Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Don't Knock The Query

When I first started trying to get published, I had a particular loathing of the query letter. Heck, who doesn't? It seems ludicrous to think a one-page summary could possibly represent your book.

Now? Well, I've joined the dark side, guys. I know. Sorry. But the thing is, the query is an incredible, useful tool, and maybe not in the way you think.

Essentially, the query is a test. It tests your writing on every level—prose, plot, and character. It tests your knowledge of your own story, and you would be surprised how many writers don't actually understand the structure of their book (I would have been included in this a couple years ago).

And, hopefully, if your query passes the tests, your manuscript should as well. This is why you should be writing your queries. This is why you may not find the success you'd like if you're getting a ton of outside help on your query—because when you get requests the agent sees that your skill in the MS does not match that in the query.

So, what do you need to know to pass the test? I have a few suggestions:

1. Your Plot Arc
Not just your plot, but how it progresses and which points are the most crucial. You need to know what triggers the story, what complicates it, where the action peaks, and how it's resolved. Ideally, you should know the arcs for all the elements in your book—you do not have just one arc! There's an overall arc, but there are also character arcs that should line up roughly with your plot arc.

2. Character Stakes
You need to know why this story is important to the characters in it. What will happen if they succeed? If they fail? How do they grow? What do they learn? What do they stand to gain or lose? What is their motivation for embarking on the journey in the first place? Does their motivation change at any point?

The answers to those questions make us care about the plot. You could have an action-filled plot that's perfect structurally, but if we don't care about the characters and what they want it just. doesn't. matter.

3. Prose and Voice
Your query is like a snapshot of your writing and voice (also why you should be writing your own). We all have a unique voice—our "It Factor." When an agent is reading, they're looking for this connection, along with your mastery over writing. Awkward phrasing or unnecessary words may be clues to what they'll find in the MS. A voice that pops right off the page probably will in the MS, too. When you are confident in your writing and voice, it shows.

So don't knock the query. Learn to appreciate it, because you'll never stop writing them. My job today? To write a synopsis for TRANSPARENT. And guess what I'm writing first to get a good outline for that synopsis? Yup, a query. That way I will have a clear snapshot of my plot and characters, making it easier for me to focus on the essential elements in the synopsis.

This is kind of an overview, you think I should go into each point over the week? I will if you guys want.


  1. *sob* It's true! Trying to write a query exposed a lot of problems. I've already written a query about my next novel. (Posted it this morning, in fact.) It was so easy to do! And fun! (!!)

  2. I may be terrified of queries but I can see the reason for having them.

    I personally would love it if you could go over each of those points in depth this week.

  3. I'd love for you to go over each point. I'm so terrible at writing queries. The scary thing is that it seems like I'm getting worse with each attempt. Alas.

  4. I'd love to hear more of your thoughts on those individual points, too! This is super timely because I'm going to a conference this weekend…not that I'll be querying there, technically, but thinking in depth about structure seems like it will help me be able to clearly describe my novel to others. Good luck with your synopsis!

  5. Queries are important but I'm still holding on to the firm belief that they are evil - one that I must defeat! (aka write a great query.)

  6. I JUST finished the rough draft of my query letter last night so YES. Please query away. Heck, use mine to critique.

  7. Yes, queries are painful, but necessary. If you want to be a published writer, it's just something you have to do. And often, it does help show what issues you have to fix in your story too.

  8. Teach us Ninja Master. We will follow thy ways!

  9. YES! If anyone could make it less painful, it would be you! *blinking puppy-dog eyes*

  10. Great post. Query writing is an art form, but I can see the point for it.

  11. Queries are mean initially, but I found that once you step away and look at your work objectively, you're able to write a good one. Important to know thought, that because publishing is so objective, a great query may still not work for ALL agents.

  12. Great post!
    Anthony Burgess said that writing a query is like trying to play all the notes of a symphony with two fingers.

    But queries are important- which agent has the time to wade through multiple pages of a synopsis or sample chapters?

  13. Writing a query is somewhat like the first time I jumped off the high board as part of passing a swimming test. I was 33 yr. old at the time, and was finally learning to swim. I looked down at all the very-young lifeguards who were cheering for me. At least they weren't sharks. Keeping the Q's going out. Susan

  14. Sometimes when I feel a bit lost with my WIP, I just write another query. Just for fun. I suppose it doesn't feel that scary when I write it without intending to send it, but each time it gets better.

    My favorite thing that comes from this? I notice that in my query, I'll point out unique and interesting events to show my book is...well, unique and interesting. I then realize that I don't want to glaze over those events at all. They're in my query, so I better deliver. So then, my most important scenes end up receiving additional development.

    Queries can be fun!

  15. Okay, I don't think I'll ever LOVE writing query letters, but I WILL use your tips and perhaps not despise them as much as I once did. I especially like the "character stakes" bit. I need to include more of that!

