Tuesday, February 16, 2010

A Look at the Query Letter

I think most writers are very careful about query letters because we hear so much strongly-put advice about them. How to write, what to write, what to include, what not to include. And when I say query letters here, I'm really only talking about the one or two paragraph-long book synopsis (aka the pitch), because the other parts--your bio and your reason for querying--are up to you (but make them short and sweet). Lookit, it's not easy to capture your book's essence in one or two paragraphs. Because you're too close to it! Ideally, yes, you'd understand everything there was to know about the themes and emotions and tropes of your book, but I think most of us are emotionally involved with our novels, it's really hard to see them.

Disclaimer: I have a query, but I haven't sent it out yet because my book's not quite ready. So while I think I've hit on most of the important things, it hasn't been tested. Take my blatherings below for what they're worth.

Pitch Length
There are so many posts that I've read that have been helpful in one way or another. Most recently was one on agent Caren Johnson's blog. Caren Johnson advocates short query letters--as in, keeping your pitch to 100 words if possible. That's like one measly paragraph! After I read this, I turned to my pitch and played with it, trying to cut it to 100 words. I could only get to 131 but MAN it was a useful exercise! I cut so much crap!

What I realized, however, that the shorter the pitch is, probably the better. Agents are busy. If you can give them some great story meat in a short paragraph, they love it.

Elements of the Pitch
Apart from that handy shortening exercise, here are the elements that I personally think you need to hit on in the pitch portion of your query letter:

#1 Introduction of character
#2 What happens to that character
#3 Introduction of antagonist/villain (does not need to be person, can be a force)
#4 Dilemma or problem for the main character, with stakes
#5 Hint at resolution

Now, let's look an example. This is a version of my own query, because I couldn't in good consciousness post someone else's here. I have changed several elements out of probably unwarranted and excessive paranoia, so this is not my final query. (And remember that this is the women's fiction genre.)
When Stanky McStankstank has the best idea of her life (#1) and [does something hideously inappropriate which causes her boyfriend to dump her], the results are volcanic rather than romantic—and she knows she’s to blame. Frustrated and upset, Stanky snaps and decides to move the fabled lost island of Atlantis, better known as the Greek island of Santorini. (#2) There, she meets Villain Man, who is [some identifying characteristic like "a right bastard" or something] (#3) But having her toes-tingled by Villain Man smacks of a passive pattern that Stanky knows led to the meltdown with [boyfriend], and remaining with Villain will perpetuate what Stanky wants to change. [ (#4) note: these stakes are very generic. You need to really make your stakes specific. Mine are more specific in the real query but this gives you an idea.] By the time [boyfriend] rears his head, no one is more surprised than Stanky to find she's not as [stanky as she once thought]. (#5)

Now, what I'm really trying to say here is that here are the elements I think make a good query. What do you think?

3 comments:

annerallen said...

Excellent advice. I like your check list. I see a lot of way long pitches in query critique blogs like Query Shark, so I was interested to read Caren's "100 word" rule. Query Shark would probably say 100 words don't give a good enough picture of the plot, so I think letters have to be tailored to specific agents.

Very tough to do the 100 word thing, but this will help.

Shannon Messenger said...

Thanks for the great points--this is just what I need since I think I have to start querying soon (Ah, panics!

Sorry I haven't been around lately...revision ate up all my blog hopping time. But I'm pretty much done, so I'm trying to get better about making the rounds again. Sorry for losing touch!

Roni @ FictionGroupie said...

Great advice, and I love your character's name. ;) Who wouldn't fall in love with a girl named Stanky?

I've done the query thing twice and it's such a tough thing to write. I think the biggest thing is to make sure it's clear. I've read so many online and such that just don't make sense.

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