You probably read that title and fainted, right? 🙂
Sad fact: it’s totally a true story.
This weekend was the Rose State College Writer’s Conference in Oklahoma City. Along with the OWFI conference in May, it’s one of two that I get to attend every year (if I’m lucky!). I picked up some great tips (and, small brag, the first chapter of my work-in-progress Ghost Hunt took first place in the Fiction category in their contest!).
I attended a lot of great sessions, which I want to talk about in subsequent posts. But one of the best was from author Tamara Grantham on how to write great query letters. Let’s face it: agents get too many submissions. WAY too many. In fact, from Word One, they are looking for a reason to reject you and move on to the next query.
And to tie back to my title, Tricia Skinner (an agent with Fuse Literary) said she knew for a fact that she had 350 queries waiting for her when she gets back home Monday. Yup. Three Hundred and Fifty.
That’s the competition. That’s your competition.
Tamara gave us great hints from agent Janet Reid, who runs queryshark.blogspot.com , which has more than 250 query letters, ripped apart for your benefit. She will also rip apart yours, if you’re that brave! Here’s what I learned:
1.) Do NOT talk about ‘theme’ in your query letter. Your job is to entice the agent, not beat them over the head with a freshman Literature class.
2.) Why? Because you’ve got 250 words to get your novel across to the agent. That’s it.
3.) So how do you pull that off? Simple. You basically get 2 paragraphs to pitch your novel. Paragraph 1 should include:
- Who is the MC?
- What does your MC want?
- What’s keeping them from getting what they want?
- What will they sacrifice to get what they want?
4.) Your second paragraph should be your inciting incident, and where that leaves your MC. That’s it. Leave it there. Don’t tell the agent how the book ends. Don’t give them all the things that will happen in the middle of the book. Make them demand your full manuscript in order to find all that out!
5.) Don’t include backstory. Ever. It will waste your 250 words.
6.) Here’s another way to look at it:
- Your MC must decide whether to ____ .
- If your MC decides to do ___, the consequences will be ____.
- If your MC decides NOT to do ___, the consequences will be ____.
(Hint: this is a great way to check that you’ve actually got a pitch-able story. If you can’t answer these three questions, it’s time to revisit your story arc.)
7.) Have others read your query letter. Give them specific things to look for: eliminate redundancy; strong vs. weak words; and most of all, that hook. Do they want more after reading this?
8.) This is not an overnight process! Tamara recommended drafting your query letter, then putting it away for about 4 weeks. Then, before you read it again, write a second query letter. Look at them together. Is one better than the other? Can you combine elements of both to create something even better?
Now, of course, sometimes our minds just don’t work the way we wish they would, and our novels may not fit into this rubric. If not, don’t fret. Remember the basic information you’ve got to get across. Then, shake it up a bit. As long as you get the agent hooked, you’ve done your job.
Practice with this. I’ve been mentally going through novels I know well, making them fit into these molds to see if I can do it for my own manuscripts. Take my favorite novel, Outlander, as an example:
- The decision: Claire Randall must decide whether to return to her own time in 1945, and her husband there.
- If she does: she will lose her new husband, Jamie, forever.
- If she doesn’t: she will risk her life, and will lose her old husband, Frank, forever.
Or another – let’s say, The Hunger Games:
- The decision: Katniss must decide whether to volunteer to take her younger sister’s place in the Hunger Games.
- If she does: she may die, and her family will starve as a result.
- If she doesn’t: her sister will definitely die.
It’s all about the craft. Crafting your query letter is no different than crafting that first page. If you’re like me and nearing the end of rewrites – boy, there’s a scary thought! – then this is a great way to double-check your plot structure.
If you can’t get your novel across in this amount of space, then maybe you don’t know your story as well as you think – or maybe your story needs some tweaking.
If you can – then congratulations! You’re on your way to writing a great query letter.
Again, here’s the link to Janet Reid’s site: http://queryshark.blogspot.com/
Tamara Grantham’s website: http://www.tamaragranthambooks.com/