Monday, February 23, 2015

Query Question: I got help on my query, a lot of it.

I'm a first time novelist who is a month into the query process with limited success-- that is, I've gotten interest through my query letter and have sent out 4 full manuscripts and 3 partials (in addition to the 12 rejections I got from query alone). 

So far I've gotten three rejections for the manuscripts that I've sent. I've also noticed that any time I'm asked to submit sample writing with my query, I always get rejected. That might not mean anything (and we're still very early in the game, really, only 20 responses total so far), but the other part of the situation is that I hired someone to help me craft my query letter. She took two drafts of mine and put them together while altering quite a bit of it. She did an amazing job but now I'm concerned that agents are liking her voice, which might be misrepresenting my voice.

Was it a mistake to have someone else write my query letter? I figured, hey, I'm a novelist, I can't write concisely. But now I'm wondering if it would have been best to put my best voice forward since that's the voice I'm ultimately trying to sell.

Yes, this was an understandable but boneheaded error.  An agent is very interested in how well you write. Hiring someone else to do that writing is akin to hiring someone to woo your boyfriend and then popping in yourself for the wedding night.  Surprise!

And don't give me that hooey about "I'm a novelist, I can't write concisely"  Every single page of your book is made up of paragraphs. That's all a query letter is: three paragraphs.

And like anything else query writing is a LEARNED skill. There's an entire blog devoted to helping you acquire that skill.

Start over on the query. Write it yourself. Or better yet: work on your novel. You have prima facie evidence here that it's NOT working. 


Ardenwolfe said...

Exactly what Janet said. The agents love the style, voice, and professionalism displayed in the query letter. That's the point of one. It's to preview YOUR talent. Not someone else's.

As soon as they see and read your work, it becomes extremely obvious someone else wrote your query letter. Hence, the rejections that followed.

It's a hard lesson, but a good one. You can't skip the query process to mainstream publishing. It'll teach you more than you know about writing tight and to the point.

Writing takes time and patience to learn. No one crafts a masterpiece on the first go. Don't let legends tell you otherwise.

Write your own query letter. Yes, you're misrepresenting yourself and cheating a lot of agents of their time too.

Kitty said...

Hiring someone else to do that writing is akin to hiring someone to woo your boyfriend...

Think Cyrano de Bergerac (and Steve Martin's hilarious portrayal in ROXANNE).

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Steve Martin, ROXANNE, jeez I love that movie. The bar scene where he cracks jokes about his large proboscis is the best.

Some would think your query was simply some heavy handed editing. Nope. Don't confuse what an editor does with what we do.
We pick out the cloths and get dressed. Editors iron, clip errant threads and smooth the wrinkles.

MB Owen said...

Well...there's someone else writing it for you and then there's help. CP + Beta readers don't write our books but they do offer critical feedback as do other groups like SCBWI + Query Shark etc.

I did get the vapors on that phrase ... "I'm a novelist I can't write concisely..."because that's precisely what she should be doing.

Susan Bonifant said...

A writer-friend of mine, who could write a query like nobody's business, and got a request every single time, was also rejected every single time.

She retired the book, started over, wrote something completely different, sent her query, and boom. Her problem was that her heart wasn't in the original work.

I don't agree with shelving the query. From the writer's description, it appears to be a heavily edited version of the original work, yes. But if it's not misrepresenting the story, how is this different from other writers who compose fantastic query letters but less than fantastic stories?

What is clear, and what this writer is lucky to know, is that it is the story (or the telling of it) that needs more writer-love. I'd head that way.

Lisa Bodenheim said...

If I were this author, I'd take another look at my two rough draft query and compare with the current query to study the writing difference. Since there seems to be a high success rate with the other person's query, s/he knows what they're doing in the grammar, syntax, plot tension department.

Susan Bonifant said...

Somebody go pick up Colin. His bus broke down again, apparently.

MB Owen said...

Susan + Lisa - I agree with your comments: More attention to the story itself (writer love) + the mechanics to make the story taut + representative of the query (writer's voice).

