Help for a query hater

PhotobucketThis note arrived in my personal inbox this week, from a writerly acquaintance.

“I hate queries,” she said. “They frustrate the hell out of me. Would you be willing to share your query and explain why you did what you did?”

Of course I didn’t mind–as long as she didn’t mind that I post my response on the blog; I’d been struggling to come up with a topic for this week.

She didn’t mind. Here goes.

Dear Query Hater,

Your query hatred is not unique, me thinks, and probably falls second only to synopsis hatred in the necessary-but-not-creative-writing category. Here’s the query I sent to my agent, Elisabeth Weed. I’ve changed the title from Unbounded to The Last Will of Moira Leahy for obvious reasons.

Dear Ms. Weed,

Allison Winn Scotch emailed me just a bit ago to say you’d be interested in hearing more about my manuscript. I’m thrilled for the opportunity, as Allison raves about you and I believe your agency would be a perfect fit for my work.

Weed Literary is looking for inventive storytelling. The Last Will of Moira Leahy is a 100,000 word commercial rite-of-passage tale about death, identity and acceptance, told through the eyes of twin sisters and woven with a fascinating mythology in the vein of Louise Erdrich’s The Painted Drum. You’re also seeking provocative fiction with a dash of humor. Though 9 out of 10 women cry when they read this story, they’ll also laugh a lot.

Former musical prodigy Maeve Leahy has bound herself to the timeout chair of life. Though a decade has passed since losing her twin, Maeve’s nightmares and musical hallucinations persist, and she still sees Moira’s face whenever she looks in the mirror. It doesn’t help that her mother shuns her, her best friend worries for her sanity, and her not-quite boyfriend leaves the country. When she finds a wavy dagger called a keris one night at auction, she recalls her carefree childhood and playing pirate on the Atlantic with her twin. She wins the blade, and its hidden consequences. Anonymous notes about the keris soon appear, rekindling her adventurous spirit. As she uncovers the blade’s secrets, she may learn to embrace music, love and her reflection again, but will she be able to endure the cost?

The Javanese keris is a weapon with a documented history of effect, including the ability to decrease inhibitions, foretell the future, and more. The Last Will of Moira Leahy draws upon this rich lore as the story unfolds, but leaves the reader with the choice–to believe or not in an extraordinary possibility.

I have a master’s degree in psychology and am an award-winning researcher. I’m a published nonfiction author with hundreds of articles in America’s foremost health magazines and online health sites. I’m also the co-founder of writerunboxed.com, a popular genre fiction site.

I’d love to send you The Last Will of Moira Leahy if you think we’d be a good match. I appreciate your time and look forward to your response.

All best,
Therese Walsh

Query Dissection

Disclaimer time. This is not a perfect query. Nothing I write will ever be perfect. (I find myself wanting to tweak this even now, and there is no point!) And there are likely dozens of ways to write a query. Hook ’em with a killer first line or a high concept or an evocative voice. Be conventional or not. What I did worked for me, but it might not be the right way for you to introduce yourself and your story; only you know that.

So with all of that in mind, here’s my query advice.

Mention your connections. If someone introduced you to this agent or spoke about your work to this agent, remind them about that–briefly, right at the start.

Convey that you know something about this particular agency and why your work would be a perfect fit for them. If you don’t know, put in the time to learn. At the very least, visit their website, study their list, understand their goals. Consider investing in a subscription to Publishers Marketplace to learn what they’ve sold and reading some of their clients’ works. “Hey, I know something about you!” is a great ice breaker and makes a positive impression.

If you can introduce your story by comparing it to a well-known work, go for it. This is kind of like accepting a sampler teaspoon of something at a deli before you commit to buying a full container–“Oh, yeah, so this is what it’s like. Okay, I get it.” Make your sampler as irresistible as you can. On the other hand, don’t call something caviar if it’s egg salad. Just sayin’.

