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.

Don's book was published in 2001, way before the e-book revolution and before email became the "standard" querying means. He recommends sending queries via mail, including the SASE, etc., which we all know only very few agents insist on nowadays.

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.

Here's the nugget of Don's wisdom I want to share with you. The purpose isn't to tell the whole plot or to show how great a writer you are. No--really, it's not. The purpose is to get the agent to read your manuscript.

That's it.

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!

25 comments :

  1. I am not looking forward to querying. It's like trying to get a job interview.

    Which, essentially, IS a job interview when you are a writer. o_O Oof.

    -Barb the French Bean

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    1. Oh yeah--not fun at all, I agree. And shouldn't the "interview" be for the agent, really? I mean, you--the author--will hire the agent, not the other way around, right? But it doesn't feel that way :(

      Thanks for stopping by, Barb!

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  2. Guilie, When it comes to anything Professionalism is important. great point and good tips! New follower!
    - Maurice Mitchell
    The Geek Twins | Film Sketchr
    @thegeektwins | @mauricem1972

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    1. Thanks for the visit, Maurice, and I'm glad you like the post. Hope you find it helpful!

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  3. Such an excellent post!!! (I have Maas' book but I never finished it, this thanks for the reminder). I love the graphic you used at the top, too. I could see the temptation to read into every word of response from a queried agent - to get any response at all that isn't a form rejection is a thrill! I'm a visiting A-Z blogger and new follower - will definitely be visiting again!

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    1. Thanks, Margo! Glad you liked the post--and yes, definitely finish Don's book :) Haha, I haven't begun querying yet, but I can so see myself poring over every form response like a fortune-teller reading palms. And a non-form one? Whoa... That'll blow me to the floor for sure :) Look forward to your visits, and thanks for following :)

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  4. Like all the supporting pictures here. It makes one read through :-)

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    1. Thanks for the visit, Haddock, and glad you liked the pics. Yes, I found that too--on other blogs, the more pics, the faster I get hooked. Glad it works here, too :)

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  5. Thanks for sharing these tips, Guilie. The hardest thing is to work out what your own story is about. ;-)

    http://francene-wordstitcher.blogspot.com

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    1. Thanks for the visit, Francene! Yep, I agree--that "what's it about" kills me every time.

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  6. Well, clearly if the agent forgets a comma, it's because they're so excited that they simply didn't have time to put one in because they had to snatch you up!

    I think "querying" is a writerly word on either side of the pond. Most non-writers seem to have no idea what it means at first mention, and don't comprehend that there's this whole world of agents most of us try to tackle before getting our books to the publishers.

    That said, Maass' book (and advice in general) is great. I haven't started querying yet, but here are a few more tips I've gathered in all my research into the subject (mostly reading scores and scores of agent blogs and query critique sites):

    -Divorce yourself from the details a little bit. Find the core of the tale. Include enough to pique interest, but don't worry about making sure your agent knows every little plot point. You want to entice them to read the story to find those out for themselves. Remember that agents are reading a number of these one after the other and don't want to get bogged down in the minutiae.

    -Check with each agent's website beforehand in case they have any specific details they want in queries. Some, for example, might want the title, genre, and word count either up front or at the end. (Most probably don't care too much, as long as it's somewhere.) Then obey those rules! They're simple and there's not really any reason to break them.

    -Go look at back cover copy. This is the basic format you want, a concise and intriguing description of the book, its main players, and its plot. It's designed to sell the book to readers, and you want to sell your book to editors, so logic follows that the format should be similar.

    -At the same time, don't worry too much about spoilers. If the crux of your novel is that your protagonist discovers character A is really character B in disguise, and that affects everything that happens in the rest of the novel, go ahead and reveal that.

    It's still a daunting task! I've been looking at guidelines and researching for years and I'm still intimidated by the idea of it. Understanding the concept and being able to apply that knowledge are two different things!

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    1. Whoa, Kristin--this is an AMAZING set of tips! Thank you so much for taking the time to share here! I hope everyone else finds them as useful as I did, and you did a great job of summarizing the main gist of everything I've read on the internet. You're right--querying is still intimidating, but if we're to get our stories out there, sooner or later we need to do it. Applying the knowledge ain't easy, for sure, but it's impossible if we don't have it :)

      Thanks again--great GREAT comment!

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  7. Great post, and love the pic of all your post-it notes in it. I have this book too and refer back to it regularly.

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    1. Thanks for the comment, Sherry--glad you liked it :) Yeah, those post-its definitely color up the book, haha! I can see why you'd refer back to it often--I think it'll become standard laptop-side literature for me, too :)

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  8. I haven't started any querying process yet since I don't have anything to query yet. However, I certainly have read a lot about querying.
    I have featured your blog in my post for today.


    Lee
    An A to Z Co-Host
    Tossing It Out

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  9. Great post. I have been querying my articles lately with success! Yea. Your blog is great and I love your profile/attitude and those pictures on the blog are amazing. I'll be back! Thanks for visiting me today.

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    1. Thanks for the visit, Debra! I'm honored you liked the blog and the pics, and look forward to seeing you often, either here or at your "place" :)

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  10. I sent out all of one query letter since starting A2Z. I couldn't keep up with everything so used that as an excuse to stop. Come May 1st, my hiatus is over. Thanks for the tips!

    I still wish I could find a good resource for humor queries. I haven't had a problem finding my voice in my drafts, but I struggle with the content since I don't have a traditional story to summarize.

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    1. Ah, Cindy... I hear you. Conveying our voice in queries is probably one of the hardest parts--all these "rules" and guidelines make us sound a little like everyone else. I'm sure, like with writing, it gets better with repetition :)

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  11. Guilie,
    An interesting post. I enjoy writing about the perils and joys of writers.Thank you for stopping at my blog and it is nice to meet you.

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    1. Thanks for the return visit--I really enjoyed your blog and your attitude :) It's great to meet you, too!

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  12. Thanks for writing about Donald Maas. I like Donald Maas as well and find his suggestions useful.But the whole process of querying is fraught with frustration and uncertainty. It's no wonder writers are intimidated, for there are more writers than agents. Any personal response should be celebrated. Another tip to consider is to submit to more than one potential agent at a time. And persevere.

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    1. Thanks for the input, Beth--glad you weighed in. I agree--we definitely need to query more than one agent at a time, not just because of the "numbers game" but also because, we're much more likely then to get acceptances close together, and it will make it easier to negotiate the kind of contract we want. And indeed--perseverance is what distinguishes the chaff from golden wheat :)

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  13. I think "to query" is a writerly thing rather than American. I know British and Australian blogger writers who talk about querying, and non-writers everywhere have no clue what it means.

    Don has some good advice. I also see this line of thinking coming out strong and clear in Query Shark (which I'm sure you must have heard of).

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  14. Maass's book is on my "to be read" pile...I'm thinking I should shuffle it closer to the top. I'm on the second draft of what I consider to be my first workable novel manuscript. (Up until now, I've focused my efforts more on short stories.) Lots to think about.

    A-Z @ Elizabeth Twist

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