Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Query Quandary

Mention queries, and writers of all ages sprout a few more gray hairs.  The first rule of #AskAgent chats on Twitter is No Query Questions.  I haven't yet come across a writer who looks forward to writing one or an agent who adores slogging through hundreds of them to find a few gems.  (If you're out there, give a shout.)  [EDIT: Cat likes writing them, just not sending them.  So there's at least one out there.]

No one (or almost) really likes them, but I get why they fall under the "necessary evil" category.  And it's not like there aren't resources out there to help - enough blogs to overload anyone's browser, for starters.

Even with all that help, we struggle.  After doing my best to help critique several queries on AgentQuery Connect and overhauling my own query for the umpteenth time, I thought about what makes it so difficult.  Boiling a novel-length plot down to a couple hundred words isn't easy, obviously.  But what - above all else - stands in the way?

They say the devil's in the details.  I contend that the devil's in determining the depth of the details.  (How's that for alliteration?)

Boil down the plot too much, and you get something like this:

An orphan boy discovers he has unexpected power and is the Chosen One who must battle ultimate Evil.

Could be Harry Potter.  Or Star Wars.  Or possibly dozens of other fantasy works.

More often, though, I think we tend to go to the opposite extreme, thinking every nuance of the story is essential if the agent or editor is to understand the plot.  Try this (exaggerated) example:

Milton Dauntless, a shy thirteen-year-old boy with a faithful Chihuahua-Corgi mix named Gargantuar, discovers his parents, Darwina and Ted, weren't killed in the famous So-So Steakhouse food poisoning scandal of '99 as he'd been told all his life by Grandma Gertie.  In fact, his father was killed by the evil vampire lord Vladindeath, who has secretly ruled the underworld ever since defeating the werewolf clans seven hundred fifty-two years ago.  As the sole survivor of the powerful Dauntless clan, Milton must now learn to harness the power of the Crystal of Purity, find out what happened to his mother when she escaped the bloodbath of her husband's murder with her long-lost brother Sherman, and defeat the vampires once and for all.

(Okay, that was kind of fun.)

That one is obviously bogged down in excess detail, including irrelevant backstory and too many names.  (See my earlier musing on the issue of Name Soup.)

Here are some of my conclusions, and I hope others will add to them.

Get Enough Detail
  • The whole point of the query is to show an agent or editor what makes your story stand out from the others.  Part of this can be through voice.  But these days, if you're writing about vampires or angels, for example, you've got to show your unique twist.
  • Make it memorable and leave them wanting more.  Again, the point of the query: get a request for more material.
  • Include details that are snappy, quirky, or unexpected ... without belaboring the point.

Don't Overdo the Detail
  • R.C.'s Personal Rule of Thumb: Anyone who won't be mentioned by name again in the query shouldn't be named at all.
  • Avoid backstory.  Plenty of time (and more creative ways) to incorporate it into the manuscript itself.
  • Axe details that can leave the reader saying, "Why should I care about that?"  For example, knowing all of that about Milton's dog doesn't really tell us anything substantial about the character (except maybe that he has a silly sense of humor when it comes to naming pets) or the plot.

It's a thin line to walk between too much and too little.  No wonder so many of us find it so difficult.

Do you have any pointers for finding that perfect balance?



Cheryl said...

Nice post, RC!

Calista Taylor said...

Nice post, RC! It really is important to find that balance.

I'd also add that you need to grab the reader's attention and leave them wanting more.

Another important part is for the query to have voice, and for it to be similar to the style in your novel. If the voice in your novel is fun and light, don't write a query that's serious.

But the true test for whether you got it right is your request rate when you start querying. If it's not around 20%, then it's back to the query drawing board.

R.C. Lewis said...

Calista, definitely. Getting voice in there was tricky for me at first. Something about the idea of writing a query kept putting me in "professional business letter" mode, which tends to make me all formal.

Anonymous said...

The longer I hang about AQ and the more of my friend secure representation, the more convinced I become that a good query is like obscenity -- hard to define but we all know it when we see it.


Anonymous said...

Litgal--I love your comment. I don't think you can put a finger on what works or what doesn't, because it is different for every story. But, when you see a great query, you know it.

Cali, good point on the voice. I firmly believe that to represent your query in a way that will garner agent interest, but that doesn't share the same style, voice, etc as your manuscript, is shorting both you and the agent. My philosophy: why waste time if you're afraid they'll dislike the style of your manuscript? I'd like to get that out of the way before the second date.

And, RC, I love writing queries. I just hate sending them!

R.C. Lewis said...

Cat, I'm glad *someone* likes writing them. ;)

And I definitely agree with Litgal. But I think a good query is one of those things that's easier to describe what it isn't, at least to a degree. Isn't five pages long, doesn't spend three paragraphs quoting your mother extolling the virtues of your writing, doesn't include the sentence "If you don't sign me, you'll be the one missing out" ...

Cat's right that some things are closer to the gray area, though. I think with this post I'm hoping to clarify what the target is during the query-writing process, but the exact location of the bull's-eye will vary by project.

RKLewis said...

I always, ALWAYS think of the query as a sales tool, first and foremost. If you start to think of it in this context, it becomes a bit easier: What are the key elements of a good sales letter? A couple would be emphasis and also emotional words. In a sales letter, you want to get their attention, then pique their interest, then activate their desire to ask for more, then get out as fast as possible while they're still wanting.
The same thing you want to do in a query. I think sometimes the word query makes writers think synopsis for some reason. And a query is not that, for sure.
Anyway... awesome post, RC!!! :-)

Anonymous said...

If a query can garner a request for a read by asking "wanna see it?" then it's clear that there are no rules.


R.C. Lewis said...

RK, I've always thought of a query that way, too, but it only intimidates me more. I've never thought of myself as having salesperson skills. But I'm learning, I hope.

Pete ... boo. :-P Probably true, though.

Anonymous said...

Query writing is no fun, but it's worth it to work on it until it shines.

I have an award for you over on my blog, if you'd like to stop by to collect it. :)

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