Like most anything in query letters, specificity is a balancing act. You want to give details that are integral to your story and that serve to whet an agent’s appetite. But you don’t want to overload your query with all the minutia of the story; you just don’t have the space for it. Remember, for the pitch you have a maximum of 200 words to distill the essence of your story into. So, how do you decide what’s important enough to go into the query?
Let’s go back to our hypothetical story from earlier and turn the detail up to eleven.
Seventeen year old Melanie Brewer has worked in her mom Cassandra’s teashop, Brewer’s Brews, since she was fourteen. She got her start making relaxation drops to go into the chamomile tea and stay-awake potions to sell with the coffee.
At the end of her last shift before school, her best friend Aderyn comes to pick her up on her winged horse, Moriah. As they make their way to the school, Salem Witches’ Institute, Aderyn reveals that her only hope for staying at school is to win this fall’s inter-scholar winged horse derby. Aderyn’s place on derby team is the only thing keeping her scholarship to SWI from falling through.
This is too much information right off the bat that the agent doesn’t need yet. We’re already a hundred words into the query letter, and it tells the reader almost nothing about who Melanie is or what she wants. It may all be true to the story, but is it strictly need-to-know right now?
To clean up a mess like this, start by looking for details that can be safely removed. The prospective agent doesn’t need Melanie’s mom’s name, the name of the shop, or how long she’s worked there. The tidbit about potions being sold openly at the store is a neat one to have, though, since it gives an interesting look at the state of magic in the world.
Especially take a long look at proper nouns and character names. There’s little in a query to make characters distinct, so try to stick to their relationship to the protagonist or role in the story instead, if they have to be mentioned at all: Melanie’s mom; her best friend; the winged horse.
Now look at the last few sentences, the winged horse derby and Aderyn’s scholarship. That places the focus of the query squarely on the challenges that Aderyn is going to be facing, not what’s about to happen to Melanie. So I would end this particular part of the query, if someone had sent it to me, asking myself why I’m reading about Melanie when Aderyn is so much more interesting. She’s the one with the conflict right now, so she’s the one I naturally want to pay more attention to.
Make sure that the details you include in your query are specific to your story, that they answer who, what, when, where, why, and why the reader should care. But also be sure that you’re not muddying the waters with unnecessary clutter.