Many writers wait until their novel is polished and ready to go out before they approach writing their query letter. They have to figure out how to distill 60,000+ words into just 250. No wonder querying is so daunting!
Drafting the query letter before the novel can actually help you write the novel. You can draft the query at any point: when you’re just starting the project, when you’ve written an outline, even halfway through writing the novel. You may want to keep revisiting the query at least of these stages, because you’ll bring new insights to it each time.
I highly recommend the Query Shark archives for an education is what makes a good query. And yes, you should read the whole archive.
Embrace the heart of your idea
I like to first draft the query while the idea is still just an idea. When the idea is fresh I’m caught up in the most dramatic elements, the bits that spark my imagination. I’m still in love with it, or I wouldn’t be pursuing it. If you wait until the novel’s done you may lose sight of that initial spark, and will have to work to remember what made you so excited in the first place.
This is a precious part of the process, so make sure you capture it somewhere. A query draft is a great place to do that, because you want to make it sound as dramatic and enticing as possible. It should still excite you months and years later.
The query is much shorter than the novel, so rewriting it isn’t nearly as big a lift as if you decide to change the novel. Write several query drafts with different approaches to your idea. If you come at it from the romance angle, how does it sound? Is it more appealing to focus on the thriller elements? Which excites the reader, and which excites you? It’s your story, after all.
You don’t have to use any of these query drafts as your official query letter–chances are you will make significant changes to the story between now and then. But this work will help you define what you want the novel to be.
Figure out why we should care
The purpose of a query letter is to convince an agent or editor to want to read more. Your drafts have the same goal. Give the ones you like best to other people to read, and ask them if they’d be interested in reading a novel based on the query draft.
The magic question here is, “Why should I care?” If your readers are noncommittal chances are you’ve got events on the page but not story. There has to be meaning attached to those events.
The classic example from EM Forster is the difference between “The king died, then the queen died” and “The king died, then the queen died of grief.” The first is a recounting of events without emotional context. The second tells us something about the queen and why the king’s death matters. Your query needs to be like the latter.
The building blocks of structure
How much story should you give away in your query? The answer is, “just enough” but that’s a moving target. Your query is not a synopsis, which always includes the entire story–all the twists, the end, everything. The query is a teaser, and usually covers the first act, as far as the midpoint, and may have a hint of The Ultimate Conflict.
Drafting the query can raise some interesting quanderies, like, what do you do with the big twist three-quarters of the way in? Is that too late to include? (Probably.) Is it vital to hooking the reader’s interest? (Move it up or strengthen your premise.) How complex is Act I and how different is Act II? If you have a portal fantasy where Act II is a whole new world with new challenges you need a way to connect your two worlds in the query. Again, experiment at the small scale allowed by the query letter.
Think of the query as another tool in your pre-writing arsenal. Use it to capture the magic of your idea, and figure out how to make others care about it too.