Your query letter, part VI: The body of the letter

Yesterday, I urged you to take a long, hard look at the first paragraph of the query letter you’ve been sending out, to make sure you are projecting the impression that you are an impressively qualified, impeccably professional writer destined to be discovered any minute by another agent IF the agent you are querying does not have the good sense to snap you up first. Today, I want to talk about the body of the letter, the part where you talk about the book itself.

Is everybody comfortable, query letter in hand? Read the entire letter aloud, so it is clear in your mind (and to catch any lapses in logic or grammar), then ask yourself the following questions. The numbering, of course, is a continuation of yesterday’s list:

(6) Is my brief summary of the book short and clear?

Many writers try to cram the whole synopsis into the query letter, going on for paragraphs at a time about the storyline or argument of the book. Given that the entire query letter should never be longer than a page, your summary needs to be very short and sweet. You really only have 3-5 sentences here to grab an agent’s interest, so you might well be better off emphasizing how interesting your characters are, rather than trying to outline the plot.

I hear those frown lines starting to form: here we go again, yet another arbitrary agency requirement. Actually, there is a pretty good reason for this one, something that can work to your advantage — it forces the writer to minimize distracting details. After all, if you are querying fiction, it took you an entire book to tell the story well, didn’t it? And if you are querying nonfiction, didn’t it take you a whole book (well, okay, a book proposal) to make the argument well? So how likely is it that you would be able to convey the entire complexity of your plot in a paragraph, anyway?

To get a sense of how too many details can confuse an agency screener, pretend to be our old pal, the unpaid intern who has already read 75 queries this morning, has just burnt her tongue on her latte, and is reading her last query before her lunch date. Obviously, it’s in your own best interest to read that last one as quickly as possible, right? So consider the following two summaries: which would be more likely to make you ask to see the first fifty pages of the book?

“Murgatroyd, a blind trombonist with a lingering adolescent passion for foosball, has never fallen in love — until he met Myrtle, the baton-wielding conductor with a will of steel. But what chance does he have? Myrtle’s just been dumped by the world’s greatest Sousaphinist; she has vowed never to look at the brass section again. Can Murgatroyd win the heart of his first love, without compromising his reputation as he navigates the take-no-prisoners world of the symphony orchestra?”

Snappy, isn’t it? The characters come off as quirkily interesting, and the basic conflicts are immediately apparent: request away. Contrast this with the more common type of summary:

“BATON OF MY HEART is a love story that follows Murgatroyd, the child of a smothering father and absent-minded mother who was blinded at age six by a wayward electrical wire. As a child, Murgatroyd hated and feared electricity, which causes him to avoid playing conventional sports: football fields are always brightly lit. This light metaphor continues into his adult life, where he performs in symphony halls with lights trained on him all the time. Life isn’t easy for Murgatroyd. Eventually, he gets a job with a new symphony, where he doesn’t know anybody; he’s always been shy. He makes friends in the woodwind section, but the people who play next to him remain aloof. A mysterious woman is hired to conduct the symphony. Murgatroyd is intrigued by her, because…”

Hold it a minute: We’re all the way through a lengthy paragraph, and we still don’t know what the essential conflict is!

To phrase this in the language of the industry: next!

(7) Have I made it clear what the book is actually about — and how it is different from other books?

This might seem like a flippant question, after the last, but frequently, writers get so carried away pushing the book in principle that they forget to mention the theme at all. Instead, they rely upon the kind of summary that writers use in casual conversation, chestnuts along the lines of, “My book is a political thriller about a man who tries to kidnap a third of Congress.”

“Um,” our little friend the screener thinks, “are you going to tell me anything about who this guy is? His motivation, perhaps? Who might conceivably try to stop him in his attempt?”

Burnt-lip screener has a point here: without some indication of the characters and conflict, stories start to sound very, very much alike. The result is that summaries like “LOVE SONG is the story of a romantic woman seeking the love of her life,” tend to be dismissed out of hand: this could, after all, describe the vast majority of romances, no?

Hint: if your summary in the letter does not include any mention of the central conflict of the book, you might want to rework it. And it’s always a good idea to mention your protagonist by name (by first name, at least) in the first line of the description

(8) Is my summary in the present tense?

Okay, this one is genuinely a weirdness of the industry: 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.

(9) Does it emphasize the points that will make the book appeal to my target audience?

If you find being direct about why your book is needed by your target audience (“PIGSKIN SERANADE is designed to appeal to the romantic football-lover in all of us”) a trifle gauche — and actually, even if you don’t — it should be readily apparent to anyone who reads your summary what elements of the book are most likely to draw readers.

The easiest way to do this is to make sure that the tone of summary echoes the tone of the book. If you have written a comedy, you’d better make sure there’s at least one line in the summary that elicits a chuckle. If you have written a steamy romance, you’d better make sure there’s some sex in the summary. And so forth.

(10) Wait — have I given any indication here 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. But 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 the agent to think, “Hmm, who will buy this book?”

In pretty much every instance, no. To translate again: next!

How’s your query letter holding up? This honestly is a quiz where you want to score 100%. Tomorrow, I shall wrap up the checklist, so you can send out your queries with confidence. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *