“When you write a query letter, make it sound like jacket copy.”
I can’t even begin to tell you how often I’ve been given this advice by my fellow writers. The problem is that it may not be the best way to do things. It all depends on the jacket copy you chose to emulate.
Book jackets aren’t meant to entice the reader into taking the book home. Because of this, the emphasis is often on tension and excitement. There’s a lot of suspense. But what’s the plot? Book jackets, according to agent Janet Reid, after often very plot light.
Seriously? I decided to test that theory out. Here’s the jacket copy for Magnus Chase.
“Magnus Chase has seen his share of trouble. Ever since that terrible night two years ago when his mother told him to run, he has lived alone on the streets of Boston, surviving by his wits, staying one step ahead of the police and truant officers.
“One day, Magnus learns that someone else is trying to track him down — his Uncle Randolph, a man his mother had always warned him about. When Magnus tries to outmaneuver his uncle, he falls right into his clutches. Randolph starts rambling about Norse history and Magnus’s birth right: a weapon that has been lost for thousands of years.
“The more Randolph talks, the more puzzle pieces fall into place. Stories about the gods of Asgard, wolves, and Doomsday bubble up from Magnus’s memory. But he doesn’t have time to consider it all before a fire giant attacks the city, forcing him to choose between his own safety and the lives of hundreds of innocents . . .
“Sometimes the only way to start a new life is to die.”
So, what’s the plot? I haven’t read this yet but my guess is that the fire giant is the inciting incident. The plot? That’s what takes place after that last line. This jacket is definitely plot light. Why not look at a few on your bookshelf and see if you can pick out the plot just from the jacket copy.
A query letter needs to include your plot because the letter is meant to sell an agent or editor on the time commitment required to read your story. This means that you need to show them that you know about story. Who is your main character, complete with strengths and weaknesses? What does she want more than anything? What will happen if she doesn’t get it. Who is your antagonist? How or why is he in conflict with your protagonist?
This leads us to the plot, beginning with the story problem and the major plot points (attempts 1, 2 and 3). And don’t forget your setting.
That’s an awful lot to work into a single letter. If you can make it as enticing as jacket copy, that’s great, but first and foremost it needs to work as a query letter.