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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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