Sunday, May 23, 2010

Last month we posted a little sidebar poll about things you include in a query letter. Here are the results.

Word count
84 (96%)
Writing credentials
59 (67%)
Plot summary
79 (90%)
Log line
33 (37%)
Short character descriptions
27 (31%)
Conflict, conflict, conflict
59 (67%)
Theme or motif
28 (32%)
81 (93%)
Marketing plans
7 (8%)
Threats of suicide and/or murder
2 (2%)
Cold hard cash

Let's talk about each of these elements a little more. It's probably no surprise to experienced writers that the top winners were word count, genre/subgenre, and plot summary. Even the most skeletal query or cover letter should contain all three of these items. This is very basic stuff. (For nonfiction writers, instead of a plot summary, a short thesis will work.)

But why are these the big three?
- Word count tells me whether your story is appropriate for what my house publishes.
- Ditto for genre and subgenre, except that these also let me know how your book would be shelved or categorized by retailers so that its audience can find it.
- Where word count and genre tell me where your book fits into the larger publishing universe, the plot summary tells me about your specific book and why it might be of interest to readers.

This is partly why we tell you not to waste valuable query letter space explaining your target audience or drawing comparisons to other books. Just state the word count and genre quickly, and then move into what makes your book special.

In other words, do this:

"Space Opera" is a 110,000 word science fiction novel about an outlawed princess who needs one special warrior to help her steal back her crown from the aliens who conquered her planet.

Don't do this:

"Space Opera" is a 110,000 word science fiction novel with fantasy notes that mixes the adventure and heroic journey of Star Wars with aspects of fairy tales and mythology including a strong female protagonist, a romantic rescuer, a warning and moral to readers, and a touch of magic.

Do you see why? To me, the differences between the two approaches are glaring, but maybe we should point them out. The first lets me neatly categorize the story in the publishing spectrum before telling me about the actual story itself. The second takes me on a meandering tour of different story types and elements without telling me anything specific about the book itself. The first sentence tells me very plainly, "Shelve this with either scifi or scifi romance." The second might be scifi, but hints at fantasy, YA, and romance.

Next, the same number of voters (about 2/3 of you) chose conflict and writing credentials. Though the group finds them of equal importance, we'll talk about them separately.

Conflict is the engine that drives a commercial fiction story. It provides the structure to the book, the dramatic interest in the chapters, and the reason for readers to keep turning pages. You don't have to come right out and say, "My conflict is between the invading aliens and the native people led by the dethroned princess and her warlord boyfriend." A well-written query will have strong conflict evident throughout. Look again at our "do this" sample sentence and compare it to the "don't do this" sample. See the conflict?

Writing credentials are little nuggets that convince me you won't flake out and fail to turn in a finished manuscript on time. They demonstrate that you will meet your professional obligations because you take the craft seriously. If you don't have a publication history yet (and yes, these are the best credentials), then find other ways to demonstrate professionalism. Join a writer's group. Take online classes. Write a blog. Any of these things, and many more besides, can demonstrate your commitment and credibility.

About a third of you chose log lines, short character descriptions, and theme or motif. I was surprised in varying degrees by this.

Log lines are a handy way to shortcut the book. Our "do this" sample is essentially a log line, a one-sentence summary of the story. Because space in query letters is tight, log lines can be an effective tool for keeping things concise. That said, if you plan to include a 3-5 sentence paragraph describing your plot and a bit about the characters, it might make more sense to skip the log line and save that space for something else.

Short character descriptions are actually fairly important. Story is about people, after all.
These can be a few words or a sentence or two. These don't have to be character manifestos.

Think of it like this. Look at our "do this" sample and take out the words outlawed princess. Substitute a character name, say, Samantha Berber. Does making that substitution weaken the sample? Yes, because we don't know anything about this Samantha person, but "outlawed princess" indicates a lot about character. When you're revising your query letter, look for ways you can do this, substituting strong character words or adding little descriptive phrases to bolster the reader's understanding of the character.

Because here's the thing. I still don't know if our outlawed princess is a spoiled, pampered creature struggling to adapt to life outside the palace, or a strong-willed renegade with the leadership skills but not the battle skills. This one could go either way, and it's up to you to tell me which way it goes.

Theme and Motif. I'm not surprised that so few of you picked this, actually, as these are under-leveraged in most queries. Next time I find a few moments to blog, maybe we'll talk about ways to incorporate theme or motif into a query letter. If done well, it can really set your book above the herd.

As to the rest -- marketing plans, threats, and bribes -- these are probably best left out of your query. *grin* The one exception would be discussion of your platform (your established presence within a community of potential readers), which is one aspect of marketing that can help sell you up front.



Jami G. said...


Great post! I heard once that we need a short character description (even just one or two sentences like you mentioned) so that the reader (editor/agent) will care about the conflict.

Also, yes, please do that post on theme/motif. I have my theme indirectly alluded to in my query, but I'm not sure if I need to make it more blunt or if that would be off-putting.

Jami G.

Murphy said...

Great post. Thanks Theresa!


JewelTones said...

I'm with Jamie on the theme/motif inclusion in the query. I think they're generally hinted at or lightly touched on... but how much do we have to spell it out? How much is too much in a letter that has to be so concise and cover so much ground?

Also, I'm curious about your opinion on query letter format. Some say the query letter should be very formal and business-like, starting with the Hello, my name is... my book is Title, X words, XYZ genre, etc, etc and then get into the actually "this is what my book is about" and others (like the Query Shark) say leave the boring stuff for later and always start with the hook. I'm a hookster query letter fan. I prefer to start with the hook and gimmick, get into character and conflict and leave the details for a few paragraphs later with my length, title, writing credits, etc.

Is there a preferred? Is it personal choice? Does it really "matter?"

The Daring Novelist said...

So nobody included "cold hard cash"?

No wonder people have so much trouble getting published!

Me, I'm following a lot of agent blogs, and finding out what my top contenders most want. I think it's good to adjust your query to suit the recipient.

Miss Sharp said...

Hi Theresa -

Here's an interesting take on the theme element in queries (something to whet your readers' appetites while waiting for you to address it!):

Might provide an explanation of your respondents' reticence at any rate ;)

docmon said...

How would one include info on a writer's group or writing class as professional experience? Without it sounding lame, that is.

Edittorrent said...

@JT -- doesn't matter where you put it. The first thing I'm going to do is scan your cover letter for that number, that word count. That said, I usually expect that information in the closing paragraph.


Edittorrent said...

@Docmon -- It doesn't sound lame. Try a simple, "I'm a member of the Big Giant Authors Group of America (B-GAGA) and served as membership chair of the Cityville chapter." Or, "I'm a graduate of the B-GAGA Plot Workshop and plan to attend the Iowa Summer Writing Festival this year."