Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Secrets to Writing a Killer Query Letter

The first thing to remember, and never forget as you write your query letter, is that the purpose of the query is to:   
GENERATE REQUESTS!!

There are 4 elements you want to incorporate into your query to make it a Killer Query Letter.

1. The Hook
2. The Setup
3. The Conflict
4. The Consequence
The purpose of the Hook is to:     

          a) Sum up the novel in one sentence
          b)  Propel the reader through the rest of the letter

RULES TO THE "HOOK":
1. Answer this question:  What is your book about?
2. Explain: in less than 40 words
3. Mimic the tone of the novel you have written
4. Never ask a question!!! NEVER!
5. Grab, Entice, Get Out

There is some debate as to whether a HOOK is really necessary. I still think it is the best way to grab a potential agent's interest. What's more, you probably already have the beginnings - if not more - of a hook already.

Remember you want to answer the question: "What is the book about?"

Imagine if someone came up to you and asked, "What's your book about?" No doubt this happens to you all the time. You probably respond, unprepared, by sputtering as you try to tell the person the entire story - without actually telling the entire story - if you know what I mean. 

Your best response, however, should be to simply respond with your HOOK. No more. A one-sentence tagline. Done. Generated interest and get out.
 
You can find HOOKS on the front cover of almost any book. Read the one sentence thing on the copyright page. There you are. Go to bookstores and read the taglines on the backs of books. Try Publisher's Marketplace. Every single deal that gets posted is a one-sentence summary of the book. It's perfect for this kind of thing.

 Examples:

                   In this town, you are what you hear.
          Whether its true love or magic he'll never know if he kills her first.
;           In a world of control or be controlled never trust the one you love.

Example of the HOOK for the book POSSESSION:

"In a world where Thinkers control the population and rules aren't meant to be broken, fifteen-year-old Violet Schoenfeld does a hell of a job shattering them to pieces."

Example of the HOOK for the book BEWITCHED:

"When you're a level-headed school jock like Darren, the last thing you expect to be caught up in is a centuries-old prophecy about witches, let alone fall for a cute, mysterious new blonde girl who you must kill before she kills you."


As you can see, the hook "mimics" the tone of the novel (cursing, capitalization, voice), is about 40 words, does NOT ask a question, but uses strong statements instead. They "Grab," Entice," and then "Get Out."
 

RULES TO THE "SETUP":

     1. Provide a few details about your Main Character
     2. Include "World-Building" details, if it is pertinent
     3. The Catalyst that moves the Main Character into the Conflict
     4. Stick to the Main Character - What does he/she want?
     5. Introduce secondary characters as needed
     6. Get it done quickly (3-5 sentences, 75-100 words)
     7. Only include important details that build character or setting

DO      DON'T
- Drive the reader toward the conflict    - Bog us down in too many details
- Think of the Setup as a bridge - just go over it      - Name the whole cast of characters
- Give me the essentials I need to understand A) your character and B) your world      - Go on and on about your universe, or try to impress with 65-word sentences


Example of "Setup" for POSSESSION:

"After committing her eighth lame crime (walking in the park after dark with a boy, gasp!)
     (details = Vi dislikes Rules and breaks them) (world building = the Rules are lame)
Vi is taken to the Green, a group of Thinkers who control the Goodgrounds. 
     (world-building) 

She's found unrehabilitatable (yeah, she doesn't think it's a word either) 
     (details = Vi is snarky) 
and exiled to the Badlands 
     (world-building = exiled to another land) 
--until she demonstrates her brainwashing abilities. That earns her a one-way trip to appear before the Association of Directors."  
     (catalyst to the conflict = she's got powers and someone else wants them.)

Notice what happened:
1. The Setup sticks to what’s going on in Vi’s world
2. No mention of the male main character, Jag Barque
3. It is only 3 sentences in length, 58 words
4. A lot is told about the world, and the character in only a few words

Example of "Setup" for BEWITCHED: 

When Darren first saw Samantha she was floating above his high school gymnasium, invisible to everyone but him. The next day she's sitting in front of him in class, wowing his friends and causing unexplainable things to happen that only he seems to notice. But things really get strange (and complicated) when his dying grandfather explains to him that Darren is part of an ancient order, the “Pessum Ire,” whose duty is to destroy witches. He faces a serious dilemma since he’s almost positive Samantha is a witch…and he’s crushing on her pretty hard! 

Don’t spend the bulk of your words on the setup. Save that for the CONFLICT. Fiction is  all about conflict and what might happen if the main character doesn’t overcome that conflict.

