the secret to writing a query

Submission protocol, query etiquette, and strategies that work
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jayinhouston
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the secret to writing a query

Post by jayinhouston » December 17th, 2009, 2:14 pm

Let me first preface this by saying that I've not yet sent out a query, nor have I posted mine for review on this board, so I'm not sure how much truth there is to what I'm about to say. But I'm going to say it anyway.

In reading some of these critiques, I'm amazed at how many of you are bogged down by the tiniest details. Many of you spend incredible amounts of time and energy determining what tense you should be using or what type of font you should use or how many words a query should be. And you convince yourselves that this is the reason why you're being rejected. You're so afraid of going against the grain that you sometimes forget to make the query do the only thing it's supposed to do...get someone else excited about your book.

My advice is to familiarize yourself with enough of the rules so that your query is professional, but then forget about everything else and concentrate on writing the best possible one-page sales device you can write. Make it fun. Make it exciting. Make it entertaining. Nobody wants to get caught up in overly detailed plotlines of a book they haven't seen before. They want something about the book or the author's writing style to grab them and earn their attention.

So forget all the tiny details and worry about the big ones. Make your query fun. Find a way to make it fun. Put your best writing skills forward, break the rules a little and then, if nothing happens, be willing to accept that you just may not be good enough. If it's fun, an agent won't even notice you broke the rules. Or they'll be too busy having fun to care. And be genuinely okay with not being good enough because that level of self-worth will come across in your writing.

Look at Nathan's examples of a good query. They're fun. They break a few rules. They emit a subtle confidence that says without coming out and saying it, "Hey Nathan, if you're not interested in this no big deal. Somebody else will be."

If you're not confident enough to put your best effort out there and let the chips fall where they may, your insecurities are going to come through in your writing. So just make your book sound as good and as fun as you think it is.

After all, if you can't keep an agent's attention for one page, (and let's not forget that agents love books more than the typical consumer), what in the name of Zeus's butthole makes you think you're going to keep a readers interest for 300 pages?

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SmurfHead
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Re: the secret to writing a query

Post by SmurfHead » December 17th, 2009, 5:30 pm

I understand what you're saying about confidence. Actually, I think that could apply to a lot of things--work your butt off, put your best effort out there, and be willing to see what happens. It sounds a lot like what Diana Peterfreund said in her blog once (trying to dig up a link somewhere) that if you write a kick-ass novel, do your research, etc., than there's no reason to fear the publication process.

Worrying about things like tense and query length are tiny details, but important in their own right. For me, putting my best effort out there sometimes means agonizing over small details until I know I've got something I'm confident about and can stand behind. There's a limit to that, of course.

But I'm left scratching my head about this "rules" business. I'm not sure what you mean. I've heard that agents don't generally like rhetorical questions, and that queries should be within a page... Is that what you mean? Am I missing something here?
"Mind-bottling, isn't it? ...You know, when things are so crazy it gets your thoughts all trapped, like in a bottle?"

jayinhouston
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Re: the secret to writing a query

Post by jayinhouston » December 17th, 2009, 5:52 pm

SmurfHead wrote:I understand what you're saying about confidence. Actually, I think that could apply to a lot of things--work your butt off, put your best effort out there, and be willing to see what happens. It sounds a lot like what Diana Peterfreund said in her blog once (trying to dig up a link somewhere) that if you write a kick-ass novel, do your research, etc., than there's no reason to fear the publication process.

Worrying about things like tense and query length are tiny details, but important in their own right. For me, putting my best effort out there sometimes means agonizing over small details until I know I've got something I'm confident about and can stand behind. There's a limit to that, of course.

But I'm left scratching my head about this "rules" business. I'm not sure what you mean. I've heard that agents don't generally like rhetorical questions, and that queries should be within a page... Is that what you mean? Am I missing something here?
Whew, first of all I'm glad what I wrote wasn't perceived as being negative or pessimistic. The fact is, I've read almost all of the sample queries posted, and I'm both surprised and impressed by the overall caliber of the concepts. Most of these storylines are downright intriguing.

But in some of the queries, I can sense some timidity that shouldn't be there. A sense that if the query doesn't look perfect that it will be denied.

When I say rules, I mean anything that either is a rule or perceived to be a "rule." Don't write a query from a character's point of view. Don't write in the first person if your novel is in such and such genre. What writing credentials should I mention? How should I mention them blah blah blah.

