Common Sense Advice for Query Letters

A week ago I posted how my query letter changed over time and the process I used to get to the query letter I’m happy with. Query letters are really summaries. They are 95% summary and 5% business. Some query letters are 80% summary and 20% business. They are still mostly summaries. And the idea of the summary is that you’re trying to sell your book. You want the person receiving the letter to want to read what you’ve wrote. It is exactly like having a random reader browsing a book shelf and picking up things, turning them over or opening the dust jacket to read what the story is about.

I ended up using the Query Shark method. Who is the main character? What is the conflict? And why do we care?

There are a lot of writers out there that truly believe they cannot write a summary. They can write 80,000 to 100,000 or more words (or even 2000 words) and yet, they can’t figure out how to tell their readers what they wrote. If I had a nickel for every fanfic that I read of instead of a summary had an “I suck at summary, here is the pairing just read…” (I’d be rich.) I’m going to tell you right now, I never clicked on those stories. Being able to summarize your work is important, just as important as being able to show your work. (Be it math, or fashion design or writing.)

So, here are some very common sense things about writing a query/summary.

Don’t say “My story is about.”

Apparently this comes up a lot. Being able to say what your story is about is a good first step. My story the Lone Prospect is about werewolf biker mercenaries fighting evil in the future. But that’s more of a log line than a summary and doesn’t tell anyone anything about the story. Anytime I see the line “My story is about…” I get this valley girl in my head going “… like this guy… doing this thing and then there is this girl… and it’s really exciting and great. You should read it.”

“My story is about” is telling the story. It’s not showing the story. Telling a story is simply laying out all the facts instead of setting a scene and using dialogue and description. If you read some old fashioned newspaper articles, that is telling. This person at this time did this thing and then this happened. And that is great but why do I care.

So if you can finish the sentence, “My story is about,” it is time to make it interesting.

Jump right into the story. Who is the main character? What is the problem that they are facing? In the Lone Prospect, Gideon is one of the main characters. I’ll use his story arc as an example. Gideon is a 25 year old military veteran looking for a place to belong and he’s decided to join a motorcycle club without knowing anything about it. If this isn’t a good fit, he is resigned to going back home to the family farm. (You can see why I went with the ensemble tack in my query letter.) He didn’t realize he’d be signing his life away to a 5’2″ cute female and joining a private security agency.

Yes. Gideon is not a farmer. He doesn’t want to go home. He wants excitement and adventure. He wants to be part of a motorcycle club! There is a character. There is a problem. (It’s not a grand end of the world problem, but it’s important to him.)

Common sense number two: Don’t give away the ending.

You’ve got 250 words to hook your fish, be it a reader or an agent. Don’t give away the ending of your book in the summary of your query letter. That’s what synopsis are for. You want the reader or the agent to read your summary and then want to read the entire book. Does Gideon stay with the motorcycle club or does he decide it isn’t the right fit and go back to the family farm? (Read the Lone Prospect and find out.) (Are there wacky hijinks before this? Yes, yes, there are wacky hijinks…)

So, don’t spoil the ending by giving it away.

Common sense number three: Follow directions.

Look, read every agent’s bio and the agency’s submission page. Read it twice. Check it five minutes before submitting. If they want the word Query in the subject line of the email, put the word Query there. If they want a query letter, bio, synopsis and the first five pages in the body of the email, do it. Always, always double check to make sure that an agent is open to submissions just before you send an email. (This will not always work, but you can at least try.) Make sure you are sending your query letter to an agent that represents the genre you are writing and double make sure you spell their name correctly (and have the correct gender.) Which leads us to…

The most important and the biggest common sense piece of advice of all, spell and grammar check.

Make sure you don’t have any spelling or grammar errors in your query letter. (And your synopsis and your first five pages.) Using proper words, sentence forms and punctuation in your query letter is the most important thing. Slang terms, text speak and any other form of fad type writing isn’t going to make a good impression upon an agent. A business letter is not the place for that type of writing.

As for the business side of common sense advice. Don’t compare yourself to whoever is the biggest name on the New York Times best seller list for your genre.

If you insist on putting comparable novels in the housekeeping/business section of the letter, saying that your writing is in the leagues of James Patterson or GRR Martin is not going to win you favors with agents. This is why I am a big fan of leaving comparable novels out. I don’t want to be compared to other writers. I want to be judged on my own merits. Comparing yourself to award winning best sellers leaves the wrong impression and makes you, the writer, look arrogant and foolish.

So, in summary, don’t say “My story is about…”, Don’t give away the ending, Do follow agent directions, Do spell and grammar check. And… don’t compare yourself to other authors, especially ones on the top seller lists.

Five very easy things to avoid. Good luck!

Read the First Three Chapters of the Lone Prospect For Free

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