Thursday, May 31, 2007

Bird Watching

The Falconer,
Fresco from the Ermita de San Baudelio, Soria, Spain,
c. 1125-1150.
Cincinnati Art Museum.

People may be "born story-tellers," but they are seldom born story-writers.

Writing is a skill. One learned by training, practice and study.

As usual, when the subject of queries is raised - as it is over at Nathan Bransford's (see side bar) - some of the assembled Whiffenpoof(p)s stubbornly insist that (1) they can't write queries, and (2) the system is wrongwrongWRONG.
Agents/editors can't possibly recognize a saleable story from a query and if they would only would read the MS...

Bird dung.

First, learn to write an adequate query. It's merely another writing skill. Train your bird.

Second, recognize there is no single template query that will strike all agents/editors. Sometimes the rabbit will get away.

Third, from reading query samples hither and yon, even I, ignorant as I am, can get a good idea about the wing span and skill.

And fourth, the industry already moves at medieval speed at times, so why slow it down to a walk? Recognize that you are hunting their coverts and they get to select what goes in the bag.


Ric said...

IMHO, the query is supposed to catch the attention of the agent/editor - just enough to get them to ask for more.

Say you go to a garden party where agents are attending. You don't know what they look like - they don't know you.

How do you get noticed?

Wear a brightly colored shirt - make sure you are someone they can't ignore.
Then, if you've done your research, you know the biggie agent you really want happens to love gnomes. A gnome broach just above your name tag will get her to come over and say hi.

Now that the introductions are over, it's all about the writing.

Why do people find this so hard?

Sonya said...

People may be "born story-tellers," but they are seldom born story-writers.

This is so, so, so true. Every writer needs to hear this before they start out, and believe it, and keep it in mind forever. It would ease so much of the angst and "big bad publisher" syndrome stuff... :-)

Bernita said...

Exactly, Ric, good example.
The system works for the agents.
Some people are determined to look through the wrong end of the telescope.

Tep, Sonya, brilliant ideas are not enough

December/Stacia said...

I've never understood what the big problem with queries is. Mine may not be stellar, but they're serviceable. I've always thought the reason people have such a difficult time is they're trying to DO too much with it.

My first query ever, for my terrible first book, got me requests. It was two lines of plot. "So-and-so thought he was done with love, until he was forced to take the beautiful so-and-so hostage. He thought he only wanted to clear his name, but does he want her just as much?" or something like that. It wasn't great, but it was serviceable.

I don't like writing them, but I've never had heart attacks about them either.

Bailey Stewart said...

I haven't written one, but I don't see what all of the bother is about - it seems easy. It's the synopsis that bothers me.

Bernita said...

I think you've put your finger on it, December.
They spread like a wet cat on a screen door and they obsess.

Bailey, the same thing about purpose and point applies to synopses, I suspect.

Dave said...

In my experience, some people have a hard time learning by observing. Either they have to be led to everything (piece by piece) or they just prepare forms (fill in the blanks stuff).

When I worked to earn money, One job that I had to do was implement large, vast bureaucratic systems of words (ISO 9000 & 14000 type systems) and I had to watch people work and break their work down into written instructions. I noticed that certain people could not break their work into steps. That's what happening with query letters. They can write, but they've never prepared a letter like that and it's a strange beastie, an odd task. They don't know how to learn to write it.

it's hard to see work others do as a system or a process or a procedure. But that's what we're dealing with here.

Robyn said...

The hard thing about synopses (synopsi?) for me was whittling it down. My first attempt was almost as long as the book.

I've heard it said that the query should resemble the back cover blurb- just to peak interest, not sell the story.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

And considering that a query is your first should wow them, into wanting to read your work!

Completely off the subject, I've got a good one for ya'!Our book this week is the story of an old lady that dies and comes back as a spirit...with help the people of her town.

LOL...the uproar is so good that you'd think we were promoting heresy....ROFLOL!

raine said...

Quite right. Must offer tempting bait to draw the quarry in.
And agents/editors need something upon which to base their interest. They can hardly read every single ms that crosses their desks.

Some people will be better at it than others, but it is part of the job. Read the blurbs of successful authors, learn to condense and make it sound fascinating. Different. Everything's been done. Your thing has to sound like you've found a new/special approach.

And as you said--just because a particular editor/agent doesn't go for a query doesn't necessarily mean it's no good. It may simply mean it didn't appeal to that particular one.

Bernita said...

That is a fascinating observation, Dave!
I always felt rather limited because I learn new and strange things best by examples I can deconstruct and then modify to fit.

