An Annotated Query
In October 2020, I headed up a feedback group for Camp RevPit, an online writing "camp" run by volunteer alumni of ReviseResub contests. I worked with twelve Romance writers, providing thoughts on their first five pages and pairing them up for further feedback opportunities, as well as pairings to help one another out with their respective queries.
To prepare for the query swap, I provided my query for A CERTAIN APPEAL--initially titled POP A PASTIE-- and annotated it, explaining the decisions I made. This worked great in the Google Doc I shared with the group, but it's proving to be less attractive in blog form. My apologies. I'm learning.
The annotations are italicized, with a question and answer I received from one of my Romance campers at the end of the document.
(USE THEIR NAME! Do not forget this. You'll have a form letter by the end of this process. DO NOT FORGET TO UPDATE IT WITH EACH AGENT! And for heaven's sake, spell their name correctly, be mindful of pronouns, etc.)
POP A PASTIE is a 95,000 word contemporary romantic comedy with a fresh hook: a Pride and Prejudice retelling set in the New York City burlesque scene. Told with the playful, banter-rich style of The Hating Game, Pop a Pastie updates Austen’s marriage plot with diverse characters, a gender-bent Jane, and a zero-tolerance policy for workplace harassment.
Paragraph 1: Metadata! I tell the agent my word count and genre right out of the gate.
Pride and Prejudice is my content comp title, telling something specific about the story's setting or plot. My second comp, The Hating Game, describes the story's tone/style. Find appropriate comp titles for your book that do something similar. The more the comps say about your book, the more words you'll have to be specific about what makes your manuscript compelling.
The end bit about updating Austen's marriage plot could get tailored, depending on an agent's specific interests, but I didn't have to do that too often-- agents looking for rom coms had a lot of
overlapping interests. The information here did double duty- referencing things that interested agents (gender-bent characters in retellings, a diverse cast, feminist perspective, etc). The "zero-tolerance policy for workplace harassment" came from a query submission form where the posting agent noted she wanted an updated Bridget Jones's Diary. If you've read/watched it recently, the Daniel Cleaver situation is sketchy, so when I comped BJD, I made sure to bring up that my story would not be accommodating that sort of nonsense ;) FWIW, my MC ends up threatening to push a harasser down a flight of stairs!
(I'd put the Lucille Bluth, "Good for her," GIF here, but I do't know how)
The other part of that double duty is the way these notes tell the agent how my story updates the source material: how I'm delivering on that "fresh" approach to the P&P format.
When Liz Bennet learns the burlesque club she works for is for sale and expected to remodel, she embraces it as an opportunity to get her interior design career back on track. She’s already envisioning a new concept for the space when Will Darcy enters the club, and for Bennet, it’s lust at first sight—until the appealing newcomer opens his mouth.
The summary portion of your query needs to tell the agent who your main character is and what they want. In a lot of Romance, what the character wants is twofold. Query-wise, that means you tell what drives the character forward (external desire/goals- promotion, job opportunity, chosen one journey, etc) AND the character's internal motivation (emotional journey, aka, the romance).
Here, my character is introduced, and you get a hint of what she wants throughout the book (at least externally): she wants to get her interior design career back on track. But in addition to what your character wants, we need what gets in their way. So I introduce her secondary "want"—the hero—as well as what gets in the way of my protagonist, ah... "having" him: his personality.
Darcy doesn’t understand the appeal of burlesque. To him, it’s all artifice; he can’t fathom how Bennet can find empowerment in semi-nudity. For Bennet, that’s a dealbreaker, but when her roommate starts dating Darcy’s best friend, she finds herself continually in Darcy’s orbit, and that good chemistry goes a long way to overcoming bad first impressions.
A little more info on what's keeping my couple apart, how they stay in one another's orbit despite my MC's dislike of the guy, plus a little nod to to them overcoming that obstacle.
If you have a dual POV book, this is where you'd give your other "voice" character their wants/what's getting in their way. For maximum efficiency, note how they tie into character 1's wants/stumbling blocks!
The couple’s relationship evolves as they navigate misunderstandings, misinformation, and [REDACTED FOR SPOILERS]. Just when an Austen-approved HEA feels imminent, disaster strikes: [ANOTHER REDACTION! YOU'LL THANK ME LATER!] Together, Bennet and Darcy have to find a way to [LAST REDACTION, BUT IT'LL BEWORTH THE WAIT, I PROMISE].
Lots going on here. Checking back in with my MC's external "want" and how it's now in jeopardy. oh, the drama! I also allude to the climax of the story, at least as far as the external desires of my MC. Sorry I had to keep mum on the specifics, but you get the gist, right?
My writing background spans the US, from courses with the Gotham Writers’ Workshop to Seattle’s Hugo House, and attendance at RWA’s Emerald City Writers’ Conference. I currently write from the trenches of stay-at-home mom-dom, but once upon a time, I spent two years in the NYC burlesque scene. POP A PASTIE is my love letter to that vibrant world of body glitter and eyelash glue. I hope it resonates with you.
Author Bio time. Include your writing experience. I hadn't had anything published, so I mentioned writing programs and a writers' conference. This is also where, if it makes sense, you include your life experience: aka, Why You're the Right Person to Write This Book. I worked in burlesque, so I know what I'm on about. If anything in your life can be tied into your book (be specific!), note your expertise, but be quick about it. You have 250-300 words to make an impression, so be intentional with your words.
Thank you for your time and consideration.
Polite sign off. Mind your manners!
And that's it.
QUESTION: How did you decide to lead off with your comps and MS metadata paragraph vs. your MC introduction paragraph? I've seen queries done both ways with conflicting advice on structure.
ANSWER: I chose to open with my metadata because I knew it would do some heavy lifting. Because my manuscript was Pride and Prejudice retelling, putting that comp first meant I didn’t have to commit my precious word count to explaining the P&P connection in my summary paragraphs.
Plus, how the P&P plot is being updated—set in the NYC burlesque scene— was my hook, so that’s what I wanted to emphasize. Queries are read quickly, and I wanted to start with my strongest element. If I’d had a killer opening line for my summary, I might have kicked it off with that instead and wrapped up the letter with the metadata.
I don’t know that agents have a strong preference for placement, just as long as it’s all in one paragraph and not spread throughout the document.