I have a tendency to write my query letter before I write my manuscript. I’m not sure what it is about this that deludes me into thinking my first draft won’t be as messy if I just have a query to go by. But query letters are really fun for me. I love writing and editing them and helping CPs with them. They’re an important part of getting an agent or editor to read your manuscript.
I’ve been in a lot of slush piles for my job and contests and I’ve read a slew of query letters. Some have been amazing that promised books I’d just fall in love with. Others had a harder time catching my eye for a number of reasons, but the biggest common denominator was a lack of stakes.
So what are stakes? Why do they matter to your story and query letter? Simply put, stakes are what your main character stands to lose in the book.
In The Princess Bride, Westley’s stake is Buttercup. If he doesn’t beat everything thrown his way, he’ll lose his one true love. Imagine trying to convince a friend who’s never seen The Princess Bride to watch the movie with you. You’ll probably tell them all about Westley’s determination to beat the swordsman, the giant, and the genius. Then imagine what happens if you don’t tell them why he risks his life time and again engaging these people. Your friend might not be up for watching The Princess Bride.
Why? Because you left out the what really matters. You left out why beating these odds is so important to Westley. It’s because if he doesn’t make it to the other side, he’ll lose her. That’s a stake.
So when you’re writing or editing your query, make sure you do your main character’s stake(s) justice. Let agents know why your character’s goal is so important. Tell them what your character will lose if he or she can’t reach the goal by the end of the book.
If you can’t determine what your main character’s stake is then you may need to go back into your manuscript and see if you have one. If not, it’s a good idea to fix it before you start mass sending it out. Your story stands to be a lot stronger if your Westley has a Buttercup he stands to lose.
If you’re having trouble with your query letter, I’m running a sale on partial manuscript edits right now. Check them out here.