Query writing, such a simple thing … mwahahaha

The term “dreaded query letter” is almost cliché. Obviously, there must be reasons why most writers, who are capable of writing a three hundred page novel, find writing this one page a daunting task. I can’t speak for you, but I can tell you why I tremble at the thought.

I’ve read numerous articles, blog posts, and book chapters on how to write a query. Often the same thought was expressed: If you’re having trouble writing your query letter, it’s because you don’t know what your book is about. Aaaand … every doubt I had while writing the book stands up and salutes that statement.

How can I argue with that logic? Can I tell you how to play cricket, where to find the best meal in Antwerp, how the diatonic scale differs from the chromatic? Of course, not. I don’t know any of those things. Therefore, if I can’t write a scintillating description of my book, it must be because I haven’t a clue what it’s about.

I sit paralyzed at the keyboard and that evil editor starts yapping. If you, the one who wrote the book, don’t know what it’s about, how could any reader follow it? Why would they even bother? It’s obviously nothing but a blob on paper. And evidently a putrid one. How could you possibly sell an agent on this mess?

But wait! Here’s an article that says, “You’re not actually selling the book.” Whew! That was close. Uh … wait a minute. Then, what am I supposed to do in the query letter? “All you’re doing is seducing the agent.” Oh, gotcha.” Uh … wait a minute.

How do I entice an agent in a query for my quiet character-driven story? “Focus on drama and stakes.” Hmmm. No dark alley chases, no murders, no trial of the century, no corporate takeover, no evil emperors, no battles, no magic, no vampires, no demons, no angels, not even a thing to go bump in the night. I have no mystery, no heart-stopping action, no cliffhanger to intrigue an agent.

I must “seduce the agent” by conveying the inner struggles of my characters, with their fears, and doubts, and longings in language too beautiful to behold. I must present the subtle drama and stakes of my story in a way that will astound the agent into making a frantic request for the full manuscript.

Easy as pie. Piece of cake. Not.

Please pass the Tums.

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28 thoughts on “Query writing, such a simple thing … mwahahaha

  1. Boy, Linda, it doesn’t help either that there are so many do’s and don’t’s, I know. That’s what always makes my head spin. But for me, short and simple always worked best. And yes, I think even the most character-driven novels need a hook in their query to stand out. But the hook doesn’t have to be contrived–which is what I always worried about and struggled with–ie, How can there be one format when there are dozens of genres???

    I also forced myself to send out queries in small batches, so I could “test-drive” them and if the responses were lukewarm (or just downright chilly) I would have a chance to rework the letter before using up all my tokens, so to speak. THAT was a huge challenge, especially in the age of email when it’s just so easy and tempting to send out a ton of queries once you have that letter done!

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    1. Oh, Erika, you don’t know how many times I’ve written and revised the query for this book. And yes, non-genre fiction is the hardest to write a bang-up query for. I’m on the verge of throwing out all the rules and just saying what I want to say. Actually, half the “queries that worked” DON’T follow the rules. I think it’s voice that sells, but that’s what I’m not capturing in the query.

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  2. I find it kind of funny. We labor over writing a good novel and then we obsess and pull our hair out over a one page query. It makes me crazy thinking of how to entice an agent into taking on my novel. My problem is that I am super wordy. I don’t think I’ll ever get what I want to say compacted into one page. It gives me shudders to think about it.

    I have yet to get to the point in my latest novel where I send out queries, but I’ll be asking for the tums when that time comes, too.

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    1. I know, Heather. Years ago, I sometimes incorporated a word in my rockstar portraits that was supposed to work subliminally. Don’t you wish there was a subliminal message to insert in the query that would compel the agent to ask for the full?

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  3. The query letter is hard but every story has conflict. Focus on the conflict and if all else fails go to Query Shark and try find inspiration from the letters that rocked the shark’s world. Or console yourself that at least you’re not making some of the more rookie mistakes. And remember, it’s always easier to work on something that already exists. Maybe try sum your story up in 500 words, then 300, then 100, until you get to the desired query length.

    You can do eet!

