Sunday, August 27, 2006

A Query


One of the basic formulae for the Query Letter is thus:

1. Give them the title, genre and word count. State that the MS is complete.
2.About 250 words of brief synopsis, blurb style. Try to name the main characters and suggest the conflict.
3. Your credentials and publishing credits. Platform potential.

Of course, one should always include preliminary and closing courtesies, reminders ("you requested"), references ("Mr. Big Name suggested"), and assorted obeisances, grovellings and suckages.
Try to keep the last items down. They've seen them all.

Other addenda may be comparisons (tricky) market slot ( refined genre identification), unique hooks, MS disposal, SASE mention, etc.

This is the standard business form for a one page query.

It's the third main paragraph that gives me the willies.
Because many "credentials" are subject to mis-interpretation without suitable and excessive explanation or worse, a simple statement may produce an erroneous conclusion in a jaded agent's mind.

Let's say I mention that I am a Conyers descendant. Instead of an agent thinking "Ah, potential genealogical market, publicity hook," they might well think, "Ack, a dreary, dry, awkward family history disguised as fiction." Believe me, there are novels out there like that making the rounds.

If one mentions one's degrees with the intention of indicating marginal literacy and a capacity for accurate research, I always wonder if the agent will brace themselves, instead, for pretentious clap-trap and/or assume one proposes something literary - which they may not rep.

Am always grateful when agents like Ms. Nelson and Lit Agent X discuss or summarize queries. Amazing how many tired, over-done and repetitious themes cross an agent's desk.
Makes one glad that the Falchion is not a magic sword and that Damie has no ambitions to save the world.
On the other hand, considering the present plethora of prophecies, artifacts, jewels and other magical objects that seem central to many plots, one wonder if one should mention the Falchion at all, for fear of being lumped in with that lot.
One must govern one's query according to an agent's mind-set.
Thoughts?

13 comments:

Ric said...

third paragraph of my query letter:

For ten years, I was a featured columnist in the Flint Journal (circ. 120,000) writing about growing up on the farm in the ‘60's as well as topical items. I have a BA in English, have been an editor, writer, columnist, small business owner.

What does it really say? Reading between the lines.

Able to write - according to my newspaper editors, they see lots and lots of folks wanting to be columnists - but they only have two or three good columns and then hit a wall, unable to go on. Ten Years is a helluva run - shows the ability to sit down, week after week, day after day, and create a good column. The circ numbers are to indicate this is not a column in a small town paper - only read by retired school teachers and bored cats.

The second line is intended to show a breadth of experience, to indicate a breadth of knowledge and curiosity - good attributes for a writer.

I might be wrong. Any suggestions?

S. W. Vaughn said...

Queries suck.

Okay, so that's not very helpful.

Evil Editor says it's okay to leave off the credentials paragraph entirely, and merely get the agent and/or editor interested by dint of the subject matter alone.

Does that help? :-)

kmfrontain said...

I've got to admit, I don't really give a shit about credentials in a query letter, seeing as how I started with virtually none myself. Sure it would help to know there's a platform to build on, in terms of previous publishing history, but education doesn't always show skill. I don't have a degree in literature, for example. I just happen to be good at grammar -- most of the time (hee hee). A good hook in the query and the story excerpt itself will decide it for me in the end

Bernita said...

I think it's an excellent third paragraph, Ric.

One should certainly leave it off in some cases, Sonya.
My credits are non-fiction, so I just mention that bare fact.
If one has excellent credits, some suggest those be cited in the first paragrapg, rather than at the end.
I do agree that the treatment of the subject matter is the most vital paragraph.

Yes, Karen, there are times when a degree is of absolutely no advantage to a query.
Think the substance of the third paragraph is to support, reinforce, or authenticate the story line.

Daisy Dexter Dobbs said...

Having had experience working in various aspects of the publishing industry over the years, I’m happy to share what I’ve learned about seeking agent representation or contacting an editor.

The less extraneous information in a query letter the better. A brief, professional, well-written and to the point query focusing on what makes the writer’s work marketable, while giving a glimpse of the writer’s voice works well in attracting an agent’s attention.

