Thursday, April 19, 2012
A to Z: Querying
Apparently, "querying" used as a verb ("I'm going to start querying agents soon" or "I've queried fifteen agents so far") is a uniquely American term--or perhaps just uniquely used in writer circles. A British friend of mine had no clue what I meant when I used it.
Then again, he's not a writer :)
Just finished Writing The Breakout Novel by Don Maass--excellentia everywhere, man. I can't bring myself to underline, highlight, or otherwise "desecrate" physical books (yet another advantage of ebooks), so I use post-its. This is what the book looks like now, haha.
It's a fantastic guide to writing--to lifting our fiction out of midlist blahs, to constructing a story that rivets, that fascinates, that becomes unputdownable. Thus, the section on Querying isn't a major one--it occupies all of ONE page in the book's 260.
But, if you're querying anytime soon, that one page contains a nugget of wisdom that is worth printing and taping to your wall.
But Don makes a great point in saying that the professionalism with which you craft your query letter (or email) is the first step to getting it to his desk.
Professionalism means well-written--and it also means a fantastic premise (he discusses Premise early on in the book, and he provides step-by-step guidelines to making sure yours is solid). This professionalism does apply to emails.
A good query letter, Don says, has four sections: the introduction, a summary of the story, your credentials (where applicable), and the closing.
The first and last are (or should be) short, and credentials are either great--so no problem listing them, just remember to avoid hubris--or non-existent, in which case it's no problem either. You just skip that part.
Don advises against mentioning size of possible audience, your years of effort, your "professional" attitude, etc.--unless, of course, the agent's guidelines specifically ask for this. For Don, at the querying stage it's your story that matters, not anything else. If the story is good, your agent will eventually talk to you about this stuff. If it's not good enough, then no amount of blog or Twitter followers, or willingness to promote yourself, is going to sell it.
But the summary... Oh, good God. The summary. Or pitch, or blurb, or whatever you want to call it.
Writers suck at selling our own stories. Why? Because we're so invested in every detail, every plot twist, every subplot development, every line of dialogue, every symbol, and so on and so forth. It seems impossible to sum up the story in one or two paragraphs.
get the agent to read your manuscript.
Makes it easier to focus, doesn't it?
What does an agent need to get in order to request your manuscript? Setting, protagonist, and problem. Just that. Deliver those three basic components briefly and with a punch, and chances are excellent you'll get a request.
But your story has layers. If you've followed the guidelines of Don's book, your story should. So what do you do with these carefully crafted layers in the query?
According to Don, you should be brief and focus only on what makes your story plausible and original, on the core conflict, on its emotional appeal (all the characteristics of a solid premise, according to Chapter Two of the book).
Don't use adjectives or superlatives, and stick to the briefest mention possible on your theme.
So--focus on your story. Setting, protagonist, problem. Make the agent want to read the thing. Right.
No one said this would be simple.
P.S.--I'm a guest over at Deb O'Neille's Writing Against The Wind, talking about Critique vs. Cheerleading. Come join the conversation!