Monday, January 25, 2010

The Query: Sell Your Story Part 1

Most of us don't look forward to writing the query, but in my opinion, it's the most important part in snagging an agent or editor's attention.

This is really hitting me because I'm a judge in a contest that includes the query as part of the submission.

Brace yourselves:

Several queries were not good. Not horrible, but not anything that would entice me to read more. Imagine my surprise when some of the entries were really, really good. Solid writing, intriguing plots...yet I would've never guessed by the query.

If an agent doesn't read pages, they have nothing to go by but the query.

And if the query doesn't dazzle: form rejection.

What do you know about writing queries? Have you written yours and was it easier than you thought, or more difficult?

48 comments:

Katie Ganshert said...

Yikes, queries are tough!! So much pressure on that one little bitty page. My advice would be: sincerity, nothing fancy, follow the rules, and let your story's presmise somehow shine through.

Not easy!

Jessica said...

Good advice Katie! Writing queries hasn't been easy for me either. It's so important to know that premise and write it well.

Tamika: said...

I hear all the time how tough queries are, I'm sure I'll feel some of the same pressures soon. I still have plenty of writing to di first though!

Tabitha Bird said...

Oh I hate, HATE HATE writing queries. Even though I am not yet querying my work, I have started writing one cause I knew it would be WAAAAAY hard. And I was right. It is Way WAAAAY hard. I hate loglines and synopsis' even more. Horrid things. Evil, if you ask me :)

sherrinda said...

I haven't gotten to that stage yet and am really dreading it. I haven't even done a synopsis yet, but that is on my to-do list in February. Ha!

Donna M. Kohlstrom said...

This is when I sigh a bit of relief because I write short stories and rarely require queries. But I've read lots about how to/how not to write one and it looks as challenging, if not more, than writing the book itself!

Jennifer Shirk said...

That's so funny, because...I love writing queries. They're fun! LOL!
Now the synopsis...they're UNfun.

Krista Phillips said...

I treat queries as a business letter. I'm probably a wee bit too professional in them, but I think overall they are well written. (I've only written two real ones... one I got a pass on because my writing in my chapters stunk, and the other I got a request for a full, so I figure they aren't horrible anyway)

Jessica said...

Krista, if you're getting bites off your query, then no, I'm pretty sure they're not horrile.
:-) That's pretty awesome too. Congrats.

Jennifer, it's great you like queries! I agree, synopses STINK!

LOL Donna! I think they're challenging, but maybe only because we're so close to our stories. If the plot is strong and cohesive, then sometimes it just takes an objective viewer to be able to point stuff out about the story.

Jody Hedlund said...

How fascinating, Jessica. I'm sure you're learning so much from this experience. I think that there are some authors who just haven't taken the time to read up on queries and really try to understand what they involve--especially that they are a hook.

Jessica said...

Well have fun writing, Tamika! :)

Evil. Tabitha, I think I'm going to agree with you on that one. *grin*

February is sneaking up, Sherrinda. :-) I bet you'll do pretty good. Synopses are hard, but I've heard a lot of places that professionals just want to know where the story is going. If you capture that, then I think you're good to go.

Jessica said...

Jody, EXACTLY. They're a hook. I'm going to post about that too because that's what the query is all about.
And yeah, judging these entries is really helpful to me because I see in them so many things that I need to fix in my own work.

Emily said...

There's help out there for writing queries. I like to think Nathan Bransford's blog has a few good samples, but I'm biased because for a while, one of them was mine (though it doesn't look like that article is still up). I think a major part of the reason the query stood out to him was because I'd gotten help writing my hook at a writer's conference where I was able to get immediate feedback. That help alone made the whole conference worthwhile.

http://blog.nathanbransford.com/2008/03/query-letter-mad-lib.html

Marybeth Poppins said...

I feel like I've spent more time researching how to write a query than actually writing my book! But I know that it is THAT important.

How fun to judge a contest with them!

anita said...

