Why can't I do this?

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gilesth
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Why can't I do this?

Post by gilesth » October 26th, 2010, 12:51 pm

So I've written queries before, and I've gotten great feedback. However, I'm not getting any good responses, so it's time to re-write. My question is, why can't I write queries? This should be easy. I can tell someone what my book is about in one sentence, (Chris Drake, a half-dragon dragon-slayer, must hunt down his uncle before he turns a young woman into a virgin sacrifice.) but I can't write a simple letter that will get an agent's attention and get them to request pages. Is there something wrong with me? Am I just stupid? I want to throw my computer against the wall. I'm frustrated because I thought I knew how to do this. And I should have gotten at least one partial request so far (at least that's the feedback I've gotten from 90% of the impartial critics who looked it over).

Seriously, what's wrong with me? Is there anyone else feeling this way today? I usually have enough confidence to work through my frustration, but I've been fighting constant failure for over a year. I don't want to give up, but where do I learn how to improve my writing? I've found great advice on the internet, but my letters just don't get any better.

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Re: Why can't I do this?

Post by cheekychook » October 26th, 2010, 1:25 pm

I'm going to give you the advice that was given to me so many times last week that I finally had to give in and do it.

BREATHE.

Seriously. Do it again.

Now, when it comes to queries I am certainly no expert. As a matter of fact, I don't really get them at all. I've written several versions of one (they're all in the query forum). I've even had "luck" with one version (as it turned into 3 requests---which all later turned into rejections). The operative word, though, is (I think) LUCK.

I am querying in batches. My first batch went out to 7 pretty randomly chosen agents from the bottom half of my very, very long list of agents who rep my genre. Of those 7 I got 3 requests, all in the first 10 days. Sounds great, right? Not so much. Using the same letter and the same type of personalized blurb catered to each agent I proceeded to send out my next batch, and the batch after that, and so on...for 6 weeks....and the only responses I've had since those original 3 have been rejections.

I haven't changed. The query didn't change. The plot and characters haven't changed. The agents were just as likely if not more likely than my original random batch to be interested in repping my genre. So, what's different? The alignment of the stars? Some secret mojo? Do query letters lose their potency after they've been sent to more than 7 agents? Did gmail suddenly start scrambling my outgoing messages?

The only thing I can come up with to keep my (admittedly tenuous) grip on sanity is the not-so-comforting-but-it-will-have-to-do saying: It's not me, it's them.

Obviously you need to write the best query letter you are capable of writing, but since it's not a precise science and opinions differ on what "good" is, that's no easy task. Sure some query letters get the point across better than others, but you know what? I'm not sure that matters that much to some agents. Some want pages, some don't. Some who do freely admit they barely read the query and go straight to the pages. Others admit to reading the query and not the pages. Some read both. Some want to know about YOU. Others only want to hear about the story. Some hate rhetorical questions. Others want to be lured in with them. Some want movie or bestseller comparisons. Others only want to know about the book you're pitching. Some want more of a synopsis of what happens. Others just want a hook.

Even if you manage to tailor each query letter to each agent it still depends on a million variables----did they just read 5 queries for similar projects and they're bored? Are they saying they're looking for your genre but really they only tend to rep other genres? Do they tend to rep your genre but really they're hoping to start repping something else? Are they open to queries but not really seeking new clients because their list is really full so they're only staying open to avoid missing something fantabulous? Did they have an argument with their significant other that morning and you happen to share the same first name as that person? Did they ambien eat all night and wake with a tummy ache? Was the elevator at work broken so they had to walk up 27 flights of stairs and they're cranky and exhausted? Did their boss just yell at them? Co-worker drink the last of the mocha-java coffee? Out of post-its?

We don't know what's going on in their lives the second they open our query (although some of them tweet so frequently you'd think they want us to). All we know is that the query they read didn't strike that particular chord they wanted to hear. Why do even the most popular best selling authors all have stories of rejection letters? Because there's nothing that appeals to everyone, and even things that appeal to most people don't necessarily get that across in something as simplistic and subjective as a query letter. Sorry if this isn't encouraging---I'm not at a place where I feel I can be motivational---but I really do think that a lot of this process is timing and luck. Do the best you can with your query letter and the best that you can with your actual book----and then hope like crazy that it crosses the path of the right person and that their favorite muffin was available that morning. Good luck.
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polymath
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Re: Why can't I do this?

