Thursday, December 10, 2015

Why writing your query like a dust jacket isn't always sound advice.


I was actually a bit surprised to hear Janet say not to write a query like a dust jacket. She is actually the first person I heard say that is a bad thing. A dust jacket is meant to hook the reader. So, what makes it bad for a query? I kind of expected an elaboration in her hand-out since she was challenging a common statement, but alas, I did not see one.

QOTKU, if you're reading this, can you explain further? 

Always happy to elaborate on those counter-intuitive suggestions!

Here's the flap copy for Mission to Paris by Alan Furst. I love this book. I picked it at random from my shelf as an example.

It is the late summer of 1938. Europe is about to explode, the Hollywood film star Fredric Stahl is on his way to Paris to make a movie for Paramount France. The Nazis know he's coming --a secret bureau with the Reich Foreign Ministry has for years been waging political war against France, using bribery, intimidation, and corrupt newspapers to weaken French morale and degrade France's will to defend herself.

For their purposes, Fredric Stahl is a perfect agent of influence, and they attack him. What they don't know is that Stahl, horrified by the Nazi war on Jews and intellectuals has become part of an informal spy service being run out of the American embassy in Paris.

From Alan Furst, the bestselling author, often praised as the best spy novelist ever, comes a novel that will have you reading "just one more page" until you're done. Mission to Paris includes beautifully drawn scenes of romance and intimacy, and the novel is alive with extraordinary characters: the German Baroness von Reschke, a famous hostess deeply involved in Nazi clandestine operations; the assassins Herbert and Lothar; the Russian film actress and spy Olga Orlova; the Hungarian diplomat and spy Count Janos Polanyi; along with the French cast of Stahl's move, German film producers, and the magnetic women in Stahl's life, the socialite Kiki de Sainte-Ange, and the émigré Renate Steiner.

But always at the center of the novel is the city of Paris, the heart and soul of Europe--its alleys and bistros, hotels grand and anonymous, and the Parisians, living every night as if was their last.  As always Alan Furst brings to life both a dark time in history and the passion of the human hearts that fought to survive it.


Now, can you tell me what the plot of the novel is?
Can you tell me what problem the hero faces? What's at stake for him?
If you can, you're a better intuitionist than I. 

Right now this tells us who the players are, and when and where the story takes place but not much else. 

That's death in a query. I must know what the story is. A query doesn't have the luxury of drawing on established fans' knowledge of the author's work. I don't even read the flap copy for Alan Furst's novels any more. I just buy them.


A query has to entice me to read the novel. The best way to do that is engage me with the story. Flap copy isn't always a reliable model for that, plus it talks about the author in the third person and that's just bad writing in a query.

Does this help?

48 comments:

Lucie Witt said...

Interesting clarification. It seems like the back of the book (advice I hear often, too) approach only works when you're reading back copy that reads more like a query.

A quick scan of my bookshelves this morning looks like speculative/genre fiction backs read much more like queries than literary books.

Also, good morning everybody. We're almost to Friday.

Lisa Bodenheim said...

okeydokey. Another book to put on my TBR pile after the increasingly and wonderfully long list from yesterday.

There are so many different ways for an author to try to sell their book--a query, synopsis, logline, pitch, and dust jacket. I think that's it.

So our job as authors is to think about who is the audience for each one and what is the intent or focus for each of those terms.

Lucie Witt said...

One more thing I noticed - the more established the author, the less they try to hook you on the back (comparing Nora Roberts to a YA debut on my shelf).

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

"Entice" and "engage" two words which always establish relationships, be them ancillary, skin-to-skin or eye to page.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Got it. Great. And once more my TBR grows. But eye opening for us here in the query trenches. Now coffee...

DLM said...

And now we know: the etymology for "query" comes from the Latin for "burned at the stakes."

Comments are showing up in a very wee Times New Roman. I need caffeine and spectacles.

Good morning, Lucie!

MB Owen said...

Lisa, I agree with that TBR comment. I have 23 books from last year to get too, and with so many others selected from yesterday's comments. I either need more bookcases or a bigger floor.

This post was especially helpful, insightful, all those words that can be attributed to JR. Love a contrarian filled with sound reasoning. That's why this is my first blog I go to in the morning while my brain waits for the tea kettle to boil.

