Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Why query letters matter

Over the years, I've heard many authors snivel about having to write query letters.

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:

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.

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.


Jessica Bell said...

Well said! I'd always grumbled to myself, about writing them. But then I realized, um ... what am I going to write about this book on my website? Of course it's an excellent skill to have. Every author should learn how to do it well.

Rick said...

Great post, Tawna. I'm one of those freaks who actually enjoys writing query letters... in fact, I've found that when I have trouble with a novel, trying to boil the essentials down into a query letter (while still writing) really helps me to narrow my focus and identify the core of the story I'm trying to tell.

(This is how I finished my query letter 6 months before I finished editing my book. Shhh.)

Sarah said...

I wholeheartedly agree! When I got an agent, I thought my query-writing days were over. Nope. Every time I have an idea, my agent asks me to send her a query-length pitch. It's great practice for focusing my story, and she can use them, or versions of them, in her pitch letters. I haven't quite gotten to the point of needing back jacket copy, but hopefully someday :) Thanks for showing us the evolution of yours!

lora96 said...

Very good! and timely for me....I thought my query letter was sharp and funny--sixteen agents disagreed so now I have to figure out what I'm doing wrong.

Juliana Rowland said...

All right....you've convinced me. It's time to bite the bullet and start working on that query. Because, of course, you're right. At the writer's conference I attended a few weeks ago, when asked what my current project was about, all I could say was, "Well, there's this girl..."

Blaire Kensley said...

Thank you for sharing that Tawna! I think that's something I sort of need to hear on a regular basis. Querying is not exactly my favorite or strength...but I won't stop trying. :)

Unknown said...

Well-stated advice ending with a kick to the seat of our pants!

I have found it very helpful to write the query letter before the book. That helps me to clarify my intentions and the story goal.

Ruth Madison said...

Agreed! I had a new person join my writing group a couple months ago. When asked what his book was about, he went on for about twenty-five minutes and didn't actually get to any clear point. I had to keep asking "Yes, but what is it *about*?" and finally got the answer a couple hours later. I told him he should work on his elevator pitch! He's going to need that clarity to actually get the book written, I think.

Unknown said...

I received about thirty rejections until I retooled my query. Four submissions later I had an agent.

A query will either open a door, or close it and yes, it's hard. If it wasn't hard, everyone would be doing this.

Good post.

Anonymous said...

I know, you're so right. I'm terrible at writing book blurbs, and the only way I'm going to get better at it is to practice. Even if I decide to publish as eBooks I'll still need to write the blurb. Probably even more so.

Kimberly Sabatini said...

Amen Sistah!

Dr. Cheryl Carvajal said...

This goes along with the pitch for your book when you are at a conference. If a prospective agent asks what your book is about, you can't just prattle on for 20 minutes and say whatever. Digging into it with style, brevity, and a real voice will make it far more likely that you'll get a chapter request. Bore the agent to death, and, well, isn't the agent dead?

Anne R. Allen said...

Important post. (Plus you cleverly got in a pitch for your book, which makes me want to read it immediately.)

This is why I suggest that all new writers--even if they think the probably want to go indie--should at least try the query process first. It helps you hone your pitch skills before you have to do it in front of the whole world. And who knows, it might just land you an agent.

Plus these days, you have to query book bloggers, and those queries are very similar to agent queries.

Roni Loren said...

I am in total agreement. After turning in my second book to my editor (the first book I've never written a query for), I got that lovely--here's marketing's proposed back cover copy for your book, I'm not in love with it, tweak please--email.

And my editor was right, the marketing dept. had put together good cover copy for a book but it didn't really match MY book. They didn't know the nuances by just reading the synopsis. So I had to rewrite the whole back cover copy. Which, in essence, is a query. It's a skill you have to use over and over again (same goes for synopsis writing.)

Anonymous said...

Absolutely LOVED this. Thanks for showing the evolutionary process. It's appreciated. :-) ~Ali

Leona said...

I fall under the grumbling a lot--but I'm grumbling a lot precisely because I understand how important a skill it is. I've paid for two query workshops (yes, it went quicker the second time) even though I'm not a traditionally published writer.

I understand too well that I need to be able to "pitch on demand" and can't seem to master it. Even if I manage to get the nice balance of plot and character, I always lose the voice. And it's my voice that makes my stories different then the next one.

Sigh. Great post, good delivery, as usual, and can't wait to get paid on my new job so I can afford your wonderful, crazy sounding book.