Monday, December 15, 2014

Considerate Craft: The Three Stages of a Query Letter

So much time and effort is put into a query, and it can seem like an awful lot of work for something agents will only see. But the life of a query goes beyond the slushpile.

Because it isn’t tossed aside once you sign an agent. Usually an agent will use the query in creating their pitch. When an editor signs a book, often they will utilize an agent’s pitch in writing up cover copy. And that lives forever on the back or flap of your book.

There is a lot of (very good!) query advice out there, so I’m not to go in depth here. But I want to show you those three stages of a query. I hope seeing how the same story can be pitched different ways will be helpful.

I have an example from my author Shaun David Hutchinson’s January 2015 book, The Five Stages of Andrew Brawley. (Which if you pre-order now, Shaun will donate $1 to, a website run by two teens that promotes LGBTQ+ YA literature.)

First, Shaun’s query:

Sometimes superheroes aren't the people wearing the masks.

Andrew Brawley has not been outside the walls of Roanoke General Hospital since the day his parents died.  Since the day Death was late to retrieve him.  He lives in the hospital.  Works in the cafeteria, volunteers in the ER.  He even made friends with a couple of kids in the pediatric ward.

But it's a disguise, a way to blend in and hide from Death, who stalks the halls in high heels and a pencil skirt.  Hide from the world outside the hospital walls.  Hide from himself.

For a time, Drew is content. Until the night paramedics wheel Rusty McHale into the ER.  Rusty is the boy on fire.  Set ablaze by bullies from his school, he burns like a beacon, drawing Drew to him.  That is the night that everything changes, and Drew begins to realize that the hospital may not be big enough, that the walls may not be strong enough to hold him.

But in order to escape, Drew will have to face his own guilt over the death of his parents, find a way to keep the people that he's come to love alive, and settle his debt with Death once and for all.

My book is a contemporary YA novel that incorporates some graphic novel elements.

Now, my pitch:

Andrew Brawley has lived in the hospital since the day his parents died there. He serves food in the cafeteria, hangs out with the ER nurses, and sleeps in a forgotten supply closet. He blends in to near invisibility, and it's the perfect way to hide.

Because Drew was supposed to die that night. He knows this because he sees Death still stalking the hospital halls, in high heels and a pencil skirt. As long as she doesn't find him, he's safe.

But then a screaming boy is wheeled into the ER. Rusty McHale was set on fire by classmates, and his pain draws Drew like a beacon. Sneaking into ICU, Drew promises to save him from Death, the way he didn't save his family.

As Drew finds himself falling for Rusty, he begins to imagine a life beyond the walls of the hospital. But in order to escape, Drew will have to settle his debt with Death once and for all.

FIVE STAGES delves into dark places for a beautifully painful read. It also has the potential for a graphic element.

And the final cover copy:

Andrew Brawley was supposed to die that night. His parents did, and so did his sister, but he survived.

Now he lives in the hospital. He serves food in the cafeteria, he hangs out with the nurses, and he sleeps in a forgotten supply closet. Drew blends in to near invisibility, hiding from his past, his guilt, and those who are trying to find him.

Then one night Rusty is wheeled into the ER, burned on half his body by hateful classmates. His agony calls out to Drew like a beacon, pulling them both together through all their pain and grief. In Rusty, Drew sees hope, happiness, and a future for both of them. A future outside the hospital, and away from their pasts.

But Drew knows that life is never that simple. Death roams the hospital, searching for Drew, and now Rusty. Drew lost his family, but he refuses to lose Rusty, too, so he’s determined to make things right. He’s determined to bargain, and to settle his debts once and for all.

But Death is not easily placated, and Drew’s life will have to get worse before there is any chance for things to get better.

Each starts with a couple paragraphs of setting, letting us know about the death of Andrew’s family, that he should have died too (or so he thinks), that he lives in the hospital, and giving us a glimpse into the world of the hospital. The queries then turn to Rusty, whose appearance is the inciting incident, and how he changes Andrew and his outlook. Then they focus on how now Andrew has someone to lose, and so he must finally face Death to protect Rusty.

The details and rhythm of each is different, but they have the same core, which pretty much follows the Query Letter Mad Lib created by Nathan Bransford:

[protagonist name] is a [description of protagonist] living in [setting]. But when [complicating incident], [protagonist name] must [protagonist's quest] and [verb] [villain] in order to [protagonist's goal].

Andrew Brawley is a teen secretly living in the hospital where his family died. But when a burned boy named Rusty is brought to the hospital, Andrew must face his own pain and bargain with Death in order to protect Rusty.

There are other things the queries do similarly. Have you heard of the Rule of Three? It's basically that having things presented in threes will catch a reader's attention. Each query above utilizes this, and it’s a handy world-building device for a limited amount of words.

Most of the rest varies, although two things in particular stayed the same: Rusty drawing Drew like a beacon, and Drew having to settle his debts with Death. I remember Shaun’s words striking me when I read them, compelling me to use his phrasing, and I’m not at all surprised his editor was struck by them as well. After all, we both were blown away by Shaun’s writing in his manuscript, so it makes sense his query would have equally compelling writing.

I hope seeing the process is helpful, and also that there is no one way to pitch a book. As long as the information comes across and your writing is solid, that’s all an agent needs to see.


  1. This sounds like such an awesome book! Hooray for more queer YA! Definitely gonna preorder this.
    Also, very helpful breakdown of pitching! I feel like Nathan Bransford's mad lib could make for a great holiday game...

  2. Thank you for the informative post, Amy.

  3. This is such a great, enlightening post. There is so much out there on query writing, this one really stuck out for me. Can't wait to read it!

  4. I came here from Janet Reid's blog. It's great to see the query extended to the pitch and cover copy. Thanks for this! I can't wait to read the book.

  5. I came here from Janet Reid's blog. Thanks for this! It's great to see the query extended to the pitch and cover copy. I can't wait to read the book.