Monday, October 4, 2010

Old School Query Letter

I am still not feeling 100% on the account of the strep throat my sister in law passed on to me, but I at least feel like a human being again.

Last week I took part in a wonderful webinar hosted by the fabulous Kristin Nelson. She gave a great discussion on query letters and how not to suck at them (my words, not hers). Ms. Nelson has some great resources for query letter writing on her blog that will start you off, but the webinar expounded upon those gems. 

Ms. Nelson approaches the query letter process in a slightly different way than I've ever seen. She suggests looking at your inciting incident, the plot event that kicks off your entire plot, and building the query letter around that. It gives the agents a taste of the plot without drowning them in details and irrelevant bits. 

This is not as easy as it sounds. I started out with a terrible query letter, mostly because I was trying to cram too much information in there. So I took a step back, and wrote down with a pencil and piece of paper the three most interesting parts of my novel. Three things I thought made my novel unique. I then crafted those bits into three sentences. From there, I worked out how to make those three pieces connect, and only then did I have something that vaguely resembled a query letter. I also chose to add a little detail about a subplot, to flesh out the query letter better.

I then rewrote those sentences a bajillion times. Or that's how many times it felt like. I wrote the same handful of sentences over and over, playing around with my word choice, and reading it out loud to see if it made sense or not. I didn't just erase when I made a mistake either, I started over. I worked on each sentence by itself until it read the way I wanted it to.

Why all the bother? Because with the webinar I get a free pitch paragraph critique from Ms. Nelson. I am literally jumping for joy with the thought. So, I made my pitch paragraphs (the paragraphs that talk about your novel) as awesome as I could so when Ms. Nelson looks them over she'll catch the real mistakes, and not something I could have fixed myself. 

It really surprised me how different writing those paragraphs out long hand felt. I almost wish I had the time to write a novel like that. I've tried, but I think too fast for a first draft to be written by long hand. A friend of mine wants to re type her manuscript while editing it, and I am considering doing that the next time I edit.

Here are some lessons I learned from the webinar, and the subsequent rewriting of my pitch paragraphs:

*Make sure the information in the pitch paragraphs is new and interesting. Don't say what was a normal day or event for your character--tell us the extraordinary stuff that happens to her. 

*Pick out three to four details about your novel that makes it unique. Expand upon these details and how it affects the main character. Don't try to talk about too much as once. Remember, show don't tell works just as well here as your novel.

*Space is a premium in your pitch paragraphs. Don't waste it by saying things like "It was a normal day until..." or repeating what you've already covered.

*Make sure each sentence builds on the last, and connects in a way that makes sense. Read the backs of novels to get a sense of how novels are pitched in a short period of time. Given enough to whet their appetite and leave them wanting more. Wanting more means a request for partials!

*Write the query letter out by hand. Everyone has time for this. Your query letter is your first impression to an agent. You can take the time to write it out long hand and pay attention to every single word you're putting into the paragraphs. 

These are some tips I've picked up along the way. What other techniques have helped you write a good query letter?


  1. Hey, quit blaming me for that! You've gotten ME sick before and I took it graciously! Besides, it's not like I did it on purpose. "Here you go, Honey. A nicely gift-wrapped, highly contagious Strep Throat. Look! I even put a bow on it for you." Man! You could be blaming your inferior immune system for catching it. Blame-shifter! :P

  2. Fine fine. I shall make the proper reparations. My humblest apologies, kind miss.