Wednesday, April 30, 2008

How to write an intriguing query letter

Why do writers obsess over query letters? If you've written anything close to a publishable novel, you surely have a good grasp of grammar and punctuation. You can put together sentences and paragraphs. You can organize your ideas. And you have a unique "voice," a knack for writing in a way that engages readers' interest. Can you really possess all of those skills and be unable to write what boils down to a simple business letter?

If you're a good writer, you can write a good query letter.

For an average-length novel, a query letter shouldn't be more than one page. That's because agents and editors will probably only glance at it. In the "Writer's Corner" of his website, Nicholas Sparks says the typical New York literary agent gets 400 query letters a month and will ask to see only three or four manuscripts. If that's true, there simply aren't enough hours in the day for those professionals to carefully read every word of every query letter. So keep your letter short and easy to read and you just might increase your chances of snagging some interest in your novel.

Let's take a look at the query letter Nicholas Sparks sent to 25 agents, including the one who ultimately represented him in the sale of The Notebook, which garnered him a million-dollar advance. Sparks says the letter required 17 drafts and two weeks to produce, and he goes on at some length about making every word count. But I found his letter wordy and repetitious and less than compelling. Look how he introduced his story:

This novel, The Notebook, is a love story inspired by two special people that recently passed away after sixty years of marriage. They were no one you would know, but there was a grand romance between them, an underlying passion and understanding that had taken a lifetime to develop. In this day and age, the unconditional love they felt for one another makes for a wonderful story, one that is all too rare and much too beautiful to let die without being told.

I like to think of myself as a romantic, but that made me yawn. Why did he squander so many words when all he needed to say was that he'd written the story of his grandparents' remarkable sixty-year romance?

Here is the most important part of his query letter:

The Notebook is the first novel that describes the heart-wrenching effects of Alzheimer's disease on two people who had loved each other all their lives.

Why did Sparks bury that sentence at the bottom of his long letter? It's the very essence of his unique story. I wonder how many of the other 24 agents tossed the letter aside without ever learning that this was no run-of-the-mill love story, but the story of an amazing lifelong love being systematically attacked by a memory-stealing disease.

Can you describe your novel in a single sentence? Try it. Then build your query letter around that sentence.

For more tips on writing query letters and to see the short, simple letter that helped sell my first book, click over to this page of my website.


Maria Zannini said...

>>Can you describe your novel in a single sentence? Try it. Then build your query letter around that sentence.

Brenda, this is a great tip on how to build a query. I even use this as a base to build my synopsis.

Brenda Coulter said...

Glad you think so, Maria. I hope this helps somebody.