Remember to mimic the tone of the novel. To help you do that: Write it in first person. Especially if the novel is written in first person.

Standard query letter rules say to write the query in third person, present tense. But who writes their whole novel that way? So write the query in the same style as the novel. Then convert it to third person, present tense.

Look at your setup. Is it too long? Is it bogging the reader down? Are you giving the essentials or the kitchen sink?

The Conflict 
Conflict is what your entire book is about

RULES TO THE "CONFLICT":

1. Identify what the Main Character wants
2. Expound on what's keeping him/her from getting what he/she wants = this is the CONFLICT
3. Stick to the main conflict

If you haven't identified what the Main Character wants during the setup, do it now.

State what's in the character's way. Highlight the main conflict, discard any secondary issues. Remember, this is what readers want: the CONFLICT. Be sure to lay it out for us. It should propel the reader to the end of the query letter.


What’s the main conflict here? Do we go into the whole love triangle thing?
No.
Main conflict: Vegan vampire wants to suck the blood of human girl. But he loves said girl. Love is preventing him from getting what he wants (her blood).

And here? What’s the main conflict? Not just in this scene, but overall? What’s the main conflict of the first movie? What does Jack want? What’s in his way? 
What does Will want? What’s in his way? Elizabeth?  
Can it be summed up up in three sentences?
That’s what you need to do in your query letter.




Example of "Conflict" for POSSESSION:

"Yeah, right. Like that’s gonna happen. She busts out of prison with sexy bad boy Jag Barque, who also has no intention of fulfilling his lame sentence.
       (Rule-breaker, she doesn't want people using her. Oooh, and a Bad boy! They're nothing but trouble.)  
Dodging Greenies and hovercopters, dealing with absent-father issues, and coming to terms with feelings for an ex-boyfriend—and Jag as a possible new one—leave Vi little time for much else.
      (She's got problems. Lots of them.) 
Which is too damn bad, because she’s more important than she realizes."
      (Whoa. She's important? How so?) 

In this case it only took 42 words to get to the main conflict. The ball on the conflict really started rolling in the setup. Remember how it said she was sentenced to the Association? Right, that’s her main conflict. She’s not gonna go there. Ever. So she has to dodge Greenies (people in her way), hovercopters (things in her way), her absent-father (emotional issues in her way), an ex-boyfriend (emotional issues in her way) and then Jag (who’s not really in her way, but he sort of is). So she’s got all this stuff combining against her. But that’s not all, my friends! She has power too. And sometimes that’s not a good thing.

Example of "Conflict" for BEWITCHED:

He doesn't know if his feelings are real or if he has been bewitched. But he hasn't much time to figure it out since his best friend is soon smitten by Samantha's gorgeous familiar and together they battle school warlocks posing as teachers, stop an evil witch from another dimension bent on fulfilling an ancient prophecy, and finally recover an ancient spellbook that holds the key to preventing witches from enslaving all of mankind.
The Consequence

What will happen if the main character doesn't overcome the conflict?
This is the element most frequently missing in a blurb. But it is equally important that you not give away your ending. You want to finish with a cliffhanger so that the agent is left wanting to know what happens.

RULES TO THE "CONSEQUENCE":

1.  The reader is hooked, set up and all conflicted...so now what will happen if the problems don't get solved? Answer this in the Consequence section.
2.  In the query letter, DO NOT spill your ending.
3.  Leave it a cliffhanger
4.  Tie to the hook = come full-circle

5.  Don't use questions - use only strong statements instead

Example of "Consequence" for POSSESSION:

 

"When secrets about her “dead” sister and not-so-missing father hit the fan, Vi must make a choice: control or be controlled."
     (Ooh, what will it be? You'll have to read to find out...)

Example of "Consequence" for BEWITCHED:

"But when Darren discovers his brother's death was due to a bewitchment he has to summon all his inner strength to know what he really must do: trust his feelings or do his duty."

     (Which one is more important? Which way will he go?)


You want to finish the query letter in such a way that the agent goes, “Oh, man I have to request the full manuscript of this RIGHT NOW and stay up all night reading to find out what’s gonna happen.” If you don’t elicit that response, you're probably going to get passed over. And remember that the purpose of the query letter is to… 
GENERATE REQUESTS!!

Look at your consequence. Has it come full-circle? Have you laid out the consequence? Have you left the reader hanging, salivating to know more?

