The author blog of C. J. Ivory

Tinkerer with words. Dresser-Upper. Adorer of Steampunk and VictoriaNoir fiction. Occasional Lawgineer.

April 13, 2011

The Dreaded Query Letter - Part Three

As promised, Gentle Reader, here is the third and final installment of the Dreaded Query Letter series. (If you missed them, here are Part One and Part Two.)

This post is devoted entirely to the writing of the query letter itself. Before we get immersed on the whys and wherefores, here are a few (obvious but necessary) points:

The Query Letter is, first and foremost, a business letter. Keep it professional – no funny fonts, no Snoopy notepaper (if you’re sending a hard copy), no spelling or grammar errors. Use standard business format: Single-spaced, 12-point font, spaces between paragraphs.
The length should be 250-300 words. Any longer than this and you probably wont be able to hold the attention of a busy agent. 

Parts of the Query Letter

There's no way a sane person would tackle a query letter all at once, so I'm going to break it down into components:
  1. Salutation
  2. Mini-synopsis
  3. Housekeeping
  4. Fond farewell and your details

1. Salutation/Greeting

Begin the letter simply: Dear Ms Doe (use “Ms” for a female, and “Mr” for a male). Don’t lead with To Whom It May Concern, because it will very soon concern absolutely no one. The assumption at this point is that you’ve done some research and have found an agent whose projects are similar to your novel. If you don’t even know her name, what kind of message is this sending?

You should avoid mass-emailing, but if you have to do it, at least don't make it obvious. If you personalise the email, then naturally this helps, but if you’ve got a subject line that says FWD: FWD: FWD: My Amazing Query Letter, and the agent’s name’s been added in a different font from the rest of the letter, your agent is not going to feel special.

2. The Mini-Synopsis

This is what sells your book to the agent. The rest of the query is mostly frills or details, which are unlikely to be deal-breakers (although I wouldn’t test this theory if I could help it!).

The Mini-synopsis, however, is all-important. It shows the agent that you can tell a story, by explaining what your plot is. It shows the agent that you have a good command of the language, through clever and witty prose and flawless English. It is also the hardest part of the query to write.

2a. The Start of the Mini-Synopsis – the hook

Previously, convention had the first line of the query letter reading:

I am seeking representation for my 80,000-word literary novel, Alone Together.
However, this has recently fallen out of favour as a start line. As many agents/authors argue, you’re trying to hook the agent – why waste valuable real estate with something as mundane as the word count?

That said, I began my query letter with such a line, and it was successful. But let’s go with the current wisdom for now, because they’ve probably got a good point. The more memorable the first line, the better.

So how to do this?
Many authors start with a log line. This is a snappy little phrase which sum up the main gist of the book, without going into details:
All of Marlene’s life, her mother used a crystal ball to make a living. Now it seems Mommy’s using it to make a killing.
Well, it’s not great, but it was the best I could come up with in twenty seconds. You get the idea. 

The advantage of a log-line is that, if you do it right, it can really hook the reader. But you need to be careful with the segue into the Mini-Synopsis. Avoid something like this:

When an ex-postal worker discovers old love letters, he sets about reuniting two octogenarians. But the letters are more meaningful than he realises: they’re coded missive from the Cold War – and the government will stop at nothing to get them.
Ralph Elias is enjoying a peaceful retirement...   

It's jarring, and slightly confusing, because the log-line paragraph clashes with the Mini-Synopsis second paragraph: the chronology is all messed up. The sentence starting “Ralph Elias is enjoying...” describes the beginning of the story, but the agent has already read the log line, and is immersed in the middle of the story. 

Keep It Simple, Sweetheart: Whether or not you start with a log line, you must make sure your first line is snappy and concise. Because you have only 250 words, the temptation is to squash as many ideas as possible into one sentence. You end up with sentences like this:

Son of ex-military dictator Elton Rouge has just discovered that he’s the only person in his high school who knows the hot new foreign exchange student’s deadly secret, but no one will listen to him since he’s developed a reputation for being a compulsive liar.
I count seven ideas in this sentence:
  1. Elton Rouge is the son of an ex-military dictator;
  2. He is in high school;
  3. There is a hot new exchange student;
  4. She has a secret;
  5. Elton knows the secret;
  6. No one will listen to him; and
  7. Elton has the reputation of a compulsive liar.

In writing you’ll often hear people say  sentences should contain one, maybe two ideas each. Personally I think the rules are slightly different for query letters, since we do have to mash so much in, but try to keep your ideas-per-sentence ratio low. Because for every word you claw back by squeezing ideas into a sentence, you lose out on the clarity.

So, to convert the sentence above:
High school is hard when you’re the son of a former military dictator – it’s even worse when you have a reputation as a compulsive liar. So who’s going to believe Elton Rouge when he tells them the hot new foreign exchange student has a deadly secret?

2b. The Rest of the Mini-Synopsis

By the time the agent’s finished with your first sentence(s), she is hopefully thinking, this sounds like it has potential. Now is the time to wow her with the AMAZING AWESOMENESS of your plot.

