Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Give Me Conflict

As many of you know, when you write a query letter—whether it’s e-mail, snail mail, or a cover letter attached to a proposal, heck, even a cover letter attached to a requested manuscript—you have three seconds to grab an agent’s attention. Think of that, three seconds to convince me that I want to drop everything on my to-do list and read your material immediately.

So what is one of the biggest problems I see in query letters? Lack of conflict. And for those of you who are published or have an agent and think this post isn’t for you, think again. The same blurb you used to pitch your agent is the same type of blurb you should be writing to pitch your editor a new book idea, give cover art and text suggestions, or grab a reader through your Web site or advertising.

We all know how difficult writing that query letter is, but we also know how important it is. When it comes to grabbing an agent’s attention, it’s the packaging for your product. I don’t care about the envelope, or whether or not you wrote requested material, I only care about the material itself and how exciting it sounds when I open it. That’s the packaging. So here’s what’s not going to excite me: the type of relationship the characters have, the themes your novel explores, or the type of person your protagonist is. This isn’t what will get me to buy the book when I find it in the store and it isn’t what’s going to get me to offer representation now. What hooks people in is the conflict. Is the heroine racing against time to prove her innocence before the police catch up with her? Is the hero a vampire fighting his own demons while battling to save the only person who can save him? Don’t say things like, “These characters find themselves in increasingly dangerous situations. . . .” Yawn. What are those situations?

Think about it, folks. Do you buy a book because the back cover says it explores themes of religion and the afterlife? That it takes a look at the themes the author has fought to understand his whole life? I doubt it. I suspect you buy a book because you’re either hooked by the protagonist’s hobby and the idea that she was wrongly convicted of a crime or because she’s fallen in love with the guy who is so totally wrong for her.

So here’s what I want to know about your book in the cover letter. I want to know what makes it different from every other romance, mystery, fantasy, or women’s fiction novel I see and I want to know how the conflict makes it exciting and thrilling. That doesn’t mean I want you to say, “this book is different from . . .” No, I want you to weave it through your letter. I want it to say something like:

“Althea Yates is a vampire hunter, skilled with the crossbow and the stake. But she knows nothing of a man’s touch—or how to control the unladylike dreams that haunt her sleep. That is when they come, two men of unearthly beauty who ravish her in sweet carnal games, taking her to the precipice of exquisite desire and unimaginable erotic pleasure. It is scandalous. Forbidden. Unholy. For her lovers are not men, but vampires—the very beasts she and her father have sworn to destroy.” —taken from the back cover of Blood Red by Sharon Page.

Do you see how that works? In one paragraph I get conflict and I get a hook. It’s short, it’s sweet, and it works to make me want to read more.

—Jessica

22 comments:

Kimber An said...

Thank you. It really helps when agents share these mysteries with us. The two biggest things which induce me to bang my head on my keyboard in Queryland is lack of information on a particular agent's preferences and finding out after the fact that the agent has wildly different preferences than I realized. Throw that in with conflicting advice from generous, well-meaning authors and, well, you can just imagine my confusion! It's kind of like shooting at a moving target in a game in which the rules are constantly changing.

Demon Hunter said...

Thanks, Jessica. I'm playing the waiting game right now. I had a good hook and now an uber agent is reading the full. It's been four weeks and I'm biting my nails.

Sherri said...

My biggest problem writing a hook has been my intimacy with the material. I'm so familiar with every aspect that it's hard to figure out which aspects a reader will find most exciting.

I guess that's where practice and experience come in.

Thanks for this.

Cole said...

Thanks Jessica! This is an awesome post! I think I need to look at my query letter.... no, I KNOW I now need to look at my letter. :)

Cole

Lesley said...

Thanks for the suggestions! Those darn query letters drive me batty! I always wonder how much information to include in query letters. If it's something that you want to keep from your reader until the very end of the book should you still include it in your query? Obviously you're not going to be keeping this information from the agent or editor since they read the synopsis before the full novel.

Blood Red sounds Yummy!

Sharon Page said...

Hi Jessica,
Thanks for posting the back cover for Blood Red as an example! I learned a lot about the when we were recently talking about pitching a new proposal and worked to focus on what made the idea different and fresh. One thing I've realized--I'm always pitching my story. I'm often asked what my story is about--by readers, other authors, media people--and I've learned I need to have a short, interesting description that gives real conflict right on the tip of my tongue. I also find talking to people helps evolve that "pitch" because you can see when people have connected to an idea.

Thanks for your compliment, Lesley. I've heard you want to be upfront with an editor or agent, and give them all the info they need.

Christa M. Miller said...

Wow - I don't think I've ever seen query letter advice expressed this way. Thank you!!

Robin L. said...

Jessica - can you please, please comment on whether the "hook" in a query letter should give away the mystery or not? I've heard some agents say absolutely, Miss Snark said she doesn't really know, try it both ways. And now I'm confused. I know you do a lot of mysteries and I'd love to hear your take on that.

BookEnds, LLC said...

