Query Letter Writing – a Daunting Dilemma
Some years ago, to add to a discussion I was encouraging related to the nuances of query letter writing, a woman who had just received a contract for her first novel–and with Simon & Schuster no less–wrote me to lament how arduous she had found the task of crafting her missive to appeal to agents. She admitted that she considered the query more difficult than writing the actual work, and had spent over a year on her letter. For discretion’s sake, I won’t reveal the name of the author, but many people would recognize this now well-known Ph.D., and her breakthrough novel.
I chuckled at her comment, not out of derision, but from empathy, since I have often felt the same way about my own queries. While I haven’t spent a year on a letter to attract an agent, at times I wish I had. One of the problems is that I have often found my query turning into a synopsis. And in parsing the query letters of others, the synopsis syndrome, as I call it, seems to be the most chronic malady that inhibits the presentations (sic, queries).
For a Successful Fiction Query Letter, Size does not Matter
A writer desires to tell as much as possible about the story of which he or she is so passionate, and is often influenced by an industry success story in which someone has crammed as much as possible onto one page, even to the point of reducing font size to make the text fit. Unfortunately, in trying to mirror this, the end result for most is invariably a synopsis and not a presentation of the subtle plot and character elements that reflect the writer’s skill and which sets the work apart–and what will influence an agent to request the manuscript.
Think of a Query Letter as an Advertisement, and Sell the Sizzle and Not the Steak
An agent of mine once railed at me about a poor query I had sent him for a later novel because it told too much of the individual aspects of the story and not about the work as a whole. He said to write the query as if I was designing the liner notes for the novel. I found this to be some of the best advice I have ever received. As a comparison, if one wants to be successful in sales, one of the time-worn truisms is to “sell the sizzle and not the steak.” It might be suggested to apply the same axiom to writing a query letter. This can be like grasping Showing versus Telling the first time around (or the tenth), but it has to be understood if a query is going to work.
Write a Query from the Gut, not the Heart
It might help to think of your work in visceral terms; meaning, what are the hard-hitting aspects of your story from an overall perspective. This will take your thinking beyond the brick and mortar. And remember, most of all, you are wanting to provide the agent with just enough knowledge of your work (and ability) to create interest. If you can do this succinctly and with skill, would it not be logical that the agent might assume that your novel is written at the same level? Should you review queries that have garnered agent representation, please notice how little is told about the actual stories, but how much the successful letters reflect the authors’ competence for writing quality prose.
Robert L. Bacon is the Founder of The Perfect Write(TM) theperfectwrite.com
For authors, The Perfect Write™ is now providing FREE QUERY LETTER REVIEW AND ANALYSIS. Post your query to mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org(no attachments) and visit the Sample Letters Page for examples of successful query letters.