Monday, April 26, 2010

The Meat of a Query Letter

Hounded will be published one year from today. Is it too early to start a countdown?

Hmm. Probably.

While staring at the calendar and willing it to turn faster, I've been reflecting on what got me this far. Writing the book sure helped, of course, but writing the query letter got the book looked at in the first place. Lots of writers never get their book seriously considered because their query letter doesn't snag an agent's interest.

I'd actually suggest writing a query letter as a method of focusing your writing if you're in the process of completing a project now. Distilling your project down to its essentials can be wonderfully clarifying if you're flailing about with subplots and how you're ever going to end it.

The meat of your query should focus on your main character's conflict. What is at stake for your character, and what kind of heck must he/she endure before that conflict gets resolved? You put other goodies in a query too, like word count and marketing possibilities and maybe a wee bit about yourself if it will help you sell the story—but all of those are side dishes. Focus on the meat. You won't be able to dwell on subplots very much and that's okay—after all, if they don't want your main plot, they're not going to want the subplot(s) either.

My query letter got me several requests for partial manuscripts, a couple of full requests, and one whole agent (which is all you need). The meat was in the first three paragraphs. In the last paragraph I included the word count and genre, mentioned its series potential, and asked if I could send the manuscript. To celebrate the beginning of my year-long countdown to publication, below is the meat of my query letter for Hounded:

Atticus O'Sullivan has been running for two thousand years, and he's a bit tired of it. After he stole a magical sword from the Tuatha Dé Danann (those who became the Sidhe or the Fae) in a first-century battle, some of them were furious and gave chase, and some were secretly amused that a Druid had the cheek to defy them. As the centuries passed and Atticus remained a fugitive—an annoyingly long-lived one, at that—those who were furious only grew more so, while others began to aid him in secret.

Now he's living in Tempe, Arizona, the very last of the Druids, far from where the Fae can easily enter this plane and find him. It's a place where many paranormals have decided to hide from the troubles of the Old World—from an Icelandic vampire holding a grudge against Thor to a coven of Polish witches who ran from the German Blitzkrieg.

When Atticus hears from the Morrigan that his nemesis, Aenghus Óg, has found him again, he decides to stay and fight rather than run. In so doing, he becomes the center of a power struggle among the Tuatha Dé Danann, where the sword he stole is the key to a plot to overthrow Brighid, first among the Fae.

That was all the meat I wrote. I doubt my agent pitched the book in the same way, and that's not what you'll see on the back cover of the book, but it worked. I left out a couple of gods and some werewolves and an Irish wolfhound named Oberon, but none of that was the meat of the story.

If I may, I highly recommend a site called the Absolute Write Water Cooler. Here's the link. They have a Share Your Work section where you can post your query letter and get feedback on it. I didn't discover it until after I'd already written mine, but it's clear that it helps many people. They have lots of other forums too, and it's a great community made up of published and (as yet) unpublished authors.

Okay. Is it 2011 yet?


  1. Agree that the Absolute Write Water Cooler is a great place to learn craft, industry news -- and just relax.

    I won't tell you how long it took me to absorb the fact the query is about the main character's conflicts and desires. (Still, don't like the queries I'm drafting.)

  2. I found writing my book to be rather easy (editing it to perfection is another story), but I simply cannot manage a query letter that works. I have never even tried to query so far. One problem is that I have a very complex story, with many main characters (I emulated George R.R. Martin's 'A Game of Thrones'), so I would have to really misrepresent my story if I just focus on one of the characters in my query.

    Another is that my simplified plot is just your basic 'saving the world from a great evil' conflit. Yeah, cliche and boring, and no agent will take that. However, the real story is nothing like that - it's rich and alive, with many threads that converge in unusual ways. I just can't get that across in 300 words or less.

  3. Well, Ted, I don't think you have anything to worry about, because all epic fantasies are about saving the world somehow...readers (and editors) go in knowing that, I think—the sort of weaving and converging you mention is the good part! Try putting a query letter in the Query Letter Hell forum at AW and let them shred you until you get it right. It's worked for lots of people (see the success story sticky thread), and it could work for you too. :)