Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Who's afraid of the big bad query?

Being a member of a writing group and also because I spend (too much) time browsing the web, stalking agents, authors, and smart people, I've noticed a lot of fear and loathing concerning "The Query".

According to most people, who speak in trembling tones about the unavoidable visit to the torture room (aka the document file which has the bits and pieces of query, sometimes one or two words, that the hapless author is trying to cultivate into a query-feast), the only thing worse than a query is the synopsis.

Both abominations are the bane of the aspiring author's existence.

And supposedly - even AGENTS have to write queries and dread the chore.

Let's face it - the query is essentially a sales pitch. Something that shouldn't be a huge deal if you are a used car salesman (those amazing people who somehow work their magic on clunkers so they hold together and perform until paid for and driven off the lot).

If you are the average person who avoids having garage sales, because they hate having to sell their old stuff to neighbors and creepy strangers who are just swinging by to snoop and privately snurk at all the 'junk' - writing a sales pitch is sheer misery - especially since you realize midway that you don't know how to tell somebody what your story is about without it sounding cliche/mundane/boring/blah - or even a blatant rip off of something already out on the market!

So the first impulse is to dance around and color in the plot with all of your amazing sideplots - end result is your query is cluttered, but at least you feel confident that nobody's going to notice that your plot is mundane.

Or if you are like me - you are tempted to ambitiously exaggerate themes and create plot loops which actually aren't obvious when you read the novel itself. I'm like one of those little kids who weirdly get excited about a caterpillar on the sidewalk outside the house, but see BFF getting a glazed over look listening to the story. So to hold the BFF's attention, the caterpillar is imaginatively turned into a fire breathing dragon.

Not going to say I've got it all handled and mastered, but something that helped me get over my fear and worst impulses is merely changing my thinking. So I told myself stuff like -

*It is just a regular business letter.

*KISS (keep it simple sappy)

*Three paragraphs. Hook, plot, bio. That's it.

*You generally get to include 5 pages to distract the agent with if your query DOES sound like Aunt Lucy trying to get the neighbor to buy her flea infested couch that looks like a blotchy Hawaiian shirt.

*Follow the rules

As for how to find the hook and plot for your 90,000 word book -

One thing I did was use an old book report trick from high school.

Go step by step -

1. Go through book and write very basic chapter summaries. 1-3 lines max.
2. Use chapter summaries to write up a rough but basic book summary. Cut out the extra stuff, focus on the main thread (usually what happened to the main character and what the main character did)
3. Use that book summary to syphon out the 2-3 sentence plot summary or expand into your synopsis.
4. For your hook, look at your plot summary and synopsis and draw on the most important point of the entire novel.

That's it.

Something that I notice when I help people at writing group is they usually have a great idea and hook buried in their rough query - but it's buried with a lot of extra stuff that shouldn't be in their query. Don't mention side characters, don't bother with world building or background information in a query. Focus on main points and main characters. Just keep it simple.

When I write my queries and read/crit other people's, I'm concerned about 3 things -

*clarity of the plot
*saleability of the plot
*word counts

The middle one is only one you really can't fix without going back to the drawing board and tweaking the plot. That's the position I'm in right now with SF and NSAM.

Clarity can be solved by putting the project aside long enough for you to read your work as somebody else would. Also put your query out there for somebody (who hasn't read your novel) to review for clarity.

Word counts is an easy fix too - one trick is to do a Wordle and see which words you use the most. Most of the time, those words can be safely cut without messing up your sentences (my bad habit is 'that').

ETA: I forgot the obvious!

Because a query is a business letter, and not those quicky informal cover letter things you send with short story submissions to most online mags -

Don't forget the very first line of the query is the personal greeting. Remember there is a person on the other side. Use this first line or two to indicate why you are querying this agent. If you follow them and worship their style - tell them. If you noticed on Twitter or whatever that they are looking for X type of novels, and your novel is exactly an X type of novel - tell them. If you actually know or like the other authors the agent represents and feel you would be a good fit because you have a similar style - tell them.

This is something I argued about with friends, simply because most people have one or two dream agents on their list, and then they query anybody else because they are listed in the market book as an agent. And most agents acknowledge that they get queried by people because they are listed (they probably have been accosted enough times out on the street by weirdly folks with maddened eyes and thick manuscripts in their sweaty hands).

If you don't recognize (or even LIKE) any of the books an agent reps, but hope that the agent will take on something different (you) - it is a mistake raving about the other books. I'm just saying.

I'm also uncomfortable about comparing my work to another published work (whether repped by the agent or not). Because perception shows different things to different people. You could be WAY wrong.

A friend of mine rightfully rebuked me and suggested I try a little harder to find something edible in an agent's rep list, or be a bit more artistic in my comparisions other well known works. <- That is something I still cringe about and am working on finding a comfortable medium ground. I'm trying, because this friend had a high rate of requests because of her queries.

1 comment:

  1. This is great stuff to remember. I've been thinking of rewriting my query, so thanks!


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