Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Some basic thoughts on query letters

I often find myself helping first-time novelists with query letters. Here are my thoughts distilled.1

A query letter is not a teaser. It's not jacket copy or an artist's statement. It's a selling document. It's a list of specs for an agent who doesn't know you from Eve: this is what the book is, this is what it does, this is who I am. 

The sole purpose of a query letter is to tell the agent what s/he needs to know in order to decide to invest the time to read the novel. This means you have to make the book and you, the author, seem interesting and sellable:
  • to an editor
  • who will be thinking of how to pitch it to marketing and sales
  • who will be looking for something one reader can describe to another
Your novel doesn't have to be simple but the one-line description does.

So, for example, the one-line description for an imaginary novel The Burnt Man could be "Set in a ninth century in which the Fall of Rome coincided with the fall of something nasty from the sky: an alien slow virus that has destroyed what remains of civilisation and set the world on a new path."

Tell the agent:
  • about the book: setting, characters, basic plot arc, the big emotional knot at the heart of things (if there isn't one, you have a problem), length (don't query an agent about fiction that isn't complete)
  • about you: a thumbnail of why only you could have written this, who you are (have you won awards for short fiction? did you go to Breadloaf or Clarion West? are you a juggler or CEO or Olympic athlete?), what your social media numbers are like (if they're good; otherwise don't mention them)
Be clear and matter of fact. Don't overstate.

Tell the agent a little about the story:
  • the protagonist: name, occupation, age
  • the protagonist's essential struggle: the major turning points
  • their real risk around this choice--what are they afraid of?
  • how does it begin, how does it end? (Does it start in one country and end in another? How long does it take--a day, a year, a lifetime?)
Avoid the whiff of dog-whistle flap-copy (the signals that only those in the know will get) and just say it. Be straightforward.

Never hint at more than you can back up. So don't say, "The Burnt Man has been called Hild meets Nightwings" because the first thing an agent will do is ask "By whom?" If you're really married to the Hollywood-style mashup2 say, rather, "I think of Burnt Man as Hild meets Nightwings." This not only gives the agent a window into your ambition and how you think but avoids the impression that you're trying to claim more than you should.

Make the agent want you as much as the book: if you have plans for--or, even better, have already begun--more novels, say so. (Agents like the idea of a steady stream of stuff they can sell; they like knowing you're a worthy investment of time, energy, emotion.) Give a couple of personal nuggets that they could use to sell the book to an editor; that is, that an editor could sell to marketing and sales--something PR could hang personal interest stories on.

Tell the truth.3 Good luck.

1 I'm assuming you know the basics: keep it to a page, address an agent by name, explain why you're approaching that particular agent, etc. If you don't, visit Query Shark or AgentQuery or Nathan Bransford.
2 Some agents love them, some hate them. It depends what you're writing. And be warned: if you do ever refer to your novel that way, even jokingly, you could get stuck with it: "Game of Thrones without the dragons," anyone?. Choose your comparisons carefully.
3 I have been known to indulge in, ah, aspirational statements--"Oh, yep, I'm working on two novels, actually; here's a paragraph about each." But I back them up. In this instance, I actually wrote Ammonite and Slow River after I'd lied and said I was already working on them. But when the editorial director of HarperCollins UK tells you he likes your short fiction and asks you if you're working on a novel I think it's okay to say Yes and make it true later. But much better to be actually doing the work already.
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