No matter how wonderful an idea is, whether or not I offer representation always comes down to one thing: the voice.
I have authors who could send me a grocery list to sell to a publisher and I would fawn over its genius, simply because I love how they tell a story.
It’s the voice that can elevate a cliché story or a slow plot and make it a masterpiece. And it’s the voice that can be the death knell for a project I was super excited about.
But in a three paragraph query letter, how does a writer communicate that voice while selling me on an idea?
I have found that query letters that discuss only plot oftentimes fade into the woodwork, as there’s nothing incredibly innovative that distinguishes them from the other five hundred queries in my inbox. On the opposite side of the coin, queries that focus entirely on how wry or moody the narrator/protagonist is lose me too, because even a fun character isn’t that interesting without context.
It’s the best of both worlds that will get you a request. A strong narrative voice is best shown with a few small details from your manuscript, selected specifics, if you will, that tell me a little about what the attitude and ambitions of your protagonist are within the scope of their world. These works best when sprinkled in just enough to hook me, the same way you tease at the ending of the book rather than spoil it.
Take, for example, the query letter for THELMA BEE by the lovely Erin Petti. I found Erin through the slush pile, and her fun, STEM-y, adventurous middle grade novel piqued my interest immediately.
Let’s take a look at it and see what she did with the first paragraph…
Eleven-year-old Thelma Bee might turn red as cherries when she’s embarrassed, but she’s no wallflower: she has adventure in her blood. There’s not a whole lot of opportunity for exploration in her hometown of Riverfish, Massachusetts, though, so she and her best friend Alexander Oldtree are often left to their own devices–with mixed results. The full-scale Viking Longship, for example, was a magnificent flop.
Even though you don’t have a lot space in a query letter, it is important to take the time to introduce your protagonist before you throw the plot at me. Immediately, Erin has communicated that Thelma is precocious, brave, smart, and spectacularly creative. It was at the mention of a Viking Longship—a specific, odd little detail—that made me decide to request this book. Something so oddball is, as I know now, representative of the whole novel, and that’s exactly what I was hoping for for the partial.
And now we go onto the plot…
But one October night, Thelma’s sixth-grade year takes a turn for the peculiar. A ghostly visitor kidnaps her father, leaving her alone and scared to death. Her only clue is a centuries-old jewelry box and one cryptic word the ghost whispered into her ear: “Return.”
At this point, Erin knows she’s established how Thelma behaves in the world (turning the odd into normal), which is charming.
Bam. Voice: established.
The voice of this book is welcoming and fun, but with hints of the strange and exciting, and even a little danger. This second paragraph doesn’t even need more references to Longships and their ilk. I’m hooked, and this plot-only paragraph serves to further reinforce just how odd Thelma is in her small-town world. Now I’m dying to see how she reacts when the supernatural comes to her.
And now for the finish…
That one word draws this adventurer-in-training into a world where her family tree unfolds a mystery that’s more extraordinary than anything her imagination could concoct. With her team of amateur ghost hunters, Thelma delves deep into the New England woods, where the lines between folklore and reality become dangerously blurry. It’s there, where the creaking trees have long memories, that she comes face to face with the devious Mr. Understone, who has been stalking her bloodline for centuries. Thelma has something he wants, and he’ll keep her dad until he gets it.
To save her father, she must find the bravery to overcome a dark magic…and discover just what she’s made of.
Ghost hunters?!? In the same book with a girl who builds Longships for fun? How did I get so lucky?
From this query, I know that this book is fun, quirky, and offbeat, but has enough danger to not be cutesy (which is the kind of voice I don’t like), and that, gentle readers, is an exciting combination.