Post by polymath » October 26th, 2010, 1:30 pm

gilesth wrote:Chris Drake, a half-dragon dragon-slayer, must hunt down his uncle before he turns a young woman into a virgin sacrifice.
From what's given, I infer several related concerns. One, "a half-dragon dragon-slayer" feels potentially like the greatest main dramatic complication. It doesn't seem realized in the one sentence synopsis and I infer it's not realized in the query or the novel. Two, because Drake's heroic nobleness is given without representing his self-serving agenda(s) as well, he feels like a one-dimensional adventure hero character. Three, that nobleness without self-serving motivations feels like author surrogacy and I infer that author surrogacy comes across in the query and novel as well.

Author surrogacy isn't a deal killer for me. To some extent every narrative with a favorable outcome incorporates some quality of author surrogacy. Where author surrogacy impacts most negatively is when the outcome of the main dramatic complication is telegraphed up front by a protagonist's abundantly competent efficacy and idealization of the hero archetype. The two main characteristics of author surrogacy: self-efficacy and self-idealization.

Realizing the internal conflict of "a half-dragon dragon-slayer" seems to me a way forward, plus, realizing what's Drake's self-serving agenda that makes up his human side and his dragon side. I'd think he's being ripped apart, drawn and quartered internally by his conflicted legacies.

Externally, it's a hero's quest, in pursuit of a damsel in distress, a mere object that incites the quest. But hero's quests are as much internal journeys of personal growth as they are external journeys.
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Re: Why can't I do this?

Post by dios4vida » October 26th, 2010, 1:36 pm

There's nothing wrong with you. Writing a query is among the hardest things a writer has to do. We can bang out awesome novels, summaries, you-name-it, but queries are a whole other beast. I think most of us have a similar story to yours - personally, I just went through my own "why is no one noticing my query?!?!" phase a few months ago. You aren't alone, and it sucks.

I have a few simple suggestions, though I can't vouch for their effectiveness (after all, my own query has still garnered no attention).

1. Have non-writerly people read it. See if they think it's interesting. I knew I was getting on the right track when my sister, a scientist with no interest in fiction, let alone my genre (fantasy), said that she'd see the movie.

2. Post it to the forum! There's a great critique section with more than a few completely awesome people who will give you opinions and red-lines. It's invaluable!!

3. Put it away for a while, dump as much as you can out of your brain, then come back to it. Read it with "fresh" eyes and see if you notice anything. I did this and couldn't believe some of the things I thought were great before that I now went "meh...not so much."

4. Relax. This is a normal part of the writerly process. We've all been there. (So please don't throw out your computer!)
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gilesth
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Re: Why can't I do this?

Post by gilesth » October 26th, 2010, 1:47 pm

Thanks, everyone. I'm feeling a bit better now, but it's still rough. It doesn't help that I keep getting called into work on the days that I set aside for writing. I don't seem to get anything done anymore. I'm not gonna destroy my computer :), but I still feel like my head is going to implode.

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Re: Why can't I do this?

Post by Hillsy » October 26th, 2010, 1:51 pm

Hi Giles

Firstly, the advice given above is excellent and I won't add much to that. What I will do though is a couple of anecdotes from other writers.

Brandon Sanderson runs a Podcast with another author Dan Wells. Both of them talk extensively of what happened before they were published. I think Sanderson had something like 4 or 5 novels and Dan Wells 6. Querying is a little unfair but, like democracy, it's the best workable system we've got at the moment. Unfortunately the thing it can't tell you is whether it's the book of the query that's wrong. As Polymath pointed out, an agent reading it may think the query is fine and well written but the book idea isn't enticing to them. Sanderson and Wells say the same thing over and over, quoting another nugget from David Gerrold: "The first 1,000,000 words you write are practice."

