The One Big Mistake In Kimmery’s Query

query lettersAh. Query Letters. It is well known that most writers would rather churn out an entire book written in their own blood than write a one-page query letter. Penning this stupid letter might sound simple, but trust me, it’s hard. You are given a measly few paragraphs to sum up your book and yourself, and in these paragraphs you must sound compelling and unique and hooky enough for an agent to fish you out of the virtual slush pile with a shriek of acquisitive delight. (Equally important: you must not sound delusional or scary. Agents receive hundreds of these letters a week and they can weed out the weirdos in a glance. Check out SlushPileHell if you harbor doubts on this issue.)

There are a zillion resources that tell you how to structure a good query letter, so I’m not going do that. But pay attention, because I am about to steer you around the one monumental mistake I made over and over again in my own query process. If I could go back in time knowing just this one thing, my book would have been out years ago, and it actually would have been a better book. It’s that important.

Now that I’ve worked you up into a froth of anticipation, I think I’ll drag this out a little longer. Ha! Just kidding. Here it is:

Your book description in a query letter is not a summary of the plot.

All of my early attempts at writing query letters were clumsy and dull, because I thought I had to shoehorn all the major plot points of the novel into the description. My particular novel has a complex structure: dual-narration, dual-time periods and many subplots. (Too many, in retrospect, but that’s another post.) I struggled and struggled and struggled to get this into a paragraph or two without causing the reader to keel over from boredom. Eventually—after many rejections—I managed to distill it into something coherent enough to attract multiple agents. But it was never a killer query letter.

Now, however, I have read the summaries other people have written of my novel during their reviews, and I notice something the good ones all share in common. They don’t attempt to regurgitate the plot; instead they present the major characters and the major dilemma, in a one paragraph teaser that leaves the reader wanting to know more. Lots of stuff is left out, including the ending. The goal is to make the agent think My God, I must know more, not to give them a thorough summation of events. No one is going to turn you down as a client because there’s more to your novel than you let on in a query.

If I could go back and write my debut novel again, I’d start by writing the log line first. If you are unfamiliar with the term, Wikipedia defines it as “a brief (usually one-sentence) summary of a television program, film, or book that states the central conflict of the story, often providing both a synopsis of the story’s plot, and an emotional ‘hook’ to stimulate interest.” A log line is a very hard-working sentence, obviously. But if you can accomplish that, all you need to do is fill in a few enticing details about your protagonist, her circumstances, her goals and her obstacles. Remember, your goal here is to snag the agent’s eye.

Caveats abound here, of course. I am not saying to be vague and I am certainly not saying you should include rhetorical questions, which apparently agents regard as the kiss of death. Different genres have different conventions. Different agents have different expectations—and absolutely you should google each agent to see if she’s given an interview outlining her query preferences.

One other thought: your query should make very clear what distinguishes your book from every other book in the genre. What special insight do you, as the author, have that other writers don’t? Is there some facet of the story—its setting, or a characteristic of the protagonist — that elevates it beyond the ordinary? Is there a new spin on an old trope?

Finally, on a personal note, I wish to express my encouragement and support to all the writers out there currently bogged down in query hell. I thought about including my own putrid queries in this post, but it would be too humiliating. However, I’ve written in more detail about my own query struggles HERE if you want to feel good in comparison. Best of luck to all of you!

You can order The Queen of Hearts HERE. Two more weeks!!!!

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Kimmery is the author of The Queen of Hearts (2018, Penguin). She's also a doctor, mother, author interviewer, traveler, and obsessive reader. You can read Kimmery's book recommendations and reviews at kimmerymartin.com.

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