Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Querulous Query

By Beth Terrell

I've been writing query letters. I have no idea if they're good queries or bad queries. The only thing I can say with any confidence is that I've learned a lot by writing them.

Query. It sounds innocuous and very civilized. Like something Winnie the Pooh might say to Christopher Robin. A one-page query. How difficult could it be?

First up is the brief paragraph explaining why you chose the particular agent you're querying. This paragraph is designed to show the agent that you are a Serious Writer who has done his or her homework and should therefore be considered more closely than all those other hacks who are sending in queries. You get brownie points if this paragraph mentions one or two of the agent's clients whose work is similar to your own.

Some agents make this easy by putting their full client lists on their websites and keeping the lists updated (God bless them). Some expect you to figure this out on your own. I recently read a comment from an agent saying that if she hasn't sold anything by a given author in the past two years, she probably isn't representing that author anymore and doesn't appreciate having him or her referenced. So even if you did your homework, you lose brownie points if it's outdated. Sometimes you find lists, but they don't match other lists about the same agent. I don't know how to advise you on this. Choose the one that's the most reputable and recent. If they're not the same, I'd go for the most reputable. Or do more research. But when you've exhausted your resources (Publishers Marketplace, Preditors and Editors, Agent Query, the agent's website--and blog, if applicable, the acknowledgements page in books that are similar to yours, etc.), you may just have to guess. Your dream agent will understand.

Oh yes. Some agents want this paragraph at the beginning of the query. Some want it at the end. Some want you to jump right into the "plot summary" paragraph (discussed below) and give all the niceties later. But others feel insulted if you don't do the personal stuff first. Try to find out what you can about the agent you're querying and then hope for the best.

Now you're ready for your "plot summary" paragraph, the one where you take those 400 to 500 pages of your masterpiece and distill them into one paragraph. Not just any paragraph, but a tightly-written, scintillating paragraph the sheer beauty of which could stun the very gods (or at least an overworked literary agency intern, which is pretty much the same thing, right?).

Put in lots of specific details, but not too many, because that would be boring and might also result in a lack of clarity. Clarity is important. You have to choose exactly the right details to show that your book has depth and complexity and suspense enough to enthrall readers, keeping them on the edge of their seats. You have to convince an agent that you're not just a competent writer, but the one who is going to knock their socks off. Use short sentences.

But not too short.

And not too long. If your sentences are too long, the agent will assume your manuscript is bloated. Too short, and they'll think it's too simplistic. Think of this paragraph as a postcard by which you will tantalize the agent into booking a trip to your literary world. If your postcard/paragraph isn't perfect, the agent will send you a beautiful rejection. Don''t think of that as pressure. No, really, just don't think. Cover your eyes and write.

Two paragraphs down, one to go. This is the one where you put your credentials, why you are the one and only person who can write this book of staggering genius. (But don't SAY it's a work of staggering genius. You lose more brownie points for that.) This is a very important paragraph. You have to create the perfect balance between humility and confidence. You have to seem personable but not too chatty, professional but not a stick-in-the-mud, easy to work with but never, ever desperate. This is not the place to talk about how many pets you have, or how you have the world's largest collection of Mickey Mouse stamps (unless your book is about a Mickey Mouse stamp collector). It's not the place to talk about how you always wanted to be a writer, even as a tiny tyke. Should you mention writers' organizations to which you belong? I have no idea. Some agents say yes, it lets them know you take your writing seriously, and others say no, that's the sign of an amateur. I'd take a middle ground here and only include them if you hold an office or have a title of some kind. But that's just me. Your best bet, as always, is to research the particular agent you're sending the query to.

Because the most important thing I've learned about queries is that different agents want different things. Some of them are generous enough to tell us on their blogs or websites. Others...well, I'd like to think the ones who don't put preferences out there are the ones who don't sweat the small stuff. After all, writers aren't mind readers. But I may be being overly optimistic. Agents get hundreds of queries a week. They can afford to be capricious.

Where, then, can we get guidance? Nathan Bransford has a wonderful blog in which he graciously offers specific advice about the kind of queries he likes (and he has a lot of great information about publishing in general--how to write a synopsis, how to write a query, and so on). On Query Shark, authors send in their queries to be critiqued, and an agent explains why they do or don't work. Jessica Faust has a good blog, and there are a number of other very good agent blogs out there.

So do your homework. Do your best. And then stop worrying.

After all, it's just a one-page query. How hard can it be?

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