I got a great question from a young author, and wanted to share it, and my answer, with all of you, in the hopes that it would be helpful. Tyler writes:
I’m 13 and was wondering what it would take to get my book checked out. It is YA and I believe it will be good when finished… I’m not sure when that will be because I have school and I work on my book in my free time. Thank you for your time and for reading this.
First of all, the most important bit of advice for any querying author is to finish the book. Having the intention to write is a great start, but finishing the book is what separates aspiring writers from actual writers. After that, the best way to improve your writing is to share it with others for critique. Check with teachers, librarians, or your local SCBWI chapter for critique groups, or find some like-minded friends and start your own! Work with them to help improve each other’s manuscript, and when you think it’s the best you can make it, then you can think about querying agents.
How to find the right agent to query is another post entirely, but once you have that list, work on creating a killer query. Ideally, it should include the hook, the book, and the cook.
The hook: Your short and sweet summary or elevator pitch. If someone asks you what your book is about, and you spend five minutes describing characters and setting, rambling all about, that’s not the hook. The hook should be concise and exciting, and like a shiny lure, “hook” an agent’s attention. To help write your own, think of some of your favorite books, and consider what one sentence you would use to describe them to someone you wanted to convince to read them. For instance, “An expert hunter, Katniss volunteers as tribute in a game played to the death in order to save her little sister’s life.” (The Hunger Games) Or, “An orphaned boy learns he’s a wizard when he receives his invitation to Hogwarts, makes new friends, and accepts the prophecy that he alone can defeat He-Who-Cannot-Be-Named.” (Harry Potter) You can try it with movies and tv shows, too. Just be aware of the difference between tagline (like “In space, no one can hear you scream.”) and hook, which gives a bit more information.
The book: A slightly longer description of the book, including at least three of the following elements: protagonist, antagonist, plot or conflict, setting, and voice. You don’t need to tell everything that happens, but ask yourself where the main character is when the story starts, and what happens to change their life or set them on a new path, and who else is involved. Consider the back cover copy of some of the books on your own shelves (or the flap copy on hardcovers), and use that as a model for writing your own summary. You want to tell just enough to interest the agent or editor in reading more.
The cook: That’s you. A short bio of the writer, with any relevant writing credits. If you don’t have any, that’s fine. “This is my first novel” is plenty, too.
Most the agents I know find clients through their query piles, so the best way to get your book checked out by one of them is with a killer query letter, and a manuscript that lives up to the hype. Good luck!
Photo above by Flickr user Doug Dunderdale, used under a Creative Commons license.