The letter should contain nothing cute, silly or boastful, exclaiming the writer’s magnificent skills and virtues. Do NOT include: colorful paper; red envelopes; fancy fonts; clipart; photos; folksy information about family, hobbies or how much everyone claims to love your writing; cliffhangers; grammatical errors; coffee stains.

Credentials are incidental unless they pertain specifically to the work in question. A string of impressing PhDs doesn’t matter a single iota if the talent isn’t there.

Writers serious about the business end of their craft will take the time and make the effort to learn about each individual agent queried and what the agent does and does not want to see--and how they do or do not want to see that information presented in a query. Follow the rules, do not assume. Include only and exactly what is expected according to their guidelines.

Never presume, due to its inherent informality, that email communication should be any less professional than the more traditional method of hard copy correspondence. In fact, never contact an agent or editor via email unless they’ve stipulated that it’s permissible.

I recommend Jeff Herman's Guide to Book Publishers, Editors & Literary Agents (annual, I believe) and, to a lesser extent, Guide to Literary Agents by Writer’s Market as helpful guidebooks. There are many fine how-to books and articles available for writing professional, attention-getting queries. A wise writer will take the time to do this valuable research in advance of first contact.

The query (and accompanying sample chapters, if included) is a writer’s golden opportunity to demonstrate skill, style, professionalism and ability to hook a reader (the agent or editor in this case). It’s amazing how many writers don’t bother to make the most of this prospect. A professional package will make a writer and his/her query stand out like a beacon in the sea of slush.

My apologies for making this so terribly long and wordy, Bernita (and Bernita’s readers). NEVER be this verbose in your communications with a prospective agent or editor! LOL

Rick said...

I lean toward skipping the credentials para, unless you have relevant ones - and for fiction, not much is relevant. A fiction track record, certainly; nonfiction, I'm not so sure.

Ric's para can't hurt, but I'm not sure it helps much, either. The five-odd pages will give the agent a sense of whether you can write, and a finished ms shows that if you can write, you can follow through and finish a project.

Bernita, I agree on hesitating to mention your family tie - my first thought would be "this person is obsessed with kindasorta famous ancestors." Again, nonfiction might be different, but a novel's primary market will be readers with no family connection (or who don't know of one).

Bernita said...

Thank you, Daisy, for confirmation of common sense.
You are not verbose, but succinct.Nicely condensed.

I tend to agree, Rick, about strictly non-fiction credentials.
What's an article in the Vegetarian Times have to do with the 12th century,just as an example.
Ric's, I think, along with the circulation and length of tenure do indicate a popular appeal. Familiar essays of the columnist type may fall in a gray area between fiction and non-fiction.
The bench mark of any query is ultimately its response - requests for partials and fulls.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

Well there's nothing left to say, everyone came up with good conclusions!

I'd say everybody should be ready to turn in a query for the Crapometer next week when Miss Snark huals it back to the Big Apple!

S. W. Vaughn said...

Woo hoo!

*waves to Karen*

I get to brag -- Karen is my editor at WCP, and she totally ROCKS!

Sorry to interrupt. Carry on. And fear Miss Snark's return. :-)

Bernita said...

Yes, Bonnie, I'm forever grateful to Miss Snark for her first Crapometer advice.

~cuffing Sonja~
All one has to do is read Karen's blog and her posts to know that she..er.."rocks."
Like, totally.

kmfrontain said...

Somebody is talking about me. My ears are burning.

Hey! Sonja! :grin: Thank you for the compliment. And you too, Bernita!

Didn't Daisy's comment just hit it dead on for query letters? That was the conclusive professional answer.

SassyJill said...

Yikes, you mean I'm supposed to actually have writing experience if I ever to hope to be a writer?

Good thing I like my day job ^_^*

Bernita said...

Of course, pub credits help.
The advice is if you don't have pub credits, or credits that are only in the community ( pop. 2,000)newspaper or the church bulletin, leave 'em off, don't apologize, don't explain.