It took me THREE years to learn to craft a query letter that caught agents' eyes. Two of the most important things that finally took me off the form reject list (other than learning to write an ultra short synopsis with a hook):

1. Personalize query to each agent by something they said in an interview, etc...

2. Compare your writing / books to other authors / books already out there--giving the agent an idea of where you might fit on a bookshelf.

My agency has a GREAT blog that has devoted several posts to queries from an agent's perspective: http://bookendslitagency.blogspot.com/search/label/query%20letters

Rather poetic, that it was their blog which taught me to write an eye-catching query letter ... the very query I snatched them up with. Heehee...

Sarah Forgrave said...

I haven't written a query yet, but I hope to start the process this year. One thing I've read on different agents' blogs is to make sure that the story summary has a distinct voice that matches the manuscript.

Kristen Painter said...

I used to be pretty good at writing queries, but now thankfully I don't have to write them anymore! One of the many perks of having an agent.

Wendy @ All in a Day's Thought said...

I love coming up with the hook. I've read enough on writing a query to kill a dead horse (I use that often and I'm certain it makes no sense, but it's fun for me and I'm feeling sick today so I'm allowed). ;)

Shall I call you Judge Jessica?
~ Wendy

Linda Kage said...

I just know I suck at query letter and synopsis writing. And the more I read on the topic to get better, the worse I feel about my dreary letters. It's quite a struggle.

Elana Johnson said...

I agree with some others -- what a great experience for you.

As for me, I might be hit with Coke cans, but I love writing queries. I like seeing if I can capture the voice of my novel and sum up the work in a few short sentences. I start writing my query as soon as I start writing my novel. Sometimes before. It's just that much fun for me.

*ducks*

patti said...

I haven't written a query in a long time, Jessica, but have sweat bullets over my current proposal.

My crit partner Sara LOVES writing proposals, so I lean on her--literally! That's why the team concept is SOOOo cool!
Great blog...as always.

P

T. Anne said...

I say we remove the 'u' from query so we call call it a four letter word. So your judging a contest? Tell us all about it. I would love to hear from a judges perspective on the entire process. Have fun with it!

Robyn Campbell said...

Hey great. You are de judge. COOL! And regarding queries, they are so important. And hard. But I'd rather write a query than a synopsis. It's all tough though.

My advice is to get that all important hook for your query first. The rest is easy. :)

Cindy said...

Hi, Jessica! Judging a contest sounds like fun--and a great way to learn more about your own writing.

I've written a small handful of queries in my lifetime and instead of getting easier, it's gotten harder. I think that's because I believe more in what I'm writing now than I used to and I really want it to make a good impression on agents.

I'm a big fan of keeping it simple and professional. I've learned to keep the summary short, about three sentences, that are specific enough to give the agent a true sense of how you write and what the book is about and general enough to make them want to read more. It's a fine balance.

Patti said...

Now I feel even more pressure.

KellieS said...

Hi Jessica,

I always see you at Genny's place - thought I'd say hi. I have only written one query letter that has not been sent yet. I found it nerve wracking at best. My novel is not ready, I keep telling myself. So, needless to say, I don't send the dumb letter. I'm working on learning more about the publishing game...it's complicated.

Have a good one.

Kellie

Nancy J. Parra said...

Hi Jessica, I agree, queries are tough. I know I needed a lot of practice writing them. A contest that includes them is a fabulous idea!
For anyone interested, I wrote a four part series on queries on my blog (also linked on my website.)
www.nancyjparra.com
www.nancyjparra.blogspot.com
Thanks for a great post!
Cheers~

Jill Kemerer said...

Yes, the query is important. Many writers don't realize how important it is to match the tone of the blurb to their genre. No light-hearted blurb for a thriller!

Karen Lange said...

Queries are important, but I haven't quite gotten the hang of them as much as I'd like to. But practice makes perfect, so I'll get there.

Thanks for sharing.
Blessings!

Susan J. Reinhardt said...

Hi Jess -

This is an area where I need help. More study is in order.

Blessings,
Susan :)

Jessica said...

