Few things make a writer’s tone (speaking voice tone, that is) more querilous than the idea of writing a query letter. Writers tend to be creative types, and creative types tend to hate business (they think of stuffy, keep-it-short, bottom-lines-drawn-with-dollar-signs, and decidedly non-creative types when they think of business types). A query letter is personal, yes, but it’s a business letter, too. To make it worse, if written correctly it’s even got a sales pitch!
But beyond the crassness of needing to think about that filthy lucre that puts bread in their mouths and keeps their computers humming, the idea of the query letter is frightening. How should it be structured? What should be said? How long should it be? Why should I have to appeal to these empty suits, anyway? Let them read my mighty work and despair!
First, you don’t know that the agent (or assistant editor) who reads your query letter is going to be “empty”. And you need to appeal to him because he’s the one who is going to make the effort to get lots of people to read your book so that you get royalty checks in the mail. But I know you really know that.
What’s important is that the right agent reads your query letter — your well-written query letter. So. Let’s assume that you have done good research and you have a good agent who works with the genre or sub-genre of book that you’ve written. How do you write the damned thing?
It is quite important to get this query letter thing right, because if you don’t then your mighty works won’t be read by those who can get them lovely covers, strong binding, and in front of a wide reading audience.
The hook comes first. Oh yes, you’ve got to use the hook in your query letter. It’s right there in your first paragraph. Now, get this: it’s only one sentence long. It can be a long sentence (and since it sums up what your mighty work is all about in essence, it likely will be a long one). Sound scary? Or too crass for you? Here’s what Dan Brown’s hook was in his query letter for selling The Da Vinci Code:
“A murder in the silent after-hour halls of the Louvre museum reveals a sinister plot to uncover a secret that has been protected by a clandestine society since the days of Christ.”
Now that’s an attention-grabber, eh? Makes you have an inquiring mind about the full story.
You can also use tried-and-true hook writing methods if you can’t get one to flow through your mind like Brown’s. Just think about the “when” of your book. Other hooking techniques include writing a sentence introducing the location and era in which the book is set, or introducing the main character.
Next comes the synopsis. I think this is the part that writers hate the most about query letters. Your second paragraph sums up that entire mighty work of yours, wrought with exquisite detail, in just about 150 to 200 words. Yes, it’s necessary. Make it tight and precise.
Finally, something about you! Your third paragraph is your author’s bio. Now, don’t screw this up. Write nothing here that is not related to your book and why your authorship of it should be taken seriously. The greenhouse nursery job that you hold down during the week is not important. However, neither is your education level (unless it’s non-fiction and about a highly specialized subject), your lack of any previously published books, or anything else that you were terrified to have to tell about yourself. “Neil Peart is a self-educated high school dropout who reads voraciously and is passionate about the craft of writing. He writes all of the lyrics for the rock band Rush. This is his first work of science fiction.” Superb!
All that remains after this is your closing. In your closing, thank the agent for making the time to deign to consider your mighty work. Your are grateful and look forward to hearing from her. You also need to let the agent know that if you wrote fiction, your full manuscript is available upon request. (That’s right. Full manuscript.). For non-fiction, you have enclosed a table of contents, an outline for the whole book, and sample chapters to be reviewed.
So. Go away and write your query letter.