Back to the Queries

(Have you entered the caption contest yet? You still have two days to win a drawing or a critique. Go now!)

It's been a while since I really talked about query letters. Of course, it's been a while since I've had to write them. But with Air Pirates in the gamma phase, and me ever-hopeful that I will not have to do any more major rewrites, I'm looking at my query letter again.

Queries are hard. Personally I think they're easier than synopses(eseses), but the fact remains that I have to condense four thousand score words into ten score. And for many agents, those ten score words will be the only sample of my writing they ever see.

So I do crazy things like read every single query critiqued by the Query Shark or all the successful queries posted on Guide to Literary Agents in an attempt to figure out what, exactly, agents are looking for.

Nathan Bransford says the only things to really worry about are the overall look and the description of your work. That's certainly helpful in an anxiety sense (the last query I sent him started with a rhetorical question, for example), but it doesn't help me much with actually describing the work.

There are lots of formulas (lots and lots) out there to help write a query, but in the end they're just that: helps. Just like "don't start your novel with the weather" or "don't start with the character waking up in a white room" are helps, they're suggestions for those of us who don't yet know what we're doing. But it's entirely possible to break these rules and write something great (though probably not by accident).

So query formulas help, but they don't solve the problem. Worse, if you read those successful queries I linked to above, you'll notice many don't follow any formula. So why did they work? What are agents actually looking for? Here's what I think agents want to see in a query:
  1. A story they like and can sell. Believe it or not, the query doesn't sell the work. The work sells the work -- or at least the idea does. The very best query letter in the world won't sell a bad idea. Conversely, a great idea can (sometimes) carry bad writing.
  2. The ability to write. Credentials suggest that you can write, but your query shows that you can. It's not the little mistakes that will hurt you, rather the overall appearance that you don't know the craft or don't care enough to use it in everything you write. The query letter is such a short piece, there's no excuse for slapping it together without carefully choosing each word.
  3. Voice. Writing ability is to writer's voice as a common soldier is to a samurai (or a ninja). How you say it matters just as much as what you say. Your novel probably has a voice already. It might be funny, dark, matter-of-fact, dry, silly... whatever it is, it should come out in the query, not just the sample pages.
  4. A sane person they might like to work with. You need to come across as professional, intelligent, and not a jerk. Professional means no crazy fonts or cute gimmicks. Intelligent means you've done your research and understand at least something about the industry you're trying to break in to. Not being a jerk means being humble.*
It's not a formula, but hopefully once you're done following the formulas and have a query put together, you can ask yourself if it has these things. OR you can win my caption contest, and I'll tell you!

* Not in the commonly-understood sense of spineless or self-effacing, but in the dictionary-definition sense of "a modest estimate of one's own importance."


Sara Raasch said...

I actually like(d) writing queries. For some reason the little teaser blurb of story was fun for me. It did hurt trying to get one down, but once I got a good one...oooo. Shivers. Almost as many shivers as writing a really good battle scene.

Adam Heine said...

I'll give you that, Sara. Once you've got one that works, it does feel pretty good.

AM said...

So true! Great post.

Now I want the drawing and the critique. If I win, how will I choose?