TIP: Match up your first sentence (hook) with your last sentence (consequence). It should encapsulate your book. Be succinct and specific

Hook + Consequence = Book

The book POSSESSION:

In a world where Thinkers control the population and rules aren’t meant to be broken, fifteen-year-old Violet Schoenfeld does a hell of a job shattering them to pieces. + When secrets about her “dead” sister and not-so-missing father hit the fan, Vi must make a choice: control or be controlled. 

And that’s the book. When people ask what this book is about, the response is: "It’s a young adult dystopian about this girl who lives in a brainwashing society and fights against the system.”  Nice and concise.
“Regular” people get brainwashing. They have no idea what dystopian is. And they get that teens don’t like to follow rules. So yeah. 2 sentences, 51 words. This query received full requests with this “skinny query.” Four of them. So make sure every word counts and serves to fully encompass your book. 


Look at your letter. Read the first sentence and then the last.

Does it make sense?

Has your query come full-circle?

Nothing Just Happens
You've got to realize that writing a Query Letter is a process. Break it down into the four parts and work on them individually.
Study other successful query letters. Identify in each one why they worked and then incorporate those ideas into your own letter.
Experiment if necessary, try new things. Write it out by hand in a notebook; leave the house and go outside and work on it.
It takes time and practice to craft a powerful query letter. Spend time on it! Take at least 2 weeks to work on the individual parts and get feedback from others. Test it on everyone you know. Show them several different attempts and ask which one they think works best.

Query Critiques
From the Query to the Call is available for free download at www.elanajohnson.com 
QueryTracker forum: http://querytracker.net/forum/
Agent Query forum: http://agentquery.leveragesoftware.com/
Absolute Write forum: http://www.absolutewrite.com/forums/
Query Shark blog (run by literary agent Janet Reid): http://queryshark.blogspot.com/
The Public Query Slushpile: http://openquery.blogspot.com/

Have your critique group read your query, just like they read your manuscript.  Get different opinions. See if you can’t make it better and better and better. Get more feedback. Make sure you have time for this step, as I’ve seen people do like, fifty drafts in an afternoon. The best piece of advice I got came from literary agent Janet Reid who said,“MUCH better! Another polish or two, just the kind of thing you'd do after you let it sit a week and go back to it with a fresh eye, and you've got a good letter. Good job!”
So make sure you give yourself time to get fresh eyes. And use others’ fresh eyes.
Query Basics 

Things often missing in many query letters. Basics that will set you apart from the rest.

1. Titles go in all caps: POSSESSION, BEWITCHED, ETC. Don't use italics or quotes.
2. Round your word count: POSSESSION is complete at 75,000 words, (they don't need 73,637 words).
3. Format the letter as a business letter using block-style. Use TWO hard returns between paragraphs, no indenting.
4. Put only 1 space between sentences.
5. Invite, don't ask. Never say: "May I send you the complete manuscript?" First of all that's a question, and second, it's easy for them to simply say "No." Invite them to read it instead: "The complete manuscript is available upon request." Then tells them they have to request it from you. You invite them instead of asking if they want it because they don't know yet whether or not they want it. It's all about generating that request.
6. Be assertive. Don't gush and don't use words like "I think," instead say, "I believe." It is stronger.  One last word that weakens things you say is "almost." Don't use it.
7. Almost NEVER ask questions. There are times to do so, but it is very rare. It is always better to use strong statements.
8. Remember to invite. Include: "The complete manuscript is available upon request." As mentioned above, this is an invitation to them to read it, not a request.
9. What about exclusives? They're a bad idea. Exclusives are not just bad for you, they're bad for everyone - plus, they're just pointless. Agents expect you to be querying widely, so there's absolutely NO REASON to limit yourself with an exclusive. If they won't read your manuscript because someone else might be reading it, I daresay you don't want them anyway.
10. One last reminder: Don't leave out the consequence in your query.

ONE MORE THING!        

Agents/Editors want to know about YOUR BOOK not… YOU
This might sound mean, but it’s true. You need to spend most of your time on your book, your query blurb and MUCH LESS time on you. They want to sell books. And yes, you help with that, but they don’t care if you were the first woman in Greenland or that you have five kids or anything like that.
Give them what they want. Remember you’re trying to generate requests, and to do that, you have to give them a query letter that makes them salivate. And it won’t be because of your finely crafted paragraphs about YOURSELF. It will be about your book. So, as far as a bio goes: Limit them to a sentence or two.