Hi everyone,
I have sick kids so I didn't get to respond like I want to to each of you. You guys are so honest! Thanks for sharing about your queries. They're interesting, for sure.

Nancy, thanks so much for the link. I'm going to put some links up, maybe Friday or Sunday, so I'll be sure to include yours. :-)

Angie Muresan said...

The Query! What frightening words! What I would like to know is why doesn't the agent read pages? I know there isn't time, but what if there is a gem in there?

Diane said...

Nervous now how my query is. Congrats on being asked to judge.... great honor! :O)

Kristen Torres-Toro said...

Yes, I wrote one and learned the hard way (by submitting it and getting rejected) how NOT to write it. I hope to give round two the same level of valiant effort but have it be matched by an agent leaping with exultation!

Jessie Oliveros said...

Oh that dreaded query! I've been working on mine really ever since the concept for my book was created...and as my book keeps changing so does my query.

Jessica said...

Diane, actually, it's not really an honor :-) I mean, it is, but it's not personal. I'm a member of RWA and contests are always looking for judges. Pretty much anyone can do it. :) It's fun though, and really informative.

Jessie, you're funny! You'll get there. :-)

Good for you Kristen! I hope you have more success this time around. :-)

Angie, alot of agents do ask to see pages with the query and I think that's SO smart. So don't worry. If they ask to see pages and like your writing/story, then the query matters a lot less, imo.

Linda Glaz said...

One thing I found is if you can work that 25-40 word pitch (that dazzles) into the opening of your letter, you're on your way. But I would spend the time working on the pitch. Sometimes, that's as far as they read. If you catch them there, it won't matter that you're also a rocket scientist who just happens to write romance.

Natalie said...

I don't even think my queries were good in the end. Query writing was hard for me. I think I got lucky and a few agents requested, even though my queries weren't great.

Deb Shucka said...

Queries are like job interviews. So while a bit nerve-wracking, they're a chance to strut your stuff. The more comfortable you are with what you're strutting, the more natural the query.

Also, there is so much available out there about writing query letters, there's no good reason to not know what's expected.

Eileen Astels Watson said...

Queries equates to high blood pressure for me. Who's to know what will really grab the individual? It's so stressful writing those and synopsis. Okay, going back in my little hole now to forget about these nasty chores of a writer.

Julie Dao said...

Scary queries... I am so intimidated by the whole process because a query really is the clincher in whether an agent decides he/she wants to represent you. I've never been good at selling myself or my work, so it's something I'll need to work on intensively!

Nancy said...

Haven't done one yet. Last time I sent a story out, they wanted the manuscript. Or I picked the ones that would accept one. That was a while ago.

The Rejection Queen said...

I've come to learn that it doesn't matter how good the query is...and I've said it before. If they aren't intrigued by the storyline, agents don't even care.

Jessica said...

Hi Rejection Queen, but you'd agree that the query needs to present the storyline accurately and in an exciting way, right? I see what you're saying though, that the query doesn't have to be a certain formula. If the plot it shows excites the agent, then you get a request. Is that what you mean?

Jessica said...

True Linda. :-)

Natalie, I'm pretty sure mine aren't great either. *cringe* Did the agents who requested take pages with queries? Could be your query isn't as bad as you think.
:-)

Hi Nancy, wow, to a publisher? I can think of one ABA publisher who takes unsolicited fulls, but that's it. Interesting detail!

Hey Julie, DON'T worry! :-) The query is NOT the clincher when it comes to representation. It's just what they go by to ask for pages. In the end, it's your story that'll close the deal. :-)

Eileen, can I come visit your hole sometime? *grin*

Jessica said...

Hey Deb,
You're very right. The information out there is amazing. It's good to strut our stories, definitely. :-)

Karen Amanda Hooper said...

I agonize over queries. I think I have 20 different versions for my first novel. My new WIP already has a couple running drafts but the story isn't finished yet so I can't stress to much about the query yet.
Ya never get a second chance to make a first impression.

Jessica said...

Karen, that is so, so, so true. First impressions last a long time.
Hope you have an awesome time in NY!