Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Query Length

I’m currently trying to write a query, but can’t decide on its length. When short and concise, it leaves the plot open for wide interpretation. The setting has certain elements that lend it to books with similar settings, but it truly does not follow those. I don’t want agents imagining something they're not going to get, and I don’t want to waste my time or theirs with fruitless submissions. Yet, the longer version seems overly detailed with little mystery. As an agent what do you recommend? What do you expect from a query?

I suspect that your query length belongs somewhere in the middle, although it’s really hard to critique a query I haven’t read. My very first suggestion is that you scroll through the Must-Read Posts section of the blog and take a look at some of the queries I have posted from my clients. I think, or I hope, the first thing you’ll notice is that none of them are the same. There’s no cookie cutter formula to writing a query and, if you ask me, that’s a good thing. A query, like a book, should follow general guidelines, not strict rules.

The only length I would suggest you stick to is keeping your query to one page. Beyond that, how long the blurb is, is really up to you. That being said, it sounds like you’re struggling with the two biggest mistakes I see in queries. The query that doesn’t tell me enough, that sounds more like a movie tagline and doesn’t help your book stand out from the pack, and the query that’s so long and wordy that by the time I’m done I’m actually more confused than when I got started.

My best advice is to find a trusted group of people to share your two queries with, preferably people who haven’t read your book before. Get their opinions and advice. Would they want to read your book after reading either query? If not, then it’s back to the drawing board for something that really shares the essence of your book, but not every detail.

Jessica

22 comments:

Rick Daley said...

The best piece of advice I ever got in regard to my queries was to condense the story down to a single sentence, and then build the query up from there.

If you start big and then try to pare it down you are more likely to end up with some material that begs for the sections you cut to be added back in. When you start small and then judiciously build up it is more likely that all the elements you put in will relate to each other and you won't have loose threads.

Many people have found the feedback received through comments at The Public Query Slushpile to be beneficial, you can try submitting there if you are looking for honest feedback from other writers.

Anonymous said...

Shorter is better. The goal of the query is to get them to read the first page. Then the first page is so strong that it propels them through the first chapter. And the first chapter is so damn good that they can't stop reading. Etc.

So don't worry about 'wide interpretation.' A query isn't meant to answer questions, it's meant to spark curiosity.

Laurel said...

I thought this was helpful. The Public Query Slushpile is great and of course, Query Shark.

Reading the successful queries posted on agent blogs helps, too. In the sense that they make it painfully clear that my own query skills are meager and inadequate.

Good luck!

Anonymous said...

storysensei.blogspot.com is a useful site for learning how to write a query, how to trim a synopsis and so much more.

Lisa Dez said...

I agree with Rick about the one line thing because, often, that's your "hook". Once you have that, you can build the rest of your query around it. Otherwise, as Rick also said, you can get too bogged down in details that don't "sell" your story.

Remember, agents just want the essence of the story and why it's different than every other thing out there. They don't need or want every detail.


Thankfully for newbies, there is a plethora of info on query writing out there, and many blogging agents have posted examples. Read them. As Jessica said, they're all different, but every single one of them will have a great hook. To me, that's the key. (The query hook for my last novel garnered over 50% request rate and four offers.)

If you want feedback other than from your loving family, queryshark (Janet Reid) is a spot to get it.

Lea Ann McCombs said...

Learning to condense an 80,000 word book is agonizing for beginning writers, but totally valuable. You'll have to write back cover copy, hook lines, and elevator pitches later anyway, so whatever query paragraph you end up with you can recycle many times when you are ready to do the actual proposal. It's not wasted effort! It actually helps later on!

Anonymous said...

What about if your story is going to be the first of a planned series? Do you necessarily have to include that tidbit into your query letter and if so, when? The blurb? the introductory paragraph or the ending paragraph?

- Jodi

Mira said...

Yes, I want to recommend the query slushpile (Rick D., above). It's been really helpful to me.

I may be wrong about this, but my understanding is that you don't want to be mysterious in your query.

Agents have limited time, so they want to get a quick snapshot of the whole story immediately. I find that's hard to do - I want to build and lure, like you would in a story. But this is a different type of letter. You're trying to sell your creation, so you need to let them know what it is in it's entirety.

Of course, I might be wrong about that, but that's what I heard...

Good luck to the writer! There's lots of query support out there.

Anonymous said...

"When short and concise, it leaves the plot open for wide interpretation. The setting has certain elements that lend it to books with similar settings, but it truly does not follow those. I don’t want agents imagining something they're not going to get"

You don't know how to summarize our novel in 1 sentence. You need to learn. I prescribe the following: rent 100 netflix movies. each time you watch 1, do so without reading the little 1-2 sentence descriptions on the envelope. After you watch it, write your own blurb. Then read the real blurb and compare to your own. After doing this 100 times you should have mastered the art of the logline or blurb. Alternatively, do it by reading actual novels and writing your own jacket copy, but that may take longer, and for queries, you really do need a 1 sentence hook.

