When authors chat about writing their query letters, usually surrounding writing contests or just before querying, they talk about how hard it is to distill so many pages into so short of a description, and with feeling. Most people focus so much on the word count that they forget or forego lacing it with voice.
This is a fatal mistake.
The same voice that makes your novel one of a kind is the same one that will grab and hold an agent. The query should be the first introduction to that and help make requesting your full manuscript easy. Always make that easy for them. Always.
But Emily, you say, how do I do that with so few words and so little space? Don't worry, I have some tips to help you infuse some of your character into the query without getting too gimicky or overdoing it. Tasteful voice, we'll call it.
One of the best ways to get some unique voice going is to use words that point toward the setting and/or emotional landscape of the plot. Is it a terrifying, mystifying, jumpy sort of plot? Does it pulse and writhe and twist? Do the character feel conflicted, torn, or abandoned? Sprinkling these in can give feeling to the novel, as well as display your writing abilities.
No, we're not talking being mean here, although in some cases it may come across that way. In most queries you shouldn't have more than 1-2 characters mentioned, and often those will be the good guy and the bad guy, respectively (in multi POV, remember, you're focusing on one character.) When you're describing the antagonist, use nicknames or slang your protagonist would. For example, in my novel ROWDY DAYS OF DOM SANDERS query, my protagonist calls his neighborhood bully the jerk in his head. So in my query, when I mention the bully a second time in my stakes, Dom is trying to decide whether to "let the jerk go to juvie" or admit what he witnessed.
This is my favorite way of infusing voice into query letters, and all the luckies that have snagged a Query Helper critique have heard these words: Write your query letter the way your main character would. Not from their point of view, as though the character is talking to the literary agent, but with their same voice. Use their vocabulary (above) to describe their world, use nicknames for other characters (also above), and also let your letter flow with their way of thinking and perceiving the world. How would they recall the story, plot points, or hard decision they have to make? In my example above, notice I didn't say "let Taylor go to the juvenile detention ward". By saying juvie, I've added slang and even touched on the setting by using a modern term.
Even though I now have an [awesome, stupendous, superhero] agent Jessica Schmeidler of Golden Wheat Literary, writing a query letter is still an exercise I practice with every idea for a work in progress. It's great practice for contest entries, figuring out theme and playing with voice. I also love giving away critiques as The Query Helper, so be sure to subscribe by email (to the right) so you never miss a chance to get your name in the hat!
Questions? Remarks? General joviality? Please share in the comments below!