Before I landed a publishing deal, believe it or not, I spent a lot of time trying to land a publishing deal. Shocking, right? Well, when I say a lot of time, I mean to say that I spent almost six years tirelessly hammering out query letters and getting either form rejections or no response at all from agents, editors, or publishers.
And the worst part? I didn’t know what I was doing wrong. Were my query letters that bad that it didn’t even warrant a response? It wasn’t until I had actually acquired a publisher for my debut novel, joined a writing forum and critiqued other writers’ letters that I was able to look back and see where I had gone wrong. And trust me, my old letters were awful. Here’s why.
It all Starts with Story
Believe or not, a good query letter starts before it is even written. Hell, a good query letter starts before the novel itself is written. Why? Well, I’m no scientist or anything, but it seems to me that there’s a relation between shitty stories and shitty query letters.
How to avoid this? Write good stories. Easy, right? Maybe not, but I do think it takes some mindfulness on the part of the writer. Write an original story. Don’t follow the trends. Avoid cliches and cliched story-lines. Know your genre. Know your audience. Enlist a beta-reader, a peer, or someone who will give you an honest opinion and then help you burn that shit should it make readers cringe.
Most important of all: read good books. The better read you are, the more equipped you are to know what is good and what is bad — and trust me, you can find a lot of bad without looking very hard. With time, that knowledge gets applied to your own work. It’s called growth, bro.
Vagueness is NOT Your Friend
During my time at previously mentioned writing forum, I have had the pleasure of reading and critiquing quite a few query letters from other aspiring writers. One of the number one things that turns me off of a letter is when the author presents his or her story in a run-around, pseudo-Hollywood manner. Observe:
When Random Randy moves abroad, he must conquer the fears that have hindered him in his love life — and in achieving his dreams. He has been hurt before, but he won’t be again. In a story of love, loss, betrayal and family, Random Randy must learn how to trust again before he loses all sense of control.
Well, Random Randy, that’s all good and fine, but the cringing agent or editor still knows nothing about your story. There’s no substance here and definitely very little plot. Yes, I understand the need to want to tantalize your reader and not give too much of your precious story away, but being vague won’t distinguish you from other writers in the slush pile.
And for God’s sake, endless adjectives do not equate good story.
Hey, You! Focus!
Writing a story is hard. There are often many characters involved, many plots, many themes, and that only grows with your word count. But legit, when you write a query, the agent generally only cares about one of those things: your main character.
Yes, it is tempting to delve into every single plot point, well-developed character, and explored theme, but that doesn’t help you in a query letter. You need focus. You need to be deliberate and singular. In fact, to focus a query letter, I have generally stuck to what I and other writers call the Three Big Questions. They are as follows:
1. What does your protagonist want?
2. What does s/he have to do to get it?
3. What happens if s/he fails to get what she wants?
So, leave the other stuff behind. Let your literary gold be a surprise when that intrigued agent decides to read your manuscript.
This is NOT a News Report
This last point is actually a polar opposite of the two previous points I have mentioned. So, you’ve now reworded all the vague language and focused your query, but you find you have something like this:
When Ursula Unlucky loses all her money in a burglary, she and her children must move across the city to the sketchy part of town. There, she gets a job she hates and she discovers her neighbours are mean. Worse, her children are being bullied and even when she meets with their teachers, the school decides it won’t punish the bullies. Ursula then…
You are not on CNN. You don’t need to talk about every development and twist and turn in your plot. This comes across as being dry and boring and frankly, the agent or editor is cringing. The problem with this is that a query shouldn’t read like a synopsis — the synopsis should read like a synopsis. The query should give enough plot to have a focus (see above), but not enough to take away from the intrigue of your query.
Think of it like testing samples at a grocery store. You want to give the agent/editor/publisher a sample of your story and writing style so they’ll decide to come back for more.
And for shits and giggles, let’s look at one of my old query letters that I submitted once upon a time. It was for a novel that I no longer wish to publish mostly because it is a hideously cliched story (see reason #1 why agents and editors are cringing). In fact, I believe this is my very first query.
Dear Ms. Agent I Found,
As an avid reader of both fantasy and young adult novels, I was immediately drawn to the XXXX Agency and your work. I admire the optimism and support you give writers both aspiring and with your agency. That said, I would like you to consider my novel [Hideosly Cliched Fantasy Title]. It runs approximately 90,000 words and is an epic fantasy novel aimed at young adults.
Set in a world where different realms mesh in a not-so-perfect harmony, [Main Character] spends his youth gazing out an enormous window in his father’s study awaiting adventure. After an experience outside his hillside home that he is too terrified to remember, he must somehow harness a magic that he holds within.
Meanwhile, a fearsome leader named [Fearsome Name] has summoned an ancient magic that has only survived in the superstitions of crazed mystics. With it, he threatens to grip the entire world in his wretchedness. In a story of fallen kingdoms and multiple realms, [Main Character] must stop the bloodshed as the boy for whom the scripture glows.
A student at the University of Toronto studying language and professional writing, I believe that working with an experienced, caring agent such as yourself is the next step for both my novel and me. I think [My Novel] would go together well with the array of fantasy titles attributed to the agency. Also, I read in an interview that you did that you enjoy young adult fantasy and I hope that my novel can find a comfortable place in your repertoire.
Thank you for your time and consideration.