When crafting your query, it’s tempting to play coy with the details. After all, the point of a query is to tempt the agent or editor into reading, isn’t it? Doesn’t it then follow that you want to give them a little taste without spoiling the whole meal? Well, the answer is yes and no. To continue the food analogy, being coy with your plot is much the same as saying to someone you’re inviting to dinner, “There will be a meat course and salad, and possibly dessert” instead of “I’ve made apple roast pork, served with a spinach and goat cheese salad with vinaigrette, and I may be baking pear turnovers if I have time.”
The same thing applies to query letters. Agents see so many of them on a regular basis that the only way to really stand out is to be as specific to your novel as you can. If all you write is, “A young orphan boy finds that he is destined to overthrow a villain threatening to destroy life as he knows it,” that could describe a thousand stories. Do you mean Harry Potter, Eragon, Star Wars?
Don’t worry that you’re spoiling the story. Conventional knowledge is that it’s acceptable to freely discuss the first thirty pages or so of your manuscript (your catalyst should fall somewhere in there, of course). To show what I mean, here’s a quick sample pitch for an imaginary project:
Four years ago, Melanie was accepted to a school for magic. She quickly rose to the head of the class, but a freak accident now threatens not only her standing in the school but her ability to do magic at all. To give up now would kill her dream, but trying to get her power back might just kill her.
That would certainly work; it tells the basics of what happens in the story, but it leaves more unresolved than answered. How old is Melanie? What kind of magic school? What is the setting like? What sort of lessons does she have? What sort of accident, and why does it affect her magic? What sort of cure could also potentially be fatal? Let’s see if we can do better.
When she was fourteen, Melanie Brewer was accepted to the Salem Witches’ Institute. Over the last three years, she’s brewed potions. She’s flown winged horses across the Massachusetts countryside. And, most importantly, she’s excelled at the precise hand articulations–called tics–that channel her magic.
Melanie enters her final year with her sights set on the valedictorian title and the prize that comes with it: an apprenticeship to New England’s premiere potion-crafter, Sandra Kettering. She just needs to complete one complicated brew to cinch the win.
Then a single wrong tic causes her cauldron to erupt. In seconds, Melanie’s hands are scorched, the very nerves shot.
With ticcing now impossible, it seems Melanie has no choice but to drop out. But Madame Kettering herself has another idea: a legendary potion that restores the brewer completely if made correctly. But done wrong, it could cost Melanie her life.
The query now gives us an idea of age range (Melanie is seventeen) and setting (Salem, Massachusetts, New England). It also gives us a few details about the magical world: potions; winged horses; ticcing. It tells us what happened to endanger Melanie’s standing at the school (the potions accident) and what she can do about it (this potentially fatal legendary potion). All of that gives us a much clearer idea of the sort of story we’re about to dive into.
Now, our example is obviously not perfect, but it will give us a place to grow from over the next few posts. Nobody ever said this part was easy!