Dispatch from Query Hell

Photo courtesy of Jacopo Werther

Photo courtesy of Jacopo Werther

I completed my first novel early this spring, and now, after many months of preparation, I’m getting ready to query.

“Query?” you ask, intrigued. “What is meant by this thing you call…’query?'”

If you are happily pursuing a sane career that does not involve seeking publication for your novel, this term will likely mean almost nothing to you. For you, “query” simply means what the dictionary says it means: “a question, especially one addressed to an official or organization.”

Seeing the word “query” doesn’t produce in you a host of intense and conflicting emotions: excitement, terror, frustration, confusion, hope and despair.

But for writers chasing the dragon of publication, this heretofore innocent word is enough to send you plunging into the drawer for the corkscrew, gnashing your teeth and rending your garments, cursing yourself and cruel fate for ever setting your foot upon this rocky path. In short, it’s enough to make you C-R-A-Z-Y. And if, like most writers, you started out a little kooky, you’ll just get crazier.

What “query” means to writers, you see, is this deceptively simple concept: a query is a short letter directed at literary agents, condensing the premise of your novel, your main characters, conflict and stakes, into around 250 words. It’s the “hook” that must convince an agent they want to read your novel, and ultimately, if your novel rocks, offer representation.

Everything is riding on your query. No matter how amazing your novel is, how beautiful and evocative the writing, it’s going nowhere if you can’t get an agent to look at it. Any hope you have of seeing your book published traditionally (self-publishing is a whole different world) hangs on writing a successful query.

It sounds easy. But for most of us – including me – it’s more like Advanced Calculus. (And if you know me, and remember my acutely stunted math faculties, you’ll understand this means it’s really, really challenging).

There’s a reason they call it Query Hell.

I have literally written at least 25 drafts of my query letter. As I’ve edited and revised my novel, awaited feedback from beta (test) readers, and researched agents, I have simultaneously been pulling my hair out over the query letter. I mean, seriously, condensing a 300-odd-page novel into a couple of short paragraphs is a mind-bender. And it’s a very different kind of writing vs. writing a novel. It’s more like writing an advertisement; convincing your audience to buy your product with a few deftly chosen, supernaturally compelling words.

Help me, Don Draper. You’re my only hope!

There’s no need for sarcasm, Don.

But there is help out there, and for what it’s worth, I’d like to share what I’ve learned about tackling the dreaded query letter. I am no expert. Like any other writer descending into Query Hell embarking on the query journey, I’m just a fellow traveler, learning as I go. These are the approaches and resources that have helped me immeasurably, and I hope they will benefit you, too. So, with all that in mind, read on for:

LEIGH’S DECIDEDLY UN-EXPERT QUERY ADVICE

1. Step back. Step waaaaaay back. Getting distance from my novel was necessary to even begin to think about the query letter. When I finished the first draft, it was like I’d emerged from a blizzard of words, and I couldn’t see my hands in front of my face. I had no idea what I’d done. I looked at what I had written and wondered, “What is this? Does it make sense? Is this even a story? Is this even in English?” My brain was toast.

As with editing, I was much more successful at writing my query letter once I’d stepped back from the book. For me, this meant a minimum of three weeks without peeking at it. My advice is to go and write something new, pore over writing resources on the Internet, take a walk, spend some time with the spouse/friends you neglected while you were writing the novel. Do anything, just stay away from that book.

2. Keep it simple. Einstein offers what is perhaps the best advice ever given on writing query letters: “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

Oh, ho! I despaired when I first saw this quote. Easy for you to say, Al! At that point, my early query letter draft was a page and a half long. It was more meandering and confusing than the dream I had recently of the Today show’s Savannah Guthrie and her Romany Gypsy mother (???) cooking lobsters for Good Husband and me. Like the dream, my query was kind of weird, sort of interesting, and mostly incomprehensible.

