Query Masterclass with Patrick Hopkins, Creator of The Queery Helpline

I embarked on my initial clunky querying journey about two years ago. Twitter did me a solid and soon pointed me to Patrick Hopkins. I attended a live-stream query revision with him and Morgan Hazelwood. My mind blew as I watched the duo transform frustrated author’s submissions into clear, concise, agent-ready queries. If you are an author in the query trenches—this is a must-read. Using science and statistics, Patrick breaks down writing a query into a simple formula anyone can use. And don’t just take my word for it, ask my publisher! I’m now one of his agent-landing clients!

Hi Patrick! Can you tell readers a little about yourself, including your query stats?

My background (and my extended family background – my grandfather was an editor for the Washington Post for a few years) is in journalism and research. In undergrad, I took a class that helped me see how to infuse modifiers into words – crucially, verbs – to drive concise, clear meaning.

I’ve been editing professionally since 2008, including stints at multibillion-dollar companies. I’ve been working queries for maybe four years now, with more effort since I started my feedback group last May. My stats, that I know of, dating back to January 2021:

  • 37 writers getting at least one partial request (in one case, 15+ fulls; in other cases, at least a half-dozen)
  • 16 writers getting an agent or publisher
  • 13 writers getting at least one legitimate pitch like in Twitter events
  • 600+ queries worked. I didn’t perfect them all (some writers chose to work with other people), but I did get a lot past the finish line. 
  • 300+ people recruited to my feedback group
  • $200+ raised for abortion rights funds (since May)
  • 2 query classes taught
  • 2 publishing talks given, as of January 2023
  • 5,500+ views of my medium articles on querying and other niche publishing topics

A few client highlights:

  • Taking a writer from 0-for-39 to a partial request on her first subsequent query
  • Taking a writer who’d paid other freelancers for two query critiques – and gone 0-for-18 – to full requests. She got representation with her next book and credited my instruction.
  • Taking a writer from 0-for-12 to three requests in 12 queries

Query writing is a daunting task for most authors. What was your journey from knowing nothing about queries to becoming a highly sought-after resource for querying authors?

When I got to publishing, I – like most beginners – had no idea what I was doing. I saw sincere, disparate opinions about queries, but practically no sources for those opinions. So, as a journalist, I hunted for facts, and I found the successful* queries database. For weeks after work, I sat reading and studying its queries for two things: 

Semantic Patterns

For example, how did successful queries use nouns? Verbs? Modifiers? How did they vary sentence structure? Did any sentences in specific parts of queries begin or end in specific ways?

What query parts were common and what weren’t?

And what were those parts made of? What did a bio need to have? How long was a query, really? How did comps work? Did every writer need to personalize?

What I found, in brief:

  1. 90 percent of queries sound the same: a character is introduced, and that character punches with verbs for the next ~200 words. Much of the mechanics of the language is scriptable.
  1. The average query has known, discrete, gotta-have-it parts: salutation, metadata, pitch, etc. other parts, such as comps and especially personalization, are less common.

As I extended myself more to help with queries, three things happened:

  1. I got better at helping people get results by more discretely nailing dozens of minutiae, then helping people through understanding what they were doing wrong and how to do it right. My first big success occurred when I found a writer working in her query document (which I had made so I could show fixes) and we worked together for an hour, honing language sentence by sentence. She then queried however many agents and accepted an offer maybe a month later. Particularly fun there was her agent’s announcement, which quoted her logline, which I finalized. The process I used with her led to me instituting appointments and live streaming. 
  1. I gained enough confidence in my work, and enough understanding of the frequency of some errors, to write guides. The first one was a checklist covering things such as including genre and age range in the query. That checklist is now required reading for anyone who wants to work with me.
  1. People started recommending me on Twitter and elsewhere. I have learned of the existence of some writing discords and other groups because people saw my resources shared there (not by me) and clicked on the link to my feedback group. The only reason I have a scribophile account is so I could see the recommendation someone had posted there for my group.

What are the most common mistakes you see querying authors make?

Not knowing you haven’t done the work. That’s separable into a few areas:

Missing basic aspects in queries:

  • Genre 
  • Age Range
  • Stakes
  • Pitch clarity, length and depth (who does what, and why it matters, rather than “my book has dragons”)
  • Appropriate Comps (you are not the next Stephen King)
  • A query can be not how I’d do it mechanically and still do fine if it has what it requires. But if it lacks genre, the agent might not know they rep what you’ve written. And if your pitch is muddled because you have 150 pages of details jockeying for position in your head, the agent won’t be able to understand it and also might worry about your writing ability. 90 percent of queries I handle lack a basic aspect, and it’s usually fatal.

First pages that haven’t been edited by sufficient critique partners.

In my experience working with writers who are querying or about to, 75 percent aren’t ready, whether because they have infodumps on the first page, purple stasis about a setting we’re leaving, paragraphs of backstory after a decent first line, dialog/action tag confusion or other elementary concerns. Mechanically, when I see something like “punched him hard,” where there’s a better word for “punched hard” and no apparent reason to not use it (and that can be the piece’s voice, but judging that is easy enough), I think this person hasn’t done the work. I suggest something like “belted him,” and in most cases, they say, “oh, wow. that is better!”

This gets at a deeper point about industry opacity, which I address below.

Poor freelancer vetting.

On my resources page, you will find nothing about my educational background because having a degree in whatever confers zero query knowledge. Queries aren’t taught in college. Similarly, loving reading or whatever other nebulous language guarantees no editing prowess. But so many people are freelancing on Fiverr and elsewhere, offering two query passes for $10. The notion, I think, is that people hate working on their queries and so think, “Okay I’ll spend a little money getting help.”