Good morning everyone.

Colin Smith said...

Yes, I think Lucie has the sum of it: Writing a query like dust jacket copy only works if the dust jacket copy reads like a query. I think it's actually easier to follow Janet's guidelines: who's the main character, what's the problem, what's at stake? Give a sense of the book's style (if it's humorous, be witty; if it's suspense, leave me on the edge of the seat), and make the agent want to read your ms. That sounds like a tall order, but I think that's a lot easier to follow than "write it like dust jacket copy."

nightsmusic said...

@DLM, I have my spectacles on and still can barely read it. Good morning to you too, Blogger!

This is an interesting example to me because the first two paragraphs of that flap copy give me all the basics of the story. So if the third covered the stakes involved, would that still not be good body to send? I'm not explaining this very well, but by the third paragraph, I would expect to see the; The attack and consequent imprisonment halts Stahl's chance to pass on information that could bring a swift end to the war. The cat and mouse game that ensues at the prison camp while he makes his plans to escape...yada yada.

I don't know. I'm asking. It's too early in the morning and my head is spinning from the hour ride to work still.

BJ Muntain said...

I suppose jacket copy uses whatever the publisher thinks will sell the book to readers.

If the author has a Name - they are already known for something, like writing best-selling novels or they're a celebrity of some kind - then the Name is what is emphasized. It's emphasized on the front, too - the bigger the Name, the bigger it is on the front cover.

When the Name is big enough, there really isn't much for back cover copy (on paperbacks, anyway). Often, there's just blurbs.

Although it looks like Janet's example is enough to entice new readers to buy. But I suppose, when someone reads several of these per day, with a very limited budget (money or time), then what they read needs to be even more compelling.

Or, maybe moreso, since an agent reads so many of these from people who are not the greatest writers yet, they need to know the writer has the essentials in their novel, so look for those essentials in the query letter. They need to be shown that the writer knows what they're doing.

The reader in a book store picking up books and reading their back jacket copy know that the book has already been vetted through publishing professionals, so they can reasonably assume the book is worth their time. (There are some disappointments, but at least *someone* thinks the book was worthwhile publishing.)

If I'm blathering, sorry. Not awake yet, and since I'm going out for coffee this morning, I won't get any until then.

Kitty said...

Josie McQuein’s “Premeditated” must be the exception to the rule, because the front flap on her dust jacket is her query, word for word, which was brilliant, btw.

Colin Smith said...

nightsmusic: You have a point--this is almost a query. I think the problem is, as you point out, after the second paragraph we get nothing more about the story. We know about Stahl, and we know the set-up, but there are no stakes. The stakes might be implied, but the last thing you want to do in a query is make the agent have to hunt for information, or have to think too hard. I'm not being unkind, just facing the reality that the agent probably has 100 other queries to look at, and doesn't have time to dwell too long over each one.

DLM said...

By the way - 2Ns' comment for the win today. Header nom!

I received three copies of Martin Vargic's book of maps yesterday; all are gifts, but these atlases are GLORIOUS. Weren't we drooling over his work here? I would highly recommend the purchase, if you have anyone on your lists who might enjoy - or for yourself!

nightmusic, Word tells me it's 10 pt. Times. At this hour of the day and in my un-caffeinated state, this translates to 8 point SNAP ITC, it's hard on the eyeballs. As for paragraph three - I may again be sub-par in mental capacity just now, but my recollection is that Janet wants to see stakes as quickly as you can get them on the page. No reason to wait to paragraph three.

The first two paragraphs above read for me as so much stage setting. Which may have its place here, but as an old theater hand, is not the reason I came to the theater if you will. "Europe is about to explode" in particular is telling, as I read it - not showing. I hate to say this, but there's nothing in this blurb that interests me - LEAST of all the praise of the novelist.

"Fredric Stahl is a perfect agent of influence" - now there is a first sentence that might draw me in, were there equally intriguing sentences to follow. But as for now, my own TBR pile remains as it was.

A query letter to an agent actually does have much the same job to do as a book flap - the one is meant to entice an agent to read, the other is to get all the readers possible, at what may be a random glance. At least an agent's inbox indicates some possibility they are personally appealed to; a bookshelf, though, is not about me as a passerby. Seems to me the book flap's job may be harder some days than others.

