This guest post is by Cody Wagner. Cody worked in advertising for years, until deciding to take time off to focus on his writing. You can visit the blog highlighting his journey at A Year Sabbatical and follow him on Facebook.
06-05-10 Back To Bed, You're Dreaming Again

Photo by Βethan (Creative Commons)

You’ve finished that manuscript, the one that’s going to change the world. Now what?

Well, if you’re looking at going down the traditional publishing route, it’s time to submit your work to potential agents. However, you don’t get to send your entire book. No, you only have one page to draw them in—the dreaded query letter.

What is a Query Letter?

I think almost everyone is familiar with the query letter; it’s a nightmare to most writers. You’ve worked for months (or years) on your manuscript. And you’re sure once an agent reads it, he or she will clamor to represent you. Unfortunately, agents are too busy to read every single work submitted. Consequently, many simply request a one pager about your book. In that one page, you get a hook, mini-synopsis, and bio to make them want more.

Fortunately, there are a slew of sites out there on writing good query letters. These resources are invaluable, as even the best writers have trouble selling their books in one page or less.

Because so many resources exist, I’m not going to sit here and tell you how to write the perfect query. Heck, I’m not even qualified to do so. But I’ve picked up a few consolidated tidbits along the way, and wanted to share them with you.

A Hook Should Involve Your Main Character

The hook makes up the first paragraph of your query, so it better be good. In the one-sentence hook, people will try anything to grab an agent’s attention. It’s hard to blame them; hooks are brutal. Regardless of what you write, though, your hook should almost always include your main character. It makes your query more personal and better draws the agent in.

Therefore, instead of writing:

A parallel world with better technology than our own threatens destruction if earth doesn’t turn over its priceless artworks.

You’d write:

Curator John Smith drops the Monets and Van Goghs for a pistol when a parallel world attacks, hell-bent on taking earth’s priceless artworks.

OK that’s not a great example but you get the point.

A Query is NOT a Synopsis

Some resources call the section where you talk about your book the “mini-synopsis.” I want to point out that this label is somewhat misleading.

Admittedly, while writing the first drafts of my queries, I took the word “synopsis” to heart. Ultimately, I ended up writing something that was more informative than catchy. Unfortunately, I convinced myself that the more of my plot and characters I revealed, the more interesting the query would become.

That mistake can be fatal. It might make sense in your head, but think about how many times you’ve zoned out while a friend or relative described the plot of their favorite book (even if it’s a really good one). If an agent’s eyes gloss over while reading your query, you’re done.

The mini-synopsis shouldn’t reveal all the plot points and the quirky friends and the amusing side stories. Instead, a good mini-synopsis simply does the following: introduces the main character, shows what the main character wants, reveals what is standing in the main character’s way (A villain? Lack of money?), and highlights what’s at stake if the main character fails.

Essentially, the point of the mini-synopsis is to reveal the main conflict in your story. Tension is what makes your novel a page-turner so, naturally, tension and stakes in your query will make the agent want more.

I don’t have a real bio. What do I write?

This is something all beginners deal with. Without relevant experience, they end up listing anything to do with writing (I’m a member of a writers group, I have taken classes, etc…). The line of thinking is that something is better than nothing.

That strategy is wrong.

Agents will be the first to sniff out the BS, and saying your mom taught you the art of story-telling makes it glaringly obvious you’re an amateur (unless she’s J.K. Rowling).

So if you don’t have experience relevant to your novel, what do you put?

The answer is nothing.

If you don’t have a relevant bio, don’t list anything. Let the rest of the query speak for itself.

My query is 403 words. Is that too long?

Long story short: YES! This is another killer.

Getting everything into 250-300 words or less seems impossible, so many authors will try to squeeze in an extra 50-150 words, thinking, “In an e-mail, the agent won’t notice.”

Don’t!

If every other author can fit a query into 250-300 words, you can too. Anything longer will cause that glazed-over effect mentioned earlier. If you’re having trouble, remember the tips above about focusing on the main character and his/her conflict.

Now, Go Sell Your Book

You worked hard on your manuscript. Now it’s time to work hard on getting it into the hands of a great publisher, and it starts with the query letter. Go do more research on your own or get started with the tips above.

Good luck! Go give your book the best possible chance at publication.

How about you? What tips do you have to write a good query letter? 

PRACTICE

Begin writing an engaging query letter for your WIP and post it in the comments below for feedback. Even if your WIP isn’t finished, that’s OK. Sometimes a query can give some direction to your novel.

When you’re finished, post your practice query letter in the comments section. Don’t be shy! We all have to start somewhere. And if you post, please make sure to leave feedback on a few practices by your feelow writers.

Good luck!

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