Friday, June 11, 2010


Today is going to be a little bit different than some of the other guest posts but don't worry, it's in a good way! As you all know today's guest is the amazing Hilary Wagner. Please visit her blog and become a follower, you won't regret it.

So, the difference today is that Hilary wants to share some thoughts about queries and advice in general before we wade into her query.

I'll let her take it away:

On queries in general:
Before I began writing my query, everything I read about the query letter terrified me to my very core! Basically, you're led to believe that this one page letter can make the difference between landing an agent and getting published or seeing all your hard work languish on your laptop forever. Sadly, it's true! On that note, I had to get over my fear and write my query the way I wanted to write it. I tried a few of the "formulas" at first, but quickly realized they did nothing for me apart from making my query bone dry and boring. So, I threw all the academic things I learned about the query out the window and started writing no holds barred. This is what I came up with. Is it a brilliant, mind-boggling feat of query genius?! But it did the trick and that's all any of us can ask for!

Advice: That's a tricky one. I'm not a huge fan of giving advice, because what works for me, may mean disaster for someone else. I suppose all I can tell anyone in good faith is to always write from your heart and tackle your query the same way. Don't try and be tricky or overly clever and don't try to come across as more than you are. People see right through that. Just be you. Write about your wonderful story and show everyone why it deserves to be read and shared with the world. Your story is exceptional. Your query should be too, because your hard work deserves nothing less than that. Don't let it down.

Now there is a little difference to how she wants to share her query too. She is going to highlight in red the sections that she will then discuss in blue. It makes sense to me so I hope it makes sense to all of you as well. If I find the courage to add anything I'll color it green, with envy, for how awesome NIGHTSHADE CITY sounds.

Her query:

Nancy Gallt Literary
Attn: Ms. Nancy Gallt, Founder & Agent

Dear Ms. Gallt,

As a girl, still at the age when toys were the appropriate gift, I hated getting dolls. I did not want to pretend to be their mommy or make up pleasant conversation surrounded by tea and biscuits. I found them more than a little annoying, with their perfect noses and pristine curls.

We are told as writers to grab our readers within the first few pages of our MS. In my mind, the same thing goes for the query. When I say grab, I don't mean strangle either! Ha, ha. It just has to keep an agent of editor reading.

I certainly can't argue with that. The prevailing wisdom in everything that I've ever read on queries is that the first sentence is the most important. As Hilary points out it is pretty much the same as with your novel.

Instead, I loved animals, particularly of the rodent variety. I would sit in my room for hours, stuck in between my toy rats, mice and moles, spinning their next exotic escapade in the odd and mysterious world in which they dwell. Animals have emotion and depth, offering much more than companionship, especially when given a voice on paper. NIGHTSHADE CITY combines this voice, with the realm of fantasy, character driven fiction, and our continuing, albeit creepy, fascination with the cryptic, four legged creatures that overrun our great cities and homes. Outwardly just vermin, but are they?

I added this question to peak interest. Trying to say clearly these aren't your run of the mill rodents--they are special.

This is perfect. It is just the right kind of teaser, giving a negative connotation to the rats, but then hinting at the much more exciting (and adorable) truth. I should point out here that I have not read NIGHTSHADE CITY. The Rats may be ferocious ... or noble, or somewhere in between, but to me the idea of the brothers standing up for what's right against the Ministry SOUNDS adorable.

It may not be in the novel but the point here is to hook the reader, if I was the agent and I got the wrong impression, albeit a good one, and it made me request pages then the query still did its job.

The rats of Trillium City are underground and have been so for years. Little do the weary humans of the steely city realize, an ancient throng of strangely intelligent rats exist right under their very feet, thriving in the intricate Catacombs excavated lifetimes ago.

Barely escaping alive, rat brothers, Vincent and Victor Nightshade, flee their underground home, the Catacombs, dodging mandatory recruitment by the Ministry run Kill Army. They make it to the surface, disappearing into the dark, human metropolis of Trillium City, where they stumble upon a hidden rat made tunnel, and trek down to a concealed world, buried farther in the earth than even the Catacombs. Founded by a group of rebel rats, the covert city’s residents are set on derailing the corrupt Ministry of the Catacombs, and freeing its many citizens from death and torment at the hands of the narcissistic Killdeer, the charming and decadent leader of the Ministry, and Billycan, a peculiar and slightly demented ex-lab rat, who commands the Kill Army with a bloodthirsty fondness for butchery. When the Nightshade brothers join up with Juniper, the ardent leader of the newborn city and despised adversary of Billycan, they soon unearth the demons that have haunted Juniper since his youth and learn how their father, Julius Nightshade, really died. Working with Juniper and his rebels, a fearless Ministry seamstress, and a relic tribe of earthworms, Vincent and Victor Nightshade battle for retribution and redemption against Killdeer and his army, realizing their future and releasing ghosts from their past.

