Six impossible things

Query letter principles

Lately I’ve been getting a lot of queries about, well, queries. So I figure that it’s probably time to do a post on them, even though I feel like I’ve been talking about the “boring business stuff” an awful lot lately.

Anyway, the first thing I’m going to say is that I am explicitly talking here about queries for NOVELS. You do not query for short stories; short fiction is a quick enough read that it’s as much work for the editor to answer a query letter as it is for her to read a submission, and reading the submission on the first go-around means the editor doesn’t have to deal with it twice, so that’s what they prefer.

The second thing is that a cover letter is not a query letter. If you’re submitting a manuscript, whether it’s short or long, the cover letter should basically say “Dear Editor: Here is my story of XXX,XXX words. I hope you like it. If you don’t want to buy it, here is a SASE. Yours truly, The Author.” You can fiddle with the phrasing, and if you have relevant credentials you can put in a line or two about them (but not a four-inch list of semi-prozines or every creative writing class you ever took), but that’s basically it.

A cover letter does not include a story synopsis. It does not need one; the actual story is attached. It also does not include warnings about your lawyer or rave reviews from your friends and relatives (unless one of your friends/relatives is somebody like Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, or the owner of the publishing company). This ought to be obvious, but from the rant I heard last weekend from an editor, apparently it is a much more obscure and difficult concept than I thought.

Query letters are just that: a one-page letter containing a summary of your story and any other relevant information that you send to editors/agents in hopes that one of them will ask to see the manuscript. Query letters also should not contain warnings about your lawyer or rave reviews from friends, though they do generally contain a paragraph or two of story summary.

A query letter is a sales document. This is where most of the people who have trouble with query letters get off on the wrong foot. The first common problem is that the author does not think of the query as a sales document at all, or does not think much about what that actually means. Instead of telling the editor the things the editor needs to know, he/she talks about what he/she found exciting about writing the book.

Sometimes, this is fine – if you’ve written an action-adventure, and what got you interested and excited and happy about writing it was the exciting face-off at the end between Darth Vader and Dr. Demento, describing what you’re excited about is exactly what you want to do. If, however, what got you interested was the really neat backstory and/or worldbuilding that you did, or the nifty looped-and-braided structure you came up with…well, this is the equivalent of going up to someone who has a bad headache and saying “I have these really pretty red pills – they’re cubes, very unusual, and you just don’t get this nice shiny red color in pills” when what the person you’re talking to wants to know is, “Will they get rid of my headache and how fast?”

The other really common mistake would-be authors make is to make the query letter sound like the back blurb on a book. This is understandable: the goal of both the query letter and the back blurb is to get someone to read the book, right?

Not quite. The goal of a back blurb is to get the reader to buy the book for himself, so that the reader can spend an enjoyable couple of hours reading it. The editor isn’t going to be reading the ms. for personal enjoyment. What the editor wants to know is not “Is this something I might enjoy reading, to the tune of seven or eight bucks?” but “Does this look enough like something other people will buy from my company that I’m willing to spend my precious time evaluating it?”

You can have written the greatest domestic comedy-of-manners since Jane Austen, and it won’t sell if you send it to a line of action-adventure novels. You can, of course, write a query letter that makes your domestic comedy-of-manners sound like a clone of The Hunt for Red October, but as soon as the acquiring editor gets a look at the actual manuscript, she’ll bounce it.

Therefore, the first principle of writing query letters is that the summary you give needs to reflect the actual book you have written. Also, notice that I keep saying “story summary” rather than “plot summary.” A good many writers see “plot” and automatically think “action plot,” even if the central, A-level plot is a political, intellectual, or emotional one. They end up describing the “B-level” kidnappings and car chases, which are really maybe 10% of the story and not the center of the book, because that’s “the plot,” when the story is about two brothers trying to reconnect after not seeing each other for twenty years.

A corollary of this is to start where the book starts and end where it ends. If the protagonist is a starship captain with an interesting background, you don’t start the query with two paragraphs about the interesting background that all happened before Chapter One, nor do you waste valuable words explaining how many children the protagonist has after the book ends, nor describing their adventures that might make great sequels when/if you get them written.

The second principle is to be as specific as possible (given that you have, at most, two or three paragraphs to fit everything into). “After many adventures” is not specific. “After being kidnapped, taming a dragon, and rediscovering the Library of Alexandria, among other things” contains specifics without going into so much detail that the mid-book adventures crowd out the other important stuff. Do not be coy. “In a shocking twist, Joe Hero must face his greatest fear to overcome his nemesis” is neither shocking, nor specific, nor even interesting…and could apply to about 9 million slush pile manuscripts, all but about three of which aren’t worth the editor’s time. The synopsis should describe your specific book, clearly enough that the editor can tell that it isn’t one of those other nine million.

Boiling 90,000 to 150,000 or more words down into two or three paragraphs is, of course, hard. Next post, I’m going to provide some examples, so you can see how it works.

  1. Really looking forward to the examples!

    Your separation of the action plot and the emotional (/political/intellectual/etc.) plot is one of the most useful ways of thinking about this stuff that I’ve seen. Ditto “story summary” versus “plot summary”, which I think is part of where I was falling down. I finally realized that the A-plot of my novel is what I’m calling the “ethical plot”; it’s what my MC is or isn’t willing to do to resolve her dilemma that’s the heart of the story. The action stuff’s just there as a framework to hang all that on.

  2. Oooh! Looking forward to the examples. I’ve never seen the difference between back cover blurbs and queries spelled out before, so thank you for that 🙂

  3. Thank you. This is very helpful.

Questions regarding foreign rights, film/tv subrights, and other business matters should be directed to Pat’s agent Ginger Clark, Curtis-Brown, Ltd., 10 Astor Place, 3rd Floor New York, NY 10003,