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Oh, god, it’s time to write a query again?

January 12, 2013 by Kiersi

Yep, it’s that time again–a new manuscript, a new query.

For me, writing a query is a long, long process; one that usually begins while the manuscript I’m querying is still in the early stages (first or second draft). There are a couple reasons for this:

1. Writing a query requires fundamentally understanding the story you’re trying to tell. When I say “query,” I’m meaning the whole shebang: the hook, the pitch, the short bio, the ass-kissing. And none of these things are possible to do well if you’re not absolutely sure of the story, the characters, and the stakes.

And it’s not just understanding the structure of these things, or what they look like, or writing them in pretty sentences–it’s also understanding their appeal.

2. Writing a query requires knowing exactly who your audience is, and what they like. You’re not just selling a story or manuscript with a query; you’re also selling who will buy it. And this is, sometimes, harder than you think.

Agents, editors, authors–they’re always giving the same advice: “Don’t write a story to match a fad. Write the story you want to tell. Write what’s in your heart.”

Great. Thank you for that piece of wisdom. But now that I’ve written the book, I need to nail down exactly the intended age group and why my manuscript is appropriate for them. Not only that, but the query itself needs to reflect this–the tone, the style, everything. I am selling a book for kids to an adult who has a vague idea of what kids want.

Is it just me, or are we all like goldfish in a swimming pool in kid lit?

3. Don’t be boring.

I… I don’t even know what to say about this. I mean…

It’s something that simply can’t be qualified in words. It’s like trying to talk in whale using only a puny human mouth. It’s like a song that’s so good it makes your arms tingle and you just can’t, for the life of you, pinpoint why.

Here’s a good example. Last night I was pow-wowing with some writery friends and one of them shared the first few lines of a successful query letter:

“I hope you would like to consider my young adult novel Linked for representation. Linked is a young adult space opera with a strong romantic sub-plot and a happy ending. It is complete at 90,000 words.”

Hook, line, and sinker. (If you want to know, this is Linked by Imogen Howson, repped by Mandy Hubbard.)

“When identical twins are born on Elissa’s overpopulated home planet, only one is given legal human status, and the other taken for “humane medical research”. Any telepathic bond does not normally survive. For Elissa and Lin, it has.

Disturbing images have haunted Elissa’s whole life.”

Not. Boring. At all. We’re given almost everything we need in three sentences–three quick sentences that don’t do any of the following:

-Follow clause after clause of info-dump,

-Hold anything back, or

-Describe in detail what can be told in three words or less.

One of my favorite things said at the pow-wow yesterday was, “There’s no such thing as a spoiler in a query. Give it all.” Don’t hold back the plot, or the character, or the stakes. There is a balance. Give just enough to get us to the “why do I care?” part, and then…

STOP.

Proceed to the awkward part where you say how great you are and why this agent is like a magical rainbow pegasus.

So, I’ve devised a couple of methods for surviving the query process.

I don’t revise.

What? No, seriously. I don’t. I don’t re-work a query letter I’ve already tried before, not unless I’m 95% happy with it. If a query letter isn’t working, it’s not because it needs a few tweaks here and there.

It’s because the whole damn thing is probably broken.

I know that sounds extreme, but bear with me. Let’s say you write a pitch and you hate it. It doesn’t come across as a life-or-death level of stakes, but more of a “Whole milk or skim?” 

Tweaking that bugger isn’t going to help. In that case, I close that particular sheet of my Scrivener file, and open a new one. A fresh, blank page.

I rewrite, instead. Sometimes the best thing you can do for yourself is admit that something doesn’t work, and start from scratch. A half-dozen false starts later, and something actually resembling an interesting, exciting query might emerge.

Even better, talk to someone else about your story. That someone else might interpret the stakes a lot differently than you do; the outside perspective can be immensely helpful when you’ve submerged yourself completely in your own understanding of the story. Sometimes that understanding is skewed or flawed because you’re the author.

So, now you can see why it takes weeks, sometimes months to write a good query letter. Sometimes the query letter grows alongside the manuscript as it reaches second and third drafts. I just try to remember that it’s OK if I throw a little fit every once in a while, throw out the whole thing, and start from scratch.

Because then the query goes from this:

“Twelve-year-old Princess Rheya is on the run after her father, the King, and her three sisters are killed by the notorious outlaw Thoreus Gray.”

To this:

“A princess usually lives in a castle, eating great banquets—not freezing to death in the Sky Mountains, worrying she’s going to become a snack for the gryphons herself.”

And we’re not even close to done!


8 Comments »

  1. Ruth says:

    Kiersi,

    I think writers’ processes are fascinating; thank you for sharing part of yours. How often do you use the toss-it-and-start-over approach for other kinds of writing?

    And how did you get permission to use those clips?

    Ruth

    • Kiersi says:

      For animated gifs–they’re so widely passed around on Tumblr, I don’t think using them matters in the grand scheme of things. Glad you enjoyed the post. I do toss a lot, actually–sometimes if a section of a manuscript doesn’t work, I’ll just throw out the whole thing, re-evaluate my goals and start over. Works really well for me because I type fast 🙂

      • Ruth says:

        I still write best with a pen in hand, though I do sometimes compose at the computer too. Either way I am slow, so I tend to revise more than toss. I wonder what technology will do to literary studies. I like reading through authors’ early drafts or having variorum editions that note changes, but with computers and their permanent erasure of first thoughts, we will have few opportunities to retain and study present authors’ evolutions.

        Ruth

  2. The best query advice I every got was to write it as your MC and in first person. Then change it to third person. What a difference! It was like writing a story instead of a query, and it got much better results as far as agent requests.

    I agree about rewriting instead of revising.

  3. FYI, I have a girl-writer crush on you. Thanks for this. And thanks for the great gifts.

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