Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Pointers from the Pros: Author Denise Tompkins on Query Letter Writing

"Pointers from the Pros" gives tips from authors and publishing industry professionals on everything from craft to querying to their experiences on the road to publication.*

I spoke at Scribblers' Retreat Writers' Conference this weekend in St. Simons Island, Ga. As usual, I took a ton of notes at all the faboo sessions I was lucky enough to attend---and I'm sharing some of those tips with YOU. (Thanks for being so fabulous, BTW!)

Here is what urban fantasy author (and my new pal!) Denise Tompkins had to say about the art of the query in her session titled "Effective Query Letter Writing":

  • It’s a business letter—an agent’s first impression of you
  • You have about 15 seconds to grab the agent's attention
  • The letter should be 250-300 words max
  • You’re selling the WHAT
  1. Tagline (hook)
  2. Introduction of the main character
  3. Establishing what’s at stake
  4. Defining the action or consequence
  5. Conclusion statement
  • There are no “rules”—just suggestions 
  •  She broke every "rule" out there & landed an agent (actually, she has two!)
  • However, she made mistakes and learned from them
  • Open with active hook—the X,Y, Zs:
    • Basic formula: When X happens, Jane Doe must confront Y conflict and triumph in her own unique way for Z to occur
  • Use simple, active language—active verbs--(omit -ING and -LY words) 
  • Incorporate voice 
  • Get to know your main character (MC) & introduce him/her in an interesting way 
    • If you’re going to put the antagonist in the query, only introduce briefly (the story isn’t about the antag—it's about where the MC & antag CLASH)
  • Introduce conflict
  • She also suggests you tell them if it’s part of a series right in the query letter 
  • She says we tend to write backwards: manuscript > synopsis > query
  • Synopsis Writing Trick: 
    • Every time she finishes writing a chapter, she writes a paragraph about it (we'll call this a "chapter paragraph"---rocket science, yes, I know!)
    • That makes it much easier to write the synopsis because she has already condensed her work when the chapter was fresh in her mind. She remembers the most important points of the chapter instead of having to go back and cram a bunch of information into a few short pages.
    • When it's time to write the synopsis, she refers to the chapter paragraphs and whittles from there. Voila!
  • Query Writing Trick:
    • Then, she picks out 5 key power words (strong, provocative words) from each chapter paragraph 
    • She uses them to help her develop a single sentence about each chapter.
    • Say you have written 25 chapters, that's a 25-sentence outline for your query. Pick out enough to tease, don't give away the ending, and you're good to go!
Want more Denise Tompkins?  See her guest post, "The True Secret to Getting Published" on Peggy Blair's blog.


  1. Great post! And Denise's class was very well done. We can't take the casual approach to our queries when we've worked so hard on our manuscript. Glad she passed along these great tips to us. Thanks for the reminders, Ricki!

  2. And who can forget her fancy outline and Post-It notes???? :D

  3. this is great info. Thank you for sharing - I have a query to write soon!

  4. oooo this is awesome :)

    *bookmarks post*

  5. I shall forever be known as the Post-It Note Provider. LOL I'm so glad you enjoyed the session. Feel free to post my website for more writing tips, query suggestions, and more. :)

    (Fingers crossed we meet at another conference soon!)

  6. @Sara -- Thanks!

    @Denise -- I gotcha linked on your name above. And yes -- we need to meet again soon!!

  7. @December -- I missed your comment -- sorry!

    Good luck with your query!