Query Detox, Part 2

Query Detox, part 2

Last month I wrote a post exploring some of the problems I encounter most frequently when critiquing people’s query letters.

This month I’m going to continue down that path, identifying some more frequent trouble spots, along with some thoughts on how you can fix or avoid them.

The name game

Many queries are bogged down with an extensive laundry list of names, including the main character, her spouse, her ex, her best friends, the name of the town she lives in, the company she works for, the products they sell, where she goes to school, and so on.

Writers do this because they want the agent to get a sense of their characters, settings and situations, but the result is often information overload. Consider what happens when you’re at a party and you get introduced to half a dozen people in rapid succession. By the time you get to party guest number 6, chances are those first five names are long gone from your memory banks.

As a general rule, characters’ names are not important in a query; their roles are. Think about it: “Joe Smith” tells you nothing, but descriptions like “the local preacher” or “the meddlesome neighbor” give you a much clearer picture of who these people are. You can often get by with just the name of your protagonist.

In fact, you might even be able to avoid using any names in your query. Don’t believe me? Sara J. Henry,  Anthony-award winning author of A Cold and Lonely Place,  had excellent luck with a name-free query. Here’s the paragraph she used to describe her manuscript, in her query for what became her debut novel:

In Learning to Swim, a childless woman living in a small Adirondack town dives into icy Lake Champlain to rescue a young French-speaking boy, and discovers he was kidnapped five months ago. She accompanies him to Canada to help him adjust to a new life with the father he thought abandoned him. There she wrestles with her growing attachment to the child, and feels driven to track down those responsible for his abduction.

As a general rule, characters’ names are not important in a query; their roles are. 

Sara’s query for Learning to Swim generated a fast and overwhelming response rate, leading to offers from multiple agents. Food for thought, eh?

Other variations of the name game include:

  • Referring to your protagonist by more than one name within the query. It’s fine to do this in your book, but for this brief note, it’s best to skip the nicknames to avoid any confusion.
  • Too many characters with similar names. This can be a problem both in your query and in your book, when you make the reader try to keep track of a group of characters named Jack, Jake, Jan, Jackie, Jason, and Jacob.
  • Made-up names that are hard to read and/or pronounce. Fantasy and science-fiction writers tend to be the most frequent offenders. I mean, it’s great that T’paue-el is the Chosen pMak’Tong of the Mb’la-Zo’Lo tribe. But for your query, maybe there’s a simpler way to describe that character and his role without making agents think their email has been hacked by some weird auto-translating device. This is a perfect opportunity to follow Sara J. Henry’s example above.

The tweetable query

Many writers have somehow been peer-pressured into believing that the most important thing to do when writing a query is to keep it short. Concise powerful writing is one thing, but when you get to the point where your entire query could fit into a single 144-character Twitter post, I think it’s a sign that maybe you’re taking this brevity thing just a little too far.

Seriously, I’ve seen queries that reminded me of this famous Peanuts cartoon strip,  where the perpetually annoyed Lucy pretends to read a book to her little brother Linus. In her impatience, she condenses the story down to this:

“A man was born… he lived and he died! The end!”

Tell a story. If you tell it well, they’ll keep reading.

While Linus may be too young and naive to realize he’s been cheated, the agent you’re querying won’t miss the fact that you’ve taken a few too many shortcuts. Take your time, folks. Tell a story. If you tell it well, they’ll keep reading.

The sentence that ate Nebraska

A surprising side effect of this exaggerated quest for brevity is the unconscious habit of trying to cram far too much information into each sentence. I’ve seen countless queries filled with line after line of info-bloated sentences like this:

Until she saw Zach Winslow, a hauntingly handsome pale-skinned young man sullenly nursing a cherry Coke and a black eye at the weathered counter of the soda fountain of the corner five-and-dime late one April afternoon, eighteen-year-old Marcy Blake believed that nothing interesting ever happened in the sleepy bedroom town of Middlebury, Ohio in 1967.

That sentence by itself may not seem too bad, but when you stack four of five of them together, it rapidly turns into information overload. But even worse, the writing becomes monotonous.

