Yes, this is filled with whisky

Yes, this is filled with whisky

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Notes from the incoming query holding pen

This morning I checked my voracious spam filter (Priscilla Queen of the Just Desserts) and found an incoming query. (Priscilla is fierce but slightly stupid, bless her heart.)

I had to look at the email to make sure it wasn't spam and from the first glowing sentence, I knew I was in the presence of someone who could really REALLY write.

Her query did the ONE thing it needed to: it enticed me to read the book. It enticed me to read something that might not be finished, on a topic I normally hide under my desk to avoid.

And earlier this week I got a query that was a total disaster in paragraph one, and got better in paragraph two but not until the final sentence did it hook my interest. And it did.  One sentence. At the end.  And it did what a query letter needed to do: enticed me to read the project.

I mention this because many of you are getting the idea that your query letter has to be "perfect" to elicit a YES, SEND from an agent.   There are a number of sites (my QueryShark included) that show you how to polish and hone queries.  Workshops and conferences abound with presentations on How To Write The Perfect Query.  You can buy six books on the subject without leaving your desk chair if you click on any writing reference section of an online bookstore.

But the  unvarnished truth is this: good writing and enticing concepts trump form. Almost every time.

It doesn't hurt to polish your query. It's better that you do.  But it's not a checklist.  You can make mistakes; you can break rules and still get YES, SEND from me.

I'm always looking for that one project that makes me forget it's raining and I have to go to work on a crowded subway in five minutes.  I'm always looking for the one project that makes me want to stay home and read it NOW.

I can and do overlook all sorts of "mistakes" when the writing is brilliant or the concept is hot. 

Every agent I know feels the same way.


Stephsco said...

Encouraging! The other side of the issue though, is most people think their idea and writing is good enough to be published, even if it isn't the case. I'm wondering if the slush pile is kind of like the hoards of potential contestants who try out for American Idol. I'm always shocked by how some auditioners truly believe they are star material and they can barely stay on key.

I don't intend this post to be mean, but I think it's hard for us (me included) to step back and truly evaluate the quality of our own work.

Page Traveler said...

I agree with Stephsco.

I, along with many writers, I'm sure, have my friends and family read my work and give me feedback. I'll get little comments here and there about things that could improve, but the majority of it is glowing. I'm smart enough to realize that it's because they support me and want me to do well, but it does make it hard to know whether it will appeal to a wider audience.

Any tips on how one can be more objective about one's writing?

Annie Ewing Rassios said...

In a query...
In addition to demonstrating I'm a brilliant writer, that my book will draw you into a journey you never want to end, and even has a plot -- would it be a) acceptable b) appropriate c) "Wow, please send" to include a marketing scheme to insure a successful launch?


Ali Trotta said...

So many times, your blog entries make me want to hug you (which is to say, as sharks are wont to do, click glasses) -- and this is no exception.

Thank you for this blog. It isn't just a learning tool for me, but a place of reassurance. Thanks for that, too. :-)

Kristen Smith said...

My gan, you're inspiring. You make me want to grab my tiny computer & make it do all sorts of incredible things. Reckon I should quit yammering on about it & put together something to get you that excited about my story. Being frightened of swimming with sharks is sure as hell not going to get my books in your hands or anyone else's. *filling up with determination...and chopping up better chum*

Debra Lynn Lazar said...

You continue to inspire me. I look forward to querying you again when I'm done w/my current wip.

Sheila JG said...

Page Traveler - try joining a writer's group (you can find listings at your local library, or join an organization based on your genre - SCBWI, RWA, MWA - they usually have local chapters). Or try an online site like Absolute Write. You will get back wonderfully honest feedback, and you'll learn even more by critiquing others.

gregkshipman said...

When I met your intelligencia self at a writer's conference a year and some finger-counting months ago I had one singular goal... to find the doorway to an alternate universe where laws are loose, women are looser and 1986 Porsche 944 Turbo's are free. Having failed in my quest my fall-back position now is to follow your blog, bask in the light of your intelligencia AND mourn the failed quest for free Porsches and looser women (fuck the loose laws... most laws were made to either be broken or make someone other than me rich!).

Thanks for this post. Your reputation grows in my failed-quest mind and someday soon (likely before the last polar bear eats his/her last seal... 2050-ish) I shall query Thy Greatness humbly (I added the ‘humbly’ to indicate ass-kissing)…

JS said...

I think sometimes it's easier to focus on the things you can be sure of (typos, for example!) and scarier to focus on the bigger picture.

This is a good reality check from the other side of the desk---thanks!

sherihart said...

You're such a champion for writers. Thank you for this.

Lydia Sharp said...

Very well said.

Escape Artist said...

I love that you said that. Just love it! It's such a difficult thing to balance your query to perfection,only to realise there's just an awesome mistake after hitting send! It happens!
The query you thought said enough, didn't say what it should. It happens, but we ALL make mistakes...each and every darn one of us! It's good to remember that!
: )

Keisha Martin said...

Janet, you are so freaking awesome, I hope your clients understand what a fierce gem of an agent you are to them, I needed this sometimes I get in the zone and say it will never happen and I am so hard on my writing but this post gave me the light of confidence to say to myself maybe it just might be good enough. Sending *hugs* at a distant I am very scared of sharks, and dogs, cat's and pretty much many other animals. LOL (its true)

Beth said...

You're the BEST!

Max(imus) said...

Super cool to read, I'm on board with the others. Though I'd like to think myself brilliant - my mom certainly thinks so... - I do stress over the query following the checklist.

@ Page Traveler: workshops may be your rout, but I'd offer another option as well: I've read that getting a reader to tell you their *reactions* is the best way to use those who are near and dear. Though they may not tell you to change something, they should be happy to let you know the moments where your story left them confused, happy, depressed, etc. Assuming yours don't already perform in like manner :D

Mason Ian Bundschuh said...

Wow! In one swift blog post you freed me from the nagging and shadowy query dread.

It IS about the writing and the idea, not about a precise jumping through hoops of form.


TC Avey said...

Thanks for the encouragement! I needed to hear that!

wry wryter said...

Okay, so I’m reading this post a day late,(head cold knocked me on my ass) but as a published author I have to splash a bit with you guys.
I have done all of the ‘write’ things.
I took two creative writing classes, joined a writing group, sold old-gold to take a third class, taught, by two very talented authors/editors/college level educators. My ancient copy of Strunk and White is falling apart. When I finished my book I made copies that were passed around the writing group. Comments given, changes made and every single person who read it said, phenomenal, their word, not mine.
Wrote a gazillion query re-writes until it was perfect, at least the editors said it was. Twenty–three agents, and guess what boy and girl bites. I've been licking my wounds.
So I’m taking a chance. I’m diving back in the tank, where they circle day and night while we watch in awe. I’m not Katherine Stockett, I may not make it to 60 agents, but I’m not giving up yet.
Why, because I’m a God-damn good writer, with a hell of story. I’m humble too...can you tell. of you for me, my query is floating your way, again.

(Whew, my fins are trembling.I'm not usually so dynamic, I think it's my cold meds.)