For the past few days (interspersed with other business), I have been urging you to take a long, hard look at your query letter, to make sure that you are projecting the impression that you are an impressively qualified, impeccably professional writer waiting to be discovered — as opposed to the other kind, who in agents’ minds are legion. Oh, and that your book is interesting, too. So pull up or print up your latest query letter (or the one derived from your pitch via yesterday’s blog), and let’s ask ourselves a few more probing questions before we pop that puppy in the mail, shall we?
Everybody comfortable? Good. Let’s promote the heck out of your book.
First, please read the entire letter aloud, so it is clear in your mind — and to catch any lapses in logic or grammar, of course. I don’t care if you did it yesterday: do it again. And again and again. And if you don’t read it aloud one final time between when you are happy with it on your computer screen and when you apply your soon-to-be-famous signature to it… well, all I can do is rend my garments and wonder where I went wrong in bringing you up.
All right, I’ll hop off the Mediterranean guilt wagon now. (My mother’s favorite joke — Q: how many Mediterranean mothers does it take to screw in a lightbulb? A: None. “Don’t mind me; I’ll just sit here in the dark, while you do what you want…”) Resuming the checklist from the day before yesterday:
(6) Is my brief summary of the book short, clear, and exciting? Have I said what the book is ABOUT?
Frequently, authors get so carried away with the premise of the book that they forget to mention the theme at all. Or they try to cram the entire synopsis into the query letter. Given that the entire query letter should never be longer than a page, your summary needs to be very short and sweet, just like your hallway pitch.
If you’re worried about leaving out salient points, here’s an idea: include the synopsis in your query packet. While you have an agency screener’s attention, why not have a fuller explanation of the book available right there in the envelope? That’s 3-5 entire glorious pages to impress an agent with your sparkling wit, jaw-dropping plot, and/or utterly convincing argument.
Including it will free you to concentrate on the point of the query letter, which is to capture the reader’s attention, not to summarize the entire book. In this context, you honestly do have only have 3-5 sentences to grab an agent’s interest, so generally speaking, you are usually better off emphasizing how interesting your characters are or premise is, rather than trying to outline the plot.
Still tempted to spend the entire page recounting plot twists? Okay, let’s step into an agency screener’s shoes for a minute. Read these two summaries: seriously, which would make you ask to see the first fifty pages of the book?
“Basil Q. Zink, a color-blind clarinetist who fills his hours away from his music stand with pinball and romance novels, has never fallen in love — until he met Gisèle, the baton-wielding conductor with a will of steel and a temper of fire. But what chance does a man who cannot reliably make his socks match have with a Paris-trained beauty? Ever since Gisèle was dumped by the world’s greatest bassoonist, she has never had a kind word for anyone in the woodwind section. Can Basil win the heart of his secret love, without compromising his reputation as he navigates the take-no-prisoners world of the symphony orchestra?”
Clear in your mind? Now here is entry #2:
“BATON OF MY HEART is a love story that follows Basil Q. Zink, whose congenital color-blindness was exacerbated (as the reader learns through an extended flashback) by a freak toaster-meets-tuning-fork accident when he was six. Ever since, Basil has hated and feared English muffins, which causes him to avoid the other boys’ games: even a carelessly-flung Frisbee™ can bring on a pain-filled flashback. This traumatic circle metaphor continues into his adult life, as his job as a clarinetist for a major symphony orchestra requires him to spend his days and most of his nights staring at little dots printed on paper. Life isn’t easy for Basil. Eventually, he gets a job with a new symphony, where he doesn’t know anybody; he’s always been shy. Sure, he can make friends in the woodwind section, but in this orchestra, they are the geeks of the school, hated by the sexy woman conductor and taunted by the Sousaphonist, who is exactly the type of Frisbee™ tossing lunkhead Basil had spent a lifetime loathing. The conductor poses a problem for Basil: he has never been conducted by a woman before. This brings up his issues with his long-dead mother, Yvonne, who had an affair with little Basil’s first music teacher in a raucous backstage incident that sent music stands crashing to the ground. Basil’s father never got over the incident, and Basil…
Okay, agency screener: how much longer would you keep reading? We’re all the way through a lengthy paragraph, and we still don’t know what the essential conflict is!
(7) Is my summary paragraph in the present tense?
This is one of those industry weirdnesses: one-paragraph summaries, like pitches, are always in the present tense. Even if you are describing events that happened before the fall of the Roman Empire. Go figure. I don’t make the rules; I just tell you about them.
The only major exception is, interestingly enough, memoir, probably because it simply doesn’t make sense for an adult to say: “Now I am six, and my father tells me to take out the garbage. But I don’t want to take out the garbage, and in a decision that will come back to haunt me in high school, I choose to bury it in the back yard.” It’s confusing to a sane person’s sense of time.
(8) Does my summary paragraph emphasize the points that will make the book appeal to my target audience?
Since a query letter is, at base, a marketing document (and I do hope that wasn’t a surprise to you; if so, where oh where did I go wrong, etc.), it should be readily apparent to anyone who reads it what elements of the book are most likely to draw readers in your chosen genre. One of the most common mistakes made in summary paragraphs is to confuse vague statements about who might conceivably buy the book with specific, pithy descriptions of what in the book might appeal to the market you’ve already identified in your first paragraph. Compare, for instance:
“CANOE PADDLING MAMAS is designed to appeal to the wild, romantic adventurer in every woman. Set along the scenic Snake River, well known to whitewater rafters, the story follows two women in their journey through fast water and faster men,” with
“Caroline Bingley (26) and Elizabeth Bennet (20) are floating down a lazy river, the sun baking an uneasy outline around their barely-moving paddles. Suddenly, the rapids are upon them — as is a flotilla of gorgeous, shirtless, intertube-navigating men. When a violent hailstorm traps them all in a dank, mysterious cave that smells of recently-departed grizzly bear, shivering in their thin, wet clothes, tempers flare — and so does romance.”
Okay, cover up those last two paragraphs, and take this pop quiz: what do you remember most from the first? Anything specific, after the second? Now what do you remember about the second? As a writer, I’m betting that the image that popped first into your mind was that floating phalanx of nearly naked hunks.
Tell me, if you were an agent handling romances, which image would impress you as being easiest to market to outdoorsy heterosexual women? I rest my case.
Okay, try to shake that image from your mind now, so we can move on. No, seriously.
The other reason that the second summary is better is that it echoes the tone of the book. If you have written a steamy romance, you’d better make sure that your summary is sexy. If it’s a comedy, make sure there’s at least one line in the summary that elicits a chuckle. If it’s a horror novel, make sure it’s creepy. And so forth.
(9) Wait — have I given any indication in the letter who my target audience IS?
Most query letters include no reference whatsoever to the target audience, as though it were in poor taste to suggest to an agent that somebody somewhere might conceivably wish to purchase the book being pitched. Call me mercenary, but I think that is rather foolish in a marketing document, don’t you? If an agent is going to spend only about thirty seconds on any given query letter before deciding whether to reject it out of hand, is there really time for her to think, “Hmm, who will buy this book?”
No extra credit for guessing the answer to that one: no. Tell her.
Have a nice weekend, everybody, especially those of you who are going to be floating down the some wild, largely unexplored river with scantily-clad men who obviously spend a suspiciously high percentage of their time at the gym. As for me, I shall be right here, as I so often am, working on my next novel. Don’t mind me; I’ll just sit here in the dark. Go have your fun.
Keep up the good work!