    Best of luck with your query!

    Erin @ Quitting My Day Job

  16. Yes please. Point by point.

    Thanks for sharing all of your knowledge. Really.

  17. Would love to hear more of your thoughts. I also wonder if there's a better time of month/year to query agents when they're not as buried in the slush. I've read that good queries can sometimes get missed after sifting through the slushpile too long.

  18. Great attitude toward the query. I have to admit that it took me over 40 hours to get mine right. And I was a little frustrated since I write most letters as an attorney in 20 minutes or less. But you are right, it's so important to get it right.

  19. I've found that writing a query before you've even finished the book, can help you define your story. It ensures important elements are there and that the story makes sense.

  20. Grrr. Not happy with my query right now. Another rejection and I'm wondering if it's personal preference of the agents or if something's off in the query. Why don't you do a blog feature where you read our manuscripts and write the query for us? I'd comment every day for a year for that!

  21. Great points. I was just reworking my query last night after a long break, and insight is much appreciated. Good luck with your synopsis!

  22. Yeah, when I started working on my query I realized how many things weren't working with my plot...

    I had to reshape my book to match my query--kind of weird but it did a lot of good.

    It's definitely an important exercise to do, no matter where you are in your story.

  23. I agree with you! I believe queries are important for the author and the story. Very helpful post!

  24. I hear what you're saying, but I'm not sure if it's always true for everyone (like most advice when it comes to writing).

    I don't have a problem with any of the things mentioned. I know my plot arcs and my character conflicts. I can express them. I have a distinctive voice.

    But I'm an anti-salesperson. It has always been true. I hated fundraisers - I had to buy the products all myself.

    Even my most rabid writing supporters lift a shoulder and say "meh" when they read the query. The excitement, the enthusiasm, the charm I can portray as a character in a novel gets lost somewhere when I try to sell the book. I can't begin to tell you how frustrating that is.

    However, does one necessarily negate the other. Does an inability to sell something mean it's no good (even if both sales and book require writing skills). Advertising writing and telling-a-story writing aren't the same skills.

    I just don't know. I know that being a bad test taker doesn't mean you don't know the subject. I'm not sure that being a poor salesperson/querier negates you being a good storyteller, even if the two are linked generally.

    I will admit, however, that being a poor salesperson is hardly a selling point for a prospective agent or publisher.

  25. Stephanie Barr, I see what you're saying, but I don't think it's a salesperson skill. I know, feel free to disagree, but I am quite the sucky salesperson myself—and I certainly dread telling people they should read my stuff—and I can write a query because I know what's required.

    If people are saying "meh" to your query, then I'm gonna take a guess and say that you aren't conveying the "stakes" well enough. I'll be talking about this all week, so I hope I can help a little.

  26. Stephanie Barr:

    If you think of a Query as a sales pitch, that might be why you're having "Meh Moments." We don't try and sell our books. We let the story do that for us.

    A query is like a short (really short) story in and of itself. It should have an inciting incident, rising conflict, character development...

    Now obviously you can't include as much detail in your query as you have in your novel. You have to hint, and tease, and seduce.

    But thinking of it as a short story, with the same structure as a novel, should really help to put things in perspective.

    It might not make it any easier (writing a novel is hard work) but it should help you to wrap your head around the job :).

  27. Le sigh.

    I know what you're saying. I do. I NEVER used to think of it as salespersonage. I've been reading query shark religiously for months, honing and focusing on all those elements.

    My loyal readers hear and go, 'meh' - I wouldn't want to read it from that description (even though it's accurate) if they hadn't already read and loved the book. My husband (who also loves the book but hates the query) puts something together that is effectively a sales pitch and bypasses the rules (plot arc, character development) and they say, "That's it!"

    Note that my loyal readers are really good about telling me when something stinks.

    I appear to have a fundamental short in my brain that precludes formulating a good query. I love Natalie's query samples she put up before though, so maybe something will spark something in my brain from her comments. I look forward to reading them. I hate that I'm so bad at doing this.

  28. Correction: "They" wouldn't want to read it from the description (even though it's accurate and contains all the key elements) . . . should never change half a sentence without editing the first half.

  29. Sounds like a really good idea! (going into each of the points that is.)

    And I have to agree, a one page summary is the best way to hone in on the important details of the work, the big main things that show how it works.

  30. Nice post. Great discussions afterwards.
    I'm going to dig my query out of the fireplace and see if I can save it. Thanks.

  31. Sometimes when I'm still developing the story, I'll write a mock query to see if I have a plot, conflict, etc.

  32. Here I am "home of the pooch-smooching query" and I know it. I have over 40 versions - all of them are fine - but It is my weakest skill. I will learn - and make fun of them along the way - but it is as frustrating as a shoe made for people who only have three toes - it's pointy, sharp and blister's will follow. grin.
    Thanks for the tips and Yes we would love more!