Describing Plot in a Query Letter

Describing plot in a query letter can be tricky. Many writers stumble over the “meat” of the pitch. One of my favorite notes to give because it make so much sense to me is “A situation is not a plot.” (Though Stephen King is quick to absolutely disprove me by giving the opposite note here, ha! Proving once and for all how subjective writing advice can be. As the author of a book of writing advice, I’ll be the first to admit it.)

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Fill this page with your query “meat.” Sounds gross, but I’m about to rock your world. Get your mind out of the gutter!

This note applies especially to queries and I wanted to remind everyone to concentrate on specific plot points in their pitch letters as 2013 and all the make-your-dreams-come-true querying gets underway.

Are You Listing or Are You Describing Plot in a Query Letter?

Here’s an example of a query letter that relies overly on situation instead of plot:

Emma wants to be normal so badly, but she can’t. Between a cheating boyfriend, an abusive father on his way out of the family, and a rivalry with the most talented softball player in school, she has no time at all to discover that the tattoo she got over spring break is giving her secret powers.

Sorry for the lame example, but I rather like the idea of a tramp stamp giving you a little more than you bargained for. Maybe it’s my childhood memory of that one episode of the X-Files when Scully gets that snake tattoo and all hell breaks loose? Wow. Blast from the past. Anyhow…

Sell the Reader on Your Query Letter

This query is fine and I see it a lot in the slush. But it’s not the best it can be, and that’s why I’m calling it out here. What’s missing? A specific sense of plot. This query gives us a fine idea of everything that’s going on in Emma’s life, but it doesn’t really do any of the heavy lifting to connect the dots. It’s like dumping the jigsaw puzzle of your plot in front of your reader and saying, “Well, there it is.”

In a pitch letter, you’re not just selling the reader on the hook of your story or how marketable it might be, you’re also selling them on your story itself.

Here, we don’t know if the father is going to be the main secondary plot (giving it a darker, more contemporary realistic shade despite the tattoo element), or the boyfriend (giving it a more romance flavor), or the softball rivalry (making me think it’s going to be a school-heavy story). If I’m left to reassemble the pieces of Emma’s situation in my own head, I could find three very different books in there.

Structure the Pitch, Don’t Ask the Agent to Do the Work

That’s a problem. You want to not only give us the elements of your story but arrange them in such a way that your plot shines through, guiding the reader even more into the specific world and events of your unique novel. Something that’s more specific would go like this:

Just as her abusive father is on his way out of the family, Emma discovers an uncomfortable secret: that tattoo she got over spring break is giving her the ability to see people’s futures. And she doesn’t like what it forecasts for her relationship with Rufus when she predicts his cheating on her at prom. From there, it’s one catastrophe after another, especially as she races against time to best her softball rival before the last game of the year determines who gets a coveted scholarship. As her power predicts doom and gloom for everyone around her, Emma has to do everything she can to secure her own future.

Okay, now I know that the father isn’t really going to be a big part of it, and the boyfriend’s cheating is more of an incident for the first third. The main thrust of the plot will probably be the rivalry, ending in a championship at the climax. The story feels much clearer to me now that the query is guiding me along instead of throwing me in the deep end of situation. This is a nuanced distinction, but an important one.

I spent five years as a literary agent, and I saw tens of thousands of queries. Hire me be your query letter editor, and I’ll help you avoid common traps and rise above the slush.

What Literary Agents Want When Evaluating Full Manuscripts

Written during my agenting days, this post details what literary agents want. This past year, I’ve built up a great client list and sold some great books. And I want nothing but more of the same for my next year, my next five years, my next ten years in the business. However, as I mentioned on Alice Pope’s blog a few weeks ago, I now have a great base of clients and don’t feel the same frenzy to grow my list as I did, say, this time last year, as I was signing up my first few clients (who are still my clients, by the way, and one of whom just had a great success story).

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What literary agents want when evaluating a full manuscript.

What Literary Agents Want

And as publishers have tightened lists and as my own experience with editors and published books and writing and marketing grows, my standards have risen even higher. It’s more difficult to catch my eye now, as I’ve seen more, and, more importantly, gotten sick everything that’s tired and flat and been done hundreds of times before. There’s still, of course, room on my list. Lots of it. But those slots are harder to grab, and those worthy writers are harder to win over, as they tend to have lots of offers. (I find that, if a project has me really excited, more often than not, a handful of other agents are also about to offer or already offering on it…more on that in a future post.)

So now that I’m entering my second year as an agent, I’m finding myself being more exclusive about what I want to take on, but I’m also finding myself in more competitive situations with bigger agents. It’s a tough position to be in, and it doesn’t always let me go through my entire manuscript consideration process (which was supposed to be the point of this post). Still, while this is happening more and more, I wanted to let you in to my regular manuscript consideration process, since my slush consideration process post seemed to get a good response. This is how it all goes down on my end.