None of that matters if the execution is there. And I think people struggle with the execution of the query because they lose clear sight of the goal.

The goal is simple: make an agent want to read the book. It is a selling tool, not a telling tool. It's not to tell about characters. It's not to give a synopsis. It's not to describe the setting or the era. That's what the book is for. The book tells the story. The query gets the agent to want to read the story. If there's anything in a query that doesn't support this goal, it shouldn't be in the query.

At their core, books are entertainment. And an engrossing form at that. If you can't whet an appetite in one single page that you know is more important than any single page of the MS, an agent is going to pass. Why would an agent expect the book to be better?

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Re: the secret to writing a query

Post by Dakota388 » December 17th, 2009, 5:56 pm

I've heard rules like: the first name in the query should be the main character. Or to use third person present tense regardless of how your manuscript is written. There are others that I can't think of right off the bat. My first query started with "King Elijah would kill his own daughter to stay in power. Rasi would kill an entire army to save her." That breaks the first rule that I wrote above and I, accidentally, started an entire debate on another forum about whether it was a successful breaking of the rule since it is quickly obvious who the bad guy is or not. That is the only way I ever heard of that "rule."
"The Light of Epertase"-A fantasy novel coming August 1st from Rhemalda Publishing

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SmurfHead
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Re: the secret to writing a query

Post by SmurfHead » December 17th, 2009, 6:18 pm

Oh, I get what you guys are saying now. It's kind of like blacklisting adverbs and "was" verbs. True in most cases, but not always.

I know a "rule": Don't tell anyone you're a first-time author. I heard that on a few message boards, and there were various reasons behind it. It's easy to latch on to because most of us are a tad bit worried about our writing credits... or lack thereof.
"Mind-bottling, isn't it? ...You know, when things are so crazy it gets your thoughts all trapped, like in a bottle?"

jayinhouston
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Re: the secret to writing a query

Post by jayinhouston » December 17th, 2009, 6:33 pm

SmurfHead wrote:Oh, I get what you guys are saying now. It's kind of like blacklisting adverbs and "was" verbs. True in most cases, but not always.

I know a "rule": Don't tell anyone you're a first-time author. I heard that on a few message boards, and there were various reasons behind it. It's easy to latch on to because most of us are a tad bit worried about our writing credits... or lack thereof.
Yeah, I don't see the benefit of mentioning that you're a first time author. I actually think there are elements of being a debut novelist that should be embraced. Some of these are covered on this blog.

If you've never been published before, there's no track record of success, but there's also no track record of failure. It's all in how you look at it.

Maybe I'm crazy, but if I were an agent, I'd be more likely to take on a first-timer than a previously published author. It's like a company deciding whether to hire a sales agent straight from college or a guy with 5 years of sales experience. We know why the college grad is looking for work, but why is the guy with 5 years experience? No company willingly rids itself of a high-yield sales reps, just like no agent or publisher wants to get rid of a high-selling author. So they have to deal with some suspicion that first-timers don't. Advantage us.

In scouring the web for examples of elite-level queries, I noticed one commonality...none of them read like a query. They all read like a story in query form.

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Nathan Bransford
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Re: the secret to writing a query

Post by Nathan Bransford » December 17th, 2009, 6:47 pm

It's funny, because I kind of have mixed feelings about the "rules." I think there's a definite backlash against query "rules" and suggestions because people have come to see them as making authors panicked and more worried about breaking a rule rather than just focusing on telling their story no matter what people say about the "rules." And I think that makes sense to a certain extent.

At the same time, in my experience authors are going to panic about their queries no matter what. It's important, it's stressful, and people are going to stress. I stressed when I wrote mine too and I read them for a living.

So the idea behind the "rules" is to hopefully make authors feel more comfortable because they know what they're doing. Speaking personally, I'd much rather know what is usual and customary, even if I'm not going to follow every rule to the letter. There's nothing I hate more than feeling like I don't know what I'm doing.

But I think you're right that it's more important to just be yourself and trust your instinct. No one is going to reject you simply because you break a rule in a query. No matter how often we blogging agents say there's no such thing as an instant rejection, no one really ever believes us.