Anonymous said...

Bless their little pea pickin' heart, but this questioner must realize if they've written a book, the writing must be precise.

No. Wasted. Words.

Recently, another blogger I follow recommended a book about writing, one I'd never heard of before. I've got FOREST FOR THE TREES (miss Betsy!) Stephen King's ON WRITING and THE SECRET WINDOW (thx Colin), Anne Lamott's BIRD BY BIRD, Gary Provost's MAKE EVERY WORD COUNT (hint, hint questioner) and a few others. This latest recommendation by another writer to writer's is called READING LIKE A WRITER, by Francine Prose. (Ha, what a great last name for a writer, no?)

"And why," some little woodland creatures might ask, "would any writer spend all that time to read such books?"

To learn how to write with an discerning eye on structure, plot, character development, dialogue, setting, and all the other zillions of things to consider whilst tapping away, but more importantly?

To write precisely.

And, this questioner I'm sure has heard the old adage, "kill your darlings," which is essentially learning to write precisely.

Colin Smith said...

I'm here! Look, it's not even 8:30 yet here on the East Coast. I don't do meetings this early!

Writer friend: One thing is very clear: the agents so far like the query better than the novel. And since you said "she took two drafts of mine and put them together while altering quite a bit of it" contrary to what some others are suggesting, I think Janet's correct: the voice in the query is more compelling than the voice in the novel. You suspect as much yourself, and you should know. The Cyrano de Bergerac comparison is quite apt here, I think.

You should stop querying, and take a moment to examine closely how your editor changed your work. How is it better than your attempts? Use this as a learning experience.

The harder pill to swallow is, perhaps, the realization that your novel may need more attention. Remember, the query isn't the main thing here. You're not trying to sell an agent on your query. You're trying to sell them on the novel. The job of the query is to get the agent to read the novel. If agents are reading your novel then the query has done its work. The query is like dissolving suture. Once the suture's work is done, it goes away (which reminds me of the Columbo episode, "A Stitch in Crime" starring Leonard Nimoy--one of my faves). It's easy to get caught up in writing the perfect query and forget why we write queries in the first place. If the novel stinks (not saying yours does), even the best query isn't going to persuade an agent to take you on.

I'd say, don't waste time on your query right now. Clearly something's not right with the novel. Give it another look. If you can afford it, perhaps have your query editor take a look at the first five (or fifty) pages of the novel. Don't ask them to revise it. Just ask for editorial tips--what's going wrong? Why do you think agents are rejecting it? How would they improve it? Then, once you've revised the novel, and hopefully learned a ton in the meantime, go back and re-write your query with your own hand.

I hope that helps.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Thank you Donna.

I've read all but READING LIKE A WRITER. I'm packing up the 1 year old and heading for BAM.
MAKE EVERY WORD COUNT is the book which changed everything for me (many many many ago) and got me published...invaluable.

Dena Pawling said...

I wrote my first manuscript, revised it until I “thought” it was good, then followed all the advice I'd read that said to let it sit for several months. I thought it needed something too, so I hoped that inspiration would come to me while it sat.

I wrote my second manuscript, revised it until I “thought” it was good, then wrote a query letter I thought was good, and found a freelance editor.

She earned her money on that one lol. I revised it more, then [because at this time I didn't have any critique partners or beta readers], I entered it into a few contests to get some feedback.

Now #2 is sitting and I've resurrected #1. During the down time, I figured out what it needed so I revised it AGAIN, and wrote a query letter. At this time I had three critique partners / beta readers, so I sent the entire package to them.

Lots more feedback on both the manuscript and the query letter, most of it really good suggestions.

Revised AGAIN. Sent the whole package to my freelance editor who, thankfully, didn't have to work quite so hard for her money this time. She also wrote that she loved it :)

I'm almost finished with the “final” revisions [hahahahahahahaha]. I have my list of agents I think will be a good fit for me. I hope to start querying in March.