Also my favourite quote from a little known writer, Stephen King.
"To be published you have to be at the right place at the right time. As we can never know when that is, our job is to get to the right place and stay there."

So my advice is, keep querying this one, BUT more importantly start working on something new, then query that. Rinse, repeat.

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Re: Why can't I do this?

Post by gilesth » October 26th, 2010, 2:11 pm

polymath wrote: It doesn't seem realized in the one sentence synopsis and I infer it's not realized in the query or the novel. Two, because Drake's heroic nobleness is given without representing his self-serving agenda(s) as well, he feels like a one-dimensional adventure hero character. Three, that nobleness without self-serving motivations feels like author surrogacy and I infer that author surrogacy comes across in the query and novel as well.
I can see your point :) The problem is that the young woman is Drake's best friend. She's also a dragon slayer, and while Chris WOULD sacrifice his life for her, he has no intention of doing so. It's hard to emphasize the half-dragon part, too, because Chris slowly learns about his draconic heritage as the novel progresses. It's one of the obstacles that distracts him from his search for his partner.

I guess the biggest problem I'm having at the moment is that the AWESOME folks over in the query critique board seemed to think that I was getting that message across in the query that I already wrote and sent out.

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Re: Why can't I do this?

Post by polymath » October 26th, 2010, 2:50 pm

My main point is the ending is telegraphed by those aspects. From reading the query and other commentary, for all intents and purposes, I see it as a simple plot with a few diversionary complications along the way. The one-sentence synopsis tells me the outcome, same with the query. Hero sets out to rescue damsel in distress. Hero rescues damsel in distress.

A simple plot is one where a character pursues a goal against all odds and inexorably wins through. Not much character transformation. Simple plots typically telegraph endings because all narratives start from one state and end at the opposite, i.e., bad fortune to good fortune, vice versa, or poor to worse fortune. Perhaps the damsel's fortune has turned from bad to good, but she's an accessory character. The greatest transformation ought best happen to the protagonist so that readers share the transformation and have strong emotional payoffs.

A complex plot is where a protagonist experiences a profound recognition or an abrupt reversal or both leading into the greatest transformation. Complex plots have better potential for keeping outcome in doubt, stronger emotional payoffs, and more satisfying endings because the protagonist (who's reader surrogate) experiences the greatest transformation.

If the novel's about Drake, it ought for best practices' sake be about Drake's transformation. Same with the pitch and query.
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Re: Why can't I do this?

Post by gilesth » October 26th, 2010, 5:04 pm

The problem I've run into is that, while Chris goes through all of those things, it's been hammered into my head that the most important 250 words (the "maximum" length for a proper query) are those that describe the main plot, the driving force that brings the hero to these life-changing conclusions. The catalyst and the conclusion aren't what change Chris, but without those things, Chris doesn't change, and neither do those around him.

I guess where I'm going with that is; are agents and query-advisers giving bad advice? Do I need to ignore the core events that are at the center of all of those other world-altering events?

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Re: Why can't I do this?

Post by heyimkt » October 26th, 2010, 5:37 pm

Gah, I'd been having that problem for a LONG time too. You are not alone :) But now, I've finally got one I'm happy with. So here's some advice from someone who had no clue what they were doing and thought they could whip out a letter in one sitting (aka, me) (and I was wrong about that lol):
Write a first (crappy) draft
Stare at it for as long as you need/change what needs to be changed
Get it critiqued (by friends/CP's)
Change what they say -- redo all of the parts that you know just aren't right (even if they still don't become right)
Get it critiqued again
(Continue the process for awhile)
Once you've got it structured "correctly" and hooked "correctly" and flowing "correctly"... start from scratch again
You'll be surprised at what you've got
Get this new-awesome-where-did-this-query-come-from letter critiqued
Fix stuff and...you've got a GOOD query!

Hahah That was my process. Drove me crazy and I understand your frustration. Keep writing and redoing, at least that's what worked best for me :)

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Re: Why can't I do this?

