There is one thing I struggle with consistently when it comes to the world of writing: how to describe my stories.
When someone asks me “What is your novel about?” my mind immediately turns blank. It is one of the most frustrating experiences I have ever had, and it happens to me almost daily! Someone recently reminded me of a Doctor Who quote that applies: “You know when someone asks you what your favorite movie is, and suddenly you forget every single movie that’s ever been made?”
However, it goes beyond this. This isn’t just a “Jonny-on-the-spot” blank moment, this is a struggle that has extended into writing query letters, and is perhaps one of the greatest obstacles I face at the moment to finding an agent.
What is a query letter?
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term, a query letter is a one-page presentation of your story and yourself that you send to literary agents in an attempt to garner interest in your work and, eventually, land an agent to represent you and your work.
Query letters have a basic formula that all writers are encouraged to stick to. Trying any other format has been described as ‘trying to re-invent the wheel.’ There’s no need, the wheel works fine just as it is, and if you try to sell a reinvented wheel to GM or Mitsubishi, they’re just going to laugh at you and go pay lower prices for regular wheels. Agents expect a specific format to your letter, and I have read that if you don’t stick to that basic principle, most agents will not even finish reading your query.
The format is simple: Hook, Mini-Synopsis, and Writer’s Bio.
No, the Hook isn’t afraid of ticking crocodiles. The hook is supposed to do just that: hook an agent’s interest and, for that matter, everyone else’s. In one sentence (some leeway on that, but generally speaking it’s one of those rules you want to try to follow) you have to make your story seem interesting and unique, and give the agent a reason to keep reading. If the hook doesn’t catch the agent’s interest, most likely he or she is going to stop there and send that dreaded rejection letter.
This is exactly what it sounds like, a very short description of your story and the characters. How short? One paragraph. How hard is it to condense your entire story into one paragraph? Well, for a real challenge, try to describe Lord of the Rings in one paragraph. Added difficulty: it has to be in such a way that it seems interesting, and isn’t just another fantasy epic that’s like the 50,000 other ones already out there.
For published writers, this area is probably easy. Describe your writing credentials. Essentially, you’re trying to tell the agent why you’re worth the risk. For someone who has nothing professionally published, this is pretty difficult to fill out (but that doesn’t mean you should leave it out of your query letter!)
My Struggle Writing a Query Letter
My first query letter is time stamped July 2013. I have probably gone through 2 dozen revisions (including a few complete re-writes) and am still struggling to make it work! I owe a lot of the progress I have made to articles such as this one.
I do realize that part of my struggle is my tendency to over-think and focus in on the details too much, but when you only have a paragraph for your mini-synopsis, focusing on the details is your worst enemy! I also struggled with writing a 1-page synopsis, which some agents require for submissions on top of the query letter.
Until recently I’ve posted my query letters on my personal facebook page and asked friends and family for critiques, and they have been invaluable with helping me fine-tune it. And yet I knew it still needed improvement. The two agents I sent the latest revision to rejected my story, and I had the feeling that the query still needed work.
So I went to the forums I’d been lurking about for some time at Agent Query Connect. I finally created an account and started responding to other writers’ posts, and then today I finally posted my own query letter for critique and advice. I braced myself for the worst, knowing they would be brutally honest, and hoping for nothing less than that same brutal honesty!
I was not disappointed :) Only two writers have critiqued my query letter at the time this article was written, and their critiques all touched on similar points. My query letter is generic, it describes a story that sounds generic, and leaves the characters as unknowns.
This helped me to realize something. In my query, I’m focusing on the story too much, and not giving enough attention to the characters. Naturally I need to talk about the story, specifically the catalyst for the story, which is the titular Sword of Dragons, but for a moment, go back to the example of the Lord of the Rings. When you think about the novel or the movies, what are the first things that come to mind? Does the One Ring come to mind first? Sure, its in the title, but is that all? For me, it’s the characters that I think about more. Frodo’s bravery stepping up to take the ring. Samwise’s undying loyalty. Gandalf’s fireworks and his love of Hobbits. Aragorn’s steadfast leadership. Merry and Pippin’s mischief. Gimli and Legolas’s friendship.
The characters are what make stories worth reading. The characters are what stick with us when we walk away from a story. They are the ones who live in our hearts forever.
Where Do I Go From Here?
Realizing just how important characters really are, I intend to attack my next revision (or rather, rewrite) with the idea that I want to make the characters the focus. The Sword of Dragons is the catalyst, yes, but the characters are the ones who make things happen, who fail or succeed.
I’ll be sure to keep you all posted on my progress :) Until then, thanks for reading! Click “Like” below if you liked this article, and click the “Follow” button if you want to know when I’ve posted more articles!