For some reason, I feel like talking about query letters again, possibly because I’ve recently been the recipient of a couple of queries that can only be described as dreadful. I begin with a couple of definitions:
A query letter is a one-page business letter that presents the author’s novel to an editor or agent in hopes they’ll ask to see more.
“One page business letter” means just that: one page, single sided. If you’re emailing your query, stick to one screen (less if you have a double-wide monitor, because many editors don’t). This means you don’t have much room, which is a Really Key Point.
Publishers’ submission guidelines trump everything else. Read them. Believe them. If they say they want to see three sentences scribbled on a Post-It-Note, send them that (but for heaven’s sake, don’t send it to anyone else!)
Query letters are mainly for novels. Short fiction doesn’t need to be queried, because it’s short; it takes the editor less time to read it than it takes him/her to read and respond to a query and then read the story. I understand that some markets want queries for nonfiction articles, but they should say that in their guidelines. I’ve done maybe three nonfiction pieces in thirty years, all by specific request, so I wouldn’t know.
Now let’s take apart a disguised mash-up version of the less-than-stellar queries I got sent recently. Here’s more or less what I received:
“This book is my attempt to write a story that justifies the longest and most detailed description of a forest in English Literature, which I hope is also enlightening and entertaining. It follows the development of an lumberman-turned-eco-activist in a world of magical realism, through his revelations and enlightenment over a lifetime, as he reflects on his mistakes and triumphs from youth to old age while he prepares to move out of the home he has lived in for over eighty years.”
This story may, possibly, have been a great one, though I have my doubts. I can, however, assure her (and everyone else) that “this book contains the longest description of a forest ever” is not going to be a big selling point for editors. Also, every author hopes their book will be enlightening and entertaining, so you really don’t need to tell the editor that.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to write the longest, coolest description of a forest ever, and taking that as the starting point for a novel. Editors, however, are not interested in what inspired the writer to write the book, nor in learning which aspects of writing the story were the most fun for the writer. Editors want to know why a reader – preferably a whole lot of readers – would want to read this book so badly that they will pay money for it. They want to know what came out of the inspiration or challenge or whatever. They want specifics. They want the story.
The “plot summary” above doesn’t even tell us the main character’s name, much less where the story takes place. (Is this forest in northern Canada, or a South American jungle, or perhaps Russia?) There’s some indication of change on the part of the main character, but nothing about the whys, the hows, the obstacles he faces, or the events that precipitate the change.
The things you need in a query letter plot summary are:
-The protagonist’s name, or the two (or three) most important characters’ names, if it’s an ensemble cast
-An explanation of the central story problem or goal
-One or two key obstacles the protagonist has to overcome
-How the problem is resolved (or the goal achieved)
Once you have these things, you then arrange them into two or three paragraphs, being as specific as possible (“his mistakes and triumphs” is not specific. “His success in the lumber industry” and “the suicide of his youngest son” are specific) and adding just enough detail to connect things together. There isn’t likely to be room for subplots or a lot of backstory, but if you have room, you can add a few more key details, like where the story is located and how the main character got into the mess he’s in.
For this particular query, I’d have to make up pretty much all of the above. So I will:
1. Protagonist’s name: George Landin
2. Story problem: George feels his life has been pointless
3. Obstacles: Moving out of the home he’s lived in for 80 years makes George feel more depressed. In sorting through his stuff, he keeps running across reminders of his mistakes and failures, ditto. And since this is magical realism, every time he picks up an object, he gets to re-live a vision/scene/memory, which gradually become more vivid and begin showing him alternate lives as he goes on. George begins to be swamped by his possible pasts.
4. Resolution: George lets go of his stuff and all the possible alternate lives, and makes his peace with himself and his past.
Those are still pretty general, but this is supposed to be the guideline that I’m going to use to write the plot summary, not the plot summary itself. As long as the specifics get into the actual summary, I’m OK.
So I took the above key points and string them together, and this is what I came up with:
As George Landin prepares to move out of the home in which he has lived for nearly eighty years, he is troubled by the feeling that his life has been pointless. Each object he must discard or pack away recalls a memory: of his lonely childhood in the north woods of Oregon, of his marriage, of his early success in the lumber industry, of the tragic suicide of his second son, the subsequent failure of his business, and his attempt to reinvent himself as an environmental activist. The memories grow more vivid and develop into visions of the life he might have had, had he made different choices. George is nearly overwhelmed by all his possible pasts, until he finds a wooden statue of a meadowlark that was carved by his grandfather. The statue anchors him enough to let go of the alternative realities along with all his mementoes and make his peace with himself and the life he has actually lived. As he leaves the house for the last time, he gives the statue to his son.
This is just an illustration of how to go about coming up with a query-letter-sized plot summary; I very much doubt that this one is anything like the story the author of the original query actually wrote.