The Effective Query Letter (Part 2)

(This post is continued from Tuesday's.)
When you write a query letter, you must think of your audience: experienced and, yes, possibly bored professionals. They read this stuff all the time. They are looking for any excuse to discard your book, because they have an entire stack of queries to get through.

That means you need to arrest the agent’s attention with the first line. She does not want to read about the fact you actually completed a novel. Everyone who queries her has done that. She doesn’t want to know anything about you personally, at least not at first. She wants to know: why does this book stand out from the pack? There are several approaches you might want to take.

First, put forth a fresh concept. If you throw up an outrageous idea at the start—stop and look at this—the agent is going to respond: okay, I’ll keep reading. The concept needs to be in capsule form—a single sentence if possible. If not, see if you can boil the story down to its essence, in 25 words or less. What is fresh and engaging about your book? Why is this a valuable addition to the world of books?

Another strategy is to pick out an arresting piece from the manuscript. You lead off with a specific crisis that a reader can relate to. The agent will keep on reading in order to find out how your mini slice will be resolved, the same as she would while reading the book. Many times you’ll find that outlining the opening sequence works well, since that is what you’re using to lure the reader into the actual book. You can, however, use any arresting sequence of events, wherever they appears in the manuscript. Then lead up to your pitch line of 25 words or less, as well as marketing information such as the book's category and title.

To fill out the the letter, I would advising using what I call a body paragraph. That is a capsule version of the synopsis, only dumbed down to provide a single story line an agent can easily follow.  You might want to focus the content around a single character, the protagonist. Choose what drives the book overall and place the reader in the driving seat of that paragraph. Pick out the most striking things that happen in the book and string them together in summary form. Just remember: if I knew nothing about the novel, what are the highlights that would make me want to read more?

One last bit of advice to consider is: use specifics. A query letter is not a book report. You don’t have to outline every character or every plot line. Plus, make sure to use details from the actual manuscript. Yes, you are providing an overview, but it should constantly pick up arresting pieces. That’s how you constructed your story. So use them to tell your mini-story.

“Hell hath no fury like a hustler with a literary agent.”
― Frank Sinatra

Copyright @ 2016, John Paine

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