My YA novel is a story about how the 14 year old narrator along with her mother, escapes from her abusive father. The father tracks them down and eventually kills the mother and rapes the narrator leaving her for dead. The story is really about how she recovers from this violence. My question: how much of this do I mention in the query. Is giving away the entire plot a bad idea?
Giving away the entire plot is a terrible idea.
The purpose of a query letter is to entice an agent to read more, not tell the entire story. If you tell the entire plot, I have no incentive to to read more.
And, I must caution you that your email reveals a bigger problem than how much plot to reveal. You need to be very very careful how you couch the backstory.
When I read your question for this blog post, I felt like I'd been smacked in the face by the violence.
And while violence IS a part of YA books, and certainly a part of the books on my list, it's violence in context. You've given me no context here. Of course, that wasn't your purpose, your question is about how much plot to reveal.
BUT if you start your query with how you started this email, it will be a problem. Remember, YA is in many ways about the feelings and emotions of the characters, not what happens. You don't have any of that in the email.
There's a brilliant piece in Issue 59 of Tin House magazine** called The Soundproof Room by Lacy M. Johnson. Read that to see how she brings the reader in, beguiles the reader into caring very deeply about what happens. This is a heart wrenching excerpt of a memoir. If you'd queried me to read it in bald-faced terms, I would have said no, but once I started, there was simply no putting it down.
**If you don't subscribe, your library probably does.