That help is unqualified, and I know because I’ve been called in to fix it. The way to get good at queries isn’t to get a degree in English or a certificate in whatever. It’s to work queries until you understand how and what to change. And alongside that, you’re always looking at what’s changing in the industry, such as request rates and comp language. If you don’t know how a 2022 query differs from a 2020 query (or, god help us, a 2010 query), your clients suffer.

Can you give us a quick summary of which information should be in each paragraph of a query, including word count?

In general:

Dear agent,

Metadata: 30-100 words: I am querying you because [whatever, if the agent cares]. TITLE is a word count stand-alone [multi-pov, if so] age range, genre [with series potential, if so] [in which logline if you have one, but not all agents require one]. It may appeal to fans of the [plot element(s) in movie or author’s title, depending on how the agent feels about comps] and the [other plot elements in movie or author’s title, again depending on the agent] [and you can comp other things, depending on the agent; for example, some want something that feels like a Taylor Swift album or song. Comp diversity is robust, and I recommend researching agents robustly to see if someone out there is wishing on your star].

Pitch: 200-250 words: [character, situation, inciting incident, stakes, covering the first third, or up to first half, of the book. Aspects or derivatives of the situation should carry through into the inciting incident and stakes or there’s no reason to include the situation. Books are about people with flaws. Those flaws cannot disappear – such a phenomenon is inauthentic to the concept of humanity. So if you introduce a neurotic accountant, some presentation of the neurosis has to continue in the plot arc.]

Bio: Up to 50ish words unless you’re amazing: [hobbies, education, job, family, other titles/relevant work. You don’t need to have done much. The book is the work.]

Thank you for your time. [I’m now seeing calls to action such as “would you like to read the full manuscript?” regaining popularity after it died out perhaps a decade ago. I don’t like it, but trends are what they are.]

Sincerely,

Author (writing as [whatever, if you’re using a pen name])

This is a basic breakdown of a 400-word query, and splintering is common: Some agents prefer the metadata at the bottom; others want a longer bio, up to a third of the page; some require a marketing plan. Not all agents want a logline; comp preferences vary tremendously. Researching the agent will tell you what you need.

And yes, it is irritating. But it is the business.

What resources do you provide querying authors?

My resources page addresses common concerns (“Can I swear in a query?” “How should my query look?” “How do I say I got a pitch like?” “I left my agent and am back to querying. How do I say that?”). Beyond that, my feedback group contains many people who know things I don’t. Lastly, I am available for agent/agency/publisher vetting, and I have a do-not-query list I share privately to reduce the risk of an agent finding it.

How can authors locate those resources?

Resources page, which includes link to Feedback Group.

If an author wants to work 1:1 with you, what do you recommend they do before reaching out?

Studying the successful queries in their genre and age range, hammer home their verbs and agency (agency=character action, not your preferred agent’s employer) and address my finer points more broadly to eliminate most if not all unforced errors. Some stuff isn’t scriptable, but when you do everything you can beforehand, you ensure that our time together will be spent refining a good product. Further, in my experience, a 1:1 that starts with something that isn’t a query cannot end with a ready query because the writer – who isn’t accustomed to this kind of work – runs low on glucose and energy. 

I am professionally exacting. I’m kind on streams – quick to joke, sometimes in an accent – but I get results. I developed this approach years ago, and reporters I used it with at a newspaper rose to become managing editor of that newspaper, media strategy leader for multiple professional sports teams, etc. In the 20 months since I had my first real-time session with a writer, I’ve helped 16 writers get an agent or publisher, and for much of that time, I’ve been closed to clients.

How can someone work 1:1 with you?

My every-other-week live streams with Morgan Hazelwood are the best opportunity. To do that, after having worked through my resources, the writer would donate to this, then contact Morgan with proof of the donation and their submission package, plus any notes (“I want to be anonymous”/“I don’t need synopsis help”/etc.). 

What is your number one tip for querying authors?

Publishing is opaque. Find a group of people who can help speed you along so you spend as little time as possible not knowing what you don’t know. For example, a college degree in English or journalism gives the graduate little if any introduction to fiction writing. High school English and history classes help you learn how to write longer, express more thoughts, etc. preparatory school English classes prepare you for college writing. And college English courses teach you MLA style (oh boy) and prepare you for graduate school.

None of that has anything to do with fiction writing. If anything, it impedes fiction writing because of two key factors:

  1. You have been lulled into thinking your writing is good because you have been paying people to read it. In fiction, you must do the opposite: convince people to pay you to read your stuff.
  2. You think you’ve been trained to write, so you’re initially hostile/irritated/blown away/etc. by someone who says, “Okay, that five-line sentence is death, and so is that ‘there were’-beginning sentence.”

So instead of clinging to what you learned in undergrad or from your high school emotional support teacher, buy copies of books like the one you want to write. Study them. Mark them up for mechanics, plot, etc. Emulate them. And get published alongside them.

Where can people find you?

In bed, napping. … you mean for people who don’t want to wear pants? Here:

Feedback group

Twitter

Abortion fundraiser live streams

Thank you, Patrick, for sharing your query-writing, and writing in general, insight. To readers, I hope this was helpful to you in your querying journey!

The first draft of anything is shit.

Erneset Hemingway

Published by Amy Nielsen

Amy Nielsen is a former children's librarian of nearly twenty years. She now spends most of her time obsessively pounding on a keyboard. She is the author of It Takes a Village: How to Build a Support System for Your Exceptional Needs Family, Goldilocks and the Three Bears: Understanding Autism Spectrum Disorder. Her upcoming YA Worth it debuts in May of 2024. She is also a freelance writer for The Autism Helper. When she's not writing, she and her family are most likely crusing the waters of Tampa Bay.

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