Pub Rants

Query Talk: Demon’s Lexicon

 15 Comments |  Share This:    

STATUS: I’m finishing my review of this contract if it’s the last thing I do today.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? COME MONDAY by Jimmy Buffett

I have to say I found the discussion about this query very interesting. I have to remember that most of my blog readers don’t spend hundreds of hours reading thousands of query letters. (If you ever get the chance to intern at an agency, I think it would be a real eye-opening learning experience).

So let’s talk about this query and queries in general some more.

1. It’s more important for a query concept to be original than for a query to be perfect.

Sarah’s query for DL is far from perfect. I didn’t post in my blog as an example of that. I’ve read hundreds of “perfect” queries that didn’t have an original story to offer (at least as presented in the query).

Now, this isn’t to say that you shouldn’t spend your time getting a query letter critiqued and perfecting it to the best of your ability. I do think that helps the cause but for the most part, agents aren’t looking for perfection. We are looking for a story spark—something we haven’t seen before—and this is so hard to define because often we won’t know it until we see it. Then it’s compounded by the whole subjectivity issue. When I talk about Jamie’s query, I’ll go into a little more depth on that. His query worked for me but Jamie also sent that same query to an agent friend and it didn’t float his boat at all. Purely subjective.

But back to Sarah’s DL query. Do you know what in that letter caught my attention? It was her outline of the family dynamics unfolding (albeit set in a fantasy world). Seriously, that’s what snagged my interest. So often I get these really distant, lacking-in-emotion fantasy query letters about three folks who end up on a quest but there’s no sense (in the query) of any real, interpersonal relationship dynamics which forms the heart of any story—regardless of genre.

Nick’s mom had an affair with a dark magician and because of her, Nick and his brother have to spend their lives on the run, and Nick is embarrassed that his mother had the affair to begin with.

That strikes me as pretty accurate as to how a 16-year old would feel about it. That alone caught my attention. I actually didn’t care what the rest of the query letter said. Now I did keep reading to get more details (and the possible romantic triangle caught my eye as well) but ultimately I knew I was going to ask for sample pages because I had NEVER BEFORE SEEN this scenario in a fantasy query letter—despite the thousands I receive.

That’s it. Simple. No need to analyze whether the grammar was perfect. Heck, I make enough snafus on my own blog that I’m not one to judge. I’m pretty flexible because grammar errors can be easily fixed. Everything else about writing such as voice? Not so easy. In my mind, the author had captured that sense of teen angst about all relationships which feels authentic. If she manages to capture the same in the manuscript itself, then I know I’m in for a good read, which leads me to point two…

2. You can have the most perfect and original query letter in the world and if you can’t back that up with good sample pages, it doesn’t really matter how great the query letter is. Sarah’s query letter is just fine–not spectacular–but the sample pages were unputdownable from page one.

Don’t lose sight of that.

And here’s my last point of the day. I often think that writers want the holy grail of query letter writing. That if I do X (and just tell me exactly what X is) in the query letter, then I’ll get an agent and a book sale.

It doesn’t work that way. It’s an aligning of several factors and then having that all come together because the query caught the agent’s attention, the agent loved the sample pages, then the manuscript was strong, and then editors loved it and then once published, the readers loved it and then…

It’s magic.

15 Responses

  1. kris said:

    If the query did the trick of getting an agent to request the ms, you’d have to say it’s good. To say it isn’t good sort of misses the point that it served its crucial purpose. It’s good. It’s fine. You can’t admit it because you don’t know magic from tragic. This is all a game. Too bad most people lose the game, making it seem so evil, and in the end it’s all meaningless, except to those who embrace deception for their misdirected reasons.

  2. Anonymous said:

    From the look of the query posted on Friday, it had to be more than a page long. Every source I’ve seen says keep your query to one page — and yet every query I’ve seen presented as an example of a great query was obviously two pages long. So which is more important?

  3. JDuncan said:

    Thanks for filling us in, Kristen. I was really curious what it was exactly that sparked your interest. I hope the author didn’t feel bad with the discussion that went on, if she did indeed read it. My point wasn’t to rag on the query format. The ‘guidelines’ for query writing are just that, guidelines, and as you pointed out, queries seldom if ever adhere to all of them. She got across to you a unique aspect of her story, and really that’s all any writer should be trying to do. I had no idea what you found intriguing was something one rarely sees in queries for fantasy stories. Having written a fantasy, it certainly gives me something to think about.

