The Query Letter: Start with a Stop Sign, Guest Post from John Paine

1 April, 2014


John Paine photoYou need to arrest the agent’s attention with the first line. She does not want to read about the fact you actually completed a novel. Everyone who queries her has done that. She doesn’t want to know anything about you personally, at least not at first. She wants to know: why does this book stand out from the pack? There are several approaches you might want to take.

You answer that question by putting forth a fresh concept. If you throw up an outrageous idea at the start—stop and look at this—the agent is going to respond: okay, I’ll keep reading. The concept needs to be in capsule form—a single sentence if possible. If not, see if you can boil the story down to its essence, in 25 words or less. What is fresh and engaging about your book? Why is this a valuable addition to the world of books?

To fill out the rest of the first paragraph—and the letter as a whole—you might want to focus the content around a single character, the protagonist. Choose what drives the book overall and place the reader in the driving seat of that first paragraph. Pick out the most striking things that happen in the book and string them together in summary form. Many times you’ll find that outlining the opening sequence works well, since that is what you’re using to lure the reader into the actual book. You can, however, use any arresting sequence of events, wherever they appears in the manuscript. But just remember: if I knew nothing about the novel, what are the highlights that would make me want to read more?

Another opening approach is to provide marketing information. If you have had other novels published, that will catch an agent’s eye. In that first sentence you can tell the agent how many words the manuscript contains, along with its category (mystery, women’s fiction, etc.). That’s useful information. You can fill out the paragraph with the same 25 words or less, and at the paragraph’s end, you might provide a marketing comparison with a published author. If you can tell an agent, “My book is a cross between X novel and Y novel,” she may very well pitch the manuscript to a publishing house in just those terms. If you think your book is like Alice Hoffman’s, write that in the last line: “In the spirit of Alice Hoffman . . .”

Again, you’re speaking a book professional’s language. Even with a literary book, an editor is thinking: how can I persuade the editor-in-chief to buy this book? How will I pitch this book to the marketing department? If you show that your concept stands out from other books that have already been published, that means your novel will find a place of its own on the bookshelf.

One last bit of advice to consider is the use of specifics. A query letter is not a book report. You don’t have to outline every character or every plot line. Just choose a single thread, and make sure to use details from the actual manuscript. Yes, you are providing an overview, but it should constantly pick up specific pieces. That’s how you constructed your story. So use them to tell your mini-story.

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