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Presenting the “Book” in your Query Letter

Less is more when describing your story

At this year’s Willamette Writers Conference, agents and editors kept prodding writers to describe their novels in two to three sentences. This left some writers scrambling to make their pitches more succinct. With agents busier than ever, this law of brevity also applies to the query letter. In the standard “the hook, the book, and the cook” format, the book is a mini synopsis of your manuscript and typically two to five paragraphs. But what I’m hearing from agents is the quicker you can tell your story, the better.

In the “hook” line (See the last post for more on the hook.) you’ve already given the title, the genre, the word count, the central characters, the conflict, and the setting (if important to the story). Now start a new paragraph.There are no hard and fast rules for telling your unique story. But here are a few tried and true techniques:

Include an excerpt from your manuscript. This works if the excerpt highlights the theme of your story and showcases your craft.

Compare your manuscript to one or more published novels or writers. For example, Strange Happenings is a story of moral dilemma in the style of Jodi Picoult.

Tell the basic story structure. Write it in present tense. Include most, but not necessarily all, of these story elements:
The set up. What’s happening on page one?
A brief description of main character(s) (protagonist), unless you’ve already included this in your hook. Not a physical description, but rather a description of your protagonist’s main characteristics or emotional state (e.g., optimistic, tortured, grieving)
The conflict. What is standing in the way of what your character wants?
• The antagonist. How does the antagonist prevent the protagonist from achieving his or her desires.
Inciting incident. What propels the central character into action?
Major plot points. One or two plot points or emotional turning points.

Don’t give away the ending. This is a tease, similar to the copy you’d find on a book jacket. Here are the two summary paragraphs from the query for my middle grade novel, The Haunting of Claire Crawford:

Everything in Claire’s life changed with her brother’s diagnosis. Now she’s in a new town, her brother is a stranger, and Claire’s afraid she too will succumb to mental illness. A family of eight moves into the Victorian house next door and Claire becomes fast friends with Sara, whose stable family life is a stark contrast to the chaos in Claire’s.

Claire and Sara discover a secret room in Sara’s house, filled with letters, photographs, and the buried hopes of an elderly recluse, the previous owner who recently passed away. The girls playact scenes of the woman’s early years as a photographer in the 1940s, and Claire discovers a story of lost dreams that closely reflects her own. As Claire braces for her brother’s return home, she fears she’ll lose her friendship with Sara. Worst yet, Claire fears for her own sanity when she falls under the spell of the old house. Yet the secret to Claire’s own survival lays hidden within its walls.

See if you can tell - and sell - your story in two paragraphs or less.

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How to “Hook” an Agent

Lessons from the Willamette Writers Conference

Last week I attended the 41st annual Willamette Writers Conference in Portland, Oregon. It didn’t surprise me that a number of editors and agents referred to the standard query letter format as “the hook, the book, and the cook” (as described in last week’s post). What did surprise me was the astounding number of queries agents receive. Jill Marr of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency said she reviews 1,200 to 1,500 a month.

Imagine having to wade through that many emails and letters to find a manuscript that perks your interest, and in a genre you represent. The reality is that agents can’t give more than a few seconds of their attention to each query. Your opening line needs to hook them and reel them in.

A hook is one line (generally) that accomplishes three things:
1) Summarizes your story
2) Identifies the genre or readership (e.g., women’s contemporary, mainstream, mystery)

3) Grabs the reader’s attention so they’ll read on

A Hook Includes:

Your Title. The publisher may change it, but a good working title can help sell your book.

A summary of Your Story. I know that’s hard to do in one line. In screenwriting, it’s referred to as the “log line.” Include:
     • The central character(s)
     • The central character’s main challenge or conflict
     • The location or time period if it’s critical to the story

The Genre. Include it unless it is blatantly obvious from your story description. Agents want to know where your book will be shelved at Barnes and Noble. Ask yourself:
     • Is it contemporary or historical? Is it crime fiction or a cozy mystery?
     • If you are writing for children, specify the reader’s age range or label it as a
       chapter book, middle grade, or young adult

Word Length. Be sure your book is the standard length for the type of novel you’re writing. A 30,000-word mystery or a 150,000-word young adult novel will be a red flag to the agent that this writer doesn’t know his genre.

If your hook is over 45 words, it’s okay to put the genre and word length in a second sentence. Such as, “This is a 75,000-word work of historical magic realism."

Here’s the hook in the query letter for my middle grade novel:

The Haunting of Claire Crawford is a 40,000-word, middle-grade novel about a lonely  and imaginative twelve-year-old girl coming to terms with her brother’s schizophrenia by discovering the mysteries of the house next door.

In 37 words it provides the title, the central characters, the conflict, the genre, and the word length.

If you’d like to post your hook in the comments, I’d be happy to provide some feedback. Maybe others will want to chime in too.

Market Your Manuscript

Five sales tools needed to sell your novel to an agent or editor

Long before you market your novel to readers, you’ll be marketing your manuscript to literary agents and/or editors at publishing houses. Here’s an overview of the sales tools you’ll need. In the next few weeks I’ll cover each of these in detail.

1) Edited,  Complete Manuscript. This is your product. Make certain it’s the best product you can produce. But don’t waste years tinkering. If you’re on your twentieth round of edits, had your critique group or critique partner read your latest draft, and had a book doctor or professional editor give you feedback, you probably have a well-crafted manuscript ready for agents or editors to read. It’s time to send your baby out to the world. If you’re a compulsive editor like I am, don’t worry, you’ll have plenty of time to tweak your manuscript before publication.

A more common mistake new writers make is submitting their works too soon. Don’t do it. You’ll only be wasting your time and establishing your reputation as an amateur. Take time to hone your craft, join a critique group, receive professional feedback, and learn the art of self editing. While you’re working away on your novel, it’s the perfect time to learn as much as you can about the submission process. When you are ready to query and pitch agents, you’ll be ahead of the curve.

2) Pitch. You need at least two. The “elevator pitch” is the one liner you throw out to the agent you bump into at a cocktail party who asks “what are you writing?” The “big pitch” is a two-to-five minute description of your story used to sell your novel to an agent or editor during a writing conference pitch session.

3) Query Letter. This is your most important sales tool and the one you’ll be using the most. It’s a one page letter with a set format, often referred to as “the hook, the book, and the cook.” The opening hook is a one sentence description that differentiates your novel from anything else out there. The book is two to three short paragraphs about the story, similar to what you might find on a book jacket. The cook (that’s you) is a one paragraph biography (bio) pertinent to your writing experience.

4) Synopsis. One of the most challenging pieces to write. Generally written in present tense, even if your novel is in past tense. Include the central characters, main plot points, and the ending.

5) Bio. Although you’ll be including a brief bio in your query, some agents ask for a separate bio. Write it in third person and include any professional writing experience, the genres or areas you write, education, and publication credits. If you’re asking, “What if I don’t have any of those?” you’re not alone. A bio doesn’t need to be more than a paragraph and there is nothing wrong with approaching agents with no credentials. Mostly, an agent wants to know she’ll be dealing with a professional and that you’re willing and able to promote your book.