Stuff You Can’t Say in a Query Letter


The query letter I’m sending to agents to pitch my first novel has been through so many revisions that I lost count long ago. I’ve spent hours on this letter that could have been devoted to writing my next book. Versions of the letter have  made the rounds on writer forums where I begged my peers to kick the shit out of it and help me to identify weak spots. And I’ve read every article and agent blog post I can find about the art of the query. There’s definitely a consensus about what belongs in a good query letter and what doesn’t.

Most ‘experts’ agree that a query letter should

  1. Run between 250 and 300 words in length (this one is 260).
  2. Summarize only the main plot of the book, leaving out all sub plots.
  3. Focus on the protagonist and antagonist, with as few additional characters as possible to avoid “character soup.”
  4. Show what is at stake and what choice the protagonist must make.
  5. Avoid references to the themes of the novel like the plague.
  6. Steer clear of any personal information about the author other than publishing credits and experience directly relevant to the book.

So here’s what’s in my letter. After you read it, I’ll tell you what I wish I could put in it.

Dear Agent:

For fading rock star Billy Moon, recording a new album could be the key to saving his career, but finishing it could cost him his life.

Trevor Rail, the producer who first discovered Billy, is a powerbroker with a shadowy mystique. There are whispers that ol’ Third Rail may be the devil himself, and now he wants to record Billy’s dark masterpiece. The location for the project is no comfort—a secluded studio in an old church rumored haunted by a woman hanged for witchcraft.

Billy’s record label thinks he should do it. In fact, they insist. Walking out on the project isn’t an option if he wants to keep his contract.

Once Billy starts laying tracks in the church at Echo Lake, the rumors of its haunting prove true. The ghost reaches out to him with messages played on the piano, whispered into a microphone, and spelled out on a groupie’s Ouija board tattoo. Messages that lead Billy to a clearing in the woods, and to the truth about Rail and the ghost.

Rail wants a multi-platinum selling album and he intends to orchestrate Billy’s death to get it. If Billy is going to survive with his soul intact, it’s time to start fighting back.

THE DEVIL OF ECHO LAKE is a 92,000 word paranormal suspense novel that mingles dark fantasy with a realism informed by my time as a recording engineer in Woodstock, NY. It will appeal to fans of Clive Barker, Neil Gaiman and Joe Hill. May I send you the finished manuscript? Thank you for your time and consideration.

Best regards,
Douglas Wynne

I wish I could tell agents that the book isn’t just another clichéd rocker-made-a-deal-with-the devil yarn, but to summarize the premise in the most concise and coherent way kinda makes it sound like that, right?

I can’t tell you that Rail might be just a sophisticated con man masquerading as the devil to push a burned out star over the edge, and that I sustain the question of whether or not he really is the devil for most of the book.  That would take too long.

I can’t tell you that in those dark woods, the ghost leads Billy to a harrowing encounter with the horned god Pan, lord of insanity, sex and music.  At first Billy believes Pan is the devil unmasked.  The twist is that Rail brought Billy to a studio haunted by a dead witch to freak him out, but when the witch introduce s Billy to the elder god she really worshiped, the  resulting connection threatens Rail’s ability to manipulate Billy.  But just look at how long this post is getting.   I can’t put that stuff in the letter.

Nor can I introduce you to Jake, the skeptical engineer who is watching his own life fall apart while trying to help Billy navigate the borderland between paranoia and the paranormal.

I’ve tried to weave all of the above into previous versions of the letter and it didn’t work.  In the book, where I have 300 pages instead of 300 words, it does work. Trust me. Now there’s a line you can’t put in a query letter.

By placing Billy between two very different devils (Rail—the embodiment of sadistic, narcissistic greed for power, and Pan—the primal creative impulse) I was able to tell a lot of truth about the music industry in a way that infuses my dark tale with humor and heart. But I can’t tell you that because I’d be getting into themes.

I can’t tell you that the novel has been through six drafts, that I’ve cut around 20,000 words from the manuscript to make it lean, mean, tight and polished, or that I would love some professional editorial help at this point, having done everything I can to edit it on my own.  I’d like agents to know that I’m not stubborn or egotistical when it comes to criticism, and I will work my ass off to craft the best possible story because I want to sell some books and entertain people. But I can’t put any of that in a query letter.

And I definitely can’t say that the book is a tense, sexy, scary page-turner. But it is.

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