Last week, in my post about Query Letter Do’s and Don’t’s, I suggested that you limit your description of your novel to just a few intriguing lines. What I didn’t say (ducking the hard part) was how to pull off this magical shrinking trick.
Unless you’re a natural born copywriter, which most novelists aren’t, this can be fiendishly difficult. But it is a necessary skill, not only when you’re seeking an agent, but also later, during the publishing process. For catalogs, lists and interviews, you will need a pithy, intriguing description of your novel.
As it happens, I needed one myself not too long ago. My agent was preparing a foreign rights catalog for the London Book Fair and asked for a paragraph describing my upcoming novel, A DANGEROUS FICTION. I spent half a day trying idiotically to compress the entire plot of the novel into a single paragraph. Nothing I came up with sounded remotely like anything I would want to read. Finally I turned to a real expert for help. It occurred to me that my editor at Viking must surely have needed a short description of the book to use in-house. I asked if she could share it, which she very kindly did. I fiddled around with it a bit, but here is the essence of her description:
“Thirty-five-year-old Jo Donovan always manages to come out on top. From the backwoods of Appalachia, she followed her dream to life in New York City amongst the literati. Thirteen years after her arrival in the city, she’s the widow of the renowned author (and former playboy) Hugo Donovan and a sought-after literary agent with charm, a biting wit, editing prowess and a backbone of steel. When a would-be client turns stalker, Jo is more angry than shaken… until her agency falls prey to a vicious e-mail attack that only a consummate insider could have launched. As her web of suspicion grows wider and her circle of friends draws nearer, she’s convinced by her client and friend, a former FBI profiler, to go to the police. Jo finds herself face to face with a former lover she hasn’t seen since Hugo Donovan eclipsed all other men: the handsome Tommy Cullen, now an NYPD detective. When her stalker ups the ante to murder, Jo herself becomes a suspect. Meanwhile, a biography of Hugo Donovan is in the works, and the author’s digging threatens to destroy the foundation of Jo’s carefully constructed life.
With humor and a wicked wit, Barbara Rogan introduces readers to Jo Donovan, literary agent cum detective.”
Now that sounded like something I would want to read. The description is coherent, it flows smoothly, and it accomplishes a lot in very few words. A closer look at this description shows that it hits certain points:
First, it introduces the main character as an unusual, driven woman with a rags-to-riches backstory: that is, a character interesting enough to carry a novel. Second it presents the “inciting incident” that it launches the story: the conflict between Jo and an obsessive writer who won’t take no for an answer. Third, it shows the stakes rising, as harassment escalates to murder. (This illustrates the arc of rising tension that characterizes just about all good fiction.) Fourth, it indicates an element of romance in Jo’s meeting with an old flame turned detective. Finally, in the last line, it characterizes the novel’s tone (“humor and a wicked wit”) and indicates that the book is in the first in a series. Pretty efficient for half a dozen sentences, don’t you think? And all of these elements (apart from the romance, which isn’t universal) need to come across in your description; in fact, they provide its structure.
It’s equally important to consider what the book description doesn’t do:
1. It doesn’t attempt to summarize the entire plot.
2. It doesn’t include any subplots, which in such a short description would only muddy the water.
3. It doesn’t attempt to introduce all the characters.
4. It doesn’t reveal the ending.
All of those items belong in a separate synopsis, not in a query letter. The goal of the query letter is simply to tempt the agent into reading more– the synopsis and the opening pages, usually–and ultimately induce her to request the full manuscript. And agents are reading. Two days ago, I heard from a former student with heartening news. She’d sent out queries to the first five agents and received requests for partial or full manuscripts from three.
For writers who want help putting together compelling submission packages, there are workshops like Submitting Your Work. Among the many free resources, Nathan Bransford’s blog and the entire Agent Query website are standouts. Writers’ forums, including Absolute Write and CompuServe’s Book and Author Forum, can provide valuable feedback on your query letters. There’s a lot of information out there, but also a lot of misinformation, so exercise discretion. Here, for starters, is my list of recommended resources for writers. Happy hunting!