I had to shelve that early version and start over. I asked myself, “What, underneath subplots and a gaggle of characters, is my book really about? What is the heart of the story?” This line of thinking forced me to cut everything else away and ask this:

“Who is the main character, what does s/he want, what is keeping them from getting what they want, and what do they need to do to succeed?”

Sounds easy! Right?! [Cue maniacal huffing and chortling. And gurgling. Yes, gurgling.]

It wasn’t easy…at first. But I kept at it. I kept drafting, thinking, paring, and simplifying. You can always add some spice back in. You’ll need to, in fact, if you want those agenty eyeballs to stay riveted. As I continued to write draft after draft of my query, to cut to the heart of my story, I began to find the core thread. You will, too. And when it feels like an insurmountable struggle, see #1. Step back again. Take a break. Then come back.

3. Learn all you can. There’s a wealth of advice out there in the aether about writing query letters. Take advantage of that, but be careful. Make sure the advice you’re getting is coming from people who know what they’re talking about, with regard to query formatting, content, and other protocols and etiquette. That meant, for me, seeking advice from agents, editors, and writers who have themselves recently won agent representation thanks (in part) to their awesome query. I’ve read a ton of blogs and articles penned by these knowledgable folk.

But be prepared. A lot of expert advice is contradictory, too. It’s all part of the fun.

One blog every hopeful querier should visit is QueryShark. Literary agent Janet Reid (the titular Query Shark) takes time from her busy schedule to critique query letters, point out (bluntly, but not unkindly) what works and what doesn’t, and dispense a whole lot of good advice. Read the archives. You can see query letters go from “mess to success” and apply these lessons to your own query. Studying successful query letters is informative, and seeing what not to do can be as educational as seeing what works. And it’s entertaining, too. The Query Shark is funny as all get out, and when you’re deep in Query Hell, you need all the laughter you can get.

SlushPile Hell is another fun blog, offered anonymously by a self-described “grumpy literary agent and a sea of query fails.” I didn’t learn a lot from this site about querying (except that there are some very strange people out there), but the amusement factor is off the charts — both the excerpts from hilariously terrible real query letters, as well as the agent’s acerbic commentary. Each night before I go to bed, I pray to the old gods and the new that I never, ever see my own query letter on SlushPile Hell. Even though the proprietor of SPH protects the identities of the offending authors, I would still have to change my name and go underground.

4. Get help. No, not psychiatric help, but that might be needed, too, when it’s all said and done. The help I mean is feedback from an actual person(s) on your query letter.

The best, most valuable source of help out there, in my experience, is Query Drill.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could “test” your query on professionals (i.e. the people who decide the fate of queries in real life) and get feedback before you start sending it to agents for real? Wouldn’t you dance a jig of delight and gratitude if this were possible?

Query Drill offers just this opportunity.

Once I felt my query was in somewhat decent shape (after lots of research and countless drafts), I sent it to the good people at Query Drill. These guys are amazing! Query Drill is a free service, a team of volunteers comprised of slushpile veterans (agents, literary agency interns, editors, and the like) who invite you to “practice” querying with them. You send in your query letter (just as if you were querying an agent) and they reply. They tell you what they would do in a real querying situation (reject or request pages) and why. And you can revise and re-query as many times as you want — until you get it right.

Thank you, most generous and patient people at Query Drill. I would love to send you all chocolate and flowers and fluffy puppies.

5. Always remember, it’s a subjective business. No matter how good your query is (or your novel, for that matter), it’s not guaranteed to hook an agent. Agents are people, and they all have unique preferences and tastes. This goes for querying, and beyond that, the rule of subjectivity extends to an agent loving your book enough to offer representation. Market trends, which you cannot and should not try to chase, play a big part, too. Remembering this will (I hope) help me cope with the twists and turns, and emotional highs and lows, that surely lie ahead.

I hope it helps you, too. Query on, my friends, and good luck!

Have you begun the querying process? Or are you an indie author who is bucking the system and self-publishing? What are your experiences? And if you’re not a writer, what do you think of all this mishegas? Do tell!

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