Outline
1. Introduction
2. Blurb (hook, setup, conflict, consequence)
3. Genre, Title, Word Count
4. Market Comparison
5. Author Bio
6. Publishing Credentials
7. Conclusion
8. Contact Information

These parts complete the business letter. Don't forget that a query letter is a business letter. Treat it as such!

Example Query Letter 1


Dear Ms. Andelman, (personalize the name and spell it correctly)

I read on your Agent/Query profile that you're "drawn to fiction with a unique voice." Because of this I believe you will be interested in my young adult novel, CONTROL ISSUES. (introduction)

In a world where Thinkers brainwash the population and rules are not meant to be broken, fifteen-year-old Violet Schoenfeld does a hell of a job shattering them to pieces. (Hook)

After committing her eighth crime (walking in the park after dark with a boy, gasp!) Vi is taken to the Green, a group of Thinkers who control the Goodgrounds. She's found unrehabilitatable (yeah, she doesn't think it's a word either) and exiled to the Badlands--until she demonstrates her brainwashing abilities. That earns her a one-way trip to appear before the Association of Directors. (Setup - the Catalyst to the Conflict) 

Yeah, right. Like that's gonna happen. She bust out of prison with sexy bad boy Jag Barque, who also has no intention of fulfilling his lame sentence. Dodging Greenies and hovercopters, dealing with absent-father issues, and coming to terms with feelings for an ex-boyfriend--and Jag as a possible new one--leave Vi little time for much else. Which is too damn bad, because she's more important than she realizes. When secrets about her "dead" sister and not-so-missing father hit the fan, Vi must make a choice: control or be controlled. (Conflict + Consequence) 

A dystopian novel for young adults, (genre) CONTROL ISSUES (title) is complete at 75,000 words. (word count) Fans of Lois Lowry's THE GIVER and Suzanne Collins' THE HUNGER GAMES will enjoy similar dystopian elements, and a strong teen voice. (market comparison)

I am an elementary school teacher by day and a contributing author of the QueryTracker blog by night. (author bio: brief - publishing credentials would go here if I had any) If you would like to consider CONTROL ISSUES, I'd be happy to forward the complete manuscript to you. (invitation) I have included the first ten pages of the manuscript in the body of this email. (conclusion)

Thank you for you time and consideration,

Name
Address
Phone number
Website/email
 



Example Query Letter 2


Dear Mr. Jackman, (personalize the name and spell it correctly)

I read on your Agent/Query profile that you're "interested in edgy YA fiction with paranormal overtones." Because of this I believe you'll find my young adult novel, BEWITCHED the type of fiction you are after. (introduction)

When you're a level-headed school jock like Darren, the last thing you expect to be caught up in is a centuries-old prophecy about witches, let alone fall for a cute, mysterious new blonde girl who you must kill before she kills you." (Hook)

When Darren first saw Samantha she was floating above his high school gymnasium, invisible to everyone but him. The next day she's sitting in front of him in class, wowing his friends and causing unexplainable things to happen that only he seems to notice. But things really get strange (and complicated) when his dying grandfather explains to him that Darren is part of an ancient order, the “Pessum Ire,” whose duty is to destroy witches. He faces a serious dilemma since he’s almost positive Samantha is a witch…and he’s crushing on her pretty hard!
(Setup - the Catalyst to the Conflict)

He doesn't know if his feelings are real or if he has been bewitched. But he hasn't much time to figure it out since his best friend is soon smitten by Samantha's gorgeous familiar and together they have to battle warlocks posing as school teachers, stop an evil witch from another dimension bent on fulfilling an ancient prophecy, and finally recover an ancient spellbook that holds the key to preventing witches from enslaving all of mankind. But when Darren discovers his brother's death was due to a bewitchment, he has to summon all his inner strength to know what he really must do: trust his feelings or do his duty.
(Conflict + Consequence)

BEWITCHED (title) is an urban fantasy novel for young adults, (genre) and is complete at 95,000 words. (word count) Fans of J.K. Rowling's HARRY POTTER series will enjoy similar magical adventure exploits with strong teen characters. (market comparison) 

I teach English online and write for several online marketing companies. My book, WHERE'S CHERRY SODA a middle grade book was published by Schmirnoff Publishing in 2010.  (author bio: brief - publishing credentials) If you would like to consider BEWITCHED, I'd be happy to forward the complete manuscript to you. (invitation) I have included the first ten pages of the manuscript in the body of this email. (conclusion) 

Thank you for you time and consideration,

Name
Address
Phone number
Website/email
 

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