Socrates and the Query Letter

Query letters are tough. I mean, I have a hard enough time with my elevator speech: how the heck am I supposed to condense down everything I need to say into like four paragraphs?  It’s nearly an art in itself.  You need to get their attention, tell them about your book, and tell them why it’s going to sell– and you’ve gotta do it fast. Plus it needs to be fairly well-written, since your writing style is part of the selling point.

Which is hard, guys.

I’ve been reading up a lot on query letters lately.  So I’m going to try and organize my research a little, and write it all down here.

Resources

I’ve been doing a lot of looking around over at AgentQuery, which does more than help hook you up with agents: it has a great forum to help you write your queries, and a super-helpful list of everything you need to have in your letter itself.   It lists the Dos and Don’ts of writing a query letter (use their name, write in your own voice, don’t call your book a “fictional novel”), and gives you a bit of a formula to follow.

For the lazy, I’ll put the short version here:

Introduce your work: Write a hook, one short sentence to get the agent (or any other reader) interested.
Synopsis: Condense the book into 150 gripping words.
Biography: Condense yourself into 150 gripping words.
Conclusion: Thank them for their time and add in relevant details.

That’s it.  That’s all.  For me, at least, that feels a little impossible. So (in my usual methodical process) I’ve been working out how to actually get started.  After reading through a thousand successful queries and critiques and blog posts, I went with my gut.

My Gut Likes Questions.

Basically, whenever I’m stuck on something I channel my inner Socratic six-year-old.  A barrage of increasingly-absurd questions is a surefire cure for any plot-based writer’s block, and query letters are no exception.  Here are some of the better ones I’ve come up with, separated by the sections I wrote out above.

Hook: What makes your book stand out? In what ways are your characters absurd? In what ways are they interesting? In what ways are they relatable? What about the plot, the setting– where can a reader connect? And once they connect, how does it differ from what they know? How does your book define “normalcy” and how does the plot deviate from that? What’s funny? What’s heartbreaking? What’s clever?

AQ offers a few technical suggestions, but it doesn’t tell you how to discern what part of your book is going to hook the reader.  Don’t get me wrong– as a writer, you should have an idea, since your first line should do exactly that.  But stories often have more than one element.  Take Hamlet: would you write your hook about Hamlet’s revenge or Claudius’ evil deed? Would you include the ghost of Hamlet’s father or focus on Hamlet’s madness? Would you target the hook down to one or two of those elements– or would you cram as many as possible into a sentence to get a sense of the fast-paced play?

Synopsis: How many threads of plot do you have? Which are important? Which do you want to include? What threads are essential to the plot? What should you leave out? How many main characters do you have? How many supporting? Which supporting characters do you absolutely need to include? What background do you absolutely need to include? And once you’ve finished, what can you cut?

Writing a synopsis of a book is probably harder than writing the actual book.  After all, your book has enough packed into it to fill a novel. Try to remember you’re selling your story, not rewriting it.  If questions aren’t doing it for you, there are other ways to try and pick out the essential pieces.  Try to write your novel in one horrendously long run-on sentence, for example, or get a beta reader to tell you as much as they remember about the plot after their first read-through.

Bio: Where did the book come from? What experiences did you draw from, or what education do you have to back up what you’ve written? What makes you interesting? What makes you worth listening to? What makes you worth investing in? Is this your first novel? Your first publication? And how much of that is relevant here?

When writing your bio, make sure you’re in a good mood.  Write it after a personal success, a good piece of pie, maybe a phone call to your grandparents.  You’re selling yourself here, so you need to believe in yourself. And, as always, trim it down: unless it’s literally the plot of your book and you had lupus or something, no one cares if you won your third-grade spelling competition. It won’t convince the agent you’re a good writer.

Conclusion: What else does the agent want you to say? What did you miss above and should you write it down? Can you put it elsewhere or does it actually go here?

Your third-grade spelling bee doesn’t go here either.  Just say thanks, you look forward to hearing from them, and move on.

And In Conclusion…

So thanks.  I look forward to hearing from you: if you’re working on a query letter I’d be glad to read it over and provide my insight in the comments below. And now I’m moving on.

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