To fix this, make a point of varying the length – and the structure – of your sentences. For example, we could recast that 55-word behemoth of a sentence like this:

Nothing interesting ever happened in Middlebury, Ohio. At least that’s what 18-year-old Marcy Blake always believed – until the first time she saw Zach…

This is better, and there’s a bit of tension-and-release, as we set up the premise that nothing interesting happens, then show that this is about to change. Whether or not it’s a grabby query opening is debatable, but at least there’s some rhythm and variety to the sentences.

Here’s a tip for avoiding the dreaded Nebraska-devouring sentence: watch out for too many sentences with more than one action in them. In particular, scour your query for multiple consecutive sentences that start out with an introductory clause before getting to the meat of the sentence. For example:

  • Exhausted from a hard night of river-dancing, she…
  • Unaware of the deal his colleagues made with the one-eyed mime, he…
  • Too late to save her partner from the Bog of Extreme Stench, she…
  • When John’s training takes over and he kills two of the giant cockroaches, he…
  • While the aliens are attacking the tollbooth with their sonic Jello-guns, she…
  • Forced to choose between personal freedom and the lives of his pet sea monkeys, he…
  • Devastated by the loss of her prized collection of parachute pants, she…
  • Armed with his ukulele and a duffel bag full of sock-puppets, he…
  • With the help of a three-legged alpaca and a dyspeptic nail technician, she…

NOTE: there’s nothing wrong with any of those clauses (other than maybe the second one, since I’m not a fan of mimes). A couple of these might be okay, but a string of multiple sentences sharing this construct will result in a dense and monotonous read. And that could keep your reader from ever finding out what happened to that collection of parachute pants.

Gimme a break

Similar to the previous problem, I also frequently see writers who are clearly trying to keep their query down to some self-imposed minimum number of paragraphs. The results can be pretty painful, leading to things like an info-crammed paragraph that squeezes seven different topics into one ‘graph.

Remember, the Enter/Return key is your friend. In addition to creating the rhythm of your prose, the way you break your paragraphs also helps to create a visual look-and-feel for your writing, through your use of white space. And it all serves to help demonstrate how well you write.

Don’t blow an opportunity to show how you write

That last point is crucial. In addition to hooking the agent’s attention, your query itself should show the agent how you write. It’s the first example of your writing that an agent sees.

If you don’t think a 300-word email can give somebody a pretty clear feel for your writing, I submit that you’re not reading carefully or critically enough. Seriously, you can usually tell within one page – hell, one email – whether somebody has some writing talent. But only if the writer puts enough effort into that page or email to make her talent evident to the reader.

How about you? I hope you’ve found this two-part series helpful, but now I’d love to hear from you. Have you found any of these “toxins” in your query? Or have you encountered other pitfalls and bad habits popping up in the queries you write, and/or the queries you critique? If so, please share your problems – and your cures. And as always, thanks for reading!

 

 

Images licensed from iStockphoto.com

 

0

About Keith Cronin

Author of the novels ME AGAIN, published by Five Star/Gale; and TONY PARTLY CLOUDY (published under his pen name Nick Rollins), Keith Cronin is a corporate speechwriter and professional rock drummer who has performed and recorded with artists including Bruce Springsteen, Clarence Clemons, and Pat Travers. Keith's fiction has appeared in Carve Magazine, Amarillo Bay, The Scruffy Dog Review, Zinos, and a University of Phoenix management course. A native of South Florida, Keith spends his free time serenading local ducks and squirrels with his ukulele.

Comments

  1. says

    As always, Keith posts the truth. Lots of writers moan that queries are artificial and difficult. And sure, they are. But they’re also writing. Above all, they’re writing.

    0
  2. says

    The most entertaining examination of the dreaded query I’ve read. My sincere thanks. It makes my life here in the Bog of Extreme Stench worth every minute. Us blogging boggers know a good post when we read it. Uh-oh, I seem to have lost Nebraska…
    Christina´s last blog post ..Reflection’s Reflection

    0
  3. says

    Thanks, Keith. As it happens, I’m right in the midst of a mighty struggle with a query letter wondering why it is so much harder to write than the novel was. After going back to read your first post again, I think I may be able to finish off this brute with minimal doses of scotch and Advil within the week. Or maybe even today. So thanks again.

