Q is for Query.
Once upon a time, nearly every published author had mastered the art of the query letter. Most authors sent query letters to agents, tracking down a representative to serve as a middleman to an editor. Even authors who worked without agents had mastered querying those editors directly, reaching out to seek publication of their book. (Yes, a tiny fraction of authors attended a conference or knew an editor personally and pitched work verbally, without a formal query letter. But those circumstances were relatively rare.)
Now, with the advent of self-publishing, fewer authors seek representation. Authors may work their entire career without ever completing a query letter. If you’re one of those authors, congratulations. You’re through reading this week.
For everyone else…
A query letter is one of the most highly refined forms of writing you will ever complete. It consists of a single, one-page introduction to you and your book. It’s not your resume. It’s not your book’s synopsis. It’s a maximum of 250 words that is professional and intriguing enough to stand out among the—literally—hundreds that your agent of choice might be reading at one sitting.
In its simplest form, a query letter is a three-paragraph essay.
Paragraph 1: The Hook
The first paragraph is the hook. This single sentence is a tagline—an intense, distilled summary of your book that is so captivating the reader has to ask for more. Your hook should emphasize the aspects of your work that are unique. These might include a setting and time period, a specific character, or a startling circumstance.
Paragraph 2: The Summary
The second paragraph of your query summarizes the entire plot of your novel. Yes. In one paragraph.
Obviously, you can’t shrink 100,000 words into 150. Instead, you’ll need to focus on certain key aspects, the most important parts of your novel that make it stand out from all other novels in its category.
You will almost certainly not be able to condense your plot into this one paragraph. Instead, focus on what emerges from the mechanical operation of the plot. How do your main characters change? What essential, existential problems do they face at the beginning of the story? How are they transformed by their efforts to solve the problem? How does your specific setting or time period cause or influence that change?
Some writers create their summary paragraphs as if they were writing haiku. They focus on selecting individual words, weighing every syllable to guarantee that it serves the ultimate goal of describing the plot. Other authors start with a much broader scope, recording many details and far-ranging thoughts, only to pare them down to the final precious paragraph. However you approach the challenge, the end result will be the same: a single paragraph that contains the distillation of your novel.
Paragraph 3: The Biography
The final paragraph of your query focuses on you, the writer. This isn’t a chance to tell every detail about every step on your writing journey. Rather, you want to share details related to the specific work you’re pitching. Why were you the best person to tell the story you told? What unique experience did you bring to the job?
If you have nationally recognized credentials (you’ve won the Pulitzer, you’ve received a MacArthur grant, you are a New York Times or USA Today bestseller), share that information here. But if your greatest writing recognition so far has been the prize you won in Mrs. Robinson’s third grade language arts class, don’t bother mentioning it.
Don’t be afraid to skimp on your biography. Less truly is more here. If you pare enough words from your biography, you can “lend” them to your summary, adding more description to your book.
So, there you have it. A simple formula. Once you’ve drafted (and re-drafted, and re-re-drafted ad nauseum) those three paragraphs, you’ll want to review your query letter to make sure it includes a handful of other details. Specifically, make sure that you include:
• The agent’s name. (Not “Sir or Madam.” Not “To whom it may concern.” You want this letter to be the most powerful, personal appeal you’ve ever written, so make sure you address it to a person.)
• The book’s title. (Your title may very well be changed by the agent, an editor, or a marketing department. But this is your chance to give an agent something to hang her proverbial hat on. Use your title to snag attention.)
• The word count and genre of the book. (You should already have familiarized yourself with your field, so you know the typical length for books in your genre. Do not delude yourself into believing that your first novel, a 250,000-word young adult fantasy epic, is good enough to warrant an agent and editor taking a chance. That’s too long. And you won’t look professional if you pitch it. Edit before you ever get around to writing your query.)
• A brief thank you for the agent’s time.
Is it time to draft your query letter? Do you have a finished manuscript of your novel? Have you revised it as completely as you can? Are you ready to distill your masterpiece into three paragraphs? Ready, set, go!