Monday, October 10, 2011

The Art of the Query Letter

This is for the writers out there who have a manuscript -- or will have one soon -- ready to start submitting to agents or publishers. One of the requisites is a query about the project, which is part sales letter and part demonstration of writing ability. For many, writing this single page is far more stressful than writing the entire book.

I recently saw an ad for a class being taught by someone who made the critique blog rounds with their query a couple of years ago. The first version I saw was, shall we say, not very good. The critiquers came through with some really brilliant and considered advice to help improve it.

The query then started popping up on other crit sites, revised for the better each time. By its fifth public version, the query had gone from bland to spectacular. In fact, when version 5.0 appeared on one agent's query critique site, the agent didn't just ask for pages, she demanded them. While THAT agent didn't take on this author, another did. (It's been a few months now and the ms that snagged the agent hasn't sold yet, but they are pressing forward and working on other projects together.)

What's important to this conversation is not the revelation that getting an agent doesn't always translate into a book sale to a publisher (although that's a reality we all need to keep in our back pockets) or that people actually get paid to critique queries, it's that this person put their ego aside and learned from the critiques. Now those early versions were beaten, kicked, shredded, gutted and left a bloody mess. It took courage to subject those attempts to public pummeling -- not once or twice but multiple times. And it took bull-headed determination to get that query to the point where it had agents begging for more.

I have tons of respect for writers so willing to learn.

So, in easily digestible form, here are the takeaways from today's sermon:
  • It generally takes several revisions to get a query to the point it can do its work well.
  • Query writing is a skill that can be learned (some writers will always be better at it than others, just as some people are better at writing brilliant marketing pieces than they are at writing technical documents, but if you have any kind of general writing skill, you can learn to write a good query)
  • You have to be able to filter conflicting advice and choose what works best for your unique style and voice.
  • While feedback is subjective and you might easily ignore advice you only hear once, if several people are piling on over the same issue, realize it's a "you, not them" problem and CHANGE IT.
  • Initial drafts (plural) usually suck.
  • There is no one way to write a query; even the pros in the biz differ on length, ingredients, and spoilers.
  • Listening to conflicting industry advice and trying to cater to every conflicting "rule" out there is a sure way to madness. Pick a style that works for you and do your darnedest to perfect it.
  • The same people you're thinking of paying for advice might well be the same people who learned for free -- the same way you can learn for free.
  • Whether you pay for advice or not, be sure to solicit multiple opinions and not rely on any one person's blessing or evisceration.
  • Even a killer query can't overcome a story that isn't perceived as marketable (go back and read that one again -- it's important).
  • Pay it forward -- once you've learned the skill, pop on the critique boards and help others hone their skills as well.
Phoenix's 5 Stages of Query Writing
Version 1: It might need a little tweaking but it can't be that bad. (Oh, but it is.)

Version 2: Ouch. But OK, I've cleaned up the stuff readers had issues with and it really is better. (Uh-oh, new issues have been introduced.)

Version 3: OK, I am going to meticulously answer every reader's concern and concentrate on exactly that and nothing else because, frankly, I'm getting pretty frustrated over all of this. (Only now, the query has lost its voice and, somewhere, the story's tight plot and style.)

Version 4: Ah, now I see that I can leave out some of those problematic issues completely and the query experience for the reader will actually be improved. Less really IS more. (And it is. Often, V4 is a complete re-envisioning of the query, with a cleaner feel and fewer plot points and characters.)

Version 5: Gah, how could I have misspelled THAT and not seen it until now? (Final grammar check, but it's now ready for submission.)

It's never too early to start writing your query. In fact, writing the query before you even write the book can help keep you focused on the major themes you envision for the story.

One caveat: It may well take 10 or more revisions to get to "Version 5." That's normal. But revising ad infinitum can become a habit or a stonewalling tactic. At some point you need to call it, stop revising and send that puppy out. Because the only query sure to get rejected is the one that doesn't get submitted.

Phoenix Sullivan's short stories have appeared in various pro anthologies and magazines. In the corporate world, Phoenix was a professional writer and editor for 23 years. Before that, she was a registered veterinary technician, working with small animal clinics and wildlife rehab centers. She taps that knowledge in SECTOR C, a near-future medical thriller with a vet heroine, a CDC analyst hero and a pandemic that crosses both species and time.

No comments: