One of the things I love about WriteOnCon every year, is query crits. I love giving critiques, but I also like to see what other people are saying about the same piece. (aside: I also do query crits in the Absolute Write forums from time to time)
While I agree with a good majority of other critiquers' advice, something I noticed especially this year was that people kept asking for more more more story info in a writer's query letter. And I usually disagreed with that sentiment.
If you're unclear on something, the answer is not more words. The answer is: say the same thing more effectively. Change your words, don't just add to them.
The reason boils down to the fact that the basic job of a query letter is NOT to tell the whole story and give away all the juicy details, but to get someone intrigued enough by your premise to read your manuscript.
No really. That's IT (without factoring in the individual person's tastes and/or the current market trends).
Which is why my top responses to query letters in a crit forum are:
Your premise/concept/main plot isn't clear.
This is too wordy.
This essentially tells me nothing.
This doesn't feel vital to the pitch.
How is this different from what's already out there?
Etc, etc, etc.
A query letter is a means to present your basic premise. Yes, you have to do it in a certain way--it must entice, it must show how your MC is unique, etc.--but more often than not, writers don't seem to understand how far into the story they should go in their query letter.
The answer? Not very far at all.
If you're just giving us your hook, your premise, your unique concept... you really shouldn't have to go much further than the second major turning point, and ideally, the first major turning point should be clear by the end of paragraph one.
Not two. One. GET TO THE POINT AS QUICKLY AS POSSIBLE.
You have literally seconds to grab a reader's attention. Keeping your pitch succinct is an effective way to do so.
How much backstory is in my first paragraph?
If the answer is anything other than "none", I think you need to rewrite your query (just my opinion, of course).
I like query letters the same way I like novels--they start in the here and now and continue forward from there, never backwards. (okay, okay, almost never backwards in a novel. But definitely never backwards in a query letter)
Let me repeat: NEVER BACKWARDS. Because that's where you get into trouble in the middle, even if you wrote paragraph one just fine. I can't even count how many query letters I've seen that get the "start in the here and now" part right, but then use paragraph two to take a step back and explain things.
If you need to explain that much for your reader to understand just your basic premise, then I'm sorry but it isn't the query letter you should be revising. It's the novel.
Go back to square one. Whittle down your novel's premise to a single sentence. (this is called a logline, which is not the same as a tagline, but that's another topic for another day) You are obviously going to have to leave some things out, things that feel vital to you.
They may be vital to the story, but they aren't really that vital for the pitch. Not surprisingly, this is also why people have such a hard time writing synopses--you think you have to include more than you really do.
All you need in a query letter are the 3 Cs:
Character, Conflict, Choice
If you have that, you have a premise. And if you have a unique premise, then I'll read the novel.
But you have to get your point across quickly and efficiently. The shorter the pitch, the more work your words have to do. They must be punchy and clear, never wandering.
Think of yourself as a sniper and your query letter is a sniper rifle. The reader/agent/editor is the target. Focus focus focus. You have only one shot. Make it count.
Still not sure about something? Ask in the comments section. This is honestly one of my favorite topics of discussion.