I have NO IDEA whether I'll get any bites, but I learned so much from both my critique partners / beta readers AND my freelance editor that I know I would have received no interest if I'd queried without having done this process.

LynnRodz said...

As usual, this post comes at a perfect time. Last night I was working on my query (again) and getting nowhere fast. This has been going on for about a year and a half. Two weeks ago I thought I had finally written the perfect query so I gave it to my two beta readers. Well let's just say their excitement was on the level of 2Ns sitting in front of a plate of lima beans. So I can understand someone asking for help on the wedding night. (But not taking your place in bed.) I've been contemplating sending my query to Query Shark with fingers crossed hoping it will be chosen, but you need a finished manuscript to do that.

And that leads to my second problem. I'm at the tinkering stage where I can't let go. I change a word here and there, I take out a comma or a period and then put it back in. I've read my ms out loud over and over. I've recorded each chapter and listened to each one to see where the kinks are. But I'm afraid to say, "It's done, this is the best I can do." because I know it can always be better.

Sorry, I got sidetracked there. I agree with Colin, the query has done its job to get the guy interested, now it's your writing that has to charm him to want to stay and make a commitment. If agents are turning you down, then you need to return to your manuscript and see why. (Recording yourself and listening to your words is a great exercise to see if they flow.)

I thought GĂ©rard Depardieu was a great Cyrano de Bergerac. I forgot about Steve Martin in Roxanne, he was wonderful too.

Laura Brennan said...

For me, the key phrase was, "I've noticed that any time I'm asked to submit sample writing with my query, I always get rejected." I think focusing on the difference in "voice" between the query and the manuscript is a bit like looking for your lost keys in the wrong place just because the light's better over there. It may be easier to see, but it's not going get you in the door.

What feedback have you gotten on the novel? I agree with all of the above, what can you learn from the query rewrite that you can map onto your novel?

Stop querying until you can polish the manuscript. You're not trying to copy your query-writer's "voice," you're trying to make the novel so good that anyone who requests pages, partials, or fulls will fall madly in love with the writing.

Me, I love Janet's analogy: the wedding night is up to you!

Laura Brennan said...

Dena and Lynn both posted while I was typing -- oh, I feel you! The rewrites, the tinkering. I have one story that has gone through fourteen drafts; it is NOT thankfully my WIP, and will probably stay in the drawer forever because I just don't know how to fix the darn thing.

It's a romantic comedy, and I've since discovered I'm much better when I can kill a few people off...

S.D.King said...

I always have some book on the craft of writing out of the library - at all times. Here is how it works: I write until my behind hurts and I think that I am generating blood clots in my legs. I am satisfied with what I just wrote. Then I grab the book, and head to a comfortable chair. After 3 paragraphs I scream, "Oh! No!" and run back and spend the rest of my day fixing my manuscript. At least I am teachable.

Anonymous said...

I was the one who wrote this question and I admit, the answer stung! But I had a feeling it would.

Thank you Janet and thanks to all the commenters on this post for your helpful and eye-opening feedback. Ultimately I think the real problem is the manuscript itself-- I don't think it's where it needs to be.

Julie Weathers said...

Lots of good advice from everyone, particularly Miss Janet.

I started entering the writing contests, pitch contests, hog calling contests and everything else you could think of not long ago. Most don't have a lot of agents who rep epic fantasy, but I thought it would get me over my pitch fright.

I kept seeing people offering to edit pitches, edit the first 50, edit the first 250, edit the query and figured it all up. Then there were the ones who would flat out write my pitch or query. It would be more than I made in a month.

I popped onto Compuserve books and Writers and asked for advice. I promptly got a, "Why are you thinking of paying someone when you have us?"

So, we hammered out the pitch, the first five pages, the first chapter, the query, the synopses, and all of them wound up still in my voice because the suggestions that felt off I didn't use. The suggestions were free, so I didn't feel obligated to use them.

If you don't have a writer's group or beta readers, that's a good place to find support. We all need it.