Robin:

Your synopsis should absolutely give away the mystery. The "hook" however doesn't need to unless it involves the mystery. In other words, is the conclusion to the mystery what really makes your book stand out or is it a damaged heroine, a unique craft, a paranormal element? In other words, at this point I could care less how the book ends, I'm more concerned with what is going to make me buy it in the first place. When writing your query don't think synopsis, think book cover blurb. Rarely do those reveal the ending.

--jhf

Kate Douglas said...

One suggestion when you're stuck writing a query letter is to use a tape recorder--describe your story to an imaginary audience as briefly and succinctly as you can. Generally this will force you to go for the high points. It's almost as if your subconscious knows what makes a story work even when your conscious mind is throwing up all kinds of barricades.

Judy Schneider said...

What an informative post, Jessica! I know many writers who could benefit from your advice (I have already passed along the link). Thanks for being so generous with your knowledge and observations.

Sharon, if the rest of the book reads like the back cover...wow, I'm impressed!

L.C.McCabe said...

The late Michael Shurtleff, author of Audition: Everything an Actor Needs to Know to Get the Part, summed up theatre in three words:

"Conflict is drama."

It is what makes someone leave their home and spend a night watching a play, a movie, or stay up late at night curled up with a book.

Conflict is an essential element to storytelling, comedy, tragedy, etc.

I've even trained my eight year old son into saying that "without drama it's Teletubbies."

Tempest Knight said...

Thanks for posting this. Very enlightening. :)

L.C.McCabe said...

Hello,

I discovered your blog yesterday when Nathan Bransford made a mention of this post on his blog.

I've spent probably an hour or so reading some old posts, but the archival format is not as user friendly as it could be.

As it is structured now, it only shows the ten most recent posts. In order to find an older post you have to click on one of the bottom links and it'll then bring up the ten previous posts.

In otherwords, it's not as optimal for catching up with your previous posts as it could be.

Therefore, I'd like to make a request for you to switch your settings and enable archiving of your old posts. This can be done at the dashboard feature, then settings tab and choosing under the archiving the selection: monthly.

By changing that it should make it easier for me and others to read your "backlisted posts."

I want to commend your agency on having an informative and helpful blog.

Thank you for dedicating time to educating writers about the publishing industry.

Linda McCabe

L.C.McCabe said...

Hello,

I discovered your blog yesterday when Nathan Bransford made a mention of this post on his blog.

I've spent probably an hour or so reading some old posts, but the archival format is not as user friendly as it could be.

As it is structured now, it only shows the ten most recent posts. In order to find an older post you have to click on one of the bottom links and it'll then bring up the ten previous posts.

In otherwords, it's not as optimal for catching up with your previous posts as it could be.

Therefore, I'd like to make a request for you to switch your settings and enable archiving of your old posts. This can be done at the dashboard feature, then settings tab and choosing under the archiving the selection: monthly.

By changing that it should make it easier for me and others to read your "backlisted posts."

I want to commend your agency on having an informative and helpful blog.

Thank you for dedicating time to educating writers about the publishing industry.

Linda McCabe

BookEnds, LLC said...

Linda:

Welcome to the BookEnds blog. I'm glad you got to read through the archives. On the left side of the home page you should be able to find exactly what you've described. I'm not sure why it didn't appear for you.

Thanks for keeping tabs on us. We always enjoy hearing from our readers.

L.C.McCabe said...

:face in palms:

I'm sorry, I only now realize why I didn't see the links for your archives before. That is because I didn't access the previous links from your homepage, but from one of the individual blog post pages.

It's strange that on my blog when you go to individual pages it has the archives in the margin, but yours doesn't. :shrugs: Possibly that's because when I started my blog it was in the Beta phase and your blog probably pre-dated the "new and improved Blogger."

Well, at least that is as good of an explanation that I can come up with for the variations in the formats of our blogs.

I'm sorry to have bothered you with my previous message, but I understand the variations in the structural format of Blogger a little better after this experience.

Write on!

Jennifer McK said...

I struggle to write blurbs, both for query letters and contracts. This is very helpful.
A writer friend suggested I figure out what makes ME buy a book and start studying. I found out the same thing you mentioned here. The hook. A blurb can lose me in two seconds if it mentions words I'm not interested in.
"Vampires" "Werewolves" and "Sweet" in the blurb has me dropping the book back in the rack. I'm pretty sure other readers do the same.
Then there are words that have me looking a little deeper.
"Magic" "mystery" "serial killer" "genetically enhanced" are a few of them.
My point is that I'm usually scanning the book blurb, not reading it at first. When I write my blurbs I really want to pull in someone who will like the same "words" that I write.
Rambling now.

africanstardustruns said...

Okay, I know this is an old post, but it's unbelievably helpful, so thank you! I always wonder how the query letter should be structured and this is the perfect tip:)

quillfeather said...

This comment is as common as muck, but nevertheless. Wow!

That was seriously illuminating. Great post, Jessica. Thanks :)

Steve said...

My own preference as a reader is for thematic and character driven fiction over conflict. That being said, why in heaven's name would I write in a style that I wouldn't enjoy reading, just because somebody else says that's what "readers want".

-Steve

Anonymous said...

Edward says: This must be the most helpful writing advice on the Internet! I would like to say a really big thank you, Jessica, for taking the time and trouble to write all this AND make it available free! You've definitely earned some good karma!