    0
  4. says

    Keith-

    The efficiency you recommend in query writing can be applied to manuscripts, too, in too many of which parenthetical clauses abound, you know, and run on sentences pile up like one long traffic jam, an automotive metaphor without an end in sight or variety, the result of which is a glazed look in the eyes of the agent trying to discern the story for the trees.

    Good advice. Keep it up.
    Donald Maass´s last blog post ..Deal: Kathryn Craft

    0
    • says

      Thanks, Don (he wrote, while contemplating the brewing of another cup of coffee) – I’m glad you found my advice sound, while at the same time corroborating the notion that sometimes the sheer act of getting to the point seems to become an unattainable goal for writers who – if we’re being candid here – shoot themselves in the foot with the quantity of extraneous detail (not to mention their propensity for being lured into countless metaphorical detours) that they insist upon injecting into every piece of writing they do, whether it’s a novel manuscript, a query letter – like the ones I’m discussing here – or even in the comments section of some blog; seriously, it can be just maddening to witness, so I’m thrilled to find I’m not alone in my reaction to this all-too-frequently-occurring literary malady, and – if I may think aspirationally for a moment – in my wish that perhaps a frank online exchange such as this might offer some remote hope for an eventual cure for (unintentional or otherwise) literary verbosity.

      0
  5. says

    Love your use of humor to tackle this subject. The very word “query” makes me want to groan and search for my missing duffel bag full of sock puppets. Instead, I’m headed off to search my latest query for names, clauses, and Nebraska. I’ve got my sonic jello pistol – I’m ready.
    Lynn Guelzow´s last blog post ..Early Review for Buried Pasts

    0
    • says

      Thanks, Lynn – I’m glad you found this helpful. A word of advice: try to avoid using the sonic Jello-gun in any room that has shag carpeting. Trust me on this.

      0
  6. says

    The same conciseness can be applied to book descriptions on Amazon – and blurbs on the book cover: enough of the story to tantalize, enough of the style to tell the reader she’s in the hands of a competent writer.

    And then shut up.

    It is still hard to distill the essence of 100,000 words into a couple of paragraphs.

    I knew there was a reason why I hate those sentences with the clauses hanging off the front end.

    Thanks for the chuckles.
    Alicia
    ABE´s last blog post ..Added PRIDE’S CHILDREN – Chapter 7, Scene 3

    0
  7. says

    Thank you for the insightful post, Keith. I really liked what you said about the name thing – it’s something I’ve had trouble with because I find it difficult to work names into a query. On the other hand, when my main characters are very ordinary people without well-defined characteristics, then I find them tough to refer to without a name attached. “A middle-aged woman” sounds fine once, but a second time just seems silly. I’ve tried to use a combined approach – naming the characters when it’s simpler and describing them with a phrase when it’s appropriate.
    Lori Schafer´s last blog post ..On Science: Preventing Pedophilia?

    0
    • says

      Thanks, Lori. When dealing with “very ordinary people without well-defined characteristics,” maybe you might try focusing on how their roles affect each other. For example, is that middle-aged woman an ally, an obstacle, or a flat-out threat?

      Think not only of their appearance and personalities, but also of what function those characters play in relation to each other. Identifying how they conflict with each other is always a good bet!

      0
  8. says

    Thanks for this. I will be writing my first query letters soon and I’ve been dreading it. Your advice will help me tackle the project like the writing assignment it is. I like writing assignments. My spirits are lifted.

    0
    • says

      That’s a great attitude, Greta, simply treating it as just a writing assignment! And by treating that assignment with enthusiasm rather than dread, you’ll likely write a much more vibrant query. Good luck!

      0
  9. says

    Great advice, Keith, and your examples are hysterical yet right on. I have an editor help me with the dreaded query letter. The way I write them is so boring but I’m getting better at distinguishing the difference between what I write and how the editor changes it.
    Patti
    Patricia Yager Delagrange´s last blog post ..Death As A Part Of Life

    0
  10. says

    Keith,

    Your posts have been great as check-off lists to help make sure I’m doing things right and, as of the past weekend, I think I’ve got it! I finally made a mini-outline of about twelve key topics, that I wanted to address, then pulled a couple sentences from my writing that were strong, in my voice, and worked those in. I’ve heard people say, “Do not use questions,” but an “accepted” example I was comparing, had a bunch of them, so I used one. The other was also 338 words and mine is 331, so I decided not to continue cutting (I did at one point, however, because it had gotten to around 350).

