What the f**k is a good query letter, anyway?
So I’m assuming, hopefully correctly, that you’ve already familiarized yourself with the rules of the game. You poured your heart out into a work of art, the soft glow of the computer screen in your face all those sleepless nights. You learned that the query letter is the key to publication. You unearthed a rigid, complex set of instructions on how to write it, how to compress your book into 500 words, what must be included and what must not. Word count, genre, all those tedious bells and whistles. Don’t worry, you won’t find any of that s**t here.
Because that’s only the beginner stuff.
Writing a good query letter to a literary agent is hard. Excuse me, let me rephrase that, actually. Writing a good query letter is very, very hard.
Which is why there’s a wealth of information available on the matter. Especially online. Google anything in the line of “How to write a good query letter” or even “What are literary agents looking for” and you’ll be assaulted by a plethora of gurus and opinions and advice. It’s a rabbit hole, and let me tell you, it goes deep.
I barely escaped that pit, desperately clutching what little remained of my sanity. Which is why I wish I could travel back in time and show myself this article. I really, really feel that would change my life for the better. People around me might even benefit immensely as well. Sadly, even if time travel was a thing, this would automatically create a paradox and possibly tear a rift in the space/time continuum. I simply cannot take that chance.
Anyway, what is a good query letter? It’s a Quick Little Journey that tickles and strokes your brain, makes you feel like you’ve been someplace else, and, most importantly, leaves an agent saying: “I would like to know more, please.”
Now, here’s what you, yes you, are thinking right now. You’re thinking, “Yes, yes, that’s all very cute, but the biggest problem with writing a query letter is the Compression Conundrum. You can’t have a Quick Little Journey when you’re trying to stuff an elephant into a suitcase.”
Everybody who has ever attempted to write a query letter knows that the Compression Conundrum, much like the struggle, is real. You can push, prod and plead, even sit on it, but that elephant isn’t fitting in there. It’s just too f***ing big.
Slicing it up is very tricky. I’m a writer, not an expert elephant butcher. Besides, expert elephant butchers wield machetes, and I’m afraid I might injure myself, or perhaps even my delicate Artist Ego. The first cut is the deepest.
In fact, let’s forget about that elephant for a while. It’s only a metaphor, after all. No animals were harmed during the writing of this article. Let’s also just forget about the 3-part structure and worrying how long the bio should be. Wax on, wax off. You cannot ever hope to understand a thing until you comprehend its core.
And the core of a query letter is this: It’s a movie trailer.
A good movie trailer compresses a 2.5 hour masterpiece into a 2 minute Quick Little Journey that makes you lean forward in your seat and exclaim something along the lines of “Whoa, I can’t wait to see that movie. I would like to know more, please.”
It’s simple, really. Think about what a movie trailer of your book would look like. Then write that.
The beautiful thing is, this generates answers for basically any question you could possibly have whether you should include something or slice it off. Oh, did you produce the movie The Matrix? You should probably mention that. Oh, is this a romance? Yeah, you should establish that immediately. Oh, this is your first time directing? No need to make big deal out of that. Show me something loud and fast instead.
In fact, if you’re wondering about how to apply this approach in more detail I’d recommend you check out The Ringer’s excellent ongoing series and watch a few old movie trailers, then watch a few modern ones. See the difference? Feel it? If you do, that may be the most important lesson on your noble quest yet.
I know, it’s not really that coherent. It’s just a rapid flash of sexy images. But that surface-driven elephant-slicing commercial approach seems to be working out okay for movie trailers, doesn’t it?
I hear they’re living their best life.