"Was it a mistake to have someone else write my query letter? I figured, hey, I'm a novelist, I can't write concisely. "

Oh, darling, yes. Big mistake. Your voice comes through even in your query letter. Read along on the twitter hashtags #tenqueries or #querylunch sometime. "I love the voice in this query, Yes, please." "I like the concept, but the writing is so flat. No voice. Pass."

Read the Query Shark, Miss Snark, or Kristin Nelson's query archives. There's tons of voice in winning queries and you apparently have a ton of voice in yours, it's just not your voice.

As to the you can't write concisely, you better learn. I have a 150,000 word epic fantasy. Can some words be cut? I'm sure we can, but I'm a fairly lean writer and it's been gone over numerous times with beta readers. I know, you'd never guess by my posts I write lean.

Last week, I got a rejection from an agent I thought was a match made in heaven. He loved my kind of epic fantasy. He loved works with odd characters and a quirky sense of humor. He loved Friday Night Lights! Hey, they asked my son to be in the film! It was a sign. Plus the agent was wearing the cosmic blue shirt. *Dream Agent Alert*

I sent the query and five pages, confident he'd be asking for a partial. Two hours later. Hi Julie. Terrific world building. Very nice, clear and concise writing. Great sample. In the end....

Well, at least I know I'm clear and concise.

Rewrite your query and work on that novel. Find some beta readers.

You know, I have a scene in the new book where spiders lure unsuspecting prey into their caves with a scent. I had every intention of not doing anything other than writing when I first got up. Then I smelled honey.

Colin Smith said...

LynnRodz: I'm not sure you have to have a completed ms for QueryShark--though it wouldn't hurt in case Janet loves your query and wants to see pages. For Chum Bucket, definitely. As I understand it, Query Shark is like a query workshop. Chum Bucket is for query feedback (i.e., no form rejections, but either a "yes," or a "no, and here's why" to your query+5 pages). But Janet can confirm/deny.

Craig said...

And Lo, from the frozen wastes came a Voice. It was the voice of reason in these troubling times. Even the 4c fundamentalists paused in their quest for the cloned query.

As the voice reverberated through the frozen man made canyons and places even the snowmen shunned the message took deeper meaning.

The Voice was about voice. Your voice. Not the voice of the multitudes. You are a writer it said and your voice it what makes you so. Your query should be a reflection of you and your work. Don't sweat it so much that you lose your faith in that voice.

Angie Brooksby-Arcangioli said...

I can imagine wooing a gallery with another artist's paintings because their technique is better than lima beans. Then showing my own work and it's kale.

Colin said it better than I.

BTW I've never seen lima beans in Paris and kale is only used to decorate city gardens. We don't have snow either.

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

Oh ouch, that must feel kind of terrible. "Yay, they want to read my....oh. Nope, every time they do read my writing, they don't like it." In those shoes, I'd toss that query letter and do at least one more pass on the novel that I then had a Trusted Reader go over. Then write another query letter.

When I discovered I had to write a query letter in addition to the novel, my shock and appall was kind of like when I found out about childbirth ("It comes out of where?")

I know I'm not so great at summarizing things, and I know I have a hard time picking out the high points of a thing when relating them, because obviously, it's my book, and I'm so Goddamn excited about every obviously clever little bit I put in there. I'm waiting with bated breath to see if people get my reference to Hans Christian Anderson, or Greek mythology (hell, the entirety of my currently querying novel is a rewrite of a Greek myth) or or or....

But what I think is important is not what a reader might think is important. I have this problem in basic conversation, and have to be reminded that jokes are for other people. How to distill a novel into the fewest most effective words? I've got a folder full of query letters for that novel that I rejected myself, because even I knew they were bad.

Craig said...

Perhaps the lack of Lima Beans and Kale is why French politics is so unstable.

Lisa Bodenheim said...

Craig: POW! there's a punch!! Thank you for the morning's laughter. (oh, oh, am I in trouble now too?) Like your encouragement in "And Lo, from the frozen wastes"...

