Oh, the dreaded query letter! It is, in my opinion, the hardest thing in the world to write. Writing an effective query letter takes the ability to ignore your creative urges and write in a way that‘s totally foreign to your instincts.
Remember how you used to write book reports in grade school? You’d take someone else’s work and boil it down to a one-page review. Hard, right? A query letter allows you that same one page, except it also has to include some personalization, your biography, comparable titles, and any other little thing a specific agent wants to see. So, in reality, you have about a half-page to work with.
To condense a book of 80,000-120,000 words down to its most basic elements in three paragraphs (or as one agent recommends, 5 sentences!) verges on the impossible. Add in your voice, the stakes, and a hook that makes the reader say, “I’ve got to see more of this!” — and, well, you’ve gone right over the cliff.
My query letter for LET THE CANYONS WEEP has undergone more than a dozen transformations. I’m still not totally satisfied with it. But the other day I heard what I believe is the most pithy and on-point advice since I figured out “show-don’t-tell”. And it’s this:
Nouns do not create characters.
Huh! Was I trying to create a character with nouns? Or have I stuck to the basics and used lots of verbs? Let’s see if I can change something and make my query letter stronger.
I took a long hard look and realized that, though my query letter did not contain a lot of unnecessary nouns, there were a number of adjectives. But more to the point, I was not putting enough emphasis on the verbs. Take this sentence for instance:
Jesse is small, fragile, and shunned by the village for her brother’s misdeeds.
Reading it over, I realize I’ve put as much emphasis on the descriptors “small” and “fragile” as on the action “shunned”. The first question I asked myself was: Is it necessary for the reader to know that Jesse is small and fragile? The answer (at least in my unqualified opinion) is “Yes”. However, a simple re-wording of the sentence could move the emphasis.
Small and fragile, Jesse’s been shunned by the village for her brother’s misdeeds.
The readers still know what they need to know about Jesse physically, but now the emphasis is on “shunned”. This version, I believe, creates a more emotional response in the reader. And when you’re trying to get someone so interested they can’t help but want to know more, you need that emotional response.
Half a dozen small tweaks like that one have, I believe, made my query better. How about you? Are you in the query trenches? What do you think the strongest thing about your query letter is?