Try this exercise and write your query letter before you write your next book to keep your manuscript focused and help you pitch it to agents and publishers.
It’s an unfortunate aspect of the publishing business: In order to get a traditional publishing deal, you must first (usually) get an agent. In order to get an agent, you must first (usually) write a query letter.
Authors tend to struggle with query letters. I get it. I mean, you’ve just spent all this time writing and rewriting your book and now you have to master a completely different art form. It almost feels like a bait and switch.
How do I get published?
Write a great book!
OK. I’ve done that. Here you go.
No, sorry, no one will even take a look at it until you’ve written an amazing query letter!
Huh? What? What’s that?
Authors spend weeks, even months, writing and rewriting their query letters. What’s worse, when they send their queries out to agents, they never get feedback, so there’s no way to know how to improve their letter or manuscript — or even what needs improving.
A query letter is supposed to be a gripping and brief teaser. It needs to convey the essence of what your book is about and make the agent yearn to read more.
Sounds good, right? But that can be nigh on impossible, especially if your book doesn’t lend itself to the constraints of the format. Your beautiful, 80,000-word novel that explores the complex depths of the human condition? You’ve got 300 words to sum that puppy up and it has to be in a format that allows very little room for creativity. Go!
Go ahead. Read them all and start writing your query.
But here’s a suggestion for your next book. Rather than trying to shoehorn your manuscript into the query letter format, try writing a query before you write your book. Even if you’re not looking for a traditional publishing deal.
I’m not talking about all the personalized nonsense, like what certain agents want in their particular queries or how you won some writing contest or your bio. I’m just talking about the meat of the query. Write that. Then write your book based on that.
The hook and the synopsis
What’s the meat of the query? The hook and the synopsis.
The hook, what they call a log line in Hollywood, is a one sentence summary of your book. It needs to convey who your main character is, what their goal is, what stands in their way, and what the stakes are. Here is an example of a log line for the movie Spy Kids.
After segueing from a life of espionage to raising a family, Gregorio and Ingrid Cortez are called back into action. But when they are kidnapped by their evil nemesis, there are only two people in the world who can rescue them … their kids!
(Here’s the article I borrowed that from, which offers good advice on how to write a logline.)
You’re probably already doing a version of this when you are coming up with ideas for your books, but instead of having a loose idea of a hook, try formatting it and tightening it and making it a formal declaration. That will help you zoom in on exactly what your book is about.
I mean, how often have people asked you what your book is about and you’ve said something along the lines of, “Well, it’s kind of hard to summarize, but…”
No longer. You’re going to write out a hook first. Think of it as your book’s mission statement.
Friend: You’re writing a book? Awesome! What’s it about?
The New You: “It’s the extraordinary story of a thoroughbred racehorse — from his humble beginnings as an under-fed workhorse to his unlikely rise and triumphant victory over the Triple Crown winner, War Admiral.” (Also from that writersstore.com article.)
The synopsis (or blurb)
OK, now that you have your hook, it’s time to flesh out the details. Not too many. You’re only going to write 200 words or so. This will help you stay focused. Think of this as the copy you’re going to write for your back cover. What’s going to get someone to want to read this (still non-existent) book?
Here’s a good article about how to write a blurb.
Don’t worry about tweaking your copy so it’s perfect. You’re not sending this off to an agent. Instead, spend your time perfecting the concept.
Once you have your hook and blurb, you now have something you can feel confident is going to sell. NOW it’s time to write that book!
Not looking to go for a traditional publishing deal? That’s OK. This exercise is going to keep you focus on writing a winning book and you’ll have everything you’ll need to write you back cover and your Amazon optimization copy.
Looking for inspiration? Check out Query Shark, in which an agent offers up advice to authors on how to write a better query.
Here’s an example of a successful query from Query Shark.
The value of a great book synopsis
Literary agents, query letters, and book proposals
15 attributes of an effective query letter
How to Write a Galley Letter (And Get Book Reviews)
Amazon Optimization: My Self-publishing Experience