Thinking Outside the Books: Write Your Query Letter First

If you’re feeling frustrated by the querying process, Scott Wilson suggests writing your query BEFORE writing your book.
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If you’re feeling frustrated by the querying process, Scott Wilson suggests writing your query BEFORE writing your book.

By the time I'd sent out my fifth book to agents and hadn't heard so much as a peep from them, I'd had enough. The thought of pouring another year of my life into a book just to get another round of radio silence was too depressing. Not to mention I was running out of hair to pull from my head.

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So for my sixth book, I decided to try something new. Instead of writing the entire novel and then creating the query letter afterward to try and get agents' attention, I reverse engineered the process: I wrote an attention-grabbing query letter first, then I wrote the book to live up to it.

And it worked. Metl: The ANGEL Weapon found an agent, a publisher, and I was able to write it while retaining most of my hair.

Writing the query first opened up my eyes to what my book was lacking, all before I'd even written a single sentence of the manuscript. It was missing conflict, stakes, and just all-around exciting things in general.

Here's what my first stab at the summary part of my query letter looked like:

With nothing but an illegal photograph in hand, thirteen-year-old Lyfe escapes the "Orphanage of Enlightenment," searching for the father he's never met.

Ever since he was born, Lyfe has lived in a religious prison where he and other children are sent after their parents commit the ultimate crime: using technology.

That's as far as I got before I realized my story had serious issues. "Lyfe" and "Orphanage of Enlightenment" were painfully generic names, and so many questions were already popping up. How did he escape? Why did he leave? Why is using technology a crime? I could already imagine the agent clicking away and moving onto the next query in their inbox.

Thankfully there was no book yet. I was free to come up with the most exciting answers to those questions that I wanted, right here in the query, and then worry about actually writing them later.

After several drafts, here's where the query ended up:

Thirteen-year-old Caden isn't even a Nobody. Sure, he's been stripped of his name and family like all the other kids at the Home, but while they get to sleep in beds under the same roof, he's an outcast who spends his nights in the horse stables, gazing at an illegal photo of the father he's never met.

Ever since the technological apocalypse, the Church has outlawed all metallic devices and remnants of humanity's advanced past. They fear angering Metl – Earth's artificial second moon, worshiped as mechanical god in the sky – and causing another disaster. Those who defy the Church’s sacred law are erased, and their children are sent to the Home to save their technologically-tainted souls.

But unknown to anyone, another disaster is looming. One night a fiery red X appears on Metl's surface, the same red X that now marks Caden's palms. This ominous development leads him to a horrible discovery: he's a human-robot hybrid created as a weapon to finish destroying the world.

If Caden is to unlock the purpose behind his creation, he realizes he must find his father, a near impossible task. Not only is he being hunted by the Twelve Apostles, an elite and ruthless team of religious police, but time is against him. Metl has started on an impact course with Earth and it's all his fault.

So many plot points came into being simply from writing the query: the artificial second moon, the red Xs, the Twelve Apostles, Metl crashing into the Earth, all of it being Caden's fault, and more.

At that time I had no idea how it was his fault, or why the Xs appeared, but it didn't matter. I would go on to figure out those answers as I outlined and wrote. All that mattered was that my story finally had some excitement to it.

Overall, writing the query first can help in three main areas:

#1. Showing what your story is missing

A good query doesn't just explain what the book is about. It makes the person reading it feel like they won't be able to live unless they know what happens next. If you write your query letter first, then you can keep refining it over and over until it gets to that point.

For example, if your crime thriller feels generic, try having it take place on a Mars colony instead. Or if your young adult fantasy is missing some conflict, give your main character a sibling with the exact opposite powers and ambition.

Since the story hasn't been written yet, you're free to try out whatever you want until you strike gold. Keep showing the query to people until you have one that makes them go "ooh!"

#2. Learning about your world and characters

As you go about making those changes to spice up your story, you'll discover a lot about it.

For example, the Mars colony crime thriller could have you ask questions about what kind of illegal activities would happen there. Oxygen smuggling? Revolutionaries born on Mars who have no connection to Earth and want independence?

The sibling fantasy could have you ask questions like: are the two of them estranged? Why? Did the main character do something they regret?

The story is so malleable at this point that the only correct answers to those questions are simply whatever sounds the coolest.

#3. Reducing stress

Trying to cram the book you've spent a year or more writing into just a few short paragraphs can be anxiety-inducing. Having the query already written is a huge relief. All you have to do is add the word count, bio, and a few other bells and whistles and you're done.

Not only that, but during the writing process itself, it can be comforting to know you're working on a book that you've already confirmed will get people's attention.

If you're feeling frustrated by the querying process, then give writing the query first a try. Doing it this way, is like applying for your dream job with the ability to put whatever you want on your resume. Write an irresistible cover letter, then live up to it later. It could potentially save you a lot of frustration, and your scalp will thank you.

Query Letter in 14 Days

Take your writing one step further and tackle the publishing process. When you enroll in this online course, you'll learn the details of the query letter format and how to write a query letter that catches the attention of agents and publishers.

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