Six impossible things

Query letter bad examples

A quick recap from last time: the primary principles to apply when writing a query letter are that you keep it short and specific; that the story synopsis matches the book; and that you are not coy in the manner of back-blurbs. Just in case somebody isn’t clear on this, here is a bad example of a query letter story synopsis:

“Having been tragically orphaned at the age of ten, Dorothy Gale has been sent to live with her only relatives on a farm in Kansas. She has great difficulty in adjusting to her new life, and to her dour new guardians. As her aunt and uncle have no children and the farm is miles from the nearest house, Dorothy is lonely and friendless, a situation that will be familiar and appeal to many of the children who are the intended readers of this book.

A year after arriving at the farm, a freak storm separates Dorothy from her aunt and uncle and she has to make her way back to the farm on her own through many strange and startling adventures. My nieces love this book and it is their favorite bedtime reading. My wife and her book club think it would make a great movie! I’m sure you’ll want to see the manuscript and find out just how Dorothy gets home again!”

The book in question is “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” and all of the problems with it are ones I’ve seen multiple times in real-life query letters: spending the first paragraph on backstory that is not even mentioned anywhere in the book (I made almost all of the details up); leaving out all the specifics the editor would really want to know about the actual book (Oz, the wicked witches, the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and Cowardly Lion, etc.); offering the opinions of relatives; attempting to tease the editor into finding out “just how Dorothy gets home.” This query makes the book sound like a modern “problem novel” about grief and adjusting to a new situation; the “freak storm” sounds as if it’s the beginning of the climax of the book, instead of happening on page 4 (which is where it is in my copy).

A somewhat different wrongheaded query letter might look like this:

“It’s the middle of the Napoleonic Wars, and the British army is raising militia to combat a possible invasion. One such regiment is quartered in the sleepy village of Meryton, where officer George Wickham makes the acquaintance of the Bennet sisters. Both Elizabeth and Lydia are drawn to him, but it is Lydia who follows when the regiment is moved to Brighton. While older sisters Elizabeth and Jane struggle with their own romantic problems back home, Lydia and George must choose between duty and their hearts, and more lives than their own will be affected by their decision.”<

The problem with this query is, again, what it leaves out. None of the facts in it are wrong; they’re all in the book. It’s just really misleading – it makes “Pride and Prejudice” sound as if it’s focused on the military angle, with George Wickham as the main character. And it’s being coy about the ending again, but since the whole “plot summary” is about a subplot, it hardly matters. You could actually get a decent novel out of this summary, but it wouldn’t be the one Jane Austen wrote.

What you want in a query is specifics:

“When a cyclone carries Dorothy off to the magical Land of Oz, her one desire is to return home. On the advice of a good witch, she embarks on a journey to the Emerald City to find the wizard who may be powerful enough to send her back to Kansas. Along the way, she rescues a Scarecrow and a Tin Woodman, befriends the Cowardly Lion, is attacked by wolves, and barely escapes from a deadly field of poppies.

Finding the wizard sends Dorothy and her friends on a new quest – to retrieve the broom of the powerful Wicked Witch of the West. Even when she is captured, Dorothy remains determined. In the end, she defeats the witch and returns triumphant to the wizard, only to discover that he is a fraud. Dorothy must embark on a third journey, to find the good witch who can tell her the secret of the magic slippers that will take her home to her aunt and uncle at last.

This is not, perhaps, the very best possible example of a story summary suitable for a query letter, but I’m a novelist – if I could say it in less than 100,000 words, I wouldn’t have written the book in the first place. For those of you who want more examples (and a different set of eyes), I refer you to Miss Snark’s blog posts on cover letters. (Miss Snark is, alas, no longer posting.)

Oh, and one other basic principle of query letter story summaries: boiling down fifty or a hundred thousand words or more into two paragraphs is going to sound stupid and thin no matter what you do. Accept it. Your query letter isn’t competing against other people’s rich, deep, fascinating novels; it’s competing against other query letters. All of which also have to boil their rich, deep, fascinating novels down to two or three stupid paragraphs. So don’t worry about it.

  1. I’d also recommend Query Shark as a resource.

    Great examples! I love what you did to P&P 🙂

  2. “Your query letter isn’t competing against other people’s rich, deep, fascinating novels; it’s competing against other query letters.”

    You know, this put it right in perspective for me. I have a terrible time summarizing my plots, and I think that (unconsciously) I’m trying to make the summary as interesting as the novel.

    And I would second the Query Shark and Miss Snark recommendations. I’m still working my way through all of Miss Snark’s posts (wow, she posted A LOT), but it’s been eye-opening.

  3. Your last paragraph gets to a point that I think is the source of some of the trouble on query letters. The kind of summary that properly goes in a query letter isn’t like any other story-related snippet most people have seen. It contains spoilers, it largely avoids stylistic effects; it’s not written like an advertisement or a blurb or a review or even a book report.

  4. Thinking about the competition as other query letters takes a lot of pressure off.

  5. I think sometimes the lack of specifics isn’t due to attempted coyness; it’s a perspective problem. Especially with a non-action plot, it’s hard to boil a complex concept down to half a sentence that still makes sense to someone who hasn’t read the book. I think a lot of us aim for simple-and-specific but overshoot to vague-and-content-free. If I say my character “crosses a line she never wanted to cross,” for example, that may mean something very specific and very important to me. It’s getting out of my own head far enough to realize it doesn’t convey the same thing to someone else that’s the hard part.

    boiling down fifty or a hundred thousand words or more into two paragraphs is going to sound stupid and thin no matter what you do. Accept it.

    A useful perspective check, speaking of perspectives.

  6. Further thoughts: I’d love to see some examples of how to do an “emotional plot” query right. To riff off of your Pride & Prejudice example, a savvy novice querier might grasp that the main point of the story is Elizabeth and Darcy both realizing that they’ve let their particular forms of arrogance get in the way of what they want. But you can’t say that in a query, because it’s back in vague-and-unspecific territory. So how would you write a good query focusing on that kind of emotional development, while still being specific and not getting hung up on whatever action plot there might be?

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