Some complaints are the sulky, "I don't wanna!" variety we can all relate to when faced with a task we don't much like, but will eventually master.
But other writers struggling to write a compelling, succinct query letter will snarl endlessly about how it's a useless task designed solely to make authors jump through silly hoops for the amusement of agents and editors.
While I can't speak for my agent when it comes to stating how amused she is by the sight of authors leaping around like trained poodles, I can speak to notion that learning to write a query letter is a useless task:
Learning to cleverly, succinctly, compellingly describe your own work in a few short sentences is one of the most important tasks an author can master. Almost as important as writing the damn novel in the first place. Don't believe me?
Here's an illustration. The paragraph below is taken word-for-word from the "pitch letter" my agent and I crafted for her to use when presenting Making Waves to editors. Though I was already represented by Michelle Wolfson at the time I wrote Making Waves, I wrote the following paragraph precisely the way I wrote my descriptive paragraphs when I was querying agents in the first place:
When Alex's company kicks him to the curb after a 20-year career in the shipping industry, he takes to the sea with three colleagues hoping to regain their pensions and their dignity in a modern-day pirate mission targeting their boss's illegal diamond shipment. But none of them counted on a quirky blonde stowaway with a mountain of skeletons in her closet, a perplexing array of talents, and an intoxicating romantic chemistry with Alex. And while Juli Flynn certainly didn’t plan to be a part of the most dysfunctional pirate mission in history, it seems like a viable career option after her own job goes up in smoke. Before she knows it, Juli has found her place with the misfit crew – and found her way into Alex’s heart.
I wrote that paragraph in November 2008, more than 15 months before the book actually sold to Sourcebooks.
Now here's the paragraph I use today on most websites and blogs when I'm asked to provide a brief description of my novel:
Juli’s lost count of the number of jobs she’s held, but she definitely never applied to be a pirate. Or a stowaway on a pirate ship. But when fate lands her on boat captained by Alex—a man whose unscrupulous boss kicked him to the curb after 20 faithful years—Juli finds herself in the middle of a revenge-fueled Caribbean diamond heist with a crew more suited to the boardroom than the poop deck. Alex didn’t plan to be a pirate, either. He just wants to recover his dignity, pension, and something resembling a normal life. But normal flies out the window when Juli enters the picture—a twist Alex wishes he didn’t find so exhilarating. The two soon discover that while normal is nice, weird can be wonderful.
It's been flipped to offer the heroine's point-of-view first, and the whole "normal is nice, weird can be wonderful" marketing hook is featured prominently, but a lot of the language is the same. So is the basic breakdown of events – boy and girl find their lives in upheaval, diamond heist ensues, boy and girl get thrown together and end up playing hide the salami.
Now here's the copy that appears on the back cover of the actual printed version of Making Waves:
SHE ALWAYS WANTED TO BELONG...JUST NOT TO A DYSFUNCTIONAL PIRATE CREW
Juli has trouble fitting in, though she'd prefer to keep the reasons to herself. But when she mistakenly stows away on a ship of misfit corporate castoffs, her own secrets become the least of her concerns.
HE KNOWS PLOTTING A DIAMOND HEIST MAY BE CONSIDERED UNUSUAL BEHAVIOR...
But Alex isn't feeling very normal when his unscrupulous boss kicks him to the curb. Meeting Juli doesn't do much to restore normalcy to Alex's life either, but it sure is exhilarating.
As Alex and Juli bare their secrets – and a whole lot more – they find that while normal is nice, weird can be wonderful.
Compare the three. You can see the evolution, and you can see the similarities. Most importantly, you can see how each of those descriptions strikes a balance between providing a plot summary and providing enough titillation to make an editor, agent, or potential reader ask, and then what?
Whether I'm writing copy for my own website or being interviewed by a reporter about my debut novel, I need to have that language so solidly ingrained in my brain that there is zero risk I'll answer the "what's your book about?" question by stammering, "well, there's this guy who does some stuff, and then things happen."
Being able to describe your story well doesn't just help you. It helps your agent. It helps your editor. It helps your reader.
Trust me on this – it's a skill you'll need for the rest of your writing career. Learn it now. Learn it well.
And write the damn query letter.