Colin Smith said...

bj: There's another difference between jacket copy and a query. Assuming you're looking at the book in a bookstore, you have the full manuscript right there in your hand. If the copy kinda-sorta entices you, you can go sit in a comfy chair and read over the first chapter at your leisure. Or you can dip into the middle, or even read the end. Not so with the agent flipping through her slush pile. Granted, agents often request a chapter or two with the query, but not all do. And those first few chapters are more to give the agent a sense of the writing, not to elaborate on the query.

Brigid said...

@Kitty, but as Janet's said a time or two, McQuein broke all the rules. Brilliantly.

xnye said...

Interesting, I have never thought about focusing what I write on a specific audience. I kind of focus on a good story with good characters. I have no idea,who I'm writing for other than me. Humm. Food for thought.

Colin Smith said...

xnye: When it comes to writing your novel, yes, write what you love, and write for yourself. Nothing wrong with that. But when it comes to querying, you have to think about your audience, which is, primarily, the agent you're querying. For a start, you query agents who might be interested in reading what you've written (except for Janet--she'll read anything! ;)). And then you need to compose your query in such a way that they'll want to read the full ms.

Did I misunderstand your comment?

Mark G said...

'Now, can you tell me what the plot of the novel is?'

As I read this I got a mental image of Faye Dunaway leaning over me holding a wire hanger

Donnaeve said...

Kitty, yeah, I've brought up PREMEDITATED no less than twice in the past week for one reason or another, and agree, the query alone would have made me want to read the book, and I rarely read YA.

As usual, it all circles back to great writing. Great writing trumps all.

I was always a bit confused about back jacket/flap copy vs query, and this example certainly straightened that out.

LynnRodz said...

Query—that 4 letter word! I stayed up late this morning and although it's now afternoon, it feels like morning. Sorry, maybe I'm not too coherent today, but wouldn't this Hollywood film star turned spy in soon to be wartime Paris already insinuate the stakes? He has a lot to lose (his career, the war, his life) if he's caught by the Nazis for spying.

Perhaps this flap copy wouldn't be helpful if Furst was unpublished and querying the first two paragraphs to an agent, but it did it's job for me. MISSION TO PARIS is now on my TBR list. (I think I'm going to take a nap.)

Jenz said...

We've all heard this dust jacket advice and most of us were puzzled when we also heard not to take it literally. The dust jacket tip is often given in response to the lament "but I can't sum up a 100K book in 250 words!" It's a demonstration that, yes, in fact, you can be that concise.

But the dust jacket is aimed at a reader while the query is aimed at an agent. Two distinct audiences with different goals and views. It's like the difference between an advertising firm pitching an ad campaign to the seller of a product versus what that campaign will look like in the actual ads.

LynnRodz said...

@Kitty, as Janet said when she received McQuein's query, it broke all the rules for a query, but it worked. For that reason alone, it's not a good example of a query becoming the dust jacket because it is the exception to the rule.

DLM said...

Jenz, that's a really good point about the blurb as an example. I've heard the advice as often as anyone, but have pretty much ignored it (yeah, and listen to me because I'm a million-seller ...). I think you just quantified why it never resonated with me!

xnye, what Colin said - it all depends on what you're writing at a given moment.

Colin Smith said...

I have nothing else to say on the topic, but I'm in the mood for some flash. So...

100 Words
5 Mandatory Words: back, copy, dust, jacket, flap

"Johnny’s back." Silence filled the room. Captain Oversight let the dust settle. "That's the word. He works incognito, but the signs are there."

Oversight acknowledged the flapping hand.

"Who's Johnny?"

Oversight smiled. "You're new to Literary Police, Tim, so I'll give you a break. Johnny Angle. He uses italics."

Tim frowned.

"Italics may be small-time drugs to you, boy"—Oversight threw off his jacket—"but people copy Johnny. And then it's not just words. Sentences. Paragraphs. Hell, whole chapters in that evil slanty text!"

Tim's frown deepened. "We chase after italics pushers?" Really?

All eyes fell on Tim.

Crap.

:)

Kregger said...

