This Business of Writing

The Query Letter Made Simple

In General Information, The Craft of Writing, Working with Agents on October 28, 2009 at 9:06 am

I read a tweet the other day that say something like, if you’re overly worried about your query, you’re probably over thinking the thing. (I’m paraphrasing as I’m too lazy busy to hunt down the quote. Despite the rewording, it struck me how we authors need to rethink the query and make that proverbial molehill out of the mountain.

Take a deep breath and you’ll be just fine. Trust me. I was a doctor in my dreams once.

Regardless the potential of this frightening piece of paper, a query is nothing more than a short story.

To start, we’ll identify the components of a query letter is.

  1. It’s a business letter. (This is important.)
  2. It’s your novel made into a short story of two to three paragraphs.
  3. It’s a listing of your writer’s credentials, whatever they may or may not be.

Present these three parts in the order shown. Doesn’t sound so bad, now does it?

Have you ever written a business letter? If so, item one is under your belt. If you’ve not, it’s an easy task to master. Formatting is really about it. If you’re unsure, look it up on the Internet. You’ll conquer that skill in a single sitting. (Don’t forget to include all your contact information.)

The short story is not as tough as you imagine. You wrote the book, now make a short story out of it and you’re done. Focus here on the major conflicts in your story and how your primary characters respond to that conflict.  After your salutation, get right to the story. Here’s an example of what I mean by that.

Dear Ms. Agent,

Sam was an exceptional student at John Q. Public High School until Max came into his life.

See how that works? No embellishments, no howdy-dos, none of that. Get to the story right away.

In these two or three paragraphs, simply tell the agent who your, (no more than three), major characters are and the high points of their conflict. They don’t need descriptions of these people, just names and the plot points. Tell how your protagonist and your antagonist fought it out, as it were. Get to the meat of this issue and ignore, for now, all the side steps to the story. Here is your example.

Sam was an exceptional student at John Q. Public High School until Max came into his life. One night, Max convinced Sam to use a fake ID to get into the local pub. The boys got drunk and, with Sam a bystander, Max killed a drifter.

After Sam helped Max dispose of the body, Sam had second thoughts and wanted to report the incident to the police. Max was furious about the idea and tried a number of times to kill Sam.

Sam survived Max’s attempts and in the process, killed Max. Sam then got a job as an assassin’s assistant and, after time, morphs into a world renowned assassin.

There you go. The major characters and the chief conflict points are discussed in three short paragraphs. (I know they’re not well written but, hey, this is an example) This short story should be in the range of two hundred fifty words.

The method I use to craft this short story is easy. After completing at least a first draft of my manuscript, I condense each chapter into a single sentence such as “Boy meets girl.” I string them together to create my query short story. I then edit this short story as I do any manuscript. This process takes me a few hours, maybe half a day.

Don’t forget, these resulting paragraphs must be as well written as your manuscript. However, that shouldn’t be too difficult as you’re a writer, and that’s what writers do. Right?

Finally, the last paragraph lists your writer’s accomplishments in paragraph form. Don’t have any? Not to worry. Agents don’t really care if you’re an aspiring author. They just want to know you’re good at your chosen craft.

In my next posting, I’ll discuss how agents look at your query to make their decisions in asking for partials.

Until then, my all your books be best-sellers.

Patrick

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