Jennifer R. Donohue: I'm lost in queryland too. I've tried several versions of query. Since I can't seem to write any that satisfy me I worry that perhaps my novel is unfocused.

S.D. King: "After 3 paragraphs I scream, "Oh! No!" and run back and spend the rest of my day fixing my manuscript. At least I am teachable." I guess the learning is neverending, isn't it? Really appreciated this comment. I do the same thing. Other times I just want to throw a tantrum.

Julie Weathers said...

You know it reminds me of a time on the ranch. We had one hen who really didn't like us robbing her eggs. Well, she solved the problem by harassing a duck off her nest and hatching them out.

She was a wonderful mother. She mothered over those oddball little babies of hers and woe be to anyone who came near them. Then one day, the baby ducks did what baby ducks do. They found the pond and went swimming.

Well, Mrs. Chicken almost lost her mind. She tried calling them back before they drowned but they just kept happily paddling around. Finally she waded out until all that was sticking up was her head. Those little delinquents still wouldn't come back. Well, they did eventually, but not before they were ready. Mrs. Chicken clucked and worried them far away from the pond and back to the chicken yard.

Sometimes it's better to just hatch your own eggs.

Janet Reid said...

^^and that my friends and blog readers is why I have loved Julie Weather for YEARS now.

AJ Blythe said...

Julie, brilliant!

I really should be heading to work now, so y'all are the reason I'm going to be late. I shouldn't have started reading.

Carolynnwith2Ns and donnaeverhart - the last thing I need are more craft books (not having read all the ones I have). But you can never have too many, right?

Colin, I hope your analysis of Janet's QueryShark and Chumbucket are correct because that's what I was aiming for (working on query at the moment for Query Shark, but with an incomplete ms). Ms Reid, can you please confirm?

As for the writer above, good on you for being reasonable about the rejections and analysing what is happening to improve. Attitude like that will get you far. Good luck with your new query.

Angie Brooksby-Arcangioli said...

Julie is queen. I think she has fierce style.

Mrs. Chicken needed a cowbird, one of those birds that lay eggs in other bird's nests. I just read they're called brood parasites.

No mothering. They have a reputation, can simply lay the novel egg and move on.

Christina Seine said...

This was a great blog entry. That chicken story was awesome. I'd personally rather swim in shark-infested waters wearing a meat helmet than write queries, but then I know people who think it's the funnest thing ever. Those people also write horror, which tells you something.
In my experience, having major trouble nailing a query has meant that my story wasn't really focused. So for me at least, it was less a problem of writing concisely (or persuasively) than the much bigger problem of having an overall flaw in the book – an ineffective character arc or plot hole. Recently, I’ve begun writing draft queries for books before I even start writing them. Of course a lot changes after I’m done, but this really has helped me. I’ve learned more about writing good queries from The Shark than all the books I’ve read. Some day soon, I may even find the courage to send in one of my own.

LynnRodz said...

Colin, thanks for drawing my attention to this! I would have sent a query ages ago. I don't know why I confused Chum Bucket with QS. I went back and looked through the FAQ, If You Want Your Query Posted Read And Follow These Directions and How QueryShark Works and you're right, there's nowhere where it says you need to have a completed ms to send in your query. I think what confused me were the times when Janet commented, "Send pages NOW! In fact, why are you still reading this?" Thanks again.

Laura, several people die in my WIP, but maybe I should kill off a few more. Hmm, it's a thought.

Julie, you are a wonderful storyteller!

Angie, as I'm sure you know, most produce found in the street markets are according to season. Right now you can't find lima beans in Paris, but look for them this Spring. They're usually around until the beginning of November. As for kale, I wouldn't know if it hit me over the head. Mmm, now Brussel sprouts they're in season right now and I love Brussel sprouts.

Colin Smith said...

LynnRodz: You're welcome!

Mmm... lima beans and Brussel sprouts. Sounds tasty! And before you nay-sayers start in with your nay-saying, I'm vegetarian, and there's a big advantage to having a broad appreciation of vegetables when you're vegetarian! :)

Megan V said...