Anonymous said...

In the old days, we used to have to read the slush pile.

Web 2.0 means watching the slushpile be created in real time!

What's next, real-time brainwave analysis--"It looks like you're thinking of writing a bad novel--or perhaps you wrote a novel but don't fully understand what you've written--STOP."

writergrrrl said...

What about if your story is going to be the first of a planned series? Do you necessarily have to include that tidbit into your query letter and if so, when? The blurb? the introductory paragraph or the ending paragraph?

After the pitch part, I just wrote: "TITLE is the first in a planned series." You could also do something like: "The next XYZ mystery is in the works." Check Karen Macinerny's query letter in the sidebar to see how she approached it.

Anonymous said...

It doesn't pay to write a series if you haven't yet sold the first book in the series. Keep writing new books until 1 of them sells. Then make a series out of that one. To assume that the book you're trying to sell now will be successful enough to become a series is not only arrogant but also most likely incorrect. Sell somehting before you bust out the "s-word." They'll ask you to write a series, anyway, if the first one is any good.

Anonymous said...

Agree that if you're not approached by a pub. about writing a series, then it's just a form of mental masturbation. These days, all the pubs want series anyway, it's series fever out there, so saying "I've got a planned series!" is like saying "I wanna be a writer!"

Anonymous said...

yes, yes! Would a furniture builder make a 3 of the same kind of tables, maybe in different colors, before they've ever sold 1?

"Honey, what are all these tables doing in the garage!"
"I'm trying to sell them!"
"Well what's that you're building now?"
"Another table, but this one's blue!"

That's just about the definition of insanity, isn't it? Expecting different results after doing the same thing and all that?

So why do the writing equivalent? I guess a lot of writers do that, but it's not as noticeable since they're files on a computer instead of physical things that peple can see, but if you ask me it's the same thing.

Be careful what you choose to write--life is shortt!

Anonymous said...

This was my question. So thanks Jessica for your answer. You blog is the best. You are probably correct, I need to be somewhere in the middle. Thanks everyone else for the advice. I have done a lot of research on queries. The problem with this one is that it sounds like a middle grade pirate adventure when I condense it to three or four lines, but it isn’t that type of adventure. I like the shorten version better, however, I feel like I’m ‘tricking’ people, and if I was an agent, I know I wouldn’t like that. So three short paragraphs may be the way to go, even if it doesn’t sound as good. Thanks again!

Suzan Harden said...

Jodi,

The general wisdom twenty years ago was series, ten years ago -- only write single titles, and now we're back to series. The concept changes almost as fast as the genre flavor du jour.

Take the series thing with a grain of salt, a slice of lime and a bottle of tequila. Also, check agents' websites. Some ARE looking for series concepts.

Are you having fun and learning the craft? Then write the sequel and don't worry about conventional wisdom.

Steph Damore said...

Hey Suzan, I'm with you. I'm working on a series and haven't sold the first book yet. I'm writing the sequel because I believe in my storyline and the characters. My theory is it'll all work out in the end when I sell the first book. That, and it just makes me happy.

Anonymous said...

If you're just looking for something that makes you happy, then fine--enjoy your hobby!

But if you're looking to sell your work, it doens't make sense to continue on writing a series when no one's interested in the first book in the series!

Honestly, I think some people are only interested in being commercial writers if they can happen to sell whatever it is that they already wrote, or like to write. If youj're not willing to write different htings until one of them sells, you will likely never sell. That is just statistics at work. There are outliers. But the chances are, yo're not one of them. Good luck.

Sheila Deeth said...

Thanks. That's a question I've often wondered about.

writergrrrl said...

To assume that the book you're trying to sell now will be successful enough to become a series is not only arrogant but also most likely incorrect.

When I was working on my last mystery, I was told by many published authors that I should start the next in the series. Most of these authors had sold the second in their series when the first didn't sell. Instincts told me to start something entirely new, but I wanted to be prepared in case I got lucky. Believe me, I didn't expect it to sell (and it didn't, although it was repped and shopped for a year). When the editor rejections started rolling in, I finally did move on to a different project.

From the writers I've talked to, it's not arrogance that drives them to write the second book. Sometimes it's simply a love for their characters. In my case, it was a desire to be prepared mixed with a belief that published authors knew more about the business than I did.

All this said, I still think it's a good idea to let agents know you're aware that your book has series potential, and you are thinking ahead. I know this is one of things that my agent was attracted to.

Most important of all, writers should just keep writing.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes a series is the continuation of a story, not a wash, rinse and repeat.

Steph Damore said...

Back to the topic posted, I posted my query on my blog and welcomed critiques - it worked really well. I liked how the feedback I received was from people that I knew (well, as much as you can know someone online).
I've also used The Public Query Slushpile and have had excellent feedback.