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On Writing a Novel for Publication by a Major Royalty Publisher - The Query Letter Dissected

By Robert L. Bacon

I've written many articles during the past few years on the art of composing query letters, and these have consistently ranked among the most popular of anything I've published. But even after explaining what an agent is looking for, and that a query must read like liner notes and not a synopsis, I continue to receive questions from writers. So I thought it might be a good idea to dissect a query down to what I call its capillaries.

Successful Queries Consist of Four Distinct Parts

The four parts of a query letter are: the hook, the layout, the reason the book will appeal to a wide market, and the writer's credentials.

The Opening Paragraph

The opening paragraph must contain a hook that differentiates the story from all others. It also must encapsulate the primary focus of the novel. Then it has to tell the agent that what follows is genuinely scintillating material which will be indicative of a story that is going to be a blockbuster, since all agents and publishers want only the next big book. This is not a joke or hype, even though some agents or publishers might intimate otherwise, especially when they are in a professorial mood.

Here's What Not to Write for an Opening to a Query

My 85,000-word historical novel opens with Ma and Pa leaving Virginia in 1872 with plans for settling in Missouri. Uncle Dirk goes with the family and is arrested for killing a man in a bar fight. Pa tries to spring him from jail, but shoots the sheriff and gets himself arrested too. Ma goes on by herself with the family and meets a man in Missouri who she decides is more to her liking than Pa. Especially since Pa probably won't get out of jail for several years, if ever. Ma has a baby by this man, a boy who grows up and runs for public office, but Pa comes back and tells Ma she done him wrong and is going to tell everyone what kind of woman she really is, and that her son is illegitimate. She decides to shoot herself rather than face her shame.

Here's the Same Opening for a Query That's Not in Synopsis Form

A VOW NOT TAKEN, my 85,000-word work of Commercial Fiction, is the story of a young woman whose husband is sent to prison in 1872 for trying to spring his brother from jail and shooting the sheriff during the botched escape. Emily Davis must brave the frontier to find a new life for herself and her family, and she discovers love and happiness with a man after she settles in Missouri. Her life is everything she could hope for, until her husband shows up 20 years later and threatens to expose her as a bigamist; and her son, who is now running for public office, as a bastard.

Now that the agent is excited, what more can the author offer? The woman has decided to shoot herself rather than face her shame. Is this by itself enough to build on? Let's see.

The Second Paragraph Has to Elevate the Query to the "I Need to Read This Book," Level

Emily contemplates taking the easy way out. One shot from the pistol and she is free. But as she places the gun to her temple, her life flashes in front of her and she uncocks the hammer. If only her husband had listened to her and left his brother in jail. She never told him what Dirk had done to her. Getting free of him was going to be a blessing. Why would her husband not leave with her and the children when she had asked him? Why wasn't he stronger--and why wasn't she?

The Third Paragraph Cinches the Deal

A VOW NOT TAKEN is a story of a woman in conflict, yet Emily's methods for defeating adversity will give readers a window into their own hearts and a different perspective on the difficult decisions that form people's lives. Decisions, like Emily's, which are not made because of necessity or convenience, but for love. Emily shows that clarity is a matter of conviction solidified by time, and readers will be gratified when she is rewarded for maintaining her dignity while in the throes of intense peer pressure and public scorn.

A Little About Yourself and a Request

A VOW NOT TAKEN is my first novel. I have an English degree from CCNY, and I finished first-runner-up in statewide creative-writing contest sponsored by the local library system where I live. I maintain an active blog on which I offer chapters of my novel for review, and I am encouraged by what has become a substantial following. I am writing to ask if you would be interested in considering A VOW NOT TAKEN for representation. I am most appreciative of your time, and a SASE is enclosed for your reply.

Write a Comprehensive Opening Paragraph and Break It Down

Everything in this query for this pretend story, other than what I wrote at the end, came from the opening paragraph. Look for the parts in your story that set it apart. Is there love, hate, joy, fear, anxiety, jealousy? What is the story's strongest element? That should be the lead.

In the make-believe novel I invented for this exercise, a woman is left to carry on by herself because of a husband who did not exercise good judgment. But can he be faulted for his brotherly love? Yet was he completely ignorant of his brother's violation of Emily? I chose not to focus on the latter issue in this storyline, but in your treatment it might be the compelling plot element. Then why would he try to rescue his brother? Didn't he care about what was going on with his wife? Or was he scared of something else?

Once it's established what makes the story tick, the entire query can be designed around this. It's solely a matter of filling in the blanks. Just be certain not to "tell" the story in the query. Instead, "show" what makes the narrative work.


Robert L. Bacon, Founder The Perfect Write�

New Free Manuscript Service for Serious Writers! The Perfect Write� is now providing a Free Opening-Chapter Critique and Line Edit. Paste the first chapter of your manuscript (up to 5000 words) to theperfectwrite@aol.com (no attachments). In addition to the critique, The Perfect Write� will line edit, if applicable, up to the first three-pages of your double-spaced material also at no charge.

Also Free! Receive The Perfect Write� Newsletters that feature articles on writing at a publishable level. Click here http://www.theperfectwrite.com and scroll to the bottom of The Perfect Write� Home Page for the simple two-step sign-up box.




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