As you write your mini-synopsis, here are a few things to consider:

The mini-synopsis must tell the main story. What is the main story? If you’re not sure what the main story is, here’s something I learned from the awesome Absolute Write forum: the mini-synopsis should include answers to these points (which just about constitutes the main plot of every book ever written):

  1. Identity: Who is the protagonist?
  2. Goal: What does s/he want?
  3. Stakes: What will happen if s/he does not achieve her/his goal?

Whatever witty and cute thing you write in your mini-synopsis, you must answer these. How you do it will depend on your own writing style. 

Don’t tell everything. Note that Question Three is not “What does happen when she achieves/doesn’t achieve her goal?” Rather than a complete explanation from “Once upon a time” to “...Happily ever after” the query leaves a bit more to the imagination. A writer friend of mine once compared it to the old-fashioned fan dance, where the dancer would reveal only a little of herself at a time, using the allure of the unknown to keep her audience interested. In contrast, try to avoid the “full-frontal from a flasher in the park” effect.

It must be exciting. Yes, Ms Ivory, you’ve already said that *eye roll*. But it’s really easy for the author to get bogged down with answering the Three Questions, creating a great first line, squishin’ in all the info that we think is so important... that we forget to make the story sound sexy. As Canadian author Peggy Blair noted in a comment on Part One, it should have the same interest level and pace as you would find on the back of a book cover. You know, the thing that makes you decide to buy a novel from the book store.

Get Feedback. During the query-writing process, it is easy to lose perspective. You're so familiar with your novel, that you forget that other people might not know that Little Jimmy is actually a schizophrenic tadpole (I mean, come on, it's obvious!). So get other people to read your query: some who've read your novel (so they can see whether it's missing anything important), and some who don't know the first thing about your novel (so they can react in the way an agent would). There are also online writer's forums where you can submit your query letter for critiquing. It's not an easy process, but it's important if you want to get published.

3. Housekeeping

Your novel's HOW LONG?

This is where you include all the details about word count, genre, etc. You can also include writing credits, author platform information, and biographical details if they apply to the novel. Here’s a good example:

My novel, With Deadly Intent, is an 80,000 word crime novel. I am sending it to you because you represent (similar author), whose successful work (novel name) deals with similar themes as mine. I have worked as a police coroner in (name of town) for twelve years. I currently run an internet forum advising fellow crime writers on the finer points of crime scene investigation, autopsies, police procedure, etc. My short story, The Weasel, was recently published in (reputable magazine/anthology).

Here’s a bad example:

Please consider representing my romance/sci-fi/thriller novel, Incredible Complexity. At 140,000 words long, it is Flowers for Algernon meets Lady Chatterley’s Lover meets Twilight. It is the first part of a trilogy. I am a part-time writer, full-time mom and avid marathon runner. I’ve always believed that you have to go out and grab life with both hands.

Some tips:
  • Don’t say it is the first part of a trilogy, quadrilogy, whatever. For a number of reasons agents want to know your novel will stand on its own. Of course, that doesn’t mean you can’t have a series in mind. The accepted way to phrase this is: "With Deadly Intent is a stand-alone novel with series potential."
  • In general, don’t mention self-published works. Self-publishing requires no professional vetting, so as far as an agent is concerned, a self-publishing credit is no credit at all. The exception to this is if you’ve self-published and sold hundreds of books. This shows that the public likes your writing, and you may already have a platform.
  • Agents expect your novel to be finished before you start querying. It’s really only sensible – what if she requests the full manuscript and you haven’t completed it? You’re going to look like an unprofessional twit. So if it’s not ready, don’t query yet.
  • Do include word count, and genre. Don’t be coy about these things. Use a maximum of two genres if you have a genuine crossover, such as erotic thriller or dystopian mystery.
  • Don’t include random things about yourself, like your life philosophy or the names of your pets. At this point you’re selling your novel, not your personality. If the agent takes you on, she’s surely going to be keen to get to know you, but until then she’s really only interested in your novel potential.
  • Do give a rational reason why you are querying that particular agent. They will appreciate it, and it shows you’ve taken time to do some research.
  • Don’t say “my novel is Frankenstein meets Tuesdays With Morrie meets The Vampire Diaries.” It’s far more confusing than it is helpful. Also, you want to appear “fresh and original”, not “derivative and possibly about to get sued”.

4. The Fond Farewell, and your details

Thank the agent for their time, and sign off with a professional farewell. Kind regards always sounds nice to me. Best wishes is fine. 

Finally, include all the ways you are comfortable being contacted by the agent – email, phone number, address, whatever. Naturally you’ve done enough research to know the agent is not a scammer, but just in case, err on the side of caution – don’t give out any information that you would be hesitant giving out under other circumstances.

With regard to attachments: Send whatever, and exactly, the parts of the novel the agent wants. You will find this information on the submissions page of the agent's website.

I hope my Query Letter series has been helpful, Gentle Reader! Meanwhile, all this thinking about the damn things is doing my head in... I’m off for a cup of tea and a lie-down...


Carolyn Arnold said...

Wow! There's a lot of valuable information here Charlotte! Thank you for sharing this

Charlotte Jane Ivory said...

My pleasure :) Thanks for stopping by!

LM Preston said...

Thanks for breaking this down. Now the hard part of sending it out haunts us.

Charlotte Jane Ivory said...

It's always hard to send your work out into the world, isn't it? Only advice I can give is the old Nike Just Do It :)