Friday, March 11, 2011

Let's talk about non-fiction query letters for a minute

I get a lot of queries for non-fiction; recently I've noticed you're giving in to temptation to list a series of problem, often in the form of rhetorical questions.

(We all know rhetorical questions are the kiss of death in a query right?)

I sense these query writers learned their pitching skills from late night television "What would you say if I could chop that tomato with a sword!"

(to which I'd say "I hope you're not planning to chop tomatoes in MY kitchen" but you get the point.)

Here's the thing about non-fiction; you need to pitch the SOLUTION right up front with the problem.  Your book is about the solution first and foremost, not the problem.

Your book is about why your solution is better, faster, smarter than anyone else's.

If you're pitching a book about writing query letters you might say:

This book demonstrates an effective way to write and revise queries so writers communicate what their books are about in clear concise language.

The problem is: you know you're writing a crappy query letter.
The solution is: I'm going to show you how to write and revise your way out of the crap heap.

How you phrase that first sentence in a query letter for any non-fiction book can be the difference between me scoffing (tomato/sword) and me being interested (book that solves a problem I see everyday)



A3Writer said...

I see this a lot in student essays, too (thanks for pointing out the informercial connection). Students want to provide an answer to a problem, but only after building the tension throughout the essay. They want the conclusion to really wow.

The problem with that idea is I have no clue as to what the whole essay is about until I get to the end. I did all this reading without knowing what the point was. More often my mind simply wanders a reason because I haven't been given a reason to care about whatever they're talking about.

Talking about the problem in a non-fiction query is the same. We all recognize that there's a problem. We need to know how to solve it.

That sentence in the query (or essay) needs to grab attention, not explore the problem. I've already been lectured to death about the causes and effects of global warming, so why would I want to know more about it?

Tell me that the solution to global warming is found in military can openers. It's outrageous, but I'm at least intrigued to read more.

One more thing. After giving the solution, you better be prepared to back it up. (I know this is the case for essays, and surmise it for non-fiction queries. My query time is spent on the other side of the fence)

THE INTERN said...

so true!

on the other end of the tomato/sword spectrum, in her query-reading days INTERN also saw lots of non-fiction book proposals that promised absurdly overblown solutions to vague, ill-defined problems (usually of a spiritual nature).

in other news, this summer when they were at the state fair, INTERN's boyfriend literally had to drag INTERN away from a quick-mouthed knife salesman who really was chopping tomatoes in an INSANELY TANTALIZING manner.