Here's where things got tricky for me and reading this now it still bugs me. My story has several twist and turns, but I had to narrow it down to one little paragraph. If I had to write my query again, I'd probably shorten this part even more. Don't even get me started on my synopsis! Ha, ha!

I'm not going to critique Hilary's query, mostly because I think it great, but I see her point. I struggle with this too. How do you boil down a complicated plot that you spent months concocting into something that fits on a single page, hooks a reader and still give the entire gist of the premise of your novel? Less is generally more with queries but as she said about advice, trust in yourself. The same rules won't work for every project.

Writing fiction since childhood, I’ve written NIGHTSHADE CITY, an 89,000 word novel, focusing on fighting for what you believe in, the true meaning of family and refusing to let a few decide the fate of many.

I saved my word count until the end. If they don't like your query they aren't going to care about word count anyway, so use the earlier paragraphs to sell your story. I added very little info about me. I wanted them to care about my story! I figured if they liked my MS, maybe they'd care about me later!

As you guys know from reading my blog I call this housekeeping. There is some debate out there about where to put it. When I begin querying again I will be placing it at the end like Hilary. I think she makes an excellent point about hooking right away. There are some valid arguments about putting it in the beginning, or even after the first paragraph, but I like it best here at the end.

The only caveat I would add is to make sure you research each agent that you query separately. If they want something SPECIFIC please adhere to their expectation. No need to shoot yourself in the foot before you get it through the door.

Thank you and take care,

Hilary L. Wagner

So that's it! Are you excited to read NIGHTSHADE CITY as I am? Are you so happy that you now know a blogger who's book actually comes out THIS YEAR? I am.

Thank you so much for sharing this with us Hilary! You rock hard like the walls of the catacombs.


Ted Cross said...

It obviously works; she is published! I did think that one big paragraph was too much, however she must have had a strong enough voice that it was still fine.

Vicki Rocho said...

I love reading queries! It's a bit of an addiction. I think the voice is good and the pull of the story is strong. I did think Rats of NIMH which is the only book I've read about intelligent rats, but this seems grittier and more action-packed.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

It's a scary thing to tackle, but she obviously did it right.

Anne Gallagher said...

Hilary, if I may ask, is this YA or MG? Great job on the query too.

JE said...

I was surprised at how long the query was, but hey - it worked! Not all of us can say that.

Congrats Hilary!


Bethany Elizabeth said...

Wow - it's so nice to read queries that worked! I mean, I know what NOT to do - I hope, after a year of reading up on it :) - but positive advice helps too. Thanks for posting this - it sounds like an awesome book!

Bryan Russell said...

Nice. Interesting choice for the intro, with the sort of chatty and personal lead-in to the story.

A lot of ways to skin a cat... or a rat, for that matter. :)

Will Burke said...

I'm still getting acquanted with querying, so I don't have much to offer as feedback(that's why I'm here at QQQE). But every visit gives my a better idea of what works!

Matthew MacNish said...

That's what we're here for Will. Glad to here it's helping!

Christina Lee said...

Thanks for sharing that query. The story sounds fnatastic!!

S.A. Larsenッ said...

Hilary sounds wonderful. Thanks for taking the time to share it with us. You said that you're not a fan of giving advice, but the advice you did give is wise. Be yourself. So, so important. I'm still struggling with that, but at least now I recognize it's my vice. I'm almost there.


Candyland said...

Funny how different agents like different query techniques! Great example.

Hilary Wagner said...

Hello everyone!

Ted, I agree on the length of that paragraph--still bugs the heck out of me even now! Normally I would have broken it up, but you only get one page to explain your tale! :)

Vicki--They are gritty to be sure! My rats are very...well--ratty!

