There is nothing in the world that makes my critique group members groan louder than when someone brings in a query letter. It seems everyone hates query letters. Me? I’m the weirdo who gets excited.
Before you leave because I’m obviously insane, let me explain.
I didn’t always love query letters. I used to dread them like any self-respecting writer. But if you’re seeking traditional publication (and actually, self-publishing too, but we’ll get to that), they’re a necessary evil. There are very few ways to land an agent without first mastering the art of the query letter. So that’s what I set out to do, slowly but surely, by torturing my critique group with all of my drafts and versions and projects until one day, one time, something just sort of… clicked.
[Note: Query letters generally consist of several parts: an introductory greeting, a 1-2 paragraph pitch or summary, an informational paragraph that includes word count, genre, market potential and/or comparison titles, a bio paragraph, and a closing. For the purpose of this blog, I’m referring only to that 1-2 paragraph pitch – the “meat” of your query letter – as the query.]
To prove that I don’t have some sort of supernatural innate query skillz, let me share this with you: the query for my first novel got 0 requests. The query for my second got 2 requests for partials. Ouch, right?
With the query for my third novel I brought in a draft and my crit group said it was a hot mess. I started over. I brought it in another time before I had the base that was worth line-editing and polishing up. That query letter got me 7 requests for the full manuscript. Ah-ha. I was onto something. (Unfortunately, the manuscript wasn’t nearly as ready as the query, but that’s a blog for another day.)
So when it came time to query my fourth novel, I was merciless. I took in four or five entirely different versions to my critique group. They wanted to throttle me, but they were honest, and that’s what you need in order to learn what works. When I landed on the right version, that was my click. I got it. I felt it. There’s a rhythm and a style to that type of summary that once you have, you have. (The best way to find this is to write lots of them. The next best way is to read the back jackets of books similar to yours and see how/why the good ones work.) I polished it up and got 15 requests for the full, which resulted in 3 offers of representation. And here’s the really sneaky part: that query letter became the pitch letter my agent and I used to go on sub, too, which also resulted in multiple requests.
Oh, and, self-pubbers? Here’s an unpleasant little tidbit. You need the query too; you just call it “back-cover copy.” I suspect that there isn’t a novelist in existence who gets to avoid the dreaded 2-paragraph book pitch. At its core, it’s your query letter, your pitch letter, and the back of your book. So rather than pitching a fit (puns!), seeing if you can slide by without it, or settling for a less than stellar pitch, why not bite the bullet and master the art of crafting your query?
Maybe your sparkling personality can land you an agent in-person. Maybe your rock star agent writes your pitch letters for you. And maybe you’ll hire an editor to write your back-cover copy. If that were me, I would still value the query, and here’s why: I use it for several other things. I use it before I write books. I use it to analyze flaws in written books. I use it to brainstorm new book ideas. Once you stop thinking of the query letter as something invented to make you miserable, you can start implementing it as an incredibly useful tool. Let’s unpack that. Reason by reason, here’s the value I see in mastering the query. [Read more…]