Do you know how to spot the difference between a good query letter and a fantastic query letter? This is going to sound trite, but the answer is: Ask your heart.
That’s right—the single most important thing that your query letter can do if you want to get a literary agent’s attention is create an emotional experience for the reader. You’ve got to make your reader feel. You’ve got to give him/her a reason to become emotionally invested in your tale.
For that reason, telling the bare facts of “what happens in the story” is not going to get your book a lot of attention. The book publishing industry is competitive. And when a literary agent is faced with two similar stories—one that is presented as a series of facts and one that offers an emotional experience—you can bet the literary agent is going to ask to see the book that gives him or her goose bumps.
So How Is A Writer Supposed To Create An Emotional Experience In A Query Letter Book Blurb?
Step One: Win us with your character. Unless we really care about your main character, it’s hard to become invested in the story. You don’t need an excessive amount of detail to demonstrate who your character is: A few precise descriptions that embody personality, strengths, and weaknesses should do the job. Bonus points if those descriptions hint at your character’s fatal flaw.
Step Two: Now that we care about the character, show us what that person has to lose. It’s human nature to have a big emotional response when a loved one faces a tough challenge. The same goes for great characters: We care about them because of their vulnerability. So show us just how much is at risk. Learn more about maximizing your main conflict.
Step Three: Choose the right words. As a writer, words are your medium. By choosing evocative words over dull words—and by choosing exciting phrases over flat ones—you can create a deeper sense of emotionality.
EXAMPLE 1: Our Hero hides in an underground bunker to escape terrorists. Townspeople begin flocking to the hideout, and this attracts attention and makes Our Hero the target of the terrorists who have found out where he is. He retreats into an underground tunnel system to get away.
This whole scene should feel like an intense action sequence. And yet all of the emotion of the moment is buried under dull word choices and muddled sentences. So let’s try again, except with a more emotional approach.
EXAMPLE 2: To escape the terrorists, Our Hero hides out in an earthen bunker—but his location is compromised when the people of Smithtown come banging on the hideout door, seeking safety for themselves and their loved ones. Now, Our Hero’s cover is blown—the terrorists know where he is.There’s no choice but to brave the dangerous underground tunnel system that extends out of the bunker. But with the enemy on to him, will he get out alive?
The first example is a rote description of the action: The second pulls us into the action, to experience it with him. We feel his fear.
The Bottom Line: You’ve Got To Make Readers Care
A great query letter is not just a summary; it is an emotional experience that makes the reader want to know more. Literary agents may read dozens of query letters a day that don’t make their hearts race—but if your query letter makes them care about your sympathetic characters by exposing vulnerabilities, emphasizing risk, and choosing evocative words, then you might just have a winner.
Photo by Swamibu
QUESTION: Have you ever read the back jacket copy on a book and thought, I just have to read this? What book was it? And what about the summary grabbed your attention? What was your emotional response?