Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Query Project

My plan was to read all of the queries posted on The Query Project and comment on them. But as I tried to read all of them, I think I somehow started to possess the body of a query-swamped agent. I started skimming for plot; I found my attention drifting in the first paragraph. I began to imagine myself looking for the next big thing, and after reading all of these successfuly agent-landing, deal-getting queries, I only found one that really appealed to me.

The Scene: I'm at my huge mahogany desk, with a neat little Mac in one corner, and a neat little stack of queries in another. My gin swirls in my glass: I am an elite agent with a stack of well-referenced queries--I have only to pick one and make a writer's dreams come true.

First in my stack is a query by Josh Palmatier. It's a bit formulaic----straight to point, following the typical 3-paragraph format (basic info, plot synopsis in five sentences, bio, thanks). I appreciate the simplicity, the clear structure of the letter, but it doesn't really grab my attention.

I pick up Simon Haynes's next, and almost immediately want to put it back down again. It is painfully long and convulated, and I'm still not sure what the story is about, but, apparently, that doesn't matter too much as he had referrals and luck on his side (self admittedly--not me being presumptious). As an agent, though, I just get a sense that while other's like his writing, I don't.

Diana Francis's starts off with exactly the stuff I'm told not to do: compare it to other writers, say it's part one of a trilogy (albeit that it could stand alone), etc. As I writer, I'm hitting my head on my desk, knowing that someone who did the exact same thing that I've been reamed for is now published. As an agent, it was decently written, but didn't really grab me. This is something that drives me crazy when agents say that (I'm always mentally screaming: "Then what grabs you! Why?! WHY!?) But, after having read a few of these, I just feel ready to plow on to the next query, not read more of hers.

Chris Dolley's
rambles in a casual sort of way and tells me more about the premise than the plot--as a matter of fact, other than the characters and the fact that it's based on real life, I really don't know what it's about at all. In fact, as I was reading it, I thought at first that it was a "character" query where the character is the "voice" of the query. If I were an agent, I'd probably have dropped this one after a few sentences.

Jackie Kessler's works for me absolutely--it starts off with the story, has a great sense of voice, and makes me want to read even though I know it's a genre that I don't particularly like. If I were an agent, I'd request pages immediately.

Glenda Larke's is so laughingly short that even she admits that it won't get a writer far today.

John Levitt's is good--but would only work for someone who had already been published before. As an agent, I might sit up and take note of the names dropped, but I'm just not sure about it.

I sat up at Janni Lee Simner's query mainly because it was a genre I write in--YA fantasy. It was well structured, much like Josh Palmatier's (the first one I read). In fact, I think the only difference here is genre. Palmatier's isn't a subject I care that much about; Simner's is. So I like Simner's, but not Palmatier's. Just another reason why researching an agent is essential to success.

Edward Willet's answered a question that I've had as a writer--do you just jump right in and tell the story? Apparently so; it worked for him. Anyway, with my agent-goggles on, I look at the letter as a whole and think "Boy, that's long." Scanning down the page made my heart sink a bit; it just seemed inexorbantly long. However, despite being long, it got straight to the point, and much of length was a series of excellent writing credentials.

I didn't read the rest of the queries in the project--mainly because of time and my crappy 56k modem. But still, I think I got my lesson from them. Often when reading these queries, I wondered what Query Shark or Evil Editor would do. I've been reading their blogs so long that I could spot the instantaneous wordiness that Query Shark always strikesthrough, and the plot hole questions that Evil Editor constantly brings up.

Furthermore, from the entire list, there was only one--Jackie Kessler's--that really interested me and made me sit up and take notice. Some where good, such as Janni Lee Simner's, but the only one I got really excited about was Kessler's. If I were an agent swamped with work, hers would be the only one I requested.

I started reading these queries hoping to find the one formula that worked. I wanted to find similarities between the queries; I was searching for the Mystical Key to Queries. But what I found was that a large part of it all depends on taste. Every one of these queries landed either an agent or an editor; every one is successful. But many of them did not work for me at all. Some of them, to be honest, I didn't even read all the way through; my eyes glazed over and I just skimmed. But that exact same letter made someone else sit up and say "Let's publish this!"

I guess in the end, there is no one way to write a query. Some things are a given: lists of publishing credits, some sort of synopsis. But beyond that, it's a roll of the dice with the right person finding the right query.

And also: a couple of these letters were interesting, but not attention grabbing. I did pretty much skim for genre and plot. If there was a genre I liked and a plot that sounded decent, I would have read sample pages...and that would have told me more than anything else about whether or not the book was worth my while. Miss Snark famously (and repeatedly) said that the writing is what's important, not the query, and that's true. Part of me wishes that there was just one form query for all of us to use where we could fill in the blanks (word count, genre, etc.) and let the pages stand on their own. But I figure that most queries aren't much more than that, anyway.


PJ Hoover said...

Great post! Personal taste is such a huge part of it. Aside from a snazzy query, of course. They say all it takes is one agent or editor which I firmly believe!

Edward Willett said...

Interesting to read your reaction! And oddly enough, I absolutely agree with you about my query letter: it WAS long. Way too long. My only defense is that it was sent as an email and therefore I didn't have that "keep-it-to-one-page" rule to follow, which I normally try to do. But yeah, if I were writing it now, I'd cut it wasy down.

On the other worked! :)

Unknown said...

PJ--I was seriously surprised by myself. For some reason, I'd always assumed that there was some sort of standard formula, but each of these was really unique--and personal taste really did become the biggest distinguishing factor!

Edward--It was long, but if I had that many writing credentials, you better believe that I would have included all of them, too! And of course, the important thing is that it worked!

Thank you for doing the project. It helps so much for other authors to see what works and what doesn't. Even if I didn't get what I wanted--a common thread between all the queries that I could emulate--I did gain a better sense of understanding about how the process works from the other end of the spectrum.

Keri Mikulski said...

Wow! Interesting post Beth. I love 'the scene'.

Urgh.. Queries. So true.. And like PJ said, it just takes one. :)

Unknown said...


The Scene was something I added I kept reading, I realized that was exactly the scene in my head, so I had to write it out :)

C.R. Evers said...

This is interesting. I'll have to check it out. Writing querries is one of my fears. I can write a 50,000 word novel and love it, but the thought of a 1 page query makes me ill! ;0P I'm probably going to start sending some out this coming year, so I better figure out how to get comfortable with it and look at some examples!

Thanks for the links!


p.s. See you at the conference!

Gottawrite Girl said...

Beth, awesome post! I, too, liked Jackie Kessler's - it was catchy, succinct, and pulled you straight into her world. I am bookmarking this for my publishing-tool-box.

Glenda Larke said...

Interesting post! I actually did pretty much what you did - went through all the query letters looking for a common factor. Nope.
There was none, not really. and I came away as you did - thinking there is an awful lot of luck - hitting the right person at the right time.

My letter was actually rather standard for approaching UK agents almost 20 years ago. You let your sample chapters speak for you. I think older UK agents are still less enamoured of the "instant hook" or "write in the style of your story" idea.

Hmm - but then maybe the short, say-nothing letter would be the one that would stand out from all the others in the US now, eh? Lol!

Good luck with your queries.