Clarify what’s at stake for your protagonist. Show the agent that your story taps into something primal and is loaded with the potential for conflict. I chose to highlight a former musical prodigy. Someone who’s taken herself out of the game of life. Who has nightmares and hallucinations and difficulty facing her reflection. Not to mention a distant mother, not-quite boyfriend and friend who thinks she’s crazy. (Is she? Maybe.)

Get to your inciting moment. What kicks off the story? Why is it potentially the most important thing that will happen in your protagonist’s life? Because that’s what you’re writing about, right? The most important thing that happens in your protagonist’s life. Provide enough information to seed a reader’s imagination, make them hungry to know more.

Hint at evolution. What happens next? Is there a story here? Change for the protag? The promise of more conflict? Maybe my protag gets up from her timeout chair and finally finds herself again–or maybe she doesn’t. Either way, it doesn’t sound like it’s going to be an easy time for her. And it shouldn’t be. Conflict drives every good book. Don’t give your would-be agent any reason to doubt that you know this fundamental rule of storytelling.

Highlight your strong points. If your novel is centered around something unique, consider blowing the details out a bit. As you can see, I had a lot of love for the Javanese keris. Now’s also the time to highlight anything about yourself that may give your work more credibility. I decided to brag up my research background, my nonfiction work and my psychology degree, because they were pertinent; The Last Will is all about knotty human behaviors, and it involved a lot of research. The nonfiction work reference shows that I’m a professional who understands something about editors and deadlines. And you know I had to mention WU–a site that now boasts over 100 followers on bloglines (go, WU!).

Wrap it up. This is not the place to state that you’ll do anything, make any change, that you’ve been working on the story for a decade, that it’s killing you, that you’ll provide them with an unending supply of chocolate or name your firstborn (or third born) after them if only they’d sign you, that you’d appreciate any feedback at all and could they just– No. Just say thank you for your time, looking forward to hearing. Sign it. Stamp it. Done.

Okay, I did it. I bared my query letter to the world. I feel a little woozy.

Anyone else want to share? What sort of feedback have you had on your query? What’s worked for you–or not? What have you learned?

Write on, all!

Photo courtesy ~yamilletot

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About Therese Walsh

Therese Walsh co-founded Writer Unboxed in 2006. Her second novel, The Moon Sisters, was named a Best Book of 2014 by Library Journal and BookRiot. Her debut, The Last Will of Moira Leahy, sold to Random House in a two-book deal in 2008, was named one of January Magazine’s Best Books, and was a Target Breakout Book. She's never been published with a lit magazine, but LOST's Carlton Cuse liked her Twitter haiku best and that made her pretty happy.

Comments

  1. says

    This is about the best analysis of a query letter I’ve read in a long time, Therese. I hate ’em too, just like I hate mosquito bites and green peppers, but they’ve gotta be done. This’ll be a great crib sheet for that dreaded day.

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  2. says

    I hate writing queries too. I tried to follow the standard formula and add a little spice and flair but ultimately I hope they just skip it and read my work. Which doesn’t work so much considering a lot of agencies want queries e-mailed, leaving no room for the first pages of my novel. Sigh. Guess it’s back to the drawing board. Thanks for the advice!

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  3. says

    Great post on query letters. I was interested to see you actually mentioned that your work is in the vein of Louise Erdrich (The Painted Drum is my absolute favourite of hers!). Two people (my Master’s degree professor and an editor at a local publishing house) have compared my voice to Louise Erdrich and Margaret Atwood, but I felt too embarrassed to mention it (as if I was boasting) so I just left it out. So it was useful to see how you wove the reference into your letter. Thanks for sharing it! :)

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  4. thea says

    oh my gosh, reading this just triggered a very important insight on my w.i.p.!!!!!!!!!!!!! like what key thing would i want to impart to an agent about my book that would compel her to ask for a look???? eureka! must go. more later

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  5. says

    I think a huge factor in this query’s success is the clear, professional exhibition of your voice. You can’t help but expect something special.

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  6. says

    Aww, Ray, that’s so nice. Thank you.

    Thea, cool! Go forth and write, girl.

