#QueryTip: A Query is Not a Book Report

I tend to carve large chunks of time out of my day to read and respond to queries. This works better for me than just reading a handful at a time. I get into the Query Mindset and dive in. When reading lots of queries in a row, things tend to jump out at me. For example, Willa/Willow and Evie/Evangeline are popular protagonist names right now. I see those over and over again lately. Also a lot of books set in the 70s. Groovy! But beyond creative similarities in queries, reading in batches also highlights common mistakes. And the biggest mistake trend I'm seeing in my inbox right now are queries that read like book reports.

What do I mean by queries that read like book reports? Well, something along these lines:

Dear Agent,

NEXT BIG THING is an 80,000 word YA fantasy novel that explores the ideas of grief and loss and familial dysfunction set against a unique fantasy back drop of a magical world full of ominous powers and evil adversaries. Readers will identify with the whimsical protagonist, Chosen One, as she grapples with a deadly secret and must find the strength to embrace her true identity or be forever banished.

This sweeping story, told in alternating points of view by unreliable narrators, features a non-linear sequence of events that will astonish readers, and a resolution that will resonate with anyone who has ever been desolate and alone, only to realize that their true home can be found in their own hearts, and the hearts of those who love them. Beyond just issues of grief and identity, NEXT BIG THING features a toxic relationship and examines the harrowing effects of eating too much pie while feeling especially sad.  These issues are more relevant than ever, given current world events, and that’s what really inspired me to write this story. 

I hope Chosen One and NEXT BIG THING captivate you as much as they have captivated me. After all, haven’t you ever wondered how you would begin to piece your life back together if you woke up one day with nothing left but a blackberry pie? This story is one way to find out.

Best, 
Author

In case it isn't obvious, I completely fabricated that query, top to bottom. But it follows a formula that I call "the book report." It gives me a lot of information about how the book is written and what it aims to accomplish and how people are going to feel about it. All of which is useless at the query stage. And it gives me nothing whatsoever about the story. Which is the only thing I care about at this point. 

I tweeted these #querytips recently, and received some email about them. What was wrong with including information about larger themes? Why limit a query to story-only when we all know that books can deliver so much more? Isn't that just short-changing your book? Don't agents want all pertinent information about a book, including thematic content, so that they can make an informed decision? 

These are all good questions, and I've been thinking about them for days. The truth is, my opinion hasn't changed. A query is not a book report, and shouldn't read like one. 

A query letter has precious little real estate. You've only got a few hundred words to get me interested enough to make a request, and the story is the most important thing. The rest comes later, when I read the full manuscript. If a manuscript has larger thematic resonance, I'll discern that when I read. But people always read fiction for the story. Even allegories, or satires, or social commentaries must exist within the basic framework of a story.

It's also quite difficult to tell a good story (and convey it succinctly in a query letter). If a writer chooses to focus on the effects of the story at the expense of the story itself, I become wary about the writer's ability to tell a story at all. I'm much more likely to request a query with a good story and hope it has larger thematic resonance than to request a manuscript about which I know nothing more than that it explores the concept of forgiveness. 

Tell me WHO is doing WHAT WHEN and WHY. Tell me WHO is trying to stop them and HOW. That's what you need to convey in your query letter. The protagonist, the antagonist, the goals, and the stakes. You've got a few hundred words to make me care, and I don't care about your personal take on universal themes. Not yet. The first thing I care about is whether or not you can whisk me away. Meaning and metaphor are always secondary. Story is king. I need to know you can deliver the goods, and the query letter is your one shot to prove yourself.