Noah Lukeman -- agent/author -- claims a good query is only three paragraphs. Yes, the brevity would be an attention-getter, but would it be enough?
I know that I said I was going to deal with queries today, but this is going to be the only question I'm going to address on the subject today. I have a few others in the queue for tomorrow. But I think this is a critical one to start out with because, after all, if you can't write a kick-ass query, you're pretty much DOA.
So, to answer the above question, well, Lukeman is certainly on to something. Will you be crumpled and tossed into the garbage at the mere sight of 5, 6, or 7 'graphs? No. But will you lose an agent's interest if you run on too long? Yes. Just think of it like this: let's say that the average agent gets 20 queries a day. These are from random strangers and said agent might not give a hoot about reading the emails, but knows that she must if she wants to find new talent. Now, you tell me - how likely is it that she's going to read every last word of your six paragraph query? More likely, she'll skim it, especially the last few paragraphs, and lose interest half-way through. I say this NOT because your query sucks but because it's human nature. Consider how many emails YOU get a day. Now tack on another two dozen, and you could see where brevity could work in your favor: make your point and make it concisely. It will only help your cause.
Further, as discussed yesterday, good writers need to know how to self-edit. If you can't compact the teaser of your book into a fairly targeted query letter, the agent is going to wonder how on earth you can write an entire book that comes in under 100,000 words.
So what makes a good query letter, beyond brevity? A quick but engaging summary of the overall plot. This does not include mentioning secondary characters, your protagonist's entire backstory and spilling all of the details of the thrilling finale. It means, as I said, a quick and engaging summary of the overall plot. You'll also want to give the agent a sense of your voice. The bottom line is that if you've come up with a story idea, someone else has most likely come up with something similar (see Kristin Nelson's blog from 7/17) ...and that someone else might very well have pitched this agent. What can set you apart from that person (or another book that's already been written and released that touches on the same plot)? Voice.
Here's the letter I used for TDLF. Rereading, it looks like it's 4 graphs. No one complained. :) It highlights what the book is about without giving too much away; it engages the reader from the get-go (at least, I think it did!); and it gives a clear sense of my overall voice as a writer. Whether or not your query is three paragraphs or seven, I don't think that you can go wrong with these elements.
QUERY LETTER, THE DEPT OF LOST AND FOUND:
Natalie Miller had a plan. She had a goddamn plan. Top of her class at Dartmouth. Even better at Yale Law. Youngest aide ever to the powerful Senator Claire Dupris. Higher, faster, stronger. This? Was all part of the plan. True, she was so busy ascending the political ladder that she rarely had time to sniff around her mediocre relationship with Ned, who fit the three Bs to the max: basic, blond and boring, and she definitely didn't have time to mourn her mangled relationship with Jake, her budding rock star ex-boyfriend.
The lump in her right breast that Ned discovers during brain-numbingly bland morning sex? That? Was most definitely not part of the plan. And Stage IIIA breast cancer? Never once had Natalie jotted this down on her to-do list for conquering the world. When her (tiny-penised) boyfriend has the audacity to dump her on the day after her diagnosis, Natalie's entire world dissolves into a tornado of upheaval, and she's left with nothing but her diary to her ex-boyfriends, her mornings lingering over the Price is Right, her burnt out stubs of pot which carry her past the chemo pain, and finally, the weight of her life choices - the ones in which she might drown if she doesn't find a buoy.
The Department of Lost and Found is a story of hope, of resolve, of digging deeper than you thought possible until you find the strength not to crumble, and ultimately, of making your own luck, even when you've been dealt an unsteady hand.
I'm a freelance writer and have contributed to, among others, American Baby, American Way, Arthritis Today, Bride's, Cooking Light, Fitness, Glamour, InStyle Weddings, Lifetime Television, Men's Edge, Men's Fitness, Men's Health, Parenting, Parents, Prevention, Redbook, Self, Shape, Sly, Stuff, USA Weekend, Weight Watchers, Woman's Day, Women's Health, and ivillage.com, msn.com, and women.com. I also ghostwrote The Knot Book of Wedding Flowers.
If you are interested, I'd love to send you the completed manuscript.
Thanks so much! Looking forward to speaking with you soon.
So...more on the query process tomorrow. Those are my intial thoughts. Have at me! And if you have other questions about query letters, fire 'em over or post them here.