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How to Use Storytelling in your Query Letter to Get Your Manuscript in front of Agents

Once you decide to submit, you also have to decide to rise above the noise. The good news is you can learn how to write a query letter with the power to do this for you. You're a writer, this is your skill.

We are facing unprecedented levels of competition to get an agent. Since e-querying became the norm, your query became akin to the spam we all see in our own inboxes. You can no longer rely on a professional tone alone to stand out and get your manuscript in front of agents. 

And yet, agents are very jaded. They are not going to respond well to gimmicks or to those who disregard their submission guidelines.

 

So what can we do to stand out, while working within the conventions and submission guidelines. Submission guidelines are surprisingly conservative, and I would not suggest you defy them.

 

In combination with the synopsis and opening chapters of your manuscript, the job of the query letter is to get a request for the full manuscript. I like to imagine that the job of the first line of the query is to get them to read the second line, and so on.

That may sound like a lot of pressure! But as a writer, you have everything you need to hook readers. You just need to realize that those skills apply in the context of a query letter as much as they do on the first page of your novel.

Photo by Kat Stokes on Unsplash

Why writers struggle with how to write a query letter that persuades agents they can actually write

There are many layers to the reasons writers struggle to write their query letters alone:

  • As the author, you’re just too close to your story and its intricacies. You don’t know what to leave out or how to ‘write short’ when it comes to your story.
  • A small part of you doesn’t really want to let the reader / agent into the story or finds trying to summarize it reductive.
  • You are trying not to be vulnerable.
  • Advice online tells you to write a succinct summary but doesn’t break down just how to do that. It's like saying ‘the best way to write a great query letter is to write a great query letter’.

Photo by Antenna on Unsplash

What writers can learn from marketers about how to write a query letter

You may or may not be aware that storytelling is big business in marketing circles.

Why have marketers become so excited about storytelling? Because, just like novelists trying to get out of the slush pile, we are living in a time of distraction and noise. And storytelling breaks through the noise like a melody above the din.

 

Marketers have realised that the human brain is subconsciously attracted to stories and finds then easy to process and remember.

 

This is why storytelling in marketing has become such a big business. Stories are ways to keep someone’s attention even in a world of constant distraction and information overload.

You may be thinking “I’m a writer, not a marketer!” The stereotype of the starving artist is that writers hate business. But what if selling is just storytelling, after all?  Even Robert Mckee, the influential theorist of story for screenwriters, has recently written a book about how his ideas can be used by marketers. Donald Miller, the founder of marketing company ‘story brand’ began his career as a novelist. 

How does this change how you feel about your ability to promote yourself and your book? You’ve written a novel! If what it takes to rise above the noise is to tell a story, then you’ve got this.

After all, the business lot learned story from US, right, the writers and the so-called starving artists? 

So why are so many query letters written like a bad corporate newsletter? Full of unintelligible jargon, info dumps and irrelevant noise?

 

If you aren’t harnessing the power of story in your query letter you’re:

  1. Telling agents you haven’t mastered storytelling.
  2. Likely bringing in irrelevant details and elements that only add to the noise.
  3. Making the poor intern or agent work really hard to figure out what they can expect from your manuscript. 

 

Photo by Hannah Jacobson on Unsplash

Three ways to harness the power of story in your query letter

  1. Distil what makes your novel ‘a story’ so that you can capture it in a short space. Capturing these elements hooks readers by allowing them to anticipate conflict and experience the drive to know how it plays out as they anticipate the dopamine hit of seeing it resolved. Do this by identifying the key elements that make a collection of words into a story:
    • a protagonist
    • a goal -ideally both internal and external-
    • an obstacle or source of conflict -ideally both internal and external. 
  2. Briefly tell the story of why you wrote the book so that:
    • agents get a sense of the human behind the story.
    • You can reinforce the point of your book, what readers will take away from it.
  3. Tell the story of how this book is in conversation with other books in the market (your comp titles) so the agent can start writing their own story about how they will sell it to editors.

 

If you can use these elements in your query you are making your query very easy to read. Rather than feeling like they’re deciphering a bad translation, the agent or their intern gets lost in the single story you’re telling.

You get their attention, and you rise above the noise.

If it’s still not for them, that is fine. There are many reasons independent of the quality of your story and writing that might mean you’re not a good fit. 

But if it is for them, they will at least have a chance of seeing that, and they’re going to want to read the rest of your submission, and, hopefully, they will request your full manuscript!

 

  In our next blog series...

The next entry for this series will take you through how to use storytelling in the dreaded author bio element of the query letter.

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