Wednesday, March 02, 2011

The backbone of a query letter

Talking query letters,
which is one of the all-time horrible tasks in a writer's life.

Once you get past the, "this is why I am drawn to you as an agent," moment,
and the, "title, genre, length," moment,
you are likely to get to the "what is the story, anyway," moment.

There are two ways to go on from there.  Two organizational styles, if you will.

1.  You can relate the story.

Gordon and his squire rode into the tugley wood till they came to a mysterious hut beside a crystal lake.  The wizard who lived there gave Gordon a magic ring and the words of a prophesy.  "You will find what you seek in the mouth that does not close, behind the door that does not open."  Gordon continued into the wilderness till he encountered some bandits who took him captive and . . .

and so on and so on.

The agent may or may not find this useful.

2.  There's another way to approach the query.

This is not so much telling the story, as answering questions about the story.
We will choose questions of breathless interest to the agent.

This second sort of query is logically organized as 'question answering' --
an organization that may not be the way stuff happens chronologically in your story.

So.  What questions?

What kind of story do you have?

Heat of the Blood is a paranormal thriller
Running with the Bulls is a Suspense novel
Bump and Grind is Contemporary Romantic Comedy 
[with strong Romantic elements/with a mystery subplot/set against a backdrop of the California cult scene . . . or whatever is different about this story.]

Who is the protagonist?
What is her problem?

Kemp Trey is a paranormal investigator out to prove his best friend was murdered by demons.
Jenny Binn, Las Vegas cocktail waitress, is on the run from the mob. 
Bumper Grind, porn queen, is determined to marry the Reverend Goodman.

What is the setting and atmosphere of the story?

in the dripping alleys of . . .
under the deadly sun of . . .
and heads for the sleepy hamlet of Righteous Valley.

What does she do about her problem? 

Trey must penetrate the paranormal underworld to . . .   
Jenny heads for the Rocky Mountain cabin that had belonged to her grandmother, planning to . . .    
Bumper redyes her hair mousy brown, changes her name to . . . 

We are not looking at all kinds of actions.
Only action that deals directly with the central problem of the story.

(We know what the central problem is because those actions are going to solve it, which is kind of circular, isn't it?)

What or who is the major antagonist?

and mets the goblin king who ordered the hit on his partner.
. . . the crooked lawyer who . . .
Reverend Goodman's spinster sister, Maude, is skeptical of . . .

We can spot the major antagonist because this is what the protagonist faces at the turning point or climax of the story.

What are the stakes?

may lose not only his life, but his soul.
accused of a murder she did not commit.
the one man she could ever love.

Heat of the Blood is a paranormal thriller set in an alternate near future.  Kemp Trey, paranormal investigator, is out to prove his best friend was murdered by demons.  He must penetrate the dripping, demon-infested alleys of the New Orleans French Quarter to face the goblin king who ordered the hit.  One wrong move and Trey may lose not only his life, but his soul.

The question-answer query doesn't try to cover plot events unless they speak to the specific 'agent questions'.


  1. Thank you!!! This post is so informative, you have no idea. You have broken the query death into distinct parts that will help tremendously.

  2. I second that! I have read a lot on crafting queries, but nothing which breaks it down so clearly. I almost look forward to trying it out. ;)

  3. Oh, I am so glad this is of some help.

    I will be perfectly honest and admit I have only written two query letters. And the first one was nothing like a proper query letter.

    Not a lot of practice.

    I have so much sympathy for folks in the middle of the process.

    The manuscript is what matters. Not the blasted query letter. I honestly believe that.

  4. So, um, when will we be seeing the debut of Heat of the Blood?? :)

  5. Hi Elisa --

    Heh heh . . . It sounds pretty good, doesn't it? I think I was channeling Jim Butcher when I wrote that.

  6. Get your Jim Butcher alter ego rollin' then. I want Heat of the Blood!!! Lol.

  7. Hi Jo,

    I've written many a query letter and checked out many sites, but I have to say that yours takes the cake! It's short, it's to the point and provides the necessary info without a lot of words. I just tried your suggestions to a query that I thought was good and it's now even better! Thank you - I'll let you know if it works. And I agree; it's the story that sells, not the query!

  8. Hi Charlene Roberts --

    I am so very glad you found this useful.

    It's not so much there's a right way and wrong way to do the query. There's just a lot of ideas, some of which help some people.