Killer Query Can be Simple
By Natalie R. Collins
Query letters and synopses are the bane of writers every where. Extremely prolific authors with 200,000-word manuscripts suddenly suffer writer's block when faced with a letter that starts: "Dear Agent."
Why are these two products so difficult to write? Perhaps because we are making it harder than it needs to be. In today's column I will focus on query letters. Query letters are simple. There are only five parts to an effective query, although others will tell you there are four. This is the format that I follow:
2. Book description
3. Genre, word count, market
4. Your credentials
Sounds easy, right?
It is, if you remember to put it in perspective. A query letter is the tool that you will use to sell your work and yourself to an agent. This is your 30-second Superbowl spot. It needs to be brief, well-written, include all the vital information, and be snappy.
Let's start with the hook. What is the most important aspect of your work? You need to focus on something unique, original, and attention getting. I advise against using a question for your hook. This is an overused tactic, and one I'm sure that agents are tiring of. As an example, I will use my own query letter for for Outer Darkness, my second book. This query letter received a very high and positive response from the agents I queried.
1. Hook: Allison Marie Jensen is a rebellious young Mormon woman whose father rules his world and family like a god.
With this hook, I am hoping to give the agent a reason to want to read on and be compelled by my storyline. After you find the right hook, you move to the second part of your query, the book description.
2. Book Description: The Church sets his right in stone, and Allison chafes under the strictures of fundamental religion. Struggling to leave her abusive past behind, she sets out on a journey of self-discovery only to discover that in trying to destroy her father, the only person she has hurt is herself. Following a brutal attack, Allison retraces her tumultuous childhood years, trying to fill in the gaps of a patchwork memory. She uncovers a conspiracy by a series of Church leaders to cover up the abuses of a sexual predator. Determined to bring him, and those who didn't stop him, to justice, she sets out on a journey that drastically changes the lives of every member of her family--including her fanatically religious father. Stalked by her rapist, she ultimately discovers the worst betrayal is perpetrated by those who believe themselves to be following God's will.
Your book description should be as brief and compelling as you can possibly make it. Secondary plots and characters have no place here. You don't have the time for them. What you need to get to is the meat of your story. What drives this manuscript? After you have your description down, you move to genre, word count, and market.
3. Genre, word count, market: With recent events spotlighting Utah, including the 2002 Olympics and media coverage, and the trial of polygamist Tom Green, there has been much interest in Utah and the Mormon Church. This 80,000-word work, mainstream women's fiction, covers much of the history of the Mormon religion, and opens up to the world a closed society about which very little is known.
Should you always include a genre? In my opinion, no. I research the agent I am querying first, before trying to put a "tag" on my work. Most often, agents will decide what genre your work fits in, and you don't have to. If you do feel it necessary to use a genre, try to keep it broad and non-specific. From here, we move to your credentials.
4. Credentials: I have over twenty years writing experience, including eleven years with the largest daily newspaper in Salt Lake City. I also served as an editor for the 2001 and 2002 Sundance Film Festivals. Outer Darkness is based on my own upbringing as a Mormon. Through my work with Sundance, I have been approached by several independent producers interested in screenplay rights to Sisterwife (Booklocker, 2001), which is garnering excellent reviews, and was voted number seven in the annual Preditors & Editors Poll for 2002. I have two other books completed, and have started on my fourth.
Keep it short and sweet. Do not list every award you have received, or every school you have attended, but be careful not to leave something important out, also. After you have introduced yourself, end it on a brief, professional note.
5. Ending: Please let me know if you are interested in reading Outer Darkness. Best, Natalie R. Collins.
That's it. Nothing more is needed, except, of course, a SASE for those snail mail queries. If you divide your query into these five parts, it makes your job much easier. If you have included something that does not fit in one of these groups, you should seriously consider whether or not it is necessary to your query.
Queries should never be more than one page, and should always be professional written, edited, and proofread. Even email queries should contain your contact information, and should be professional.
In my next column, I'll be attempting to make a synopsis as easy as a query. Wish me luck. I'd rather sit on a den of fire ants.
Copyright © 2001-2002 Natalie R. Collins
Collins is a regular columnist for Fiction Factor,
contributing helpful articles about agents and editors.
You can benefit from some of Natalie's hard-work and in-depth
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