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A Primer on Query Letters

Will I ever break free of my crippling addiction to stock photos? Does anybody even read these captions? Who the hell knows!

Will I ever break free of my crippling addiction to stock photos? Does anybody even read these captions? Who the hell knows!

In my update last week, I talked about the querying process and how it’s tied to traditional publishing. Over the Memorial Day weekend, I learned the quickest way to chase people away at a party is to ramble about query letters and literary agents. Writing a book isn’t sexy. Having written a book is sexy. Being published is sexy. Friends of friends at summer barbecues don’t really care about the querying process. Who knew?

Anyways, I wanted to dedicate this blog post to the all-important query letter. This one-page business letter can literally make or break careers. You could be the next Stephen King, but if you can’t query well then you’re going to have a tough time. In general, all writers should get comfortable pitching and talking about their work. I know we all became writers so we could spend half the day alone with our thoughts, but there will come a time when you’ll have to be vocal about, and maybe even defend, your projects. Get used to it now. Query letters are a great way to get in the habit.

In fact, I have an exercise for all you writers reading this. Write a query letter for your work in progress. Right now. It doesn’t matter if it’s not finished. You can be halfway through your first draft or still outlining. Drop everything a try to write a query letter. Most people will say it’s way too early in the process. I call bullshit. Query letters are like a blueprint for your book. Laying out the requisite parts can be an extremely helpful drill in structure, character, and plot. I wrote the seed of my current query letter in between the second and third draft of my manuscript. By pitching the book to myself and looking at it like an agent, I solved issues with my first act that had been hounding me since day one. That’s the key to this exercise. Get out of our writer headspace for a minute and put on your agent glasses. Try to craft a description of your book that will make you beg for more.

Speaking of requisite parts, the most successful queries all follow a similar format and the same ground rules. Here are the most important ones.

1. Query letters are rooted in character.

Forget the gimmicks. Don’t write a query in a character’s voice or from some cute perspective. Your book is your protagonist’s journey, and your query should reflect that. Have an ensemble cast? Choose the one or two most important or most compelling arcs and focus on them. Don’t have characters to speak of? Then you’re either writing some sort of kid’s book, cookbook, or self-help guide. I personally can’t help with those.

2. They are one page and/or around 150-250 words.

The shorter the better. Query letters need to be lean, mean, and bloodthirsty. This is not the time for backstory, worldbuilding, exposition, or purple prose. Agents read thousands of these a month. Show you respect their time by being brief.

3. They do not talk about copyrights or trademarks. AT ALL.

This is one of the clearest signs an author has not done his or her homework. Here’s all you need to know about copyright right now: as soon as you write down your idea, it’s copyrighted. Nothing to apply for. No documents to secure. You can’t copyright an abstract idea, but as soon as you start composing your manuscript it becomes protected intellectual property. (You still can and should apply for a copyright with your country’s patent office. That’s another blog post entirely.) Here’s the thing. Agents already know about all that. You should, too. Hell. Agents will stop reading as soon as they read, “MY TRADEMARKED MANUSCRIPT (DO NOT STEAL!!) IS ABOUT…”

4. They do not mention unrelated publishing credits, unrelated careers, or unrelated praise from your mother.

Query letters are all about language economy. Every single word needs to be the perfect choice. Do not waste valuable white space by mentioning how your family loves the book idea or how you worked as a short-order cook while writing an erotic thriller about star-crossed hockey players.

Now that I’ve laid down the ground rules, we can talk substance. There are a couple schools of thought here. Some people will tell you to open your query letter with the book title, word count, genre, and comp titles. Others will suggest opening with a personal appeal to the agent, telling him or her why you decided to query them specifically. This also includes mentioning you follow the agent on Twitter or met them at a convention.

My favorite way to kick off a query letter is by diving right into the character’s journey. No chitchat. No small talk. Introduce your character first. They are the star, after all.

Sam Dagwood was the best damn hockey player in Topeka. Then, he fell in love with a Nigerian arms smuggler’s daughter.

First, you need to establish who the character is. You also need to describe “the world as we know it.” What is Sam Dagwood’s current life like? Finally, what is the inciting incident that propels him along the plot’s journey? Your character starts with equilibrium. Then, some call to action or inciting incident disrupts that equilibrium. Eventually, his or her life becomes so imbalanced that they are forced to embark on a journey to restore equilibrium. Continually repeat this mantra: what does my character want? What’s in her way? What will happen if she doesn’t get it?

A good query letter succinctly summarizes your first act while hinting at the surprises in store as things get more complicated. All a query really needs to do is compel the agent to read your manuscript. There are good ways and bad ways to do this. There are effective and ineffective ways to do this. The rules I’ve laid out are a solid starting point but they were made to be broken. Find what works for you. A word of caution, however--query letters, in general, aren’t the best time to get experimental. Save the creativity for your manuscript. Boil down the hook of your story into a punchy 200-word blaze of hellfire and you’ll be good. Easy, right?

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