Today I want to talk about query letters. They are the bane of most writers’ existence. Why is it that queries are so frustrating to write and so hard to get right? My discussion aims to answer this question.
I’m angling my discussion towards writers who already know the basics of query letters. For those of you who are unclear what a query letter is or how to write one, I’ve listed some useful resources.
A great website is AgentQuery.com. The following is a link to their discussion on query letter writing: <http://www.agentquery.com/writer_hq.aspx>. In addition to query letters, this website is full of information on every stage of the writing process, and I often give out edits on their sister site, AgentQuery Connect.
Nathan Bransford, a published author and a former literary agent, has a really great blog entry on queries, <http://blog.nathanbransford.com/2010/08/how-to-write-query-letter.html>.
Lastly, QueryTracker.net is a great resource for finding agents, <http://querytracker.net/>.
Before I begin, I need to emphasize that I am not an agent, nor can I speak on behalf of any agent. Just as every writer has a subjective taste for certain genres and writing styles, so do industry professionals. The best I can do is analyze the pitfalls writers commonly make.
Why are Queries so Difficult to Write?
Very simply, a query is not the same as a book, and the two serve vastly different purposes. The best analogy I have for this is running. If you asked a long distance runner to become a sprinter, chances are s/he wouldn’t be all that great at it. The same is true for writing. There is a reason most authors of books do not write marketing pieces.
Queries are Business Proposals
Now that we have very generally clarified that a query letter and a book are two different beasts, let’s talk about what query letters are—business proposals. There is a common misconception that a query is synonymous with the back flap of a book, and in most ways it is. However, the audience is different. Agents are business people, not casual readers, and they will not pursue a book idea unless they believe they can sell it. So, I am going to give you some tips on making your book idea more marketable by telling you what to avoid.
The following is how I approach query letters—not agents—although I would not be surprised if agents approach queries from a similar angle. When I read query letters, I look for those who have mastered the craft of writing and have phenomenal ideas. Further, I look for writers who can market their product (aka their book) successfully. So when writing a query, remember that it is not a summary, and it is not a back flap; it is a platform to sell your idea.
Below are some common mistakes I have come across when editing queries.
The most vital difference between a query letter and the back flap of a book is the content. There is a fine balance between too much and too little content, and this is the biggest divergence between a book’s back flap and a query letter. When I read through queries, I want to see that there is enough content to carry the story throughout an entire book. This includes scenes or plot twists a writer might withhold from a book’s back flap.
Withholding the Most Exciting Scenes
This is an extremely common phenomenon. The reason is that many writers believe they need to withhold the “best parts” of their query. The reality is that most agents are going through hundreds of query letters, so the time they spend on any one will likely be insignificant. Writers do not have the luxury of withholding the best scenes and the most exciting twists. To make it beyond the query, a writer must include vital information.
Too Much Detail
On the other side of the spectrum, I’ve received queries that try to cram nearly every scene into a single page. Here my general edit is for writers to think about their book as a funnel: the most general information comes first, followed by subsequent scenes, and wrapped up with the main conflict.
Writers must introduce the main character(s) and set the foundation of the book. This foundation should either introduce a world that is different from ours, and/or it should introduce some change that ignites the story (ex. The main character gets framed for a murder she did not commit. Now she is on the run to find the true killer before the law finds her.).
After this information is introduced, only insert information that adds to the main plot, sets the book apart from other books of a similar topic, and/or heightens reader excitement. Most extraneous detail comes from emotions, thoughts, or unimportant details regarding characters, scenes, and situations.
Lastly, close with the main conflict. The best closing lines read like a second hook. From a marketing standpoint, these are the most successful because they increase reader interest. If you can pique reader interest, then you’ll increase your odds for partial or full manuscript requests.
Write to market your book. Don’t just state the facts, present them. If your query ends with a cliff hanger, structure your ending to build up to it. You’ll want to generate momentum in your query, and—ideally—elicit an physiological and/or emotional reaction. Think of songs that made your heart constrict, or a dream that left you with a feeling you couldn’t shake. That’s what you ideally want to get your readers to feel. Inspire them the same way your idea inspired you to write your novel. It’s not just content that counts; it’s presentation that illustrates your competency as a writer.
The difficulty I face when I give these edits is that book ideas are numerous and creative. Many times rules must be broken to accommodate an idea. That is perfectly fine, so long as you consciously break the rules.
In conclusion, approach your query from a marketing standpoint. Readers want to see (1) that there is enough great content to carry a book, and (2) that the book is marketable. Content and writing style are the two areas that determine these. If you can manage to deliver the best of your book in a couple riveting paragraphs, you’ll increase your odds of obtaining agent interest.
Laura Carlson, Editor
American Editing Services