Write a Good Query Letter

First, a query letter catches my eye. Because I want to be completely sure of my judgment and rule out chances of slush psychosis, per the post linked above, I put it in my Maybe Pile. Since this is a fantasy scenario, let’s just say I dutifully return to my Maybe Pile the very next day (instead of a week later, after I realize that life has gotten away from me) and request those manuscripts that still sound good. For any batch of slush, I end up requesting one or two manuscripts at a time.

Once I get the manuscript from an author, I put it in my queue. At any point in time, I may have between two and ten full requests in line. And I get to them depending on how much time I have and in order of request date. It usually takes me two weeks to a month (this summer was slow because of the move) to respond to a full (unless, of course, the writer has other offers or I’m very interested in something, right after the query, and need to read immediately…and this doesn’t happen that often, even with full requests).

Literary Agency Interns

The other thing I do when I get a full request in is I send it to my readers. Yes, I have readers. ABLit agents work with qualified young publishing enthusiasts on full manuscripts and sometimes client manuscripts. Since we’re scattered all over the country, my colleagues and I have our own networks of readers, although there are some readers that everyone at the agency works with.

I currently have several readers and I also work with one of our agency readers. I have a very rigorous reader screening process and choose my readers very carefully. Though, I don’t always agree with them, I value their feedback. They provide a valuable service to me, as they fill in my blind spots and make sure I’m not missing anything — good or bad — about a manuscript. (I started out as a reader for ABLit, so I love teaching and working with my readers, it’s a great learning experience for both of us.)

What Literary Agents Want in a Manuscript

So anyway. I send the full request to all my readers and read it myself, as well. If the manuscript really catches my eye on a read, or if a reader highly recommends something that I haven’t gotten to yet, I kick the submission into high gear. When I’m interested, I read quickly.

Most submissions, unfortunately, tend to fall apart by page 50 — the first benchmark, when I tell my readers to check their guts and see if they still want to keep reading. If I can put a full request down by page 50, I will not pick it back up again. The issue is usually voice, character, pacing, or plotting. (The voice is flat, the character is one-dimensional, the story crawls along, and we haven’t gotten into the main plot/action of the manuscript yet.) If my readers chime in and say that they put it down as well, it’s a decline. (My readers don’t talk to each other about submissions, nor do I let my readers decide for me. It’s not rejection or offer by consensus. But because I have such good readers, I tend to agree on manuscripts with at least one of them and really do take their feedback into consideration. Still, the final decision is mine.)

Learn to Write a Novel

If a submission is really good, a “kick it into high gear” submission, a “finished it in one sitting submission,” and I think it is especially commercial or might attract other agent attention, I will ask that all my readers finish it and send me a reader’s report. I will also take notes on the manuscript. If I finish a manuscript and can’t stop thinking about it, I know I have a very strong candidate for an offer of representation. I usually give myself a few days to make sure the project is still an I-can’t-live-without-it submission. If I’m still obsessed with it, I let the writer know and then we schedule a call.

Still, not all of my offers end in the writer signing up (more on this, as promised, later). And all of the manuscripts I take on do go through revision, based on my editorial notes from my first read and from the repeat read that I always do after I take someone on. And yes, I have read good manuscripts that were getting lots of offers but that I thought needed work, and I’ve passed on them rather than competing for them.

But high as my standards are and tough as my editorial vision is, I do love the whole process of reading a potential client’s manuscript — from the exciting request to the potential treasure trove of the full to the rare manuscripts that sparks my imagination. And I’m definitely looking for more of this magic, and more successful offers. Keep those submissions coming!

Though I’m no longer a gatekeeper, I can bring my literary agent experience to your novel. Hire me as a developmental editor.

Direct Address in a Query

Which brings me to another point. Several queries have come in recently that use this technique:

Dear Ms. Kole,

You are an aspiring garbagegirl in Brooklyn who is allergic to flies. And your mom says you have to go to beauty college when you get out of high school. Your world turns upside down one day when a faerie vampire crashes through your bedroom window…

This is a <sarcasm>fun</sarcasm> new spin on my absolute pet peeve: the rhetorical question query. And the use of second person in general, when it’s not earned or warranted. I don’t understand this technique… and there are several examples of it in my slush. Did some blog somewhere tell well-meaning writers that this was the new no-fail query fad?

I understand it’s meant to be arresting and pulse-pounding, it’s meant to grab me and never let me go and all that junk, but here’s the reason it bugs me: I want to read about you and your work. LEAVE ME OUT OF IT!

The example up there is one I wrote. But it’s not too far off from what I’ve been seeing. And honestly? Instead of thinking “Wow, that sounds cool,” I immediately think: “I am NOT a garbagegirl, my mom does NOT want me to go to beauty college and there’s no way in heck that a faerie vampire is crashing through MY window without picking up the repair bill!”

And you don’t want me to be thinking about ME when I’m reading YOUR query, right? Didn’t think so.