Many artists (including novelists) reject formulas as straitjackets on their creativity. Fair enough. Great artists should reject formulas.
But you’re not great yet. You’re just a beginner. So suck it up and find the writing formulas (and tips, tricks, and hacks) that will get your special-writing-bunny-slipper in the door. And if you won’t do it for your fiction, then at least do it for your query letter. Too many good novelists write crap query letters – which is absurd, because it’s not that hard. Just find a formula that works, and follow it!
Here’s a 300-word formula that has gotten me requests from agents. I borrowed it from author Jarucia Nirula, along with two examples. The third example is by me, describing a novel of mine.
Begin by three or four paragraphs introducing your novel. Most important is to introduce your main character and your main character’s core challenge (in other words, a hint of the plot).
Query Letter One:
Nothing thrills Una more than sailing the high seas with she-pirates. The only problem: she’s never been on anything more exciting than a car ferry. She figures her adventures will always begin and end in books. Then a crow starts stalking her. When strange accidents at school and home follow, along with vivid dreams of the pirate queen Korina, Una thinks the planets must be out of whack or something, but doesn’t suspect these are signs that a real adventure is about to begin.
For her thirteenth birthday, Una’s parents reveal she’s destined to train as a Guardian of the Elements. The prospect of leaving the comfort of home for life aboard a ship full of strangers suddenly doesn’t seem so great, until her best friend Reed shares that she’s going too.
On departure night, Korina materializes as a very real and lethal threat. Una escapes with Reed to their training ship, but leaves believing her parents are dead. Thrust into her new life, Una tries to balance the grief of loss with new friendships, her Elemental training and preparing for a year-end Challenge that might bring with it a danger far greater than Korina. [195 words]
Query Letter Two (for the same novel, now with a sharper hook):
Until shortly before her thirteenth birthday, Una’s biggest adventures occurred in books or in her mother’s stories.
Then a crow started stalking her.
Strange accidents at school and home follow, along with vivid dreams of the pirate queen, Korina, and all are signs that many of the tales she’s enjoyed her whole life are more than fantasy.
With her birthday, Una learns she’s destined to train as a Guardian of the Elements―a steward of the Earth. She angrily refuses the prospect of leaving her normal life behind to train with strangers. That is until her best friend Reed shares that she’s to train too.
On departure night, the very real threat of the dreamed-of pirate queen arrives. Barely escaping Korina’s lethal attack, Una believes her parents are dead as she watches helplessly from her departing training ship. Grief propels Una into her life as a Guardian trainee with Reed. But, she soon meets new friends, Phoebe, Myles and Darriun, and stumbles upon the secret truth behind the year-end Challenge. Throughout the training year, suspicions that someone is trailing her vex Una but leave her far from suspecting the one threat greater than Korina―Malovias. [193 words]
The challenge with these paragraphs is keeping them short enough. Don’t exceed 200 words. Begin with nothing but a single sentence exposing the beating heart of your novel (and that’s probably your main character) — then gradually add.
Query Letter Three (mine, with the novel’s title and genre up front):
I would like to send you my 67,000-word fantasy adventure novel, Mountain Man.
In a newly-discovered land that is not quite North America, the sacking of a coastal village fuses the fates of two opposite characters: a twelve-year-old printer’s son named Jeffrey Jones and a bearded, wilderness-wise misanthrope with a raccoon-skin cap and a hunting knife made from a sabertooth fang.
Jeffrey is small, but smart; scared but determined. His new companion, Tiberius Bogg, is fast as a splintercat and stealthy as a hidebehind. He can conquer anything… except a vulnerable boy who needs his help. As they turn the tables and pursue their attackers (mercenaries from the old country), Jeffrey comes to find his strength, while wise-cracking Bogg comes to find his heart.
Together they trek through a merciless landscape full of extraordinary creatures — jackelopes and thunderbirds, fur-bearing trout and four-legged hills — all culled from American tall tales, Indian legends, and backwoods folklore. [156 words]
The second part of the query consists of a paragraph comparing the novel to what’s been published already. Do your research. Mention some novels clearly similar to yours that did well (but don’t mention anything from the top of a bestseller list – comparing your novel to Harry Potter or The Da Vinci Code makes you look like a doofus). Mention any thoughts about your intended audience. Who will enjoy your book?
In this paragraph, you can also mention anything that you love about your novel that wouldn’t fit in part one, such as theme. And lastly, if you didn’t mention the title and word count in part one, do it here.
Query Letter One:
Varuna Kannon and the Caluminar’s Cave is a 99,500-word YA fantasy novel written to appeal to all young readers. It highlights themes of friendship, teamwork, growth, and environmental stewardship. Fans of imaginative fantasy adventures featuring young heroines and heroes alike will enjoy this introduction to the five-part Guardian of the Elements series.
Query Letter Two:
Varuna Kannon and the Caluminar’s Cave is a 95,000-word YA fantasy novel aimed at girls. However, themes of friendship, personal responsibility, growth, and environmental stewardship are relevant for all young readers. Fans of the imaginative adventures of young heroes and heroines in His Dark Materials trilogy and the Xanth series will enjoy this introduction to the five-part Guardian of the Elements series.
Query Letter Three:
Fans of Jonathan Stroud’s The Bartimaeus Trilogy or Orson Scott Card’s Alvin Maker series will recognize a unique world that blooms from familiar roots and enjoy characters who are both quirky and magical.
In the final paragraph, talk about yourself. What’s your experience as a writer? (Skip this if you don’t have any.) More importantly, what led you to write your novel? How are you connected to it?
Query Letter One:
A career with children and love for all things magical inspired me to pursue a life as a YA writer. I work as a fiction editor for the non-profit journal Conclave, am an active member of OWW for sci-fi/fantasy/horror writers and hold two Master’s degrees.
Query Letter Two:
Years of working with children and a love for all things magical inspired me to pursue a career as a YA writer. I work as a fiction editor for the non-profit journal Conclave, blog regularly, and participate in multiple writing groups.
Query Letter Three:
The first seeds of Mountain Man came to me after hearing tales and forest folklore while working with the US Forest Service on the Tohono O’Odham Indian Reservation. My speculative fiction has appeared on Quantum Muse, Anotherealm, and elsewhere.
Lastly, tack on a call to action, something like I have attached a synopsis and the first three chapters (yada yada; strike this sentence if you’re just sending this letter). I look forward to hearing from you. Don’t screw around here, just be brief and professional.
You can put these three parts into a letter that’s under 300 words long, and then you’ll have a tool that will help you get your novel on the desk of agents and publishers. Later, as you gain experience and relationships in the industry, you can writer query letters that are more unique (or the ultimate dream: tailored for particular agents). But for now, you’re on the road!