Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Query Letters -- Love or Hate?

I hate query letters

That's not completely true. I hate that to the writer, the query letter is seen as the chasm between unfulfilled dreams and a career.
winnond /

Query letters are how your manuscript lands into the hands of your dream agent, assuming you need an agent. And to be clear, my dream agent is still Martin Short from the Big Picture.

But the query letter doesn't have to be seen in such a limited way. My recommendation -- even if you're going independent, self-pub, small-pub, or Irish pub, you should still do the query letter.

Before you send the mob to my house, here me out.

I've spent considerable time and brain cells (what little I had left) on this topic. I am convinced that when you develop the query letter, it will highlight gaping holes or issues in your story. If you've been struggling with your query letter, the issue may not be the letter itself, it may be (ghasp!) the story you've written.

So I've made a solemn oath. I will write a query letter, before I've started to write my next story. Call this a story treatment if you like. But the approach is sound and powerful if used properly.

After countless hours of research (mostly on Super Agent Janet Reid's Query Shark, but also on dozens of other sites) I have compiled my notes for you:

1. Focus on the Action: leave out the backstory. Most queries give too much description. Probably because we feel like we need to explain why we are where we are, etc. Get to the heart of the matter and fast. Show it. Use powerful verbs. In other words, trust yourself as the writer. Everyone has a backstory. Only your protagonist is about to get into this specific problem.

2. Who is the Protagonist?: Who is the hero/ine? Wee need to know very quickly. Janet Reid recommends opening the query with the hero, in action, facing a problem. Also, only mention the most important characters -- no character soup.

3. What is the Problem?: Start with where the protagonist has a problem (the inciting incident, the disturbance). Again, show it. Let us feel the protagonist's problem. Let us care for her and what she's going through.

4. Compelling, interesting Villains: Boring villains mean boring story. The antagonist has to be so bad that you love him. Think silence of the lambs. 

5. What are the Stakes?: They need to be high. Saying, "He just got laid off," is sad, but not enough to carry an entire story. The stakes need to be high. James Scott Bell says there needs to be a feeling of impending death (actual or psychological). High stakes raise difficult choices...

6. Choices, please: The choices your protagonist faces must be explicit and compelling. If the choice includes, "she'll walk away," then there's no story, is there? Real choices. Though ones. Gut wrenching ones. If Katniss Everdeen does not survive the Hunger Games, her sister and mother will most certainly die. They have depended on her for everything. She volunteered to save her sister. She must survive, even if it means killing the boy whom she has known since she was a child. Tough choices, make for high stakes.

7. 250 words please: General acceptable theory says your query letter should be one page -- but one page can go as high 380 words... maybe more. By sticking to the 250 word count, you are forcing yourself to be succinct and stick to the core of the story. If you're doing this for the benefit of developing your idea you'll be tempted to cheat -- but you shouldn't. Get your main plot down. You will be able to overlay your subplots later. But no matter how many smart sub-plots you add, it will not make up for a flawed main plot. Make sure your main story rocks.

8. Rhythm: You need to develop an ear for rhythm. That's accomplished by reading your lines out loud, We've talked about this, reading out loud is a good (critical) practice. This practice will also highlight clunky writing. Reading out loud tells you when "They are" sounds better than "They're." Rhythm will also establish the tone and voice of your story.

9. Entice: The whole point is for the reader to say, "I want to know more." As you write the query letter, you should get excited too! Your blood should be pumping, and your fingers should be ready to explode with words.

10Test: Let your writer friends read it. Get their input. Not only for proof-reading (which is critical, of course) but to see if they get it, if they're excited, if they want to read the manuscript. A good query letter/story treatment should sell itself.

As for me, I have to apply all the above to my query letter and story. 

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this. Do you have anything to add to this list? I'm sure you do. You can tell uncle Ara :)

Fight the good fight.


  1. Ara, what an awesome post! You've covered everything you need to know for writing a query with great insight. Almost makes me wish I was writing a query right now to use your guide. ALMOST. But I totally agree with you that as painful as a query may be, it totally makes you evaluate and focus your story for the market.

    1. Thank you, Susan! :) I promise to remind you of this post when you're ready to write your query letter. I've struggled a lot in this area. Once I got it, I felt the need to share it with my peeps. I hope it helps. I want everyone's hard work to find a home and with a good focused story/query letter, the odds improve.

  2. I'm off to the Irish pub.....classic line and a great post, especially now I'm in query mode....cheers uncle Ara:)

    1. Mark, I kid you not, the moment that line came out of my fingers, I thought of you :) Best of luck with querying!

    2. Always good for an Irishman to be associated with an Irish Pub :)

      Hey, thanks for helping me remember the "park post" as it shall now forever be known :)

      And, you, good Sir, are an awesome Dad (read his "Fail Gloriously" post below this one, folks!) You will *love* Courageous... I promise, or I'll reimburse the $1 Redbox thingy:)

  3. What a fantastic post. When time comes for me to re-write my query, I'm definitely coming back to this. Not to mention I do indeed like the idea of using the query letter as a plotting technique--it's not the first time I've heard it either, so I think I'll definitely have to try it out. :)

    1. Thank you, Ava. I hope it helps when the time comes. I took this list and tested it against my older queries. Pitiful. Abject failure may be a complement :)

  4. I wrote a draft query and a couple pitches at the start of my WIP which were kind of a mess. But I rewrote one now that I'm 75% through my draft and I think it's helped a lot to focus back on themes. It might depend on where you are in the process. I'm sure I'll redo the query when I'm actually ready to send it out. A great idea for those of us with an aversion to hardcore outlining!

    1. That makes perfectly good sense, Stephanie. Your initial story idea is bound to evolve as you write it (I know it happened to my stories) and a couple of revisits to the query letter will be required. It would make sense to check your query letter at maybe the start of each act. Thanks for sharing your process and for stopping by, of course :)


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