Post by polymath » October 26th, 2010, 5:57 pm

Put bluntly, I believe the reason why writers have so much difficulty composing pitches, queries, and synopses is because they don't fully realize who or what their novels are about. In my estimation, that's about the core transformation. The rest are details for the novel.

The one-sentence pitch represents a situation, but the pivotal crisis for Drake is vaguely implied. I think it's all in there but requires thoughtful efforts to figure it out. Call the pivotal crisis a complication, a dilemma, a conflict, an obstacle opposing a goal, a goal complicated by obstacles, whatever, but if he's going to experience it and readers experience it vicariously through him, it ought best happen to him.

His partner captured for a dragon sacrifice is what I consider a bridging complication. It sets him in motion, compels him to act. It occurs on his periphery though. It's a strong personal slight, albeit comparatively minor in magnitude because he's credibly a competent dragon slayer and should manage to rescue her after some trouble. As things are, in my estimation, it's the sole complication he seeks to address. Being "a half-dragon dragon-slayer" seems to me the main dramatic complication waiting for him to recognize it and be recognized for promotional discourse, like for pitches, queries, and synopses.

By way of example, from my creative vision without too forcibly imposing mine on yours;

Drake's first efforts to locate the damsel reveal a clue to his dragon legacy, but he refuses to acknowledge it. Meanwhile, his dragon side impedes his efforts and increases doubt of a happy outcome. The more he becomes aware of the legacy, the stronger his denial. Until at last when he's rescuing the damsel he's forced to acknowledge it.

A rogue dragon kidnaps dragon-slayer Chris Drake's partner. Unfamiliar stirrings hint to Drake he is part dragon himself. . . .

The Complication and the Goal implied right there, still just situations, so a crisis is needed, something emotionally high in magnitude. Is he tempted to abandon the quest in favor of resolving his own problems? And therefore serves himself at the expense of others. Is he tempted to side with uncle dragon and assume his dragon legacy? Because uncle dragon represents his flawed vision of his self. I won't impose my vision any more than that because originality might suffer.
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Re: Why can't I do this?

Post by gilesth » October 26th, 2010, 6:16 pm

Everyone has been incredibly helpful! Thank you so much :D

Polymath, based on your comments, I'm going to reexamine my book, both to rediscover what I should focus on for my query, but also to see if there are ways to improve the manuscript itself. The great thing about this part of my process is that, even when a book is "done and ready for submission" it's still possible to go back and make changes. Especially when my book, as is, isn't grabbing any attention.

Thanks again for your help!

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Re: Why can't I do this?

Post by dios4vida » October 26th, 2010, 6:38 pm

gilesth wrote:The problem I've run into is that, while Chris goes through all of those things, it's been hammered into my head that the most important 250 words (the "maximum" length for a proper query) are those that describe the main plot, the driving force that brings the hero to these life-changing conclusions. The catalyst and the conclusion aren't what change Chris, but without those things, Chris doesn't change, and neither do those around him.

I guess where I'm going with that is; are agents and query-advisers giving bad advice? Do I need to ignore the core events that are at the center of all of those other world-altering events?
I think that a lot of times we writers see the "formula" put out there by agents/editors/other writers and think that's the only way to do it. (I'm guilty of this, too.) But I think that there is a lot more freedom in things like queries than those formulas hint at. Focusing on the core events is a good place to start in writing a query - but if it doesn't work for your book, then that's not the way you need to write your query. If it's a character driven story, then focus on Drake and his heritage (which I think is a totally awesome idea, btw). If it's a questing, get-the-girl-and-save-the-world story, then summarize Drake's journey down to a few paragraphs to show the kind of obstacles he runs into. You need to take what's most important in your novel and run with that. What makes it unique, special, that one novel unlike all the others that the agents will trip over themselves to represent? Highlight THAT part, polish it until it shines as brightly as it can, and then run with that. Do what's best for your story, Giles, and you can't go wrong. :)
Brenda :)

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Re: Why can't I do this?

