The Secret to Query Letter Greatness

There are lots of rules for writing great queries. Many of them can be found on this blog. But there’s one secret to writing great queries that is so obvious that I’m always amazed to see it overlooked when critiquing queries for conferences, workshops, and boot camps.

So What’s the Secret to Writing Great Query Letters?

Think like a reader. If you read, you already do this when you go to a bookstore or shop around on Amazon. You look at covers and read book titles and descriptions. If those interest you, it’s time to crack the spine and read the first page or three.

The same process holds true for literary agents and book editors. They don’t have book covers, but they are looking at book titles and descriptions. If they’re interesting, they request more information–whether that’s sample chapters, a book proposal, or the full manuscript.

“That’s great,” you say, “but how do I actually do that?”

Thinking Like a Nonfiction Reader

For prospective nonfiction authors, the query must be solutions-oriented. Note: I did not say the query should be benefits-oriented. A common trap for writers is to focus on the research they did or the impetus for the book. That’s great and all, but that’s rarely what hooks a reader in nonfiction (with the exception of memoir, which will be more like the fiction reader below).

Nonfiction readers want to know how a nonfiction book is going to benefit them, but they don’t want to know the benefits. They want to know the solutions. How is this nonfiction book going to help me solve a problem?

Maybe a travel title is going to help travelers find unique spots that only locals know exist. Maybe a cooking title is going to share cajun recipes that are also heart healthy. Maybe a marketing title will help people sell more goods and services on a limited budget without sacrificing their valuable time.

For all these books, a good hook or opening sentence would be: (Book title) (solves your unique problem) and (helps you accomplish X). Examples from above:

  • ATL Unleashed uncovers the hidden gems of the Atlanta metro area and provides travelers and transplants with local access to the best places to meet, eat, and retreat in the ATL.
  • Hearty Cajun Recipes reveals that spicy and heart healthy can co-exist by sharing great cajun-inspired cuisine that won’t hurt your heart.
  • No Time or Money Marketing shows cash- and time-strapped business people how they can effectively market and sell their products and services even if they’re running low on both.

All three of these examples are ideas I gave about three minutes of thought (if that), but they are more effective openings than most I encounter for one reason: They are focused on the needs of the reader.

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Thinking Like a Fiction (and Memoir) Reader

I’ve been in rooms where we’ve discussed this idea for nonfiction books and the novelists immediately charge, “Yeah, that works for nonfiction, but what about us fiction writers? We can’t focus on reader solutions.” Well, no–but also, yes.

The solution a novel or memoir offers (or should offer) to a reader is a compelling story. However, many of the queries I review hide their stories deep in the query–if they make an appearance at all.

Think like a reader for a moment. When you read a book cover, do you care what inspired the story? Are you interested in the invented alien language? What about the names of warring factions? All that might be interesting once you’re submerged in the story, but readers want to know the story first–not all the details and back story.

Here’s the simple formula for a fiction query: In (title of the book), (protagonist wants X), but (along comes X that makes the protagonist’s needs impossible to fulfill without sacrificing everything).

Here are a few examples of well-known stories (word counts imaginary):

  • In my 80,000-word novel Jaws, Officer Brody just wants to stay on dry land in his peaceful community, but along comes a man-eating great white shark that won’t stop terrorizing the town until Brody goes on a life-threatening fishing trip.
  • In my 40,000-word novel The Little Prince, a pilot crash lands in the desert and wants only to fix his plane, but a beautiful boy appears out of nowhere and asks him to draw a sheep.
  • In my 30,000-word novella The Book of Jonah, a prophet named Jonah wants to go anywhere but Nineveh after God commands him to deliver a message, but when he tries to escape in the other direction God sends a storm and giant fish to change Jonah’s mind.

These hooks did not start off by explaining the back story or describing the world in which the characters exist. That type of detail can be handled (briefly) later in the query. The opening should focus on the story.

But My Story Is Not That Easy

If you’re thinking this, then one of three things is happening:

  1. You’re too attached to every detail. Detach yourself from the story and forget all the secondary characters and subplots. What is the essence of the main story? Deliver that in the query.
  2. Your story isn’t ready for submitting. Many publishing professionals will tell you a novel needs to be written more than once before it’s finished. If your main story can’t be extracted, then maybe it’s time to look at why that might be.
  3. Your story isn’t really a story. It’s possible (and there’s nothing wrong with this) that your fiction is actually some sort of non-linear or experimental work. That’s fine, but it creates a very difficult challenge for the writer pitching the novel. In such cases, a smaller or university press may be the way to go. Luck be with you.

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