I mentioned yesterday that Miss Snark has been critiquing query hooks on her blog here. In reading those hooks, I noticed a trend. Since I was on vacation from blogging, I promptly forgot about it. However, I was reminded of that trend again today while I was critiquing a writer's query letter.
Newbie writers hear agents and editors talk about winning manuscripts that include lots of action. Some writers respond by developing a list of "action events," which they then catalogue in their query letter. Instead of a coherent, compelling narrative, they end up enumerating a bunch of unconnected events.
The query I read today included an unplanned pregnancy, a major theft, murder, kidnapping, drug running, a natural disaster and a miracle. These were listed in no particular order and without a comprehensive narrative to connect them. The characters were also listed with no real explanation of their goals or motivations.
The writer was obviously hard-working and very sincere in her desire for feedback. In responding to her request for a critique, I tried to weave the most important events together while focusing on the main conflict and introducing the lead characters' goals.
When you are writing a query letter, be sure to give the specifics of your plot. Rachel Vater addressed this in her blog of December 19th here:
Vagueness is the kiss of death. This one [submitted query letter] is about a a woman who was labeled a prodigy at age 7. She's now an adult. (What kind of prodigy, you may ask? So did I. Sadly, I don't see an answer.) Apparently it's going to be her destiny to change the world. How, you might ask? So did I. Sadly, that's not covered in the query or synopsis either. So why should I care about whether she can change the world or not when the writer doesn't specify what's wrong with the world and in what way she's going to change it? Well... I can't, because I just don't know what this story is about since the writer doesn't reveal this information.
Avoid adjectives and adverbs and focus on the nouns and verbs. Remember the credo of the newspaper industry: Who, what, when, where and why. For example:
Who: Sally Straight
What: She takes advantage of a tsunami to fake her death
When: December, 2004
Where: Visiting Thailand with her husband on business
Why: Her husband is abusive, and she wants to get away. He suspects the truth and tries to track her down to force her to return to him.
Before an agent can represent a manuscript s/he HAS to know your plot. Instead of describing the manuscript as thrilling or suspenseful, EXPLAIN what the story is about. You don't have to give away the ending, but you DO have to give the conflict and describe the main characters' goals and motivations.
Start by describing the essence of your story in one page (250 words). Once you have that, try to boil it down to 100 words and then 50 words. I went with the 100-word hook, but not before I figured out what a 50-word hook would be. The value of writing a 50-word hook is that it forces you to identify the main conflict and the hero/heroine's goal.
Remember: You're probably not going to get more than eight seconds of an agent or editor's time. These people are busy. They start reading and, the moment they can't tell what is going on, they put the letter down. If you can't write a coherent query letter, why should they believe you can write a coherent novel?
When writing a query, read it, read it and read it again. Get other writers to critique it. One hint to finding if you've done your job is to hand the query to a fellow writer to read and then ask him to describe the plot (not the genre or tone) to you. If he can't do it, you aren't finished yet.
Don't give up. Just keep at it. If you're determined enough, you'll learn; I promise.
Keep on writing.