Six impossible things

Short-short queries

It’s been over a year since my last post on query letters, and frankly, after writing four different posts on the topic, I didn’t think I had anything else to say. After all, the basics of query letter writing don’t change much, mainly because its purpose hasn’t changed. You’re writing a one-page letter to persuade an editor that your manuscript is worth looking at.

However, it has come to my attention that there are still things to address. As I’ve said before, there are two basic types of query letter, the extremely brief elevator-pitch query and the slightly longer one that tries to sum up the plot in two or three short paragraphs. I’ve done a break-it-down-and-rebuild-it post on the two-to-three-paragraph version, but I never got around to doing the same thing for the short version. So here’s the starting example:

Dear Editor:

I have just finished my 100,000 word novel, The  Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread, a hilarious romp through an improbable future in which a manic grad student and a purple monkey pull out all the stops to defeat the Evil Overlord. It’s a suspense-filled drama with darkness at its heart as the two unlikely heroes confront their all-too-human flaws, part Igraine Hughes and part Carlos Merriwether III with just a hint of the third season of the “Five Guys Pretending To Be Marooned On A Desert Island” reality show and a soupcon of The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire. I myself have a Ph.d. in history, and I can assure you that all of the historical references are perfectly accurate. Would you be interested in looking at it?

Sincerely, The Writer

This query starts off very well, with the mention that the novel is finished, the word count, and the title, but as soon as it starts trying to actually describe the story, it falls apart. Why? Because this author decided that the only way to keep the description short was also to leave out most of the specifics and instead try to describe what they think the story is like. She doesn’t even provide the name of the main character.

You know all those writing rules, especially the one about showing instead of telling? This is where you use them. You don’t say “this is a hilarious romp through an improbable future,” “they pull out all the stops,” or “It’s a suspense-filled drama with darkness at its heart…” There is almost no actual information in any of those phrases (and even the what-is-it opinions are contradictory – is this a comedy or a thriller?). And what’s with that mention of “historical references”? Isn’t this supposed to be set in the future?

Specifics are particularly difficult to come up with for a short-short query. You have 100,000-plus words of plots, subplots, characters, setting, theme, and overall hard work; when you start trying to sum it up, everything seems important and it’s easy to get tangled up in trying to fit it all in. The more that goes in, though, the harder it is to make it clear how things tie together (and there isn’t room in this kind of query for any explanation – it all has to be obvious from context).

Providing comparisons to well-known writers and stories can be useful and effective in this kind of short-short summary, but showing off your knowledge of obscure writers, poets, and TV shows isn’t going to win you points (especially if they are so obscure that the editor isn’t familiar with them). Using obscure references doesn’t make you look smart; it makes you look as if you don’t know which books or authors were and are important in whatever field or genre you are trying to sell your book to.

Next, a short-short pitch is not the place to be talking about your research or your credentials, unless they are both really impressive and directly relevant. “I have a Ph.d.” is neither. “I have a Nobel Prize in economics” would certainly be impressive, but since it isn’t directly relevant to this particular story, it still wouldn’t belong in this particular query. “I have six novels in print and my last novel was Number One on the New York Times Bestseller List for six weeks,” on the other hand, is impressive and relevant to pretty much any novel query.

Finally, a short-short query isn’t a teaser. Yes, you are trying to get the editor intrigued and interested, but you want to do it by giving him/her more information, as clearly as possible. So here’s my revised version:

Dear Editor:

I have just finished my 100,000 word novel, The  Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread. When manic grad student Linda Anybody accepts a research request from a purple monkey, she quickly finds herself on a whirlwind tour of the galaxy. Pursued by the Evil Overlord, Linda struggles to find allies among space mermaids, living rocks, and other aliens; to succeed, she has to face her own lack of drive and commitment. The final battle in which Linda’s forces unexpectedly defeat the Evil Minions and save the universe is a cross between Douglas Adams and H. P. Lovecraft. Would you be interested in looking at it?

Sincerely, The Writer

  1. The revised version is definitely better. More specifics, more at stake. I think when I finish my latest book I’ll be trying a shorter query–mainly because it’s an adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and I think most agents know the story line enough to not want it beaten over their heads. Yes, I’ve changed a lot, but I’m hoping my query can convey that in a short way. We’ll see how it goes!

  2. I have never seen a short query, but it actually appeals to me more than other things I have seen. Thank you for the post.

  3. The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread seems to have morphed since its original conception, but I still want to read it. 😉

    when you start trying to sum it up, everything seems important and it’s easy to get tangled up in trying to fit it all in. The more that goes in, though, the harder it is to make it clear how things tie together

    I think this is the problem with any kind of query. Connections that are obvious to the writer may be opaque to the reader; connections that are obvious to the reader may seem to the writer like they need explaining because there’s other stuff that isn’t obvious, but there’s not space in a query to get into them properly, so it just seems like the writer is belaboring the, well, obvious…. I almost prefer writing short-short queries, because at least you know going in that you’re going to have to leave the guts of your story bleeding on the floor, and just toss the reader a bone or two.

    (And did anyone else see the title and think, “But you don’t have to write queries for very short short stories”? Or am I dating myself with my vocabulary?)

  4. Your short query would work very well as the start for cover copy or book description – the basic information is there.

    Only you wouldn’t want to focus on the end in cover copy, so that part would have to be reworked.

    Writing short lets you put things on a book cover in bigger type – I think that’s helpful for someone choosing print books, if that’s what you’re aiming for. I never bother to read the little type – I have to drag my glasses out for that.

    For ebooks, after the thumbnail comes the full page – it would be helpful to the reader if the copy that shows up is legible, pithy, and concise.

    It is always interesting to see what has to stay – and what can go. Your first version was definitely in need of a makeover.

    The references to other work – as a metric – were nicely done. Not too exaggerated – after all, you ALREADY claimed it was the best thing since sliced bread.

    • You put your finger on part of the problem with query letters generally – everyone has seen loads of back blurbs and jacket copy, and a query letter is about the same length and it does sort of the same job, so they write query letters that sound just like back blurbs…and then they wonder why their queries aren’t working. But there’s a significant difference between trying to get a reader to buy a book and trying to get an editor to buy your manuscript. I hadn’t thought about looking at it from the other direction, though – going from query to back blurb. It’s an interesting and useful different take on the difference between the two forms

  5. That one has a Ph.D. in history could be useful pitching a historical novel: “The Greatest Thing Before Sliced Bread”.

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,