    Ann, I had to take care that the mythology in my story didn’t sound hokey, and I hoped mentioning Louise Erdrich’s novel would provide a lightbulb moment for anyone reading the query. Please don’t mistake this to mean that I think my voice is like hers–she’s gorgeously literary–but I think the weaving in of the mythology is handled similarly.

    Richard, wouldn’t it be great if someone could be hired to do these things?

    Katrina, you’ve described how I feel about synopses. Torture.

    Thanks, Kath and Kristan!

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  7. says

    Very helpful post! Query writing is tricky! Lately, I’ve been writing my queries before my stories. It’s easier for me to start with something small and go big. Going from big to small is much more difficult.

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  8. says

    This is a terrific query!! And I can’t wait to read your book—I LOVE being at the beginning of the journey toward publication. It really is exciting!!!
    :-)

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  9. says

    I find writing a novel way easier than writing a query letter and I’ve used many of the tips you’ve employed, Therese.
    I’ve had interesting experiences when it comes to agents. My first one from a New York agency decided to pursue a career in film and didn’t bother to tell me for over a year.
    I had a personal manager who blew a multi-picture film deal at the eleventh hour when the project was basically greenlighted. Needless to say, he’s no longer my manager.
    I’ve also had at least two agents I can recall of who asked me to contact them once movie negotiations were under way. If that was the case, why would I call on them after the fact? Instead, I used a very good lawyer specializing in entertainment law to deal with the option agreement!

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  10. says

    Katie, I think that’s a great idea–start with the query and/or synopsis and/or outline. Start small, then go big. It’s great to have a roadmap, even if you decide to veer off the beaten track now and then to create a new path.

    Aww, thanks, Chris!

    Lorna, it can be hard to hone in on the few details you want to emphasize in a query. How do you feel about synopses?

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  11. says

    I never liked writing queries but I liked them better once I realized that the query isn’t for summing up the whole book… that’s where so many people get stuck, I think. (Whereas that IS the point of the synopsis, which is why I hate hate hate writing synopses.)

    When I went back to look at my successful query, I had the same reaction as you did to yours, Therese — it’s not perfect. Mine is way too short and really only has about four or five sentences about the book itself. But at that point Elisabeth had read a previous MS of mine, so she knew I could write, and so the pitch (newly orphaned, socially awkward young woman discovers she can invoke ghosts by cooking from dead people’s recipes) was the main thing.

    I think “wrap it up” is a really important part of this too! Writers want to make a case for themselves, or apologize that this is only their first book, or explain that their critique group likes the book, and all of that is extraneous. It’s just you and the book and the agent.

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  12. Marianne says

    Not even close to querying yet, or I promise I would share, but I found this a really helpful (and generous) post which I’ll file for future reference. Thanks!

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  13. says

    Jael, good point. The dreaded synopsis is an entirely different beast than the query. I know that some agents like to see a five-page synopsis, others a three-page synopsis, still others a one-page synopsis. One-page. One page! How is that done? (Now I will have to find out and write a blog post about it. Sigh.)

    I’m glad you found the info useful, Marianne. Best of luck with your wip!

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  14. says

    Hi Therese, as for your question regarding the synopsis: I was asked to provide one for the film producer. One page per chapter. I found this much easier than writing a query letter.
    As for my agent Jenoyne Adams of Bliss Literary Agency, no query letter was necessary. We met at a writers conference, she took one of my books and read it. Her decision to represent me was based upon the contents of my novel! So, phew! Dodge the bullet with this one!

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  15. says

    Thank you, for this. Though it was recommended as good advice for screenwriters, I’d advise screenwriters to shorten it up. But otherwise your tenants hold true.

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  16. says

    Very well reasoned. I’d followed much of this through instinct, but I really appreciated having it laid out so well.

    I would only caution query writers to keep it as short as possible. In this case, I’d probably shorten the synopsis. If we think we don’t like writing queries, the recipients like them even less…

    Otherwise, excellent post.

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