Most of a query is straight formula, Robyn. The mini-synopsis paragraph(s) is/are what seems to defeat some people - torn between summary and individualization/woods and trees. Your blurb/hook comparison is a good one. Method seems to work for me, anyway.

And one should realize all flies don't work for all fish, Bonnie - doesn't mean it's a bad fly.
Heresy? I though that plot had scriptural support.

Scott from Oregon said...

Yeah, I much prefer telling tales than writing them down.

I also know I'm better at it.

Call me crazy, but I still think the industry is heading for enormous changes.

How can it compete with the vastness of verbiage now sailing aroung the Big EZ?

Bernita said...

Raine, quite right. The main cri de coeur seems to be "I can't possibly condense my magnum opus into 150-250 words."
My reaction is - learn.
I sometimes think it's choice that paralyzes submitters - many novels can be slanted several different ways, this angle left in/left out, this element emphasized, or not - and they are terrified of chosing the "wrong" one.

Bernita said...

It may be, Scott, but a choice of medium does not change the practical necessity of summarizing an offering.In fact, may make it a more vital skill.

Charles Gramlich said...

Maybe it is that many of us just don't "like" writing queries. I know I don't, but as you say it is a necessary skill.

Bernita said...

Charles, always reminds me of a spy-training scene in a semi-autobigraphical novel.
The last few minutes of the encrypted radio session always filled with flying code books and cries of "Bloody hell! I'll send the damn thing straight!"

sex scenes at starbucks said...

To me, learning to write a decent query was about as difficult as learning to write the basic essay for Comp 101. I guess that's why I think of it as a formula. Hook. Two plot points (this happens, our hero reacts this way, which makes things worse), big cliffhanger, credits, and bobsyeruncle. I think I got over it early because I wrote a fairly shitty cover letter for a sub at DAW and the book still went two levels with editors before getting rejected.

I think all the hullaboo boils down to people feeling defensive about their art. Defensive people usually are pretty insecure, and often have a reason to be.

Incidently, I see a lot of carefully crafted queries/covers for short stories at the zine. It's too bad, really. All you need for shorts is word count, credits, and thanks for reading.

Frank Baron said...

The query is even more important than the ms these days. It's the key that opens the door that at least gets you to the reception desk. With a crappy query, even a great ms is left pressing its nose against the window.

takoda said...

I agree with Frank Baron. To me, the hardest part is trying to summarize while still keeping the voice you used in your manuscript. After 5 different versions of my query out to about 14 agents, I got two requests for a full, five standard rejects, and the rest were, heck, I don't know. They haven't even responded. But between Miss Snark and her snarklings, and EE and his? minions, I think I finally have it.

Bernita, I love the painting! I'm reading "My Side of the Mountain" by Jean Craighead George. There's a trained Peregrine Falcon in that story. Truly fascinating birds.


writtenwyrdd said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
writtenwyrdd said...

I read that one yesterday and was laughing my butt off at some of those nay saying comments. Of course they are entitled to their opinions; but why argue with the industry professional who states very plainly that query letters are indeed useful? Silliness.

Bernita said...

Yes, SS, part of the problem is plain fear.

Exactly, Frank, which is why there's no sense is screaming "I can't!"

Considering all the other reasons why a query may be rejected, Takoda, you're doing fine.

And that professional is echoed by every other agent I've read, Written, so what's the point? It works for them.

writtenwyrdd said...

I suspect that a large part of those people ranting about needing to query is the tendency to play the "blame game." It's not the writer's fault for writing a plotless book; it's the fault of th esystem. Of course, as someone pointed out someplace, Ulysses probably wouldn't be well represented by a query letter, being basically plotless.

Anonymous said...

You do what you have to do. If you worry about it, do something elsel.

Bernita said...

Yep, at times there does seem to be a desire to shift responsibility.
BTW, today Mr. Bransford has up a genuine query letter that works for him.

Succinctly put, Steve.

LadyBronco said...

Very thought provoking post, Bernita, and very relevant for myself.
I just finished polishing the hook portion of my query, and I really like the way it turned out. I only hope when I start the whole query process others will agree with me!

spyscribbler said...

Excellent words, Bernita.

I once did a pitch workshop with Agent Kristin. From my two sentences, she nailed everything I was struggling with in my manuscript. I'm a total believer that a heckuva lot can be gleaned from a query letter.

Great post, great metaphor!

Bernita said...

That's good to hear, Lady B!

Thank you, Natasha.
So valuable when industry eyes break down the queries and give their impressions.