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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » So, what should a query letter describe?

   
Author Topic: So, what should a query letter describe?
MattLeo
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Osiris said something in response to my query for *The Keystone* that made my ears prick up:
quote:
I became interested in this query when I reached the third paragraph. I'm a 'plot/conflict' driven reader, so the prior paragraphs of character description didn't interest me as much.
So, if Osiris had been an editor or agent, he might have lost interest in the first paragraph and dropped it. The introduction of plot in paragraph three revived my chances with him.

But wait... what if everyone isn't like Osiris? I know that *I'm* mostly interested in what a character's goals, problems, and habits (good or bad) are. I'd be a character-oriented agent. It always seems to *me* that queries spend to much time recounting plot, and I'm not interested in the plot until I'm interested in the characters.

So... do you *split* the difference and do 50/50? Well, that might not be optimal. Suppose everybody in the world was *exactly* like Osiris or *exactly* like me. Type type O's would be looking at your query letter and thinking "blah blah blah character descriptions." The type M's would be thinking "yadda yadda yadda, more stupid plot recaps."

The thing about the "get an agent interested" contest is that it's not your *average* score that matters. It's the *highest* score. If Osiris and I think your query is mediocre, you lose. If one of us things it's wonderful and the other thinks its trash, you win, even though your *average* score is mediocre.

Thankfully, there's probably more people in the world than Type O's and type M's. So what do you think the ideal balance of subject material in a query should be?

For your amusement I decided to go back through a couple of months or queries or summaries submitted on Hatrack for critique and analyze them. I started by listing different kinds of content I might expect to find described in a query:

C = character description; appearance, personality, backstory
G = character goal; something the character wants
O = obstacle; something the character doesn't want
W = world building detail; history, magic rules, politics
S = Setting; descriptions of a specific place
P = plot development; something that moves the story along
D = a dilemma/decision the character is presented with
M = meta; info on manuscript, genre; reason for selecting agent

A distillation of recent queries and summaries follows. The string "CGP PPP" would be a paragraph with sentences focusing on character, plot and plot, followed by a three sentence all-plot paragraph. Something like "(PO)" would be a single sentence relatively balanced between focus on plot developments and obstacles. Note that these are subjective judgment calls. If you did the analysis the distillations probably would be slightly different.


The Keystone: CC PCC O(PC)(PC) G(GC)C MWM
Seven Stars: CW PPG(PG)G CC(PO)P P(PG) C MMM
Death in a Dying World: WWWW(WC)PCCC
The Last Scion(synopsis): WCP(PGO)
The Last Redoubt(synopsis): GPPCCO(CO)C
Bond: (CG)(WCP)PCCC (GC)(GO)(GO)PC P (GP)(PG)OOPO
Perfectly Pia: W (CS)(CW)WWW (WC)C(CO) P(PC)(PD)
City of Magi: M (CW)(PW)(CW)(OC) M M
Null Prophet: C(WO)C WWC (PO)GGO C(WC) (GO)(WO)OOO MMM
Mage Storm: OO(OW)GC (PW)PP(PC) OOOOO (PO)OO MM

[ March 03, 2012, 08:29 PM: Message edited by: MattLeo ]

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Meredith
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Well, every query is different. On average, it seems to take me about three tries to get something I'm reasonably happy with.

I recommend reading the Query Shark.

One way to look at it is that you only need three things in a query:

Who is the main character and why should we care?
What choice do they have to make?
What are the consequences of that choice?

It's also good to have a well-chosen detail or two to whet the agent's appetite.

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JenniferHicks
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Disclosure: I have never written a query letter but I'm a frequent reader of agent blogs, including Query Shark. That said, the blogging agents I follow say you should focus your query on: Who is your main character, what does he/she want, and what's standing in the way? Also, they like queries that show who the protagonist is through his/her actions as opposed to telling through description.
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extrinsic
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And voice, voice can enhance or trump craft. A sharp, snappy, ironic voice with Attitude. The voice of a query pitch should be the same as its novel, except not in first person, if that's the case. Where craft can count proportionately, voice will count exponentially.
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History
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Matt,
You scare me sometimes. [Smile]

Do you have a system for picking lottery numbers you're willing to share? [Smile]

Just another amazing analysis from you.

In counterpoint perhaps editors and agents are much like our fellow readers here at Hatrack. One may look at what you've written and state "I really really like this a lot" and another will trash it (speaking from personal experience).

Write the best query you can (there's lots of guidelines one may review), find agents who publish the type of tale you have written, and send it out. Again, and again, and again. Perhaps after 23 times you'll find an agent/publisher (like Frank Herbert's Dune) or 26 times (like Madeleine L'engel's A Wrinkle in Time), etc.

Respectfully,
Dr. Bob

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MAP
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Matt,

You need to sell your story. It won't interest every agent or person, but you need to try to make it appeal to the agents that sell your type of story.

Meredith is right. Every query letter advice from agents has always focused on those three questions. Who is the main character? What does he/she want? What happens if he/she fails?

Although it isn't that simple, at least not for me.

Honestly, you could do both character development and plot at the same time. It is tricky, and I'm not saying I personally can do it, but theoretically it should be possible.

My opinion is that you can play up certain aspects of your novel in your query letter. If your story is really plot driven, you can focus a little more on plot than characters. If your story is charcter driven, you may want to spend a little more time on characters.

If you were writing a query letter for the Crichten's Jurassic Park, you would probably not spend paragraphs on Dr. Grant, but focus on the dinosaurs. It is more of a concept novel.

Likewise if you wrote a query letter for Gone with the Wind, you would focus more on the characters and the backdrop than the plot. Right?

Sure there will be agents who would get bored of Scarlet and Rhett and stop reading at the second paragraph, but those aren't the agents that can sell Gone with the Wind.

You don't have to please all agents. You only have to please one. Which still is a hard, hard thing to do. [Smile]

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MattLeo
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quote:
Do you have a system for picking lottery numbers you're willing to share?
Sure, Dr. Bob, my winning lottery system is simple: I take the money I would have spent on a lottery ticket and by something useful instead.

The bit about distilling the queries posted here into formulas isn't really a system; it's just the kind of stuff that naturally goes through my mind when I critique stuff. I usually don't share it, because I don't think great writing can be boiled down to a formula, but sometimes it's good to think about the things you *might have done* in a piece. I think many writers naturally tend to produce *one kind* of prose, and it helps to throw the occasional off-speed pitch.

quote:
You need to sell your story. It won't interest every agent or person, but you need to try to make it appeal to the agents that sell your type of story.
MAP, this is pretty much my take on the matter. GREAT edits on the Keystone query, by the way. I'm taking that version and setting it aside as a strong candidate.
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Osiris
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quote:
Originally posted by MAP:

Honestly, you could do both character development and plot at the same time. It is tricky, and I'm not saying I personally can do it, but theoretically it should be possible.

I think this is really the key. I suspect if you can do both of these things in your first paragraph, you'll stand the best chance of hooking an agent. I'm going to mosey on down to your query post and take a crack at it.
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