Listen up all you query letter writers because this is the most important post on queries I’ve written in years.
I’ve recently been devoting much more time to freelance editing and working with authors on their queries (need personalized help? Contact me!). This means that instead of just evaluating queries for a “yes” or “no”, like I did when I was a literary agent, I’ve had to really get into the weeds to figure out why something works or doesn’t work. It’s given me a fresh look at what makes some queries sing while others make a sad trombone noise.
And I think I found the key: summarizing through specificity.
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Summarize through specificity
Writing a query is such a tricky balance. On the one hand, you have to condense an entire novel into a few dozen words. On the other hand, you want your query to reflect the uniqueness of your book and stand out from the pack.
You need to be general, but you also need to include detail. You need to be clear, but you need to be original. You need to give flavor, but you can’t get bogged down.
How in the world do you do all this at once?
Oh. I already told you. Summarizing through specificity.
Here’s how to put this into practice in two simple steps:
Look for places in your query letter where you describe something in a general way
Oftentimes in queries you end up describing events in a very “summarizey” way:
Suzy “has to learn to grow up.”
The demon “haunts Bernadette’s dreams.”
The wizard “must hone his magical powers.”
Boris “is a troublemaker.”
While these phrases aren’t terrible on their own, when you have too many of them the query ends up feeling flat. It misses the personality and flavor that makes your book awesome in the first place.
Try to replace that generality with how it actually happens in the book
Find those vague descriptions and replace them with specificity.
Let’s try those plot summaries again:
It’s time for Suzy to trade her bottle of vodka for a can of corporate whoopass.
The demon wants Bernadette to have a nightmare so he can finally slip his claws under her ribcage.
The wizard must perfect his ability to throw fireballs without burning down his hut again.
Let’s just say Boris was the best man at his bail bondsman’s wedding.
Would you rather read the books described in Section 2 or Section 1? Nothing changed in the actual plots, what changed is that we replaced a high level summary with some flavor-building specificity.
The above examples are made up, but a recent real-world example came from author Greta Sloan — she described one of her characters as an “abrasive little brother who drinks whiskey out of a coffee mug.” I loved that detail, which tells you much more than any vague summary would. (And thanks to Greta for letting me use this example).
Now, you may worry that if you get overly specific your query will get swamped in details without the bigger plot shining through. And you’re partly right. You can’t do this trick endlessly and you need to strike a balance. If you notice, I mixed up some generalities with specificity in my query letter for Jacob Wonderbar:
Jacob Wonderbar has been the bane of every substitute teacher at Magellan Middle School ever since his dad moved away from home. He never would have survived without his best friend Dexter, even if he is a little timid, and his cute-but-tough friend Sarah Daisy, who is chronically overscheduled. But when the trio meets a mysterious man in silver one night they trade a corn dog for his sassy spaceship and blast off into the great unknown. That is, until they break the universe in a giant space kapow and a nefarious space buccaneer named Mick Cracken maroons Jacob and Dexter on a tiny planet that smells like burp breath. The friends have to work together to make it back to their little street where the houses look the same, even as Earth seems farther and farther away.
In some places, I opted for clarity over specificity, but wherever I could I tried to add little details that gives flavor to this world, especially on crucial plot details. Most importantly: There isn’t a single sentence in the summary where I don’t include specific, additive details.
Try as much as possible to replace generalities with detail and you’ll be surprised how well your query starts to feel like it truly captures the spirit of your novel.
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Art: Architektur & Mathematik & Mechanik & Mailänder Dom & Schnitt by Walther Hermann Ryff
JOHN T. SHEA says
Your four specific examples are all considerably longer than the summarizing examples, but worthwhile if they fit, as do the specifics in your 'JACOB WONDERBAR' query, which reads as well now as it did in 2011. So you actually found the key then, even if you did not fully articulate it the way you do now. Interestingly, that query grows more specific with each sentence.
JOHN T. SHEA says
The first paragraph of your 'JACOB WONDERBAR AND THE COSMIC SPACE KAPOW” query letter is also well worth reading or rereading. Queryists often compare their books to other books but yours remains the only 'anti-comp' I've ever read!
Giving the specifics technique really points the writer in the right direction to bringing their work alive in a short space. What editor could resist a girl character being described as 'chronically overscheduled'. Says so much about her in such an original, succinct and witty way.
Bryan Fagan says
My goal, to my dying day, is to create a query letter an agent will love. Happy thoughts, I chant! Must think happy thoughts.
Emma G Prince says
This was very helpful. Thank you for sharing!
E. Damron-Cox says
I echo what others have said. In your query example your use of characters’ names runs counter to what CPs have often advised me (ie., just describe supporting characters in general terms, like the aunt and uncle, the friend’s dad, etc.) But your example really pops! It has great voice, as in my personal fave: “a tiny planet that smells like burp breath.” ????
Nice article. Just FYI, there’s a typo: search for “One the one hand”.
Then you can delete this comment. 🙂 All the best!
Nathan Bransford says
Juliana Love says
Brilliant! Thank you!!!