Colin,
Italics are the new heroin.
sorry—emdashes...ellipses and exclamation points!

John Frain said...

The AT&T tech dude finally restored my Internet, and just in time for Colin's flash! Exquisite. The timing and the entry.

I'd been having to use one of my branch offices (you might know it by its other name: the library) since Sunday just to see contest results and read the blog. Grrr.

Admitting that this dust jacket doesn't work as a query, here are two things I love about how it breaks rules still.

1) It uses a wee bit of passive voice, and
2) It includes an 82-word sentence! Yowza.

I only bring those up to say that they have their place. Just like telling versus showing has its place. Most parts of your narrative work better as a scene, but sometimes you'll have good logic for telling over showing.

Oh, it feels good to be back in the neighborhood. Hi, everybody.

Julie.M.Weathers said...

What a day this has been. I thought I posted a comment, but apparently the dragon ate it again. I think the gnomes fed it to him. The problem with gnomes is they have gnomercy on writers when it comes to feeding words to dragons. Food for thought isn't the same as food for dragons, but try explaining that to a gnome.

Anyway. YES! Laurie McLean brought this same thing up in her master class on pitches and queries. Jacket copy doesn't necessarily make a good query examples. The blurb in places like Amazon about a book is often better. Sometimes those blurbs are the same as the jacket copy, but not always.

The jacket copy for GAME OF THRONES was so boring and generic, I wouldn't have bought the book based on it. A friend highly recommended it, so I decided to try it.

I usually pick up a book, read the first few pages, random interior pages, and something close to the end. I loved the GoT prologue and couldn't wait to see what happens to the characters and they were throw away characters.

Diana Gabaldon writes her own jacket copy to get something she feels is enticing.

When agents say, "Write a query like jacket copy." it doesn't trigger quite the image they think it will. I doubt many agents would appreciate it if I sent them a query with:

"Weathers breathes life into a menagerie of historical characters you only thought you knew!"

"An unusual tale of spies, lies, and southern humor set against the backdrop of the Civil War! A must read."

"If you like your history spiced with a dash of romance and a lot of derring do, this is the book for you."

Really. Look at the books in your bookcase. Probably half or more have nothing but blurbs from authors and reviewers that tell you almost nothing about the book. I paraphrased those off some actual book blurbs.

Just thinking about this makes my head hurt. I need a Shiner Bock.

Jearl Rugh said...

Well, in my writing career I've been rejected by the best (JR once stopped reading and passed on the 25th word of my query). No sour grapes; that's how we learn.

So, with guidance from her CrimeBake 2015 workshop outline, I followed the formula for my new WIP, distilling it down to 131 words. When I start querying this novel in the new year, we'll see if the proof (like the truth)is out there.

As always, thanks JR for giving us nuggets of wisdom to ponder.

Bonnie Shaljean said...

That Furst book is brilliant - I bought it as well as another of his. And where did I hear about them? On the royal Facebook page. Better than queries and flap copy combined. And you get pictures too...

Bonnie Shaljean said...

PS: To embiggen the text size, press your Control or Command key, then the plus sign - it's easy to do and doesn't involve changing anything globally.

BJ Muntain said...

Welcome back John Frain! *waves*

Unless something really, really odd happens tomorrow, I won't be here. Which is the only part of tomorrow that makes me sad. Because I'll be happily singing in seniors' and care homes, hopefully brightening up their day with Christmas music. We have 7 performances out of town tomorrow, and we'll be on the road from 7:30 am to 10 pm (that's not counting me getting to and from the tour bus by city transit).

So I'll be late reading tomorrow's post. I look forward to seeing you all again on Saturday.

Have a great Friday, everyone!

Megan V said...

BJ—That sounds lovely! Hope your day is brightened as you sing.

Re: The Original Post

I think the key differences between a query and a dust-jacket are target audience and method of reaching that audience.

A query entices agents, editor, and readers to read on, using the story itself to shout READ ME.

A dust jacket entices a reader to read on using testimonials/blurbs from authors readers may have heard of and establishing that the novel is the kind of novel that they like to read.

kdjames.com said...