Piedmont--That is a great question. The book is geared for 9 and up. A lot of agents who read the full MS said it had a lot of YA elements, which they thought was a big plus for crossover appeal! I just want it to be a story that everyone loves, not just kids, but what author doesn't want that? A girl can dream... :)

Justine--I think the query looks a bit long the way it's broken up with mine and Matt's thoughts, but it was only one page--I swear! I would never break the one page query rule. That's a huge no-no with most agents and I wanted to give myself every possible shot and nabbing one! ;)

Matt--Thanks for having me on your blog! This was a lot of fun for me! I now how hard the query battle can be, so I'm glad to offer mine up to talk about!

xoxo -- Hilary

Jaydee Morgan said...

I'm another who loves reading all these queries. What I like most is that they're all so different but still get results. That's very encouraging :)

Carolina M. Valdez Schneider said...

I applaud you for making your own rules, Hilary. You followed your gut instinct for what would work for your query, and it worked! And Nightshade City sounds fabulous.

MBW aka Olleymae said...

Thanks so much for Sharing, Hilary and Matthew!!!

The story sounds intriguing. I will definitely be looking for it.

Zoe C. Courtman said...

What I loved the most was how Hilary threw convention out the window and went with the query SHE wanted to write - and it worked! Nice sticking to your guns, Hilary :D NIGHTSHADE CITY sounds like a terrific story (and definitely reminds me of Rats of NIMH, which I loved SO. MUCH. as a child. Nicodemus!!!) Thanks, Matt, for sharing!

Roni Loren said...

Hilary, thanks for sharing your query with us. I think it's telling that even after you have your deal all wrapped up, that you still don't love your own query, lol. I think that's a good lesson for us all to remember--we're never going to think ours is perfect--so we just have to do the best we can then take the plunge and send them out. :)

Creepy Query Girl said...

awesome insights into querying and this book sounds fabulous. It's been a long time since I read a book with animals as the protagonsits- not since James and the Giant Peach. Just awesome!

Tahereh said...

thanks so much to both of you! this was very interesting to read -- i've never seen a query for an animal-driven novel before.

can't wait to read the book!

Janna Leadbetter said...

Awesome awesome awesome. Thank you both!

Christine Danek said...

Thanks for sharing this. Great job Hilary! I was hooked and want to read it. I'm interested in reading examples of queries that got the author published. THis is great.
Thanks Matthew!

Jessica Bell said...

That was a really amazing query. I really like her approach - VERY much! Damn, I'm going to have to revise my query for the HUNDREDTH time now ... LOL. Thanks to you both for sharing!

Diane said...

It seemed to have just the right amount of everything needed. Congrats and good luck on all your future projects. :O)

Erica Mitchell said...

I love reading various query letters. Thanks for sharing this :) Although there may be "rules" after reading different ones it kinda just goes to show each approach is unique and that the query process doesn't have to be quite so scary. Very helpful!

Carolyn V. said...

Matthew, this is great! Why didn't I get over to your blog sooner?

Thanks for the help Hilary. I love how you mention for us to catch the agent's attention with the first line. Great idea! Thanks!

Theresa Milstein said...

Good query. I like how Hilary started about herself to show how it related to the manuscript. It won't work in every instance, but it does here. I'm sure the agent was drawn in by your personality.

That one paragraph is synopsis-like! It's hard to boil a whole story down to a handful of sentences.

Lydia Kang said...

That's a great query, but unusual! It breaks a lot of rules I've heard of. Which goes to say, you don't have to play by the rules as long as you do a good job with the result!

Hilary Wagner said...

You guys are seriously great and make me feel all warm and fuzzy! I think with my story being an animal fantasy, which can be a tricky sell to most agents, I had to think way outside the box. ME = RULE BREAKER!! Okay, me being a rule breaker is so not true at all, but it sounded really cool! I've always wanted to be a rebel! :)

xoxo -- Hilary

Talli Roland said...

Matthew and Hilary, thanks so much for breaking this down and sharing!

I love the voice in this and its a great concept.

Matthew MacNish said...

Hilary, you're too funny! You ARE a rule breaker in your own little way and I love it!

Thanks again so much for sharing this with us.

Kelly Bryson said...

I'm so excited to read your story Hilary! And I love a good thick paragraph. I think it's better to go on a bit in a clear manner than to say too little and not give enough info to catch anyone's attention.

Elana Johnson said...

I love how original it is! Great job Hilary -- and thanks for this regular feature Matt!

Faith E. Hough said...

Thanks, Matt and Hillary!
You definitely caught my interest...thanks so much for sharing this--as if putting yourself out there to an agent wasn't hard enough, now we ALL get to see rule-breaker (or not) you!

Donna said...

Thanks for this! I'm right on the doorstep of this subject, and I had no idea how to begin.

