A query letter for a novel must be short. Ideally, just one page. It’s what you send as a first contact to a literary agent (sometimes directly to an editor), often as an email. You hope they will open it, scan it, be intrigued very quickly (and impressed by your writing on that one page), and utter the magic words: “Send me more.”
To succeed, you must sum up your opus in just a paltry few sentences. Perhaps as few as three. Maybe a few more if they’re good and short and compelling. (Compelling not to you but to the busy agent or editor, sitting with a huge pile of other queries and not much time.)
Yes, I know you’ve slaved over your wonderfully complex novel and want to tell, oh, so much more! More about the characters. More about the plot. More about why you wrote this story. And maybe all about the other novels in the trilogy you’ve planned.
It’s a test. It’s a gate you must pass through. An agent or editor (in almost all cases) wants to see you have written the kind of work that can be summed up in a short, pithy, come-on paragraph – exactly like the ones you see on the back of paperback editions, or in a short description somewhere like the Book of the Month Club’s catalog.
So, at a recent writer’s conference (Wisconsin Writers Association), I advised: hey, sign up for the Book of the Month Club! and read their short descriptions of books. That’s how you want your pitch to read.
For instance, here’s a BOMC paragraph introducing John Grisham’s new novel, Playing for Pizza:
After three interceptions in 11 minutes that cost his Cleveland Browns football team the playoffs, third-string quarterback Rick Dockery’s football career is over. Or is it? There is one team who still wants him. The only catch is the team is the Parma Panthers from Parma, Italy. Rick isn’t too keen on the idea but with nowhere else to go he takes the offer and is introduced into a whole different world full of strange rules, great food, and exotic women.
That’s a great pitch. It does exactly what it needs to do. First: Set-up (sets the cool scene that kicks off the book and pulls you right in). Second: Complication (an interesting monkey-wrench is thrown into the situation, something that scrambles everything). Third: Teaser (a sense of how everything changes . . . ending with an intriguing, open-ended come-on that suggests you are really, really going to like this book!).
This pitch for Grisham’s book concludes by promising a good read: a story full of things “strange, great, exotic.” It doesn’t go on and on. Instead, it leaves you wanting to know more.
Here’s another example, in a more serious literary tone, also from BOMC’s current offerings:
The Worst Thing I’ve Done, by Ursula Hegi:
Annie, Jake, and Mason have a tangled bond since childhood, one that is fraught with jealousy, competitiveness, and dormant attractions. When Annie’s father and pregnant mother die in a car wreck on the same night that she and Mason get married, the three friends decide together to raise Annie’s infant sister, Opal, who has survived the crash. But as they do, the festering feelings between them leave Annie wanting out of her marriage — something that leads all three of them to cross a precarious line with a decision that will have catastrophic consequences.
You get the idea.
Set-up. Complication. Teaser.
For more advice on pitches and queries, I recommend Katharine Sands’ wonderful book: Making the Perfect Pitch. Then work on your perfect pitch: short and sweet, well written and punchy, open-ended.