by Sophie Perinot
Query letters (*sigh*). Most writers would rather gnaw off their own arm than write one. But, if you want to make a run at acquiring an agent and getting a traditional publishing deal, there is no escape—write one you must. There’s a lot of chatter out there in writer-land about “the rules” of querying. Don’t believe me? Peruse the archives for any of the dozens of excellent agent or author blogs, or head over to one of the on-line writing communities (AgentQuery Connect is my personal favorite) and count the number of threads/posts devoted to crafting, critiquing and editing query letters. But one of the most important elements of a successful query is often overlooked in those numerous and lengthy discussions—voice.
This is a major oversight. I would posit that snagging an agent with a good query is NOT merely about what you say but is equally about HOW you say it. For those of you who have seen “The King’s Speech” (and if you haven’t, forget reading my post and get yourself that DVD) think of the moment at Westminster Abbey when Geoffrey Rush (playing speech therapist Lionel Logue) asks Colin Firth’s George VI of England, “Why should I waste my time listening to you?’ The King’s answer. . . “Because I have a voice.” If you want agents to listen to you, to pay attention to the punchy mini-synopsis of your oh-so-clever plot that you spent a gazillion drafts perfecting, then you’d better let the voice that imbues your manuscript sing out from your query letter as well.
Why is voice the forgotten step-sister of the query letter discussion and, consequently, MIA in so many structurally sound query letters? I think there are a couple of reasons.
Voice is not easy to define. There is no nice little check-list of steps that I (or anyone) can give you to follow in order to make certain that your query letter has voice. But I think every writer can learn to recognize the presence or absence of voice. As Justice Stewart said (in his concurring opinion in Jacobellis v. Ohio) “I know it when I see it”—okay, okay Justice Stewart was talking about obscenity not voice, but substitute the word and the point is the same. You can spot voice even if you can’t define it. You just need a little practice. Next time you sit down to read query letter examples (you can always head to the threads full of queries posted for critique at various writers’ sites for this exercise) don’t fall into line-edit mode. Don’t look for the flaws in the hook; point out the missing comma in the second sentence; or immediately notice that the writer has mentioned too many characters by name. Read the entire letter beginning to end rapidly to get a “feel” for it. Does the letter set a mood? Does it have a distinctive tone? Is the author’s style of writing consistent from beginning to end? Does the query create a world that you are sucked into (even if it is only for three brief paragraphs)? If the letter does any of those things, then—ding-ding-ding we have a winner—the letter has voice.
Voice is very individual. Once you’ve learned to sort query letters into “voiced” and “voiceless” piles you can’t merely use the queries that have a clear voice as a template for your own. Rats. You need to go back to the roots of the story you are trying to pitch—your manuscript. What tone and style of writing do you use to tell your story? If you were writing a blurb for the back cover of your novel how would it read? DON’T over think this (yes, I can see your brow furrowing already from my desk in cyberspace)! Just grab your keyboard and pound out one or two draft cover blurbs. Do they have voice? If so, imo, you are well on your way to a great query. All you have to do is massage those blurbs to make sure the critical information (hook, mini-synopsis, closing paragraph w/stats) agents expect in every query are all there. Remember, however, this “voice” approach does not mean writing your query in the same POV or tense as your book. Queries need to be third person present tense. It does mean creating the same ambiance.
Nothing kills voice like committee. Read that again. This is the most heartbreaking of my points. You’ve learned to spot voice. You’ve gotten back in sync with the voice that drove your manuscript and you’ve drafted a query letter that you believe employs that same voice. But you can still blow it by editing the voice out—often with the help of others.
Now it is wonderful (truly) that we writers have so many on-line resources today. Besides asking our faithful critique partners to take a look at our draft query, we can post it and get dozens of opinions from fellow writers. We can then re-post a newer version of our query and get opinions all over again. And somewhere along the way, in trying to incorporate all those suggestions (yes, even the excellent ones) we can stamp out all the voice our poor little query letter ever had. If you can bear one more quote, as Lady Bracknell says in The Importance of Being Earnest, “I do not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance. Ignorance is like a delicate, exotic fruit. Touch it, and the bloom is gone.” Now this time you need to substitute “voice” for ignorance. When improving your letter (and I am NOT suggesting that you cannot learn from others, or that you cannot edit a letter in a way that is beneficial) take care that voice is not trampled under foot.
Don’t let other writers re-write your query for you in their own style (I am sure I am oft guilty of this in my query critiques and I take this opportunity to publicly offer a mea culpa for such behavior). Err on the side of voice. Be prepared to ignore people. If you feel that making your letter fit a format or satisfy a majority of those who commented will destroy the voice of the letter step slowly away from the precipice. Thank everyone politely and then stop checking that darn comments thread. And remember that every comment should be “gut” checked. Trust your gut. Your gut (and your brain) wrote your manuscript. That puppy is probably 80k words so your gut and your brain can manage 200-300 words worth of query. I guess the position I am ultimately taking is: maybe a little feedback is better than a lot when you are trying to develop and project your author-voice. I would never have wanted 10 or 20 (let alone 30 or 50) opinions on my query. I got four. If that is heresy so be it.
What do you think—is voice as crucial an element in your query as in your manuscript? Is it as important as a clear synopsis of the plot? More important? Can voice alone can generate requests? Do you have a useful test/method to share for identifying writing with voice?