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The Query

            I really shouldn’t be writing about this, because Lord knows mine isn’t done yet, and I have trouble summarizing an article, let alone a 65k+ book, but the fact of the matter is we all have to write it, one way or another if we want our manuscripts to hit a publishers desk. Well, I haven’t decided, but I’m working on one anyway.

            So where to start? The internet people. Just start with googling “how to write a query.” You will find a wealth of information, right, wrong, and out of date, but it’s there and I dare anyone to tell me it’s not. I met a writer at a conference who said she had no information on the query letter and I rolled down all the sites; querytracker, agentquery.net, absolute write forums. I names agents who had helpful stuff on their site and she said, “No. I checked all that stuff. It didn’t help.” My response? “….. Really?” o_O.

            I have to say if none of that stuff helped at all, then she either got discouraged, is just being lazy, or got lost in the shuffle of different opinion which is what I’m suspecting and there are a lot of them. But the advice you can get on queries on the internet is just like writing advice. It depends on the person you’re talking to, the genre they represent, the personality of the agent, and a whole bunch of other variables.

The only real way to discern is to dive in head first and start writing one. It’s going to be horrible. I guarantee it, but you have to start somewhere and sitting around unsure because you’re confused is not the way to start. Anything to do with writing is OJT (on the job training), and you can read about it as much as you want, but execution is not easy.

            My point? Get started now, even though you’re nowhere near done editing the novel. Then go post it on a password secure forum so people can help critique it and don’t have too much pride about your writing that you don’t take sound advice. This is critical? Why?

            Because a query can expose weaknesses in execution, structure, pacing, genre, characterization, and more. It really is like a test for your style of writing and ability to execute, like a sifter. While I admit, this process can get the really good writers tossed to the side because some people are just bad at summarization (like me), it has to be mastered if you want an agent or editor to look at your manuscript. So here are some tips:

            1) Start your query where your story starts. I don’t mean literally of course. Don’t start with the first page, but I mean to start where the story kicks off into action and hopefully that happens within the first ten pages. If not that, hopefully your story starts at the second chapter. Doing this forces you to treat your story the same way. If you’ve got three chapters of back story before any of the important stuff happens. That means you need to go back and kill some of your darlings.

            2) Not too much set up. That means we don’t need to know what happened twenty years ago if the event in your story happened twenty years later. Start twenty years later.

            3)Avoid redundancy and explanation. You’ve got roughly 250 words to summarize your entire novel, a little more or a little less depending on the agent. Don’t waste words explaining what terms mean (that’s especially true in rural fantasy) and repeating points made. I have that problem. So don’t feel bad. It’s a waste of words, words that you can be using to tell more about your story.

            4) Show, don’t tell. Yeah. In a past post about this I said there are cases for both. The query is the case where you want to show how compelling, action packed and fast paced your novel is, not tell the agent. A million books can be described with that.

            5) Focus on one character’s point of view and the main conflict. If you have three main characters, focus on the one that you think is most important or will work best to get you story across and mention the other two like this: so and so is a 75k novel told from three points of view.  Also, stay to the mains story. If your main story is about a girl who has to defeat the evil sexist maniac who wants to make women slaves, then focus on that story, not the fact that the girl is falling hard for a hot older guy who wants to help her fight unless it directly propels the main plot somehow.

            6) It’s a summary, not a synopsis. Yes there is a difference. A synopsis gives away all the main points, and takes you step by step into what happens in the novel and even gives away the end. A summary is a concise short overview of what happens in the main plot by telling a few of the main events and setting up the stakes and what the readers want.

            Above all, the query is supposed to make the agent want to read your novel. So if you break all the rules and it gets the job done, don’t worry about it. You’ve accomplished your goal.

Helpful Websites

A note on forums: Be careful on forum critiques. They’re helpful, but everyone has a different opinion. If ten people are saying the same thing, it’s probably advice to heed. If nine people say it’s good, but one person has a problem, you’re good to go. You can’t satisfy everyone. A seventy percent “ok” rating give or take a few is good enough unless we’re talking about a former or current editor. Listen to those!

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Ann Elise said...

I have a hell of a problem with writing query letters. I have at least fifteen revisions lying around somewhere, and I'm still not satisfied. I did use critique forums at some point, but found I was unable to live up to their expectations so I've gone back to keeping my work close to my chest.

~Charity~ said...

Great advice. Query letters are horrible to write, but they must be done. My biggest problem is writing the query more like a synopsis.

Lady Dae said...

@Ann Elise: Yeah... That's why I put the note about forums. It can be a rough ride with them and I habitually tell writers that at some point it's fine to ignore advice and use what you have.

@charity: I feel your pain...