Agent query letter example 4: the sprawling family epic
What to do when the sweeping family epic gets swept under the rug
A few weeks back, I consulted with a woman we’ll call K about an interesting conundrum. K was preparing to query a complicated, multi-narrative, sweeping family epic. But how could she summarize the novel in a query letter without:
1) simplifying the plot lines beyond recognition or
2) revealing how complex the story is and freaking the agent out?
In the private consulting work I do with writers, I start by reading their query letters, and then we talk on the phone about the project, with me asking a ton of questions to crack open the shell of the manuscript to try and understand what is going on inside the pages that I’m not going to read. (I only read the query and in rare cases, the first five pages.)
What was clear right away from my conversation with K was that this story had two narrators plus an entire middle that was epistolary (a back and forth exchange between two Irish deceased women).
K’s original query didn’t make any of this clear. We talked about why this obfuscation was understandable— the more complicated a potential first novel is, the more an agent gets their hackles up. (“This person isn’t published yet,” they’ll think, “How can they possibly pull off such a complicated project?”)
Here is what the summary paragraph of K’s letter looked like before we got to work. (K gave me permission to share this— thank you for trusting me with this, K!)
While this summary paragraph more or less works, it leaves a lot of questions unanswered and it positions Clare as the novel’s main character, leading one to assume that this is probably written in the first person from Clare’s POV or at least a close third.
But as I mentioned up top, that’s not at all how the book is structured. This book actually has four narrators— two living sisters and two of their deceased relatives, who communicate in letters that Clare discovers in Maggie’s basement. If this structure isn’t mentioned in the query letter and the agent asks to read the manuscript, she’s going to have quite a shock. She might even feel like the author tried to pull the wool over her eyes by sweeping the epic structure of this novel under the rug.
Together, we worked on a new summary paragraph that revealed the novel’s structure and gave more emotion and gravitas to Clare, who does function as head honcho in the story. Here’s what our revision looked like when we got off of the phone: