Blast from the Past #2: Learnings about Query Letters

On Saturday, I’ll be hosting a Craft Workshop on Query Letters for Delve members and a select few invited guests. In advance of that, here’s a post from December 16, 2007:

Let me begin by saying I do not have an altar in the corner of my room with a picture of literary agent Kristin Nelson. If I did, it definitely would not have red candles, a dadaist impression of her PubRants blog made from pickles and marshmallow rabbits, or clippings of her hair. Because that would be weird. Who would put candles next to human hair? If there was a fire, think of the smell.

This is not in my house, nor is it dedicated to Kristin Nelson.

This is not in my house, nor is it dedicated to Kristin Nelson, which is not to say she doesn’t deserve an altar or two. She’s an amazing agent and a great resource.

I will say this, however: Kristin Nelson (who generously contributes her time and talent to leading incredible seminars at PPWC and other conferences) taught me everything I could ever hope to know about writing query letters. I have no desire to plagiarize any of her content here. Check out Pub Rants and you’ll be delighted to learn all kinds of insider agent information, read successful queries, and just generally be delighted by insightful, fun writing about the world of publishing.

I do, though, want to share a tip or two that clicked in my head thanks to her help. For years I struggled to write a query that would adequately convey what my novel was about. This always seemed vaguely insulting to me. If I could convey my story in a paragraph, why would I have bothered to write 100,000 words in the first place?

Anyway, the two things I learned about query letters that changed everything for me are these:

1) Everyone knows that a query is a short letter about your book designed to convince agents or editors to acquire your work, but did you know: the query is not a short letter about your book designed to convince agents or editors to acquire your work? Firstly, and perhaps more obviously: your goal is not to get them to acquire your work. You just want them to ask for more, the first 20 pages or, if you’re lucky, the whole thing. But more importantly, the query is not a letter about your book. Even if you’re not sometimes afflicted, as I am, with verbal incontinence, it would be really hard to turn 100,000 words into 100. No…the query is not about your book. It’s about your hook. If you try to make your query paragraph a highlights reel of all the best parts of your story, you’ll end up with a choppy, confusing, befuddled mess. You’ll oversimplify your gloriously complex effort and probably bore your reader to boot. Don’t synopsize. Spear your readers through their figurative little fish cheeks with your hook.

2) Voice is vital. Back when I taught test prep, I would often give my students an exercise to help them with their grad school admissions essays. I would tell them to make a list of all the adjectives they could think of to describe themselves (smart, driven, passionate, etc.). I would then tell them to narrow the list to three or four key adjectives. As soon as they had their lists, I’d tell them to promise to NEVER use a single one of those words in their essays or application materials. Instead, I told them to demonstrate those adjectives with stories from their lives. As far as the query goes, I’d suggest a similar challenge. As much as you might like to write that your book is a “funny, compelling, suspenseful tale about a brephophagist who likes to take kriobolies,” force yourself to show those adjectives. Make your writing in the query letter funny, compelling, and suspenseful when you describe your ram’s-blood-bathing-baby-eater.

Anyway…Kristin is much better at this than I am. Check out her Pub Rants workshop f you haven’t seen it already. You’ll be happy you did.

Later this week, I’ll show my warts-and-all queries and describe how I managed to land my agent.

Stay tuned!

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