Query Letters: Seduce, Don’t Summarize

In her blog SlushPileTales, literary agent Lauren Ruth of Bookends LLC runs a wonderful series called Query Dice. She critiques queries (with the author’s permission, of course), and invites readers to share their views as well. One thing stands out to me about the queries she’s featured so far: the authors are trying to summarize their book, instead of crafting a marketing pitch to hook the agent. They’re giving the agent more information than she needs, and the result is confusion rather than excitement.

Agents are in part to blame for this. Too many agency websites state that the query letter should contain a “synopsis” or “summary” of the novel. Those words suggest that the author should encapsulate the entire plot in two paragraphs. But as editor Jane Friedman says, “A query letter is not a straightforward description of your work. It’s a sales letter. It should be persuasive and seduce the agent into requesting your work.”

Other agency websites ask for a “description” or a “pitch.” These terms are better, but “description” could lead some writers to submit a beautiful abstraction, instead of focusing on plot. And “pitch” could lead some writers to declare, “It’s the next Da Vinci Code!” or “It’s better than Eat, Pray, Love!” Agents don’t want that, either.

What agents really want is back jacket copy—that marketing copy on the back cover that convinces the reader to buy the book. Back jacket copy must entice readers, revealing enough to pique their interest but not so much that their curiosity wanes. Your query should do the same for an agent.

For instance, here’s my attempt at writing back jacket copy for my favorite novel, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen:

When Charles Bingley rents an estate in Hertfordshire in Regency England, the mamas of the eligible daughters in the neighborhood welcome him with undisguised glee. Chief among these mamas is Mrs. Bennet, who has produced five daughters, but no sons to inherit the family estate. The two eldest Bennet sisters, Jane and Elizabeth, hope for love but know that marrying well is their only security against poverty when their father’s fortune inevitably passes to a distant cousin.

Bingley is smitten by the lovely but modest Jane. Then, his friend Darcy visits Hertfordshire. The grandson of an earl, Darcy is shocked by the coarse manners of the provincial society. Jane’s vivacious sister Elizabeth teases Darcy out of his silence. But when Jane and Elizabeth’s family expose their own follies at a ball, Darcy whisks Bingley out of Hertfordshire to save him from Mrs. Bennet’s designs, leaving Jane heartbroken. Elizabeth realizes a painful truth: The greatest threat to her future happiness isn’t the entail on her father’s estate. It’s her mother’s crassness, her sisters’ wildness, and her father’s benign indifference. If she and Jane hope to find love with men of quality, the sisters must rise out of the stifling country society into which they were born.

This copy isn’t perfect—for one thing, it names 5 characters, which is 3 too many. The novel’s protagonist, Elizabeth, doesn’t feature prominently enough. But this is the way the novel reads. It introduces a number of characters at once, and Elizabeth doesn’t dominate at first. In this sense, the rhythm of the copy follows the rhythm of the novel.

Note that this copy focuses mainly on the early chapters of the novel. Then, the second half of the second paragraph skips forward to the midpoint reversal. The final sentence summarizes the protagonist’s course of action based on the new information she receives at the midpoint, which begins the long lead-up to the climax.

Note also what I left out: I barely hinted at the courtship of Elizabeth and Darcy. Their courtship is a critical part of Elizabeth’s internal journey, but it doesn’t drive the external plot. In fact, Elizabeth doesn’t realize she’s engaged in courtship with Darcy until halfway through the novel. So I gave the reader just enough information to suspect that the two might become a couple.

I also left out the subplots, such as Charlotte’s marriage to Mr. Collins, and Lydia’s elopement with Wickham. There’s no room for subplots in a query letter.

Before you try to write the query, I recommend that you first write a logline. A logline is a one-sentence description of the main action of the story. Here’s a possible logline for Pride and Prejudice:

Two sisters in Regency England must marry well to avoid poverty, but the uncouth manners of their family threaten to frighten off any men of quality they meet.

This logline is horribly reductive. It doesn’t begin to capture the magnificence of one of the greatest novels of all time. But a logline isn’t supposed to do that. It’s supposed to leave the audience wanting more. And having a logline will help you write your query with a laser focus on the main plot.

Why is writing a query difficult for many budding novelists? Author and self-publishing guru Bob Mayer looks to the Myers-Briggs personality types for one explanation: “Promoter (ESTP) is the complete opposite of Author (INFJ).” As an INFJ author myself, I can relate. But remember, the MBTI types are based on preference, not ability. Writing promotional copy is a skill you can learn, even if it doesn’t come naturally to you.

Chapter 4 of Bob Mayer’s book Write It Forward contains more information on how the MBTI can help fiction writers plan their career and deepen their characters. This book is available in multiple formats from Who Dares Wins Publishing, and is also available from Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

Related links:
The INFJ Writing Personality: Eloquent Vision

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