Tips for Queries and First Pages

Once upon a time, I was absolutely horrible at writing query letters, which was worrisome as they’re an essential part of securing agent representation. I can’t tell you how many times I would write, rewrite, tweak, light the draft on fire, start fresh, and do the whole process all over again. I couldn’t seem to get it, whatever it was, the magic formula that would make my query work for agents.

I spent a ton of time finding real queries that worked. I scoured the internet searching for queries, I reached out to friends in the writing community to review my drafts, I went through craft boot camps with established writers and editors to figure out how to write them properly and make them engaging. I would write fake queries about books that had been published to see if I could capture their essence. I studied the backs of books. Practice, practice, practice, for years.

Eventually, it clicked. It took a loooong time, but it finally clicked. And since then, I’ve gone on to sign an agent, have been a mentor for WriteMentor (and am thrilled to say my mentee has signed her agent!!), have done query critique giveaways, and generally try to give feedback when I can. So now, I’ve put together a short description on some of my best practices that helped me over the years, and included the query that helped me land my agent.

I’ve also included tips for how to tackle your first pages, another thing I struggled with and figured out over a lot of time, study, and practice. Whether you’re new to querying or not, I hope you’ll find these tips helpful. Please note that these are some good practices, but it doesn’t mean you have to rigidly follow them, either. They’ve worked well for me and others, but I’m not trying to fit anyone into a box.

At the same time, pay attention to new query practices, as the industry changes over time. It used to be worthwhile to start a query with a rhetorical question (“What happens when a princess finds out she’s part of an ancient bloodline meant to stop a curse?”), but that’s gone out of style. So keep up to date, and as always, use multiple resources and find what works for you.

Lastly before we dive in, I recently wrote a post about my top five writing craft resources. I hope you’ll find this helpful, too!

TIPS FOR WRITING A QUERY

Your query should be at or around 250-300 words, so you’ll need to tighten it to the most important beats, which are generally: who is your main character(s), what do they want, what’s standing in their way, and what SPECIFICALLY is going to happen if they don’t accomplish their goal. What horrible thing will happen if they don’t accomplish what they’re trying to do in the end? Not “something horrible” or “there will be dire consequences,” but what specifically will happen to your character(s) if they lose? Whatever it is, it’s the thing they’re fighting to NOT happen. 

Many writers, especially for fantasy, often bog their query down with too many details that take away from these key details. Keep it succinct, focus on your main character (or two, if it’s dual POV), have specific stakes, and you’ll be in good shape.

I highly recommend reading these for more details, because soon-to-be debut author Amanda Woody explains it beautifully:

Agent Eric Smith also shares real query examples which are extremely helpful: https://www.ericsmithrocks.com/perfect-pitch

THE QUERY THAT LANDED ME MY AGENT

Seventeen-year-old explorer Aris is hell-bent on uncovering who killed her archaeologist father. His cryptic clues led her to the foreboding lost city of Nemethet, but her findings were cut short when she was framed for stealing a priceless artifact—now, she’s imprisoned within Savros’s scorching fighting pits, her death inevitable.

Wealthy seventeen-year-old scholar Killian believes he can bring his parents back from the dead. He’s certain the fabled Nemethet holds the key, and when he learns Aris knows the location, he’ll buy her salvation—if she’ll take him there. Aris thinks he’s a spoiled brat, and Killian thinks she’s a brutish thief. But they need each other, and their tense relationship evolves as they find more in common than they expected.

Traveling through harrowing jungles and dangerous waters with a ragtag crew, they locate Nemethet hidden beneath the sea. But their discoveries within go disastrously wrong, and Killian unwittingly releases a primordial evil that marks him as one of five conduits to bring about ruin. As the darkness grows stronger, they race across the continent to find a solution that can stop the horror from destroying everything in its path. Time is running out until the darkness will claim Killian, and if Aris doesn’t help them find a way to contain it, no one will get out alive.

Complete at 92,000 words, NEMETHET is a dual-perspective YA fantasy adventure inspired by a gender-swapped reimagining of The Mummy (1999), with unseen chronic pain and anxiety representation. Featuring a morally gray protagonist, enemies-to-lovers and sweeping adventure, it will appeal to fans of Fable and We Hunt the Flame.

Note: I went on to include a brief description about myself: where I attended school, my current job, and the fact that I studied archaeology in Greece, as this was relevant to my story. I also noted I was a mentee for WriteMentor for this manuscript.

FIRST PAGE/FIRST CHAPTER FEEDBACK

First pages and first chapters need to accomplish a LOT, and quickly.  In the first few pages, you need to establish your main character, their voice, the world they inhabit, and what their current goal/mission is. Whatever it is, this should be whatever happens just before your story really kicks off. We want to see your character before their world turns upside down, or before it takes a big change. 

For example, in Caraval by Stephanie Garber, we see Scarlett and Donatella’s fairly grim existence within the first chapter…but it ends with the knowledge that she’s going to visit the spectacular, dangerous game of Caraval. This first chapter establishes the main character, her wants (in this case, to escape a bad living situation), her relationship to her sister, her world, and her voice. We see Scarlett’s life just before the big change happens and her world turns upside down (she’s given a ticket to attend Caraval). Garber packs a lot into one chapter, and Scarlett and the promise of her journey makes us want to keep reading.

Remember that you’re trying to connect the reader to your character. This character has to be so intriguing that they’ll be willing to follow them for an entire book! If they don’t connect right away, they may put it down and move on. That sense of connection will grow as they keep reading, but we need to feel a pull toward your main character right from the start. We need to be rooting for them, or intrigued by them, or otherwise pulled toward them so we keep following their journey.

I highly recommend watching this video from author Alexa Donne, which really helped me on my first page/chapter.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NZSTcBRp8gg 

I also strongly suggest pulling out a few of your favorite books in your genre (that were published in the last 1-5 years) and reading the first chapter of each. Study them, take notes on why they’re your favorites, what’s connected them to you. How is the main character portrayed/their personality brought out? What’s their initial goal (even if it changes later on)? What is their world, and what about it feels distinct to that book (especially important for fantasy books)? What pulled you in?

On prologues: Unfortunately, prologues are currently mostly out of vogue with the publishing industry, with rare exception and usually only for already established authors. If you want to include a prologue, ask yourself why it’s important. Is there an alternative you might consider instead? Could that information be shared later in the story, perhaps as a flashback?

Questions? Thoughts? I’d love to hear from you! I wish you all the luck in the world with your writing journey. Some days are tough, believe me, I know. But I try to remember above all else that I love writing itself, and that helps me to keep going.

Warm tea and cookies,
Valerie

Photo by Lisa Fotios on Pexels.com

3 thoughts on “Tips for Queries and First Pages”

  1. I found your article helpful, with example of how to write a query. Though my novel is nowhere near the publishing phase, I think I can use examples of what to use when querying the companies. I have a question: do you think it is an appropriate time to write the query even if the novel is not in the publishing phase?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m so glad you found this helpful! I actually start drafting my query very early, well before it’s ready to send to agents, because I take a lot of time to tweak it and get it right. I adjust it as my book changes, but I find drafting my query early helps me understand my story’s big beats in a concise way.

      Liked by 1 person

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