This makes me think about the first time I braved the slush and sent out a query. I was 12 years old and eager and the query was my mother's handiwork, not mine. The letter summarized my *cough cough* obvious talent (for a twelve year old) and my amazing potential for success in the writing world. The result was a pile of (encouraging) rejections.

The reason Mom wrote my first query letter? She had this notion that she would be better at composing and sending a professional letter on my behalf than I would be. And being a naive young woodland creature, I was certain that Mama Bear knew best.
1. She wasn't the one who'd spent hours scribbling words in her journal on the school bus.
2. She'd never even read the manuscript.
3. All she had to go off of were some rambling summaries and my endless enthusiasm.

Now, I'm not saying that the manuscript was publishable. If anything that sucker should never ever see the light of day; it's that awful. But at age twelve, through the virtue of my own enthusiastic expression, I'd managed to convince my mother that it was worth putting my work out there and frankly, she's one of the toughest sells I know.

DLM said...

Megan V, that is BRAVE - even with Mama Bear.

I have nothing to add to the wise advice and comments, except to think ... it says something about my literary reference points that I never even thought of Cyrano, but went straight to Leah, Rachel, and Laban.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Craig, political analyst, Hahahaha.

Julie, quack, cluck.

Just two of the many reasons why I love this place.

S.P. Bowers said...

Voice is like an accent. You never hear your own. But that doesn't mean you don't have one.

Megan V said...

Diane, I'm not so sure it was brave. As a kid, I wasn't afraid, I just had no clue what I was signing up for—kinda like Julie's chicken when she signed up for the position of duck mama ;)

Christina Seine said...

DLM, I've always felt sorry for Leah. It seems to me that Rachel got the Scotch and Doritos, and Leah got the lima beans.

Colin Smith said...

Christina/DLM: Sorry, but that really doesn't work for me. I don't like Doritos, I don't drink Scotch (eek, have I just blacklisted myself from ever being one of The Fabulosity?!!), and I like lima beans. :)

Julie Weathers said...

Y'all are too kind. Now, if there were a market for stupid stories, I'd be golden.

Megan, I laughed. So true about growing up, but what a remarkable Mama you have.

Angie, yes, a cowbird would have been handy. I only became thoroughly acquainted with them after World Champion Dash For Cash had to be euthanized due to EPM and I did a story about it. It turns out cowbirds, possums and other creatures carry the disease and pass it in their droppings. Needless to say the birds weren't very popular around horse farms after it was pinpointed where the disease came from.

To the OP. Don't give up. You never fail until you stop trying. Find a writer support group. Swap critiques with others. Critiquing work teaches you as much, if not more, than having your work critiqued. Study how a favorite author writes. What do they do right? Read and read more.

Anonymous said...

Catching up on all the comments since I went underground after posting my little contribution yesterday and I"m happy to see ya'll were in fine form as usual.

Julie - the story of the chicken and ducks was spot on - great analogy and great storytelling.

I also wanted to say to @lupinlover to not lose hope. It's never over until you say it's over. Right? So what if the ms needs work. It's always going to need work, but like many others said, work on it and find writer groups/critiquers/whatever you need to do to get unbiased, honest feedback.

Larry Brown, a favorite writer of mine from Mississippi, who died WAY too young, used to chase after folks to get them to read his stuff. Sometimes, they didn't want to read it b/c it was pretty bad. When he finally got feedback, he listened, he learned, he read more books by writers he was trying to emulate, he found his own voice, and he became a great southern writer. He's a legend in Oxford at Square Books.

Just keep going. We're all hoping for the same things here, and all know how hard it is.

Jenz said...

It may be that writing quality isn't the real problem. Maybe the novel starts in the wrong place. Maybe there's too much exposition in the opening. There's a ton of things that can go wrong with an opening that really aren't about author's word-wrangling ability.

That's all the more reason why you need to get more feedback from other writers or an editor--not just readers, they're much more forgiving of problems that will spur an agent to stop reading.