Friday, May 25, 2012

What a Query Is and Isn't

by R.C. Lewis

It's query-writing time!

I hear that groaning. That wailing. That gnashing of teeth. I also know not everyone is having that reaction, but the majority? Yeah, probably.

What is it about writing queries that makes so many writers want to forget they ever set pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard)? In my time critiquing queries and writing (and revising, and rewriting) my own, I've seen certain reasons come up several times. Often, there seems to be something behind the protest—a misconception of what a query is, what it does, and how it fits our role as writers. I'll try to address some of the common ideas.

But I can't condense my 90k-word novel to 250 words!

Good! You shouldn't. A query is not a summary of your whole novel. Save that for the synopsis. (And even then, you're not going to include everything.)

Our task is not to squish the whole story into one page. It's to entice. A query is bait.

Dammit, Jim, I'm a doctor novelist, not a salesman!

A query is not a smarmy, slick, hard-sell sales pitch, so don't try to make it one. Stating in the query that this is the most amazing novel ever written, and if the agent doesn't act now, now, NOW they're going to miss out ... yeah, never a good idea.

At the same time, what's wrong with "selling it"? This book is your baby. Who better to convey its awesomeness? My parents aren't salespeople by any means, but the way they talk me up to people, I look pretty amazing. When you love something, "selling it" should be natural and sincere. A query is a vehicle for us to show the awesome.

I have to include all this background, or the story won't make sense!

No, you don't. A query is not a primer for your novel. Remember what I said above about not condensing the whole story? About how the query is bait? Think fly-fishing. What goes into those fancy little flies-that-don't-look-very-insect-like-to-humans? Someone had to learn how to make them, obtain supplies, actually make them, prick themselves a few times on hooks, and learn how to properly cast the fishing rod. All of that is critical to the desired end-result of catching a fish.

The fish doesn't need to know about all those steps. A query is sleek and efficient, despite the agony, trial-and-error, and days/weeks/months it takes to craft it.

I can't say what it's about without giving away the whole story!

Yes, you can. Have I mentioned yet that a query isn't a summary of the whole thing? That a query is bait to entice?

For my latest manuscript, I made a concerted effort to arrive at a nice high-tension turning point right around page fifty. That way, any agents who read partials first would (hopefully) be dying to see what happened next and request the full. When I went to write the query, I realized that tight first fifty was all I needed to focus on, with just a hint of why that turning point was going to bring a big mess of uh-oh for the rest of the story.

Incidentally, for the synopsis? Yeah, giving it away, baby. No holding back.

Queries are an instrument of the devil and are good for nothing but torturing us!

I know there are times when it certainly feels that way, but I believe there's value in the query-writing process. Even if you plan to self-publish, you'll need to write a book description or jacket copy that does essentially the same job. The more I embraced a positive attitude toward queries, the more cohesive and well-shaped my stories became. The query informs the story just as the story informs the query.

A query is not evil. A query is a tool you can tame, making it work for you.

It's okay if there's a little teeth-gnashing in the midst of the process, though. We're only human, after all.

What's the biggest roadblock you run into when writing queries? How have you gotten around it? What aspects do you continue to struggle with no matter what you try?

R.C. Lewis teaches math to deaf teenagers by day and writes YA fiction by every other time. You can find her at Crossing the Helix and Twitter (@RC_Lewis).



Elana Johnson said...

Yes! Heck to the yes. This is why I love writing queries. Great post!

Angela Ackerman said...

I actually enjoy queries! Once I figured out what they are (and what they aren't), it tied right into my natural interest of marketing.


MarcyKate said...

I kind of love queries, actually. I often write the first draft of them BEFORE I've finished the draft of my WIP because it helps me stay focused on the core plot. Great post! :D

JeffO said...

The good side of querying is that it can help you find things missing in your manuscript that you just don't see in reading it anymore. It makes you really think about what your story is ABOUT, and that's a good thing. My problem is it's hard to be brief; I always feel like I'm missing something.

Lynn Proctor said...

you make it sound a whole lot easier!

Suzi said...

I've read several times (from agents) that a query is supposed to be like the back of the book.

I don't get why they say that, because you need to reveal things in the query that you wouldn't to a reader.

I don't mean the ending, but there are important details that make my story different that I don't want to reader to know before hand. But the agent should so they can see, hey that's what makes her story stand apart from the others.

So it took me a while to figure this out. I know now.

Jolie du Pre said...

The only roadblock I have struggled with when it comes to writing queries is length. I always want to make sure I create my query in the proper length.

Precious Monsters

Jean Oram said...

I like your parents analogy.

What do I find hardest about queries? Giving it the smooth and charming and unique gloss that makes it a fun read.

Jemi Fraser said...

Great post, RC! I'm still struggling with learning to love the query. I always want to go too far into the story. I'll keep working at it!

I hadn't thought about having an intense scene around the 50th page - that's great advice!!

Ciara said...

Great post. I think there are many authors that struggle with this. This is a great resource.

R.C. Lewis said...

Elana, Angela, and MK: Always glad to find others who've found the positives in query-writing. :) And MK, as you know, I've done the same, drafting a query before the ms is done. It really does help me stay locked in on the driving force of the story.

Jeff, so true. If we can't get a handle on what the story's ABOUT (which the query helps us do), the story may be too unfocused.

Lynn, I try. :) But this is wisdom gained after going through the process a few times and critiquing countless queries. I didn't always get it.

Suzi, that's true. A query should be like the jacket copy of a book in the sense that both must entice the target reader to take a look inside. But you're right that (depending on the story), the jacket copy might be a little more of a tease, keep some things a little more obscure, than a query might.

Jolie, that is the trick. Keeping it concise, not bogging yourself down too much in the details, yet making it intriguing with enough uniqueness ... definitely a balancing act.

Thanks, Jean. As far as getting it all glossy and charming, I think a lot of that is accomplished by making sure you get the right voice in it. Sophie had a great post about that a while back.

Jemi, that's the only way to get better at it, just like anything else—keep working at it. :-D

Thanks, Ciara! Glad you found it useful. :)

Charmaine Clancy said...

I think queries feel horrible because psychologically you feel like you've finished with the writing part - you've written a manuscript, polished it and now you're expected to put effort into the covering letter. They are necessary though if you are targeting a traditional publisher and as you say, even if you self-publish you need to have blurbs and synopsis' to help sell that story.

thewritingblues said...

I can't say I love query-writing but I don't dread it. I think I dread the elevator pitch most of all actually - trying to condense an unfinished, uncharted novel into one sentence is difficult to say the least.

This was a great article, thank you!

Debra McKellan said...

I'm not going to even pretend like I've looked at my query for the past 2 months. I'm too emotional over it. I'll look at it again soon...Kind of have to, I guess. -_-