  4. jjdebenedictis said:

    Anon 9:45PM,

    It looked like it would fit on one page to me – once all Kristin’s comments are taken out and it if were in 10pt font. Also keep in mind this sounds like a UK writer, and in the UK, A4 paper is the standard. It’s longer than the 11 inches that is standard in the US.

    Also, Kristin takes email queries, which means writers can probably be a bit flexible with the “one page” limit.

  5. Katie said:

    I think I kind-of am getting a good example of the subjectivity that you’re mentioning, Kirsten. I recently subbed some of my pages to my local RWA chapter for critiquing. Ditto with a couple of contests. I get some people who love my characters and where my plot is going, and others who simply are not interested in my stories in the slightest.

    I realized it’s a personal-preference-thing. You can’t please 100% of the people 100% of the time. My job is to learn to do an excellent job telling MY story… telling it in such a way that those who DO like the same kind of stories that I do, will enjoy it. There’s no point in trying to win over Sci-Fi readers, for example… or readers who love tons of heart-pounding action and suspense. My stories are intense on emotion, but the stories are just a twist off from everyday life.

    So… it’s the same with an agent. I have to find an agent who is one of those people who loves my kind of story! And then SHE will have to find an editor who ALSO loves my kind of story. Only then will they know how to package and present my story to reach all those readers out there who are looking for more of my kind of story! I know they’re there, but I have to find an agent and editor who also know they’re there and how to market to them.

  6. Katie said:

    One more comment here, about the whole “unusual” thing.

    Nathan Bransford’s little contest right now made me notice two things.

    One… there’s a lot of fabulous first-line writers out there.

    Two… 75% of their first lines are variations on the exact same theme… they refer to the hero already being dead.

    It makes me wondering how much all of those fabulous first lines are really going to stand out, when the next thought in my head is “Here’s yet another vampire or ghost story.”

  7. Katie said:

    I just went through and read all the comments from yesterday’s post. If I may be so bold as to say… I think the thing to learn here, is that there really isn’t a “right” way to write a query letter. All of the “rules” out there are merely the average of what helps to portray a book accurately to most agents. But query letter writing isn’t an exact science, any more than book writing is! Consider how Nora Roberts’ head-hopping hasn’t ruined her sales… Listen to someone pointing out Stephen King’s writing errors.

    It all boils down to this… the point in writing a book is to tell a story in such a way that it will appeal to a certain group of readers. The point to query letter writing is to portray that book in such a way that an agent can decide whether they thinks they can sell it. This book is obviously the type of book that Kristin feels she can sell, and the query letter succeeded in accurately representing it. It’s as simple as that!

    It’s kind of like search engine optimization for Google. People spend tons of time and money trying to manipulate things to get their website to the top, while Google is trying to sift through all the tricks and games so they can sort sites based on the content that’s actually there. Well… agents are trying to sort through tons of critiqued-to-perfection query letters disguising books that they’re not interested in. All they want to do is find books that they think they can sell. That’s their job, and that’s how they make their money.

  8. tonya said:

    I have been agonizing over my query letter recently and the comments Kristin provided caused a lightbulb to go off. It isn’t just telling an agent what your book is about because, as they say there are only so many stories out there. It is somehow presenting what is unique (without of course bragging, posturing, droning, meandering, etc.) about your story. Why is this boy meets girl story different from the millions of others out there?

    Now if I can just figure out the answer to that question, I will be golden. Thanks, Kristin for helping to demystify the process and sharing your insights. You are very generous with writers to take the time to do this.

  9. Bernita said:

    Hey, Katie, in mine it’s not the hero who is dead, and the story is not about vampires.
    I hope, however, my query will make that difference clear.

  10. Anonymous said:

    There’s actually a book out called Night Life by Rob Thurman (came out last year) that’s about two half brothers on the run from the youngest evil demonic dad. They too have a strong bond. The oldest watches out for the youngest.

    It’s an urban fantasy as well but its not in the Young Adult section. Althought the youngest is about 18 I think.

  11. Anonymous said:

    This advice is a life-giving force.

    I was strangling my query. Now it will breathe.

    Thanks, Kristin. Thank you so much!