There are many resources online about how to write query letter, which is a letter that an aspiring author sends to agents in order to gain representation. I’ve been an aspiring author since 2016. I’ve written and re-written my own query letters, evaluated others’ queries on forums, judged others’ queries in a contest, and evaluated queries submitted to me when I was an acquisitions editor (from early 2018 to mid-2019). In addition, while writing my own queries, I spent lots of time acting like a ballet student. If you’ve taken ballet, you know that a teacher doesn’t like to say “More turnout” eight times after one combination. Because of that, when the teacher corrects another student, it’s good practice to pay attention and see if you’re making the same mistake so that you can self-correct. looking for places where others were getting feedback on their queries, so that I could see what they got notes on and improve it in my own queries. Through all of this, I have come up with an idea that I like to call the pendulum method.
There are three main parts to a query letter: The blurb (description of the book’s plot), the info paragraph (word count, genre, etc.), and the author bio (which is usually in same paragraph as the info). You can also have a hook at the beginning of the query, which we’ll talk about in a later blog post, if you wish. However, the pendulum theory is specifically for writing the blurb.
The basis of the pendulum method is that the plot of a novel is like a pendulum that swings back and forth. When a problem or obstacle happens to your main character, the pendulum is swing toward that character. When an action is taken by the MC in response to the problem, that is the MC pushing the pendulum away.
In my opinion, the best way to write a query blurb is to include a setup and five swings of the pendulum. You can do three if you want, but five is ideal. The first swing (toward the MC) is your inciting incident. The second swing (away from the MC) is what the MC decides to do about this. The third swing (toward) is an obstacle that causes the MC to change course. (Again, you can stop here, but you may not be giving us enough info for us to stay invested.) The fourth swing (away) is when the MC overcomes this obstacle in order to push toward their goal (either their first goal or a new goal, depending on what just happened in the third swing). The fifth swing, which is crucial, is another obstacle. What’s very important about the fifth swing is that we end mid-swing. We do not find out how the MC reacts to this particular obstacle. We only know that they must react. This is the perfect point to leave the reader in suspense. Here is a model of this, followed by an example.
[MAIN CHARACTER] is [1-2 SENTENCES OF SETUP; WHERE IS YOUR MC AT THE BEGINNING. DON’T OVERDO THIS.] Then [SWING 1/INCITING INCIDENT/WHAT CAUSES THE REST OF THE STORY]. Because of [GOAL], MC [MOTIVATION]. So MC [SWING 2/MC’S DECISION]. Things go well until [SWING 3/AN OBSTACLE STANDING IN THE WAY OF MC’S GOAL]. Not willing to give up that easily (BUT USE A LESS CLICHE TRANSITION), MC [SWING 4/MC’S NEW PLAN]. Then, [SWING 5/THIRD OBSTACLE]. Now MC MUST [IMPORTANT: WHAT MUST THEY DO? GIVE A GENERAL IDEA OF WHAT SHOULD HAPPEN, NOT WHAT DOES HAPPEN NEXT] or [STAKES].
After this, you go to your info paragraph, which we’ll talk about in the next post.
Here is an example of the pendulum theory in action (for a manuscript that doesn’t actually exist…yet):
Ruth Seaver is a successful family lawyer living in San Francisco. When her husband is killed in a freak accident along with his father and brother (swing 1), Ruth’s world falls apart. Her only remaining family is her mother-in-law Naomi, who has always dreamed of returning to her hometown of Elvenbrook, Indiana. Not wanting Naomi to be alone (hint at rationale), Ruth agrees to move to Elvenbrook with her (swing 2).
Ruth sets up a new family law practice in Elvenbrook. With very few clients, she quickly becomes lonely (swing 3) until she befriends a wheat farmer named Beau, who is raising his son Max alone (swing 4). When Max’s mostly absent mother returns to town demanding custody (swing 5), Beau asks Ruth to represent him in court. Though her feelings for Beau are growing stronger, making it hard to be objective, Ruth must win the case or see two people she cares about suffer greatly. (Again, we’re mid-swing 5, because we know what Ruth MUST do, but not what she WILL do.)
Based on the Biblical Book of Ruth, SEAVER is a 70,000-word work of women’s fiction that will appeal to fans of Kramer vs. Kramer. (More bio paragraph info here. You get it.)
Let us know in the comments if you have any questions. Do you plan to use this method to rework your own query? Soon, 10by24 staff will do a call for queries so that we can do critiques on our Youtube channel. Stay tuned for that.