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Re: the secret to writing a query

Post by Kaitlyne » December 17th, 2009, 9:07 pm

I think the biggest problem with the rules is that people can get so caught up in following them that they lose all sense of voice. I personally loved having a framework to base things on, as Nathan said, because it's nice to feel like you at least know what you're doing. At the same time, when I first started writing both the query and my synopsis, I found myself so caught up in getting it "right" that I kept losing what made it interesting. I posted it for critiques and while I got good ideas, I found that many of the comments were leading me toward something that, while following the "rules," sounded more and more conventional.

I finally decided to just toss aside the concern, figured out the most important aspects of the rules and of my story, and then wrote something new. I'm sure if I posted my current query letter here there would be plenty of things people would find wrong with it. The thing is...I like it. It's a good query. It's interesting, it's intriguing, and it has some of the old voice back. I haven't sent it out yet, so it might still prove to be a complete failure, but I feel like it accomplishes what I was hoping to accomplish.

I think it's more important to see the rules not as rules, but as guidelines. It's important to recognize that a lot of agents get annoyed by things like rhetorical questions and to realize that 99.99% of the time it probably won't work. It's important to recognize that present tense affords a sense of urgency and helps build suspense and action naturally, and that we have limited space to play and as such need to be very concise when we summarize. I just think that if we see those more as a guideline and foundation on which to build, as opposed to seeing each detail as a necessary do-or-die component that it makes it easier for us as writers--not to mention more stress-free. I actually enjoyed writing my synopsis and query once I thought of it this way.

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Re: the secret to writing a query

Post by casnow » December 18th, 2009, 2:09 am

I think the most important thing to take away from any of the reviews posted on here are:

1) Is there an obvious hole that you can't see b/c you are too close to the work
2) Make sure it is clean, efficient, grammatically correct, and typo-free
3) Make sure it is exciting/entertaining/has some hook that makes people want to read
4) That you aren't forgetting something - length, genre, etc.

Beyond that, take it with a grain of salt. You know your story better than anyone else and you have to stay true to it.

saskia
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Re: the secret to writing a query

Post by saskia » December 22nd, 2009, 12:14 am

I've been thinking about this lately and I realized that I get caught up in trying to put down the plot and the salient points about the main character and other facts I think need to be communicated in the query. Of course in a query letter you don't have the space for a lot of explaination and so it becomes a problem. I think this is what drives everyone crazy.

What I realized is that this probably the wrong way to think about a query letter. Query letter as information dump.

The goal of a query letter is not to get facts out. The only goal of a query letter is to get a request to read your MS. How do you do that? By showing that you are an entertaining and intriguing writer. Write your query letter in the voice/tone/style of your book (which hopefully is great) and leave the facts to a minimum - they are spoilers anyway. Is it really helpful to have someone know a lot about the MS before they read it? I don't think so.

The query letter is a teaser. It's only function is to lead the reader on. You need to show the reader your writing ability (remember show not tell) and your entertaining ability and that your concept is good. But keep the concept part on a high level and limit the details - save that for the MS.

As to the rules. I think you need to follow the ones that make sense like:
-your salutation should not be "To Whom it may concern"
- Don't miss-spell the agents name
- do include a word count and genre
- don't make it longer that one page
that kind of thing.

Obscure or nit-picking rules I think you should take a bit less seriously.

that's my 2 cents.

Clio
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Re: the secret to writing a query

Post by Clio » December 30th, 2009, 6:31 am

Please could someone point me in the direction of Nathan's query letter examples - I've been hunting around and can't find them. Cheers!

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Jaime
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Re: the secret to writing a query

Post by Jaime » December 30th, 2009, 8:47 am

Hi Clio,

If you go to Nathan's blog, they're in the menu called The Essentials on the left hand side: Examples of Queries. From memory he has three examples, and has included the reasons why they caught his attention :)

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Bryan Russell/Ink
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Re: the secret to writing a query

Post by Bryan Russell/Ink » December 30th, 2009, 8:49 am

Or just click http://blog.nathanbransford.com/search/ ... y%20Letter, which should also do the trick.

Happy reading.
The Alchemy of Writing at www.alchemyofwriting.blogspot.com

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Re: the secret to writing a query

Post by Clio » December 30th, 2009, 11:58 am

Brilliant, thanks for that, Ink. I knew I'd read about them somewhere!

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