Post by sierramcconnell » October 27th, 2010, 12:45 pm

The biggest problem is that we see the entire world. We have stepped back and we see the painting. We need to step closer to see the points that make up that painting. Those little colored dots that make the face of the child standing next to her mother in the park. Get closer and closer until it doesn't even look like the book we know.

Because we know the book too well. We know every corner of the world. Every creavice. And they don't want to know that yet. They just want to know the small, little corner right there. That little idea it started to be. That teaser it began as when you were walking down the street and went, "Hey, I think I have an idea for a book."

THAT is the best time to write a query, but a lot of us don't do it. It's the teaser time. The moment when all the book is about is a character who does something that causes something else to happen and a whole lot of other things happen to.
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Re: Why can't I do this?

Post by saraflower » October 28th, 2010, 12:33 pm

cheekychook wrote:I'm going to give you the advice that was given to me so many times last week that I finally had to give in and do it.

BREATHE.

Seriously. Do it again.

Now, when it comes to queries I am certainly no expert. As a matter of fact, I don't really get them at all. I've written several versions of one (they're all in the query forum). I've even had "luck" with one version (as it turned into 3 requests---which all later turned into rejections). The operative word, though, is (I think) LUCK.

I am querying in batches. My first batch went out to 7 pretty randomly chosen agents from the bottom half of my very, very long list of agents who rep my genre. Of those 7 I got 3 requests, all in the first 10 days. Sounds great, right? Not so much. Using the same letter and the same type of personalized blurb catered to each agent I proceeded to send out my next batch, and the batch after that, and so on...for 6 weeks....and the only responses I've had since those original 3 have been rejections.

I haven't changed. The query didn't change. The plot and characters haven't changed. The agents were just as likely if not more likely than my original random batch to be interested in repping my genre. So, what's different? The alignment of the stars? Some secret mojo? Do query letters lose their potency after they've been sent to more than 7 agents? Did gmail suddenly start scrambling my outgoing messages?

The only thing I can come up with to keep my (admittedly tenuous) grip on sanity is the not-so-comforting-but-it-will-have-to-do saying: It's not me, it's them.

Obviously you need to write the best query letter you are capable of writing, but since it's not a precise science and opinions differ on what "good" is, that's no easy task. Sure some query letters get the point across better than others, but you know what? I'm not sure that matters that much to some agents. Some want pages, some don't. Some who do freely admit they barely read the query and go straight to the pages. Others admit to reading the query and not the pages. Some read both. Some want to know about YOU. Others only want to hear about the story. Some hate rhetorical questions. Others want to be lured in with them. Some want movie or bestseller comparisons. Others only want to know about the book you're pitching. Some want more of a synopsis of what happens. Others just want a hook.

Even if you manage to tailor each query letter to each agent it still depends on a million variables----did they just read 5 queries for similar projects and they're bored? Are they saying they're looking for your genre but really they only tend to rep other genres? Do they tend to rep your genre but really they're hoping to start repping something else? Are they open to queries but not really seeking new clients because their list is really full so they're only staying open to avoid missing something fantabulous? Did they have an argument with their significant other that morning and you happen to share the same first name as that person? Did they ambien eat all night and wake with a tummy ache? Was the elevator at work broken so they had to walk up 27 flights of stairs and they're cranky and exhausted? Did their boss just yell at them? Co-worker drink the last of the mocha-java coffee? Out of post-its?

We don't know what's going on in their lives the second they open our query (although some of them tweet so frequently you'd think they want us to). All we know is that the query they read didn't strike that particular chord they wanted to hear. Why do even the most popular best selling authors all have stories of rejection letters? Because there's nothing that appeals to everyone, and even things that appeal to most people don't necessarily get that across in something as simplistic and subjective as a query letter. Sorry if this isn't encouraging---I'm not at a place where I feel I can be motivational---but I really do think that a lot of this process is timing and luck. Do the best you can with your query letter and the best that you can with your actual book----and then hope like crazy that it crosses the path of the right person and that their favorite muffin was available that morning. Good luck.
This is a great explanation! It's so true - very many variables. Which is why we must keep at it - all it takes is one person who loves our story.

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