Lindsay said...

Great query. I love how Hilary grabbed the attention at the beginning with something a bit different. I'm really looking forward to Nightshade City.

Sherrie Petersen said...

Thanks for sharing this, Hilary. It's always fascinating to see queries that worked. I'm excited for your book to come out!

Hilary Wagner said...

Matt, you are so sweet for posting my shiny new picture of my hardcover, which I got TODAY!!!

Writing this post really brings everything full circle for me. Reading my query brought back all that worry and struggle and wondering and hoping...and now look--there is my book. It's almost too much!

xoxo -- Hilary

Matthew MacNish said...

Talk about full circle! I don't know when you began your novel or when you finished your first draft and all that BUT LOOK AT YOU NOW!

You're being hyped by world famous authors whose novel is a bestseller and a Hollywood blockbuster film, and yet you haven't lost sight of where you came from. You're taking the time to pay it forward by sharing this very personal experience with those of us who share your dream but haven't made it yet.

I honestly hope you realize and appreciate how kind and giving you TRULY ARE.

Sorry y'all if this reply is a little sappy but I had two (large) glasses of wine with dinner.

Old Kitty said...


Thanks Hilary for sharing your query letter here and thanks Matther for showcasing this on your blog. I'm in AWE of writers able to fit in all they need to say in one page! And this is a brilliant example of how to do this. I think the long para worked because the premise was so intriguing and exciting!

Good luck to Hilary! Take care

DEZMOND said...

Hilary seems like a positively charming person!

Paula said...

Congrats on the book. (And I love the cover BTW).

If I was to read your query like an agent, believe it or not it was the 'relic tribe of earthworms' that hooked me, though of course I like the premise of the battling rodents.

So what was your end word count? I ask because I'm about to go out with a MG fantasy that has 84K words and I'm a bit nervous about it (and yes I've cut and cut some more already). I like your idea of putting the word count at the end. I was thinking of just leaving it out, but maybe that's not a good idea.


Unknown said...

It was great reading Hilary's query and her notations. The greatest lesson I took away from this is to remember that within the perimeters of each agent's guidelines, you must cater to the writer -- the person -- you are. Sell the story with authenticity in your voice. No one formula can work for us all, just like one style and size shoe won't accommodate every foot. This, I will remember always!

Matt, as always your commentary rounded out this post. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts with us!

Shannon said...

This story sounds fascinating! Looking forward to seeing more great things from Hilary.

Thanks for sharing this, Matt. You rock!

kathrynjankowski said...

Just linked over from Nathan's forums.
Very interesting to see how Hilary approached this. Thanks to you both for sharing.

notesfromnadir said...

Thank you for publishing Hilary's query letter as I'm curious about her forthcoming book. Of course, since it's published, we can chalk this up to a successful query letter. The added comments have also helped.

Sometimes I think it's far easier to write a 90,000-word novel than a 300-word query letter. Go figure! :)

Kay said...

Hey there! This was a great query! Very insightful. I have been trying to get my query critiqued, and people are constantly telling me to shorten it by starting with the bland-a-roma "Fill-in-age and name of protagonist here" does this and something happens to her.

My critique partner caught me on it when I, mistakenly, changed it to bland-a-roma query intro. She was like, "Why'd you delete your hook??"

Anyway, I signed up as a follower at Hilary's blog at your suggestion.

ANNOUNCEMENT (would you mind sharing on your blog?): I have a contest going on my blog for funniest/goofiest/craziest LOVE SCENE in 200 words or less. Nothing mushy. I'm looking for wild, outlandish, and overall hilarious. I've got some prizes, check it out and please, if you'd be so awesome like I know you are, spread the word:

Take care, M!


Hilary Wagner said...

Matt, you are too sweet! I'm a little sappy at time myself, so no worries!!! =)

Paula, my final word count is about 81K. I think with a first novel most agents don't want to see much over 100k, so it sounds like you are in the safe zone for sure!

Nadir, it's so true! That one page letter is so daunting! Crazy how that works when writing an 80-90k novel was no prob! ;)

xoxo -- Hilary

Sarah Ahiers said...

OOOH i'm so excited to read this!

Anonymous said...

Nicely done, folks! This seems kind of an unconventional query letter, compared to the ones I'm used to seeing around teh tinterwebs, but, as you said, it worked for you!

Sometimes the best approach is the unconventional one, yeah?

Slamdunk said...

Thanks for the query breakdown Hilary and Matthew. It is helpful.