A query letter is, without a doubt, the hardest thing an aspiring author must write. It should contain about three paragraphs on the distilled essence of your novel, and it needs to contain a hook.
A hook is that magical phrase or sentence that screams to a prospective agent: Read me!
A good query should show that your book includes a quest or personal journey, lots of conflict and a moment of choice. While it's difficult to pull those out of a long and complex novel, if you look closely you'll find that all of the good ones are built around those elements.
An excellent query is designed to land you a literary agent. It's a huge first step toward conventional publishing, i.e., with a commercial publishing house as opposed to self-publishing (which is a cat of a whole other color). Once you nail that agent, she then acts as your advocate in finding a publisher and selling your project for the most money. The agent also helps to negotiate your contract -- a rocky shoal on which many a newbie writer has been stranded.
A good query letter must be concise (less than 300-400 words) and basically sum up a 400-plus page novel in three paragraphs. It also needs to contain the title, the word count and the genre.
A query letter has to shine like a diamond. Good literary agents read upwards of 30,000 queries a year! And they generally offer representation to about six or seven lucky souls. And it's all based on their query letter. A good one means you have a career as a novelist. A bad one means, well, that you don't. In other words, you can have a monumental novel written, but no one will see it if you can't write the best damned query letter in the world. Seriously.
No pressure. (gulp)
Your query should also contain a very brief author's bio, and should include anything in your background (writing work, awards, etc.) that will catch an agent's eye in the brief seconds he is scanning it before moving on to the next one in his in-basket. I've spent weeks polishing my query after the initial version was ripped apart on an online critique group. Man, that hurt. But it was good advice and I'd like to think I followed it for the most part.
So, today I'm going to post my query letter as it stands right now. It may yet go under the knife again, since I've re-posted it to that very same shark pit that tore me apart last month.
Burned-out newspaper editor Michael Reed reluctantly takes a call from a disgraced former nun that changes his life forever. The desperate woman’s request that he meet her son sets Michael on a terrifying quest to determine the true identity of fifteen-year-old Jordan Crane. Is the kid Jesus Christ in the flesh? A fraud? Or is he something far worse?
Within hours of the call, Michael’s comfortable life inexplicably falls apart. He loses his job and eighteen years of sobriety. Two days later, his eight-year-old son is killed on the highway in front of his home. When young Jordan Crane mysteriously arrives on the scene and places his hands on the child’s body, Michael finds himself face to face with the unthinkable.
Haunted by his tragic past and fearing for his very sanity, Michael must choose between believing what his heart tells him is true and what his mind says is pure madness. In making the choice, he learns that sweet redemption always comes with a price.
My first novel, THE DEVIL YOU DON’T KNOW is a mainstream thriller complete at 120,000 words.
A career journalist, I have received several national, regional and state awards for writing and reporting. My newspaper submitted my work to the Heywood Broun Award and the Pulitzer Prize committees.
(Note: The following paragraph is aimed at one particular agent and may not appear on all queries sent)
On a personal note, I enjoy your blog and read it daily. Your informative and helpful posts not only afforded me the technical skills to craft this query letter, but the courage to send it. Thank you.
So there you have it. My query letter as it stands today. My question to you is this: After reading it (and understanding that it's meant for literary agents and not the general public, since the overall novel is far more complex than it appears in this query), would you want to read the story?
If so, why? And if not, why not?
As always, thanks for your help and input. I value it highly!
SNOWSTORM/WRITING UPDATE: We got hammered here in Peoria last night and early this morning. I'd guess we got an additional 6 or 7 inches on top of the 8 inches already on the ground. Our patio furniture looks like white topiary! It's really quite beautiful and ... we're snowed in. The driveway is long and sloping and un-driveable.
So what am I doing about it? Well. I'm hoping my really nice neighbor fires up his John Deere tractor with the really cool blade on it and comes over and plows it. Again. Did I mention he's really nice?
The 12-year-old got his wish. Schools in the area are shut down. But, as luck would have it, the poor kid woke up sick this morning with a high fever and sore throat and is currently asleep upstairs in his room with his Playstation 2 game paused. What a waste of a perfectly good snow day! Poor kid. The wife is also home (see driveway status above).
Me? I'm sitting at my desk, smoking a cigar, drinking my fourth cup of Starbucks Sumatra, staring off into space and occasionally stroking my chin. I also say "a ha" every so often. Hey, writing is tough work sometimes.
Really, I'm thinking the new book through. It's coming, albeit slowly.
I also plan on spending several hours pondering tomorrow's Friday Family Movie. I hope the driveway gets itself cleared soon, so we can get to the video store.
SNOW REMOVAL UPDATE: I have the best neighbor in the whole world!