Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Not-to-Be-Dreaded Query Letter

Ugh, the dreaded query letter. You know, that little letter that can change the course of your life -- or not. You've written a great book, 300+ pages for goodness sake, so why not a simple one-page business letter? Probably because you have to boil down that 300-page tome to one paragraph and a life's work of experience into another. Or maybe you don't have any publishing experience at all. What to do?

Q) What essentials go into a query letter? I still can't get past the elevator pitch. How do I boil down my 300 page novel to just one line and then turn that into a query that will get requests from literary agents?


Lynne Griffin
I’ve got a few pre-writing exercises that helped me a lot, not only for query writing, but later when it came to pitching my novel to those who asked, “so what’s it about?” First, do your homework by looking at the jacket copy of some of your favorite published novels. See what kinds of descriptions pop off the page. While the length of these are prohibitive for a query letter, reading them will give you a sense of what intrigues readers. Next look at the descriptions on Publishers Marketplace, and as Hannah suggests peruse the one-liners describing books on the New York Times list. Now on paper, in bullet form, try to sum up what your novel is about and be certain to capture who is at the heart of your story.

Amy MacKinnon
Easy. No, really, it's easy. You can read my answer to outlining the easy-peasy query letter here. Now, your one-liner is a little different, but no harder. Nope, not at all. It is the essential theme of your story. And please don't tell me you don't know the main theme of your novel. If so, you're not ready to start querying. Go back, revise, and then revise some more.

Lisa Marnell
The best advice given to me is that the writing in the query must equal your best writing in the novel. No, I'm not talking about your bio, your experience, your thanks to the agent for taking his or her time to review your work; you state that in a straightforward manner. I mean the pitch in the query, the summary, stakes of what you've written has to capture a reader; in the words of Miss Snark, you have to write well.

Hannah Roveto
The best summary on writing a query is Amy's easy-peasy query letter post for this blog. I know Amy suggested you read that, and I second the motion. As for the one sentence, credit goes to Lisa Scottoline for the following advice. Pretend your story is published. It's selling well; it's made the best-seller list! But... you are no longer the author. You are the New York Times Book Review staffperson assigned to boil down the entire book to one sentence. Bingo!


Ello - Ellen Oh said...

Ok I love the new look by the way! and this is an excellent post! I'm gonna link you up over at the Verla Kay blueboards! This is awesome!

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

Thanks, Ello, for the compliment and for spreading the word. Lynne

suzanneelizabeths.com said...

I wish there was a service that would offer to evaluate a query letter. I've written one and have sent it out to agents with mixed results...which means I don't know if it's the letter or the story that is not appealing!

Amy MacKinnon said...

Thank you, Ello, very kind of you. And thanks for directing us to the Cutest Blog. We love the layouts.

Suzanne,it's hard, isn't it? I believe Grub Street has just such a service. Grub Street (www.grubstreet.org) is a non-profit based out of Boston, but they do consultations all over the map.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this. I need a dose of prescriptions , as I am doing my query letter about now.