    I also managed to get a single sentence description from my effort, which everyone will need as well.

    Thanks for the making the process so enjoyable with your entertaining examples!
    Ceejae Devine´s last blog post ..We often didn’t think in terms of success, we simply tried.

    0
  11. Anne says

    Thanks for this! Really informative, I’ll keep it in mind. I’m still just trying to get things written right now but I’m sure this will be useful information for later on!

    0
  12. says

    Thanks, Keith. What a great post! As a “newbie” working on my first novel, this is important information. i try to soak up all the great tips that I can. I’ve never been a fan of run-on sentences and information dumps, but I didn’t realize that could be done in query letters as well.

    The point about the introductory clauses, were especially helpful. I think new writers have a tendency to rely on them too much.

    Now, off to write my masterpiece!
    Rebecca Vance´s last blog post ..Contest #1 Winner!! Spotlight Interview with C. L. Swinney

    0
  13. says

    Thanks, Keith. This will be immensely helpful as I go into rewriting my dreaded queries AGAIN! My problem so far has definitely been trying to cram too much information into those three tiny (or not so tiny) paragraphs. There is a lot of panicking on my part about what it is “vital” to the story and what I don’t think I can leave out when really… the point is to get the agent to want to read more, not to give them everything.
    Jillian Boston´s last blog post ..A Study in Micro-Reviewing

    0
  14. J.F. says

    Keith, you just saved my life with that Sara Henry nameless query blurb. Just re-wrote mine and Oh. My. God!! It works so well. Revelation. Thank you!

    J.F.

    0
  15. says

    Keith, I’ve read many different takes on writing the query letter, but yours makes so much sense. I thought I had a pretty good letter–it’s gotten some responses–but I want to go back and try the “nameless” query. I’ve written short pitches that way, but never the query letter itself. I like your more relaxed approach re the number of paragraphs; that suits my style better. But some agents have specific guidelines, so we also need to watch out for those. Thanks for such a helpful post!
    Gerry Wilson´s last blog post ..Memory, Revisited

    0
  16. says

    What you said about how the first email demonstrates your writing ability is something that many people forget to consider when querying. If it contains editing errors, your query may be rejected on that fact alone, even if your story is perfect!

    Putting forth the additional time and effort to ensure that your query is perfect will likely capture the attention of the editor, even if your story isn’t perfect.

    First impressions count!
    Lorraine Reguly´s last blog post ..One of My Blog Posts is now a PowerPoint Presentation on Slideshare!

    0
  17. says

    Well, I love this. I love it so much I may do a post on query help next time. I’d love to put this in my link line up on my site with your permission and full credit of course.

    Julie

    0
  18. says

    I’m greatly relieved that the mime’s can make deals, though I’m not sure I want to know what their end of the bargain might require.

    Anyway, I haven’t had to write a query, YET. This was enormously helpful to getting a good idea of how to do one correctly.

    Thanks!!

    0
  19. says

    I had two major themes to try to get across in this query for LEARNING TO SWIM: (1) the rescue of the small child and the mystery of what had happened to him and (2) the attachment of the main character to the child she rescues and how this affects the trajectory of her life. I kept the book description short – the quoted portion is the whole thing – and left out several subplots. What I hated leaving out was that she dived from the deck of a moving ferry when she saw what she thought was a child plummet from the deck of the opposite ferry – but it ultimately seemed too unwieldy.

    I tried to use specific key words: childless, French-speaking, Adirondacks, kidnapped, Canada, abandoned. If I were writing this today (when I’ve learned to be more concise) I’d likely trim it a bit – it probably doesn’t matter that it was Lake Champlain, for instance.

    What I see in many queries is that writers try to cram in far too much of the plot – so that it’s almost a synopsis. You want to tell the essence of the story, as crisply as possible.

    0