Missing in that example are a specific antagonist ("the Nazis" is too vague), why Stahl wants to make the movie, what's at stake for him if he fails, what he's willing to sacrifice to succeed. Basically, conflict. The way it reads, Stahl might be so horrified by the entire situation and daunted by being attacked that he just says "to hell with this" and goes home. Makes some other movie.

Story is conflict. If you as a writer can't tell me (an average reader) what your protagonist wants, what he'll lose if he fails, what he's willing to do to succeed, who is stopping him and what they want and the consequences of their failure -- that tells me you don't understand conflict and story structure and probably your novel is lacking the framework to make it compelling. I imagine it tells an agent the same thing.

From what I've heard (for whatever that's worth), agents will often take a query and use it either in whole or part to make their pitch to editors, who in turn send that to marketing and PR, who in turn use it as copy for enticing bookstore buyers. And whoever else in is the long chain before it gets to readers. Those people are too busy to read your entire book before they make decisions. What you write in a query could very well have far-reaching consequences, way beyond whether it lands you an agent. You're the writer. Wouldn't you rather be the one who writes that copy?

And I agree, many of the descriptions over at Amazon are far more similar to queries than a lot of dust jackets are. Depending on genre and author fame.

Her Grace, the Duchess of Kneale said...

1. Lucie, it's already Friday here. Hallelujah.
2. Colin, you crack me up. I wish I could write flash like you.
3. Your Sharkness, you're driving me nuts because...

I've been beating my head against the wall over a next-project query for the past six months while I wait on a previous WUS. I just can't get the query right. I've been workshopping it and getting feedback, most of which says, "It ain't working."

I confess I've been aiming my query to sound like jacket copy (after all, this is a Fantasy novel), but I'm wondering if I'm approaching it all wrong. I've been trying to construct my query based on the textual plot structure of "Our Heroine wonders why X is happening, but she must stop it because of Y." This mystery structure is serving the novel well, but is falling down miserably in the query.

Am wondering if I should approach it more from "Our Anti-Hero is making X happen because of Z. He just needs to overcome Y. If he doesn't, the universe will die."

My problem with that is that the anti-hero's journey is all subtext for the novel, only coming out in the last chapter. If I take this path, I feel like I'm pitching with spoilers, which is generally a no-no.

However, when I look at the general structure for a good query and apply the plotline of the novel:
1. Our Heroine
2. Wants a normal life but can't because
3. someone is interfering.
4. If she doesn't stop him from interfering, she'll never have a normal life.

And that's dull. That's why my query is failing. No silk purse from this sow's ear.

My question is, would it be a bad thing if I pitched the query from the catalytic anti-hero's storyline, even though we never get to see his POV until the end? I wouldn't want to entice an agent on his story then have her wonder why his POV is absent in the ms, though the anti-hero's hand is very much present in Our Heroine's POV.

BJ Muntain said...

Your grace, some thoughts on your query:

The way you have it here, it sounds like the Heroine is only reacting, not acting. The reader of your query needs to know what she's actively doing.

I think you need to include the Anti-Hero's reasons in your query - though you don't necessarily have to tell us who he is.

I think your query would involve:

1. Our Heroine
2. Wants to stop the interfering jerk but can't because
3. the interfering jerk is trying to save the universe
4. If she stops the interfering jerk, maybe she'll have her ordinary life... or maybe the universe will end.

You don't have to give all your secrets, but it seems to me the major conflict will wind up being Our Heroine's wish for an ordinary life versus the end of the universe.

This isn't meant to be your 'new query', but maybe it will help you see your query in a different light.

Megan V: Thank you! I'm sure going to try. :)

Julie.M.Weathers said...

A dust jacket entices a reader to read on using testimonials/blurbs from authors readers may have heard of and establishing that the novel is the kind of novel that they like to read.--

Unfortunately, and I may one day regret these words, I don't read the blurbs even by friends and authors I respect. I want to know what the book is about not what someone said probably as a favor to someone else to get a blurb for their own book.

Blurbs irritate the pee waddling out of me.

kdjames.com said...

Your Grace, if I may . . . are you saying that if the Anti-Hero loses, the universe dies? Or is he deluded in that belief? Because saving the world is sort of a heroic thing to do. Usually. Are you sure he's the Anti-Hero? Who wins this battle? And why?

