Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Writing That *@#$ Query Letter

This photo was awesomely appropriate because Query Letters are sort of the entry gate into the world of publishing, and my book has dragons in it. So here's a Dragon Gate:

(Photo credit to Giampaolo Macorig)

I don't remember whether I've done a post on writing a query letter yet, but I do feel like I keep learning more and more about making a good one, so I figured I'd share a little bit of my insight.

The Very Basics

What's a query letter you may ask? (I do have a few non-writing friends who like me enough to read my blog, so this is really for them.) A query letter is a letter that the writer sends to a literary agent when the writer has a polished, edited, and complete manuscript. The writer is trying to get a literary agent to fall head over heals in love with his/her book, and he/she has about 250 words (give or take) to make that happen. No pressure, though.

Other Basic-type Things

First and foremost: I have learned that no matter how many rules you can read about queries, at some point, some writer has broken all of them, and they still got representation. That probably won't be you, though. (Well, not if you break all the rules.)

This site (Agent Query) has a very basic format that I have seen in a number of places that breaks the query letter down into three paragraphs:
  1. The Hook
  2. The Synopsis
  3. The Writer's Bio
Yeah, I don't follow that, but I don't think you can really go wrong with that sort of format.  So, when in doubt, I'd stick to it. It's just that I personally don't have a whole lot to throw into a writer's bio that seems particularly relevant, so I nix that. I break my synopsis up so that my query flows better, which means it takes over most of the query letter, and it's definitely more than one paragraph.

I do, however, try to lead with something that I think makes my book compelling or different. So, in that respect, I do try to lead with a hook. Just not necessarily your writerly definition of a hook.

For me, it's all about The Synopsis.

The Synopsis

When I was writing my last query, I was rummaging through the Query Shark's blog (Literary Agent Janet Reid's blog where she rips apart the queries of willing victims). I read through a ton of successful and unsuccessful queries, and I came across a pieces of advice that I found to be particularly helpful.
  • “[S]tarting with the problem/choice/dilemma the main character faces. Start with action.”  (link)
  • “[S]tart with the basics. What does Laura want? What's keeping her from getting it? What choice does she face? What's at stake. Answer that question with NO ADJECTIVES and you've got the skeleton of better query.”  (link - Obviously, this query is about Laura.)
  • And my summary of this link: Showing Voice and creating interest trump everything else. Also, opinions will always vary, and one agent can love something another agent just doesn't care for.
Reading the Shark's blog, I also came across a link to this post, which asks a series of very basic questions that really helped me focus my query letter. This is the sort of stuff you need to stick to when writing your query.

I also loved Nathan Bransford's instructions on writing one sentence, one paragraph, and two paragraph pitches. Here, synopsis=pitch.

For this part, keep it fun, show your Voice, and give the agent something that sounds different from everything else they're reading. Like I said, no pressure.

The Personalized Paragraph

It is never a bad idea to throw in an agent-specific paragraph. This shows that you looked them up and that you are querying them for a real reason, not just because you are desperate to get your book represented (even though you are).

This part could reference another author that the agent represents, especially if you feel this author has a writing style similar to your own.

Or you could just say something about how you loved the agent's blog and read it all the time. Or maybe you loved a specific blog post and why. Or you could say that you love following this agent on Twitter.

There are any number of ways to personalize a query letter, but this part just really shows that you've done your homework and didn't pull this agent's name out of a hat. Also, spelling the agent's name correctly helps with this too. As does getting the Mr./Ms. part right.

The Word Count and Genre

I usually put this part at the end, but you can put it at the beginning. Another important part of a query letter tells the agent exactly what your word count is and what genre you believe you manuscript falls into. This can be more than one genre, but keep it fairly simply, and please try not to make up some completely crazy genre. You want the agent to know you do follow the market and aren't just making shit up on the fly!

You Must Edit Your Query!

Once you've put together all the parts you think should go into your query letter, read back over it. Do some editing.

Take a look at it the next day (or week) and do a little more editing.

If there is a sentence that bugs you in your query letter, its pretty much guaranteed to bug someone else. You need to fix it.

Send it to a trusted writing friend (or two or three), and get their input so that you know what is and is not clear. You're probably too close to this book to be certain.

This letter is key to getting an agent to represent you, so you do need to spend a god-awful amount of time on it (unless you are just a ridiculously good query letter writer).

My Query Letter

So, now that I've helped you understand what a daunting task all this is, I'm going to share the query letter I've been working on with you. I'm not certain it's in its final stage (probably not), but I'm pretty happy with it. Yeah, I did not follow all the advice above, but I did what I think works to show Voice, make my letter compelling, and get across the basic facts.
(Query Word Count: 197 words)

Set in an alternate 1950s powered by strictly controlled dragon magic, DRAGON BAIT follows teenager Moura Pearce after her father is named a traitor on national television.

Senator Darius McCarthy looked right through that television screen and lied about Moura’s dad. Creepy, dragon-eyed McCarthy is the reason her parents are on the run. He’s the reason she’s stuck living with her mom’s rich, old aunt in some snobby neighborhood.

Moura is finally starting to fit in, finally missing her parents and home a little less, when McCarthy holds an assembly at her new school. After a few heart-racing seconds, Moura realizes he doesn’t know about her. He’s here to declare Moura’s new friend is the daughter of communist traitors.

Moura sucks it up and helps her friend escape the auditorium, but she’s an outcast all over again. This time, Moura isn’t going to let McCarthy get away with his lies. She’ll make him pay for ruining her life.  Somehow. The thing is that the part-dragon, part-human Senator McCarthy does the bidding of the Dragonlord, and if she’s caught plotting, Moura’s going to end up as dragon food.

DRAGON BAIT is a MG fantasy, complete at 75,000 words. [Add in personalized agent information here.]

(If any of you have any suggestions to make it more compelling feel free to let me know!)

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