The Body of an Effective Query Letter, Part 1

Authors often ask me for help with their query letter for submissions. I usually suggest breaking it into three paragraphs: an opening paragraph, a body paragraph summarizing the book, and a closing paragraph. Today I’ll address the body paragraph.

For this vital paragraph, my advice is always the same: Read the back cover copy of a book you like and use that as a model. The results I get back, however, show that fiction writers aren’t necessarily marketing geniuses. Most of the time the paragraph reads like a book report. I do understand that distilling all the pages of a novel into one paragraph can be daunting, so I have two tips. In order to describe them in enough detail to be useful to you, I’ll split them into two posts, the next one to appear in a few days.

The first tip concerns what is written. You have to move fast. Every sentence must cover a highlight or important feature of the book. You only have 8-10 sentences, and each one has to count. Forget all the connective material you would usually write, creating that nice flow of words. Rather than two paragraphs that cover how the protagonist found his uncle dead, you want 1-2 sentences. Rather than a long explanation of why his uncle hated his father, you should write why the father is a suspect—in one sentence. The relationship of the brothers is static; moving from the murder to a main suspect is active.

You should draw up two lists. The first enumerates the book’s most important events. Each of these are selling points. You’re pointing out what makes your book unique, separate from all those titles populating the bookshelves. Try to include five of them, minimum.

The second lists the most important relationships. The main character should interact with the other major characters in instantly recognizable ways, e.g., “If she could just get her mother to shut up for a minute . . .” I should note that this list of characters often overlaps with the most important events, e.g., “She never thought her mother would tell a police detective . . .”

With those two lists, you now construct a mini story. It won’t cover the breadth of your book, not even close. The narrative logic you create comes only from those two lists. How does one event lead to the next? How well am I getting to know, at a glance, how the main characters relate to each other? With your best plot points and best characters, you can write a great little story.

Exercise: How do you read the copy on a book’s back cover critically? First, look to see what the subject of each sentence is. You’ll find that it’s often the main character: the driver of that sentence. Second, assess how many opinions the character has. If she’s wildly opinionated about everything, does that match how you’ve written your book? If not, you should raise your game.

"Marketing is a contest for people's attention."
—Seth Godin

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine

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