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    1. Thanks for your encouragement, Kerryn. I’ve read every post at QueryShark, and those at other blogs that show winning queries. The problem is the queries are mostly for genre. Focusing on the conflict is good, and I think I’ve done that, but my mc’s conflict is internal. I just need to query agents who represent mostly literary works and aren’t expecting edge-of-your-seat queries.

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  4. How about trying to put yourself in the agent’s shoes? What would make you take notice? What intrigues you enough to buy a book? Today, I picked up about 10 books whilst in the book shop and bought NONE – None of the book blurbs did it for me for whatever reason, either the premise bored me or I found it cliched etc.

    Oh and you may think having something like a vampire makes it easy for the rest of us in regards to query. Nope, it makes it harder. An agent at a publishing conference said to me that if I have a vampire, my query letter has to be even BETTER than most because of the subject, so I have to work doubly hard to impress an agent…sigh

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    1. If I put myself in the agent’s shoes, I would request my full immediately! 🙂 Seriously, I thought each version of my query was good. Apparently, I was wrong. But your question about what makes me buy a book, is a good one, and I’ll give that a lot of thought today.

      And yeah, I’m sure it’s hard to sell vampires today. I wish you luck.

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  5. I read that article the last time someone presented a link. I bookmarked it for when I write my query. I like it better than many others I’ve read. Hope it works for US. I will be engaging in the query project SOMEDAY. I hope it will be soon. You will figure it out and write a great query. Say that ten times a day. 🙂

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  6. I love the idea of tucking in a subliminal message. Maybe as a watermark on the paper? Brilliant idea!

    Have you offered your query for your critique group to hack apart? My people always point out those hidden things that only an agent (or a critique group) would see. Enormous help.

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    1. Absolutely. My critique group has hacked apart every version of my query. 🙂 I have two writer friends looking at my latest attempt. They both said “not quite” to the last one. And it just occurred to me I need to revise my synopsis too! Will it ever end?

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  7. Not that I know about such things, but it sounds to me like you’re just too close to it. Someone I know recently had to write some thank you notes that were to be published in the newspaper and in church bulletins, and while she writes beautifully, those particular notes just overwhelmed her, the circumstances she’d been through and for which she owed thanks, were just too personal. So I helped her, and it was easier for me because I was one step removed, but I was able to say exactly what she wanted to express (and if I’d not, she’d have been WAY down the road with something to edit to her tastes). Why don’t you find a writer you trust and get him/her to write the query for you?

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    1. I’ve had a couple friends help like that, Brett, but the query is supposed to reflect your voice, so you can’t really take verbatim what someone else suggests. It’s interesting to see what they picked out of the book, though. You’re right, it’s hard to be objective, and even harder to distill 89,000 words down to 250. Writing a successful query is closer to writing advertising copy than to writing fiction. I’ve never been good at telling someone succinctly what any book or movie is about. Even if I loved it, I manage to drain the life out of it when I describe it. Unfortunately, I’m doing the same thing with my own book.

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    1. You’re right, Trista. The problem is there seems to be a disconnect between how I feel about Brevity and how I write the “sales pitch.” I don’t know how to overcome that. Like I said to Brett, I just drain the life right out of it.

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  8. Linda,

    I respectfully suggest (having done this MANY times myself, I speak from experience ) that you have lost perspective. Who cares what the query is “supposed” to be? There are no query letter police. Let someone write it who has read the book, really loves the book, and who can write a good query. Let them sell it for you. As long as the letter is truthful, and you agree with it, and your friend doesn’t care, I see no problem with you signing your name to the letter. It would be different, perhaps, if the book were not written yet, because then the selling your voice argument would carry more weight, but girl, you’re just trying to sell something you want too much for someone to accept, and it’s too hard to say “Please Like Me” or, in your case, your book. You either need to write it after drinking a really nice bottle of wine while you pretend it belongs to someone else, or hire someone, or go bang on your best friend’s door! What this is doing to you is your “sign” if you will … you’ve nothing to lose, try it and see how you like what they come up with!

    Bless your heart!

    b.

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