Saturday, July 7, 2012

Write the Query Letter First

I have finally come to an epiphany about starting a novel. I am within a few words of finishing my third. I personally think the key is the query letter. The key, that is, if you want your novel published. Self-publishing is a whole other consideration.

My first novel was a whopping 121,000 words and I found it very difficult to boil all that down to the 250-275 words total that would be the limit for a query letter. My second novel was 90,000 words. I had the same problem. My third, almost finished is 55,000 with about 10,000 words to go. My forth is planned for about 95,000 words.

The query letter needs to introduce the key items of the plot without giving away the climax and the solution. The key highlight is pointing out what is at stake for the protagonist and what are the obstacles that he/she must overcome. That differs depending on the genre, but the query letter must have that in the most economic number of words and the letter must contain the best writing of your life.

Think of the query letter as being the ultimate “show-don’t tell.” If the letter is poorly written, has typos, and contains mistakes in spelling, the agent or publishing house has to assume the manuscript is just like the query letter. You have 250 words and maybe 30 seconds. They will know immediately if it is for them. They are under a crunch for time so unless the idea is obviously spectacular and unique, they are looking for ways to disqualify the submission and might not even finish reading to the end of your letter. Sounds cruel, but it’s the fact of life. No matter how engaging your letter is  −  your story about zombie  − werewolf teenagers biting classmates’ necks on a date - if you send it to the wrong place or if it reads like a10-year-old who can’t spell, you’re done.

I’ve droned on enough about the nature of the query letter, but here is the real key: write the query letter first, AND THEN write the novel. Sounds backwards but I have found it so much easier. You distill your idea down to its essence and you have a clear picture of what your story is and what’s at stake. You might change things in the actual writing but then you can easily go back a tweak the query letter.
If someone asks you what you are writing about, you can relate the story right back to them without hemming and hawing and tangents. In 30 seconds, they know all they need to know. If they want details, they will ask you questions and you can clarify. This is also a good exercise in verbal pitching. Think about it − if you don’t know exactly what you’re writing about and are not able to verbalize it simply and in a straight forward manner, you can hardly expect anyone else, specifically agents and publishers, to want to read your novel.

Now, sit down, and write that query letter.

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