Sounds like you've set up your Heroine with a negative goal-- that is, she wants to stop something rather than wanting to make something happen. That's hard to pull off. Really hard. We want to root for a character who actively wants something. Look at your story again and see whether there's something she WANTS (other than normality). What makes her keep trying in spite of opposition? What prompts her to fight when things get tough? What makes her want to win? Is she defending someone or something other than "normal?" I suspect you know the answers to all this, you just haven't put it into words yet. Then again . . . if she wins, does that mean the universe dies? Because that sort of makes her the antagonist. That would be a really interesting story too. Kind of like Macbeth on the scale of interesting.

Find the point in the story at which your Heroine sits up and says, "Oh, hell no, this is not okay. I need to DO something about this." That's where you'll find her motivation and conflict. Hint: It won't be about passively yearning for a normal life. The hero's (heroine's) journey begins with "normal" and ends with "return to normal, only different." Story is all about the conflict and struggle that happens in between.



[And I've now gone waaaay over my comment-word allotment for the week. I'm considering it an early birthday present to myself. See you all next week!]


Janet Reid said...

I'm not going to answer query letter structure questions here.
That's what QueryShark is for.

QueryShark loves blog readers.
They're VERY tasty.

John Frain said...

Makes me wonder if QueryShark has ever tried a blog reader with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.

Also, just in case I wake up to a flash contest, I'd like to invoke the name of Mark Twain who never said "Janet Reid's flash fiction contests are easy. All you have to do is cross out the wrong words."

Janet Reid said...

Boy are you gonna be surprised this morning John Frain!

Julie.M.Weathers said...

John...welcome back, you were missed. Now, for the love of all that is holy, stop encouraging her to make things difficult.

Some people's kids.

kdjames.com said...

Oh, John.

*shakes head sadly*

It's a damn good thing we like you in spite of . . . all this.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Another flash fiction contest will put me in the hospital! John, you done yanked on the shark's tail.

Her Grace, the Duchess of Kneale said...

Hard to sub a query letter to Query Shark when I have no idea how to write the darn thing.

Fortunately for me, the Woodland Creatures are experienced in what makes a query letter tick. That's what I was looking for.

I think a few of them may have just given me the clues I need to try this again.

Jenz said...

Duchess, if the anti-hero's POV isn't dominant, writing the query as if he were the main POV is bad idea. It'll mislead anyone reading the query to imagine the manuscript is going to be his POV, so agents liking that idea will be disappointed, and agents who want what you actually have may pass.

"Our Heroine wonders why X is happening, but she must stop it because of Y."

This doesn't work for me because the heroine is wondering, and that's so very passive. Try reconstructing it like this: When [bad thing happens], Heroine must [do something active] or [worse thing happens].

The 'do something active' can be stopping something from happening as long as it's active, not just thinking, wondering, learning, or realizing. Anything that can be done from a fainting couch doesn't count as active.

It doesn't matter if she doesn't initially realize that anti-hero is trying to save the world. Maybe that could be hinted at in the stakes, but keep the main focus on one character (heroine), her obstacle, and her stakes.

Julie.M.Weathers said...

BJ,

I love what you're doing for seniors. Good for you. I hope you get an extra nice star in your crown.

A group comes to the VA home in Miles City, MT once a month for sing alongs and the guys really look forward to it.

I've been thinking about finding a senior home here and seeing if they would let me bring in some bakery bought gingerbread men or something. I'd like the grandkids to go with to pass them out. They love kids.

We'll see.

BJ Muntain said...

The seniors do love kids! I'm sure they'd like the cookies, but I think the young deliverers will be the highlight. :)

It was so much fun yesterday. Sometimes, our audience will get right into the music. Others just sit there quietly, but if you talk to them afterwards, they gush. They're always so appreciative - it's just a joy to sing for them.

These choir tours are the highlight of my Christmas season. :)

Julie.M.Weathers said...

The kids will definitely be the highlight. I used to take the boys every weekend and they loved visiting with the elders. Will was about three at the time and went from one lap to the next.

We were in pretty desperate straits at the time and I wanted to do something to focus outward. It was good for the boys and the elders. I finally had to stop because people they grew very attached to died and it was too stressful on them. I wish I had some pictures of them. All those happy smiles.