Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Writer's Book Review: Elana Johnson's FROM THE QUERY TO THE CALLS


Here's something I've never done before...reviewed a book on writing from a writer's perspective. I just...never really saw the point, to be honest. I mean, I read writing and publication books. But not often. They're either too general ("keep trying! you can do it!") or aimed at people just starting writing ("first, brainstorm an idea"), and while there's a place for both books, they're just not for me.

Elana Johnson's FROM THE QUERY TO THE CALL doesn't fit in either of those categories. Instead, it's an intelligently laid out look at effective methods of querying. Neither too simple to the point of uselessness nor too complicated for the everyday man, FROM THE QUERY TO THE CALL is a great read for every writer, from those just starting out with only a vague idea of what a query is to those who've queried before and are looking for a better method.

Five sentence summary: FROM THE QUERY TO THE CALL is laid out in two main sections: "Writing a Killer Query" and "Entering the Query Trenches." While the "Writing a Killer Query" seems fairly self-explanatory, it goes into more detail than the basic "pitch goes here, bio goes here" format of many query-writing how-to's. Instead, this section focuses on style, tone, why parts of the letter work and don't, and how not just to write a basic query, but, a true, attention grabbing "killer query." Even better, "Entering the Query Trenches" takes the reader to the next step--how to research agents, respond to requests, revise for an agent, and even, as the title suggests, respond to an agent call.

So what can we, as writers, learn from this book?


1. Professionalism: Here's what too many of us forget. Writing is an art...but writing for publication is a business. This book effectively reminds us that a) publication = business, and b) how to be effective in that business. As writers, we necessarily get too close to our own work...which makes us lose sight of how unemotional business is. Especially for new writers, this reminder of writing as a business is necessary to write an effective query letter.

2. Sample Queries:
Oh, this is priceless. PRICELESS. If you don't buy the book for anything else, buy it for the sample queries.

I have an old copy of FORMATTING & SUBMITTING YOUR MANUSCRIPT, which taught me things like the basic format of a query letter...but I remember the part that I flipped to over and over were the sample queries. In that book (and remember, I have the first edition...it may be different in the new edition--think they're up to 3 or 4 now)--anyway, in the book, there were 2-3 letters by published authors, and 2-3 fake mock-up letters as samples. None of them were in my genre and, to be honest, none were that helpful. One of the letters was by Nicholas Sparks, and I'm fairly certain his signature at the bottom of the letter is enough to nab any agent.

But the samples in FROM THE QUERY TO THE CALL are different. First, they're all real letters--the actual letters used by authors to gain their agents. Some are just linked, some are reprinted, and some are broken down in more detail. With genres that matched my own (most notably Jessica Verday's letter for the recently released THE HOLLOW, but also full reprints to authors with either requests or offers from the queries), these letters were modern, up to date, and just the samples I needed to compare with my own query.

Probably the most helpful was a break-down of a sample query, from a rough draft, to a draft with comments from Elana, to a draft that has fetched the author several requests.

3. Going beyond the obvious:
Look, we can go online and see the basic set-up of a query. We all know the standard formatting.

But do you really think I'd recommend a book to you that just showed you standard formatting?

Elana breaks down the query in minute detail--but even better, she shows you where and how to inject voice, how to make your query stand out, and how to increase your chances of attracting an agent. Here's the thing: she doesn't show you just how to format a query--she shows you how to write a query, and that is a far different thing.

Bottom line:
Appropriate for any level writer, this book is effective, well written, and a good investment in your time and money. Totally worth it.

Two notes:
If you're looking for a very effective format to an e-book, check this one out. I don't do many e-books, but, to me, this is the way they should be formatted. With an effective use of color, clear organization, and easy navigation, this e-book is not a .pdf of a black and white print book, but a vivacious and ambitious collection of articles, links, color, and information that makes it stand out from the crowd. This is what an e-book should be, people.


Also: page 27 is the coolest page in the whole book. Wanna know why? GO BUY THE BOOK. And then flip straight to page 27. Cause it's pretty cool. Just sayin'.



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