Sunday, March 15, 2009

The third dimension of query letters

I've returned from vacation (clearest sign one needs a vacation: writing up a lovely "away notice" for email--and forgetting to click "enable vacation message" before leaving...argh) to a deliciously full inbox of queries.

Incoming queries are a bit like Christmas with the extended family...some items are fabulously intriguing, and some are ...well...socks.


I've been trying to describe what I look for in queries. I've yapped about voice; I've huffed and puffed about write well.

But it's also true that I see queries with great voice and good writing, and I still say no. Unless I'm just picking queries at random from the compelling voice/writes well tank there's got to be one more variable.

If voice is the x-axis, and write well is the y-axis, then the z-axis, the third dimension is this: describe a book I want to read. (Remember when Mrs. Logan your 10th grade math teacher mentioned geometry would be useful later in life? Well, this is that time.)

This third dimension is the most subjective criteria of all. There are many many fine books I don't want to read. I started six of them while I was on vacation. Five were by well-known, well-reviewed writers. I just didn't much like the books and didn't want to read them. So I didn't. (I sucked up two John Harvey novels though-yummmm!)

What this means for those of you querying agents:

Describe the book you've written as though you're telling a friend about a great book they'll want to read right now.

Think about how you talk to your friends about books. Do you start out "this is a crime novel about curvy, radiant Wilbur who's racing against the clock and falls in with wily secretive miser Templeton?"

No, you don't. Well, I hope you don't.

You'd probably describe what happens, what the point of conflict is. Why you cared about what happened.

"A pig, Wilbur, at the Fair has to figure out how to win a prize but he's penned up plus, he doesn't have a lot of time. His friend Charlotte helps him but they have to figure out how to get help from their frenemy Templeton to make it all happen."

This is clearly a very very raw effort but you get the gist.

And this third dimension means you simply MUST query widely. There's no way to determine in advance if you're writing a book I want to read. The only way you'll know is if you query. And this is a criteria something over which you have NO control, so don't even think about fretting over it. Write well, work on your voice. The rest is up to chance; much like the situation Charlotte faced when Templeton went out foraging for words.

And if I say no, it's entirely possible you've written a really good book I just don't want to read. Take heart knowing that someone else will. Many many writers have built entire careers writing books I don't want to read. Why shouldn't you?

So, if you want to query me, go ahead. I'm glad to get every single query. I get a bit annoyed and impatient when queriers shoot themselves in the foot but it's never ever a waste of my time to get your query. Even the ones that elicit an exasperated "darn!" when opened.


Sarah Jensen said...

Just follow submission guidelines, right?
Still not interested in young adult urban fantasy?
Didn't think so. Darn.

Eric said...

Janet, if that's your foot, get to a podiatrist right away. All those colors. The worst my feet have ever been is a simple old-fashioned black & blue.

Welcome home.

Whirlochre said...

Great post. Great socks.

Julie Weathers said...

I see you found my favorite sock.

Good to have you back.

I think this is some of the best advice ever. Sometimes the book just doesn't appeal to someone. There are plenty of books out there I don't like, but somebody did or they wouldn't be books. I want an agent who is in love with the work.


Jake Needham said...

You have obviously returned clear headed and in file fettle (I do hope a degree of fettle is what you were aiming for...).

Welcome home.

The world is just as fucked up as it was when you left it.

graywave said...

Hmmm. You know how agents have all these pet peeves thay they blog about: the little things that drive them nuts? Well, as a writer who is unlikely ever to query you (since I write sci-fi) and who therefore doesn't mind if he shoots himself in the foot just a bit, my own pet peeve is people who get the plurals of words wrong.

'Criterion' is the singular, 'criteria' is its plural.

Feel free to reject this comment, since it is rude and off-topic. I won't mind.

McKoala said...

Hm, so that's a bullet hole in that sock, then.

Marty said...

Darn, isn't that a form of reweaving socks or, did I just shoot myself in the foot?

Kimbra Kasch said...

Here's my take on ”Voice”

And, maybe I'm weird but I love socks - especially nap socks - but not the ones with a big hole in the end.


Kelsey (Dominique) Ridge said...

Those socks are fantastic!

Anonymous said...

I used to have some socks like that. Adorable, but socks with toes feel weird. I guess socks are really foot-mittens.

Margaret Welman Paez said...

Write well, work on your voice. The rest is up to chance;

Well, damn. Why did I bother going to school to learn the craft of writing? Think I can get TARP money to help pay off the student loan?

Steve Stubbs said...

Well, I have to ask. Is that picture before or after my latest query knocked your socks off?

evilphilip said...

Hurm. When describing a book to a friend don't you usually start with, "It is just like xxx book by xxx author."???

That is the fastest route to giving someone the low down on "Do You Want To Know More?"

I'm not quite sure that I want the opening line of my query to be,

"You are going to love it, it is just like 'insert famous author here'."

ladyM said...

As always shark lady, your comments are poignant and helpful. And a continual reminder how subjective this process really is. It is up to us to keep plugging away, follow the dream, stoke up the passion, and let nothing interfere with the vision.
thanks again,