I’m going to repost one of my older posts today. Hope you enjoy it!

Writers are a superstitious lot and many I know are firmly set in their writing ways. Many have to follow the same routine everyday before they can begin to write, but I think there is some merit in changing it up every now and then.

The thing I find most helpful to change regularly is what I write with. Sometimes I write longhand with pen and paper, and sometimes I use my laptop. I’ve found that there are certain aspects of writing that work better with one or the other

Right now, I‘m using a pen to write this article. I feel the slower pace helps me consider each word, making my writing more clear and in need of fewer revisions. However, it makes my sentences longer, more lyrical, which isn’t great for action scenes or ones that need to have a fast pace.

If I feel like I’m starting to be blocked, or am unsure where I want to go with a scene, I know I need to write it on a computer. Often, the slower pace of writing by hand can make me stall completely as I get caught up in making sure each word is just right. Using the computer can help you bang out the writing, getting the words on the page. You can’t revise a blank page.

A notebook is portable, enabling you to write in places where you can’t take a laptop. But then there is the biggest drawback of writing by hand: typing up page after page of your own semi-legible handwriting.

How to Build a Character

We still have the whole not-sleeping-well thing going on here. My husband started a new job, which is great. The only downfall is that he’s working a LOT of hours. I think my son is going through some sort of separation anxiety thing and is desperately afraid that I, too, will disappear, hence the waking up all night long. So, due to lack of sleep, here is an oldie of mine from way back! Enjoy!

I was told by Johanna Raisanen, an associate editor at Harlequin, that I have very strong characters, so I thought I would write a how-to article on how to build a character.

No matter what I’m writing, whether it’s young adult, contemporary or historical romance, or fantasy, I always start with the characters first. Sometimes, my “character profiles” are each five pages long. It’s really important to know the characters as well as you know yourself. You might never tell the reader all the facts that you’ve discovered about your hero/heroine, but it’s important for you to know all this information so that your characters have the proper motivation. If you’ve ever read a story and scoffed at a character’s actions as unbelievable, then the author of that story didn’t provide the proper motivation for that character.

To help you build the best possible characters I’ve included the list of questions I go through for each main character before I start writing.


1. Basics- age, location, gender, job, education, name

2. Looks- and how they have affected the character’s life

3. Personality- optimist or pessimist, sarcastic, kind, quiet, outgoing, etc. Try to make this as detailed as possible and include information on how it has affected their life.

4. The story of their life up until that moment- Here I make sure I know all the important events that shaped her/him. Examples: what their relationship with their parents was like, romantic history, any tragic or joyful events, etc.

5. What does the character want most at the start of the story (and answer this again at the end as it will have probably changed).


Then, if the story is a romance, or has a romantic subplot, I go on to answer these questions:

1. Why are the hero and heroine perfect for each other?

2. Why are they the worst possible match for each other?

3. What will be the conflict between them? This doesn’t mean he’s sarcastic and she’s irritated by it. This is the big conflict, the thing that is going to make a happy ending for them seem impossible.

4. How will they resolve the conflict?


Once you have answered these questions you’re ready to start writing! Good luck, and have fun!

The Season to Write

Yesterday was a beautiful day, with the temperature rising to 25 degrees warmer then average. Spring scented the air and the sun was warm on my hair and jeans. The snow was melting off the garage roof in a steady sheet of falling drops and along the south wall of our house, one hopeful green iris shoot was poking through the snow.

I know spring is a long ways off; we often have winter storms into the middle of May here, but it’s on its way. I like winter and being snowed in, tucked cozy and warm in my little house with my family, but spring gives me hope. Suddenly, I’m not so afraid of rejection or submitting my work to agents and editors. I’m filled with new ideas, to the point that I feel if I don’t get them written down, I might burst. My husband walks through the house, sighing, as he picks up scraps of paper and random notebooks filled with my ideas, my own little drifts of white, but this time inside the house, instead of out.

Spring and summer have long been the two seasons where I get my most creative work done. Something about the soft air, the golden light, the sweet smell of the breezes, seems to stimulate my mind and my soul in a way that the burning beauty of autumn and the spare, barren austerity of winter cannot do. I feel lighter, more excited, knowing spring is approaching. What about you? When do you do your best writing?