Ask almost any author and they will tell you that getting your book published is harder than writing the book! Today we’re going to talk about the big gate keeper into the published author world. The dreaded query letter.
(Even if you’re not ready to submit to agents and publishers, setting up your query outline can be really helpful to your plot. Try out the below exercises to make sure you have a solid hook and conflict in place.)
This is part one in a three part post series.
What is a query letter?
A query letter is the 600-800 word hook you’ll use to land an agent or publisher. Sounds simple right? You just wrote an entire book, how hard can 600 words be? Well, you now have to condense all those beautiful words — those carefully crafted plot lines and twists and complex characters — into just 600 words with a cohesive story line and a hook to sell that book. It’s usually outlined in three paragraphs:
- Paragraph 1 – The hook of your story. This post will focus on finding and articulating your hook.
- Paragraph 2 – The first major challenge of your story. This usually covers about the first third of your book.
- Paragraph 3 – The mechanics of your book. This will include title, genre, word count, comparable titles, and author bio.
What a query letter is not.
Before we get too deep, let’s talk about what your query letter does NOT do.
- A query letter is not the entire plot of your book. It should cover about the first third of your plot, in fact. It’s the main character’s initial problem and the first major plot conflict that leads them into the rest of the story.
- A query letter does not give away the ending of the book. You’re trying to hook an agent into reading more. They need to say ‘wow, I want to know what happens in that book!’ and request the manuscript to do just that.
- A query letter is not a form letter. Never ever, ever send it out bcc or ‘to whom it may concern’. Each letter is individualized to the agent you are sending it to. True, the content of your story will stay the same but the intro and the closing paragraph will be customized to the specific agent you’re querying.
Your query is about your story’s hook.
What is the hook of your story? If you can’t describe this in about 2-3 sentences right now, take a day and figure this out. SAY IT OUT LOUD. Pretend you just told someone your wrote a book and their first question is: “What’s it about?” For many of us, this is surprisingly hard to do.
Paragraph 1: The Hook.
This paragraph sets the foundation of the query letter. Let’s draft this out together with three steps.
Step 1: Define your main character. Is she a rebel princess? The exiled heir? Descriptors like mother, estranged brother, aspiring actor, ‘comic-book loving teenager’ all work. Sometimes you can just state their name. As an example, let’s talk about the Disney movie Mulan.
Mulan is an independent-minded young woman who has failed her match-making classes.
Step 2: Define the choice they face. What happens to them that makes the action really start? What is the choice they have to make? (This is also called the inciting incident).
Mulan takes her aging father’s place in the military draft save his life.
Step 3: Define the consequences. What happens if they do/don’t make that choice? What are the stakes?
Mulan has to pretend to be a man and if she’s caught it will dishonor her family and she’ll be killed.
So here’s what we’ve worked out for Mulan:
When independent-minded young woman takes her aging father’s spot in the military draft by pretending to be a man. If she’s caught her family will be dishonored, and she’ll be killed.
So that’s your story’s hook! Character + Choice + Consequence. It’s that simple.
Congratulations you’ve just written the first paragraph of your query. Right now, it’s not perfect, but that’s okay. You’ve defined what the hook is and you can add voice in later. For example, you can probably come up with something better than ‘independent-minded young woman’, and you can probably work in something about her failure to make a suitable bride in training.
But, we don’t need to do that now. Let’s get the basics outlined and then we’ll add in more details. Right now, notice that we didn’t talk about the her love interest Captain Shang, the Huns, or the ancestor guardian that gets her into trouble along the way. We’re only focused on the main character, her choice, and the consequence.
The second paragraph in the query letter is all about what happens next. This will highlight the first big conflict of your plot. Posts coming soon about crafting the second paragraph and the final author bio paragraph.
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