Thursday, May 04, 2006

Q & A 3 How much detail?


Somewhere, I have absorbed the notion that in the query letter, what one says about the novel should read like a back-cover blurb. Basically, who are the players, what do they want, why, and what is the conflict? I do this in one paragraph in my query. You seem to be seeking more detail than that, details that I would keep for the 'short synopsis'--for instance, the resolution. Are you really looking for an extra-abbreviated short synopsis in the query, or is the blurb enough as long as it tells the who, what, why and why not?

Your ability to distill your entire book into one brief paragraph is admirable. Your literary heroes, no doubt, are screenplay log line writers, who describe a two-hour film in one sentence. But don't forget about title writers. The complete essence of Frank Herbert's 500-page story of political, environmental and economic intrigue is conveyed in the simple word Dune. Stephen King outdid Herbert by half with It. Among the greatest plot distillers in literary history was the guy who determined that only one m needed to be stamped on the side of an m & m. Janice Delaney's legendary query for her history of menstruation, entitled The Curse, consisted of a blank sheet of paper with a period in the center. (This used half as much ink as the previous record, the query for Dr. Jensen's Guide to Better Bowel Care, which was, of course, a colon.)

What Evil Editor looks for first in a query, is an excuse to reject it without reading any of the book. Perhaps the writer ignored our guidelines for length or subject matter. That failing, I look for a query that sounds like it was written by a talented writer. True, there are writers who write decent novels, but lousy queries (I can't tell you how many of Grisham's novels I've rejected because his queries all sound like 4th grade book reports), but for the most part, if the query is disorganized and boring and riddled with errors, the manuscript will be no different. Obviously it's easier to determine the quality of writing if there's more than a paragraph. (More than a page, on the other hand, is going too far--Evil Editor does have a life.)

By the way, the generally accepted definition of a "blurb" is a publicity statement, something along the lines of, "I couldn't put this book down, and I'd be saying that, even if the publisher, who also happens to be my publisher, hadn't asked me to say it, and even if I'd actually found time to read the book." Rule of thumb: Your query should be as long as what would fit on the back of the book if you and the publisher couldn't find a single person unprincipled enough to provide a blurb.

9 comments:

jrmosher said...

"Among the greatest plot distillers in literary history was the guy who determined that only one m needed to be stamped on the side of an m & m."

Ha! This is one of the funniest lines I've read in a very long time.

On a serious note, there is something I'm wondering. The query rewrites you're providing are, without fail, great improvements over the originals. However, are they good enough? If you received the rewritten versions (assuming they fit the genre, length, etc., for your guidelines), would they entice you to ask for partials? Just curious ...

Rei said...

Queries will be the death of me.

My first go-round was criticized because the first paragraph was two stylized, too literary in its attempt to get you to know the characters, and the hook in the second paragraph went by too quickly. My second go-round read like a horribly cramped synopsis. My current attempt sounds smooth (to me; haven't had it reviewed yet), but it's probably too long.

Argh, I never would have figured it would be this difficult. I mean, I just wrote a 102,000 word novel; you'd think I could nail a query letter :P

Patrice Michelle said...

I was thinking the same thing this person asked, EE. The "about my story" portion of my query letters is usually two paragraphs max.

Tawny Taylor said...

I'm guessing in some cases it wouldn't. Not because the rewrites weren't absolutely fantastic, but because the books didn't meet the publisher's needs for whatever reason. Wrong genre, length, the premise is too similar to another book recently published, etc.

Val Tear said...

"What Evil Editor looks for first in a query is an excuse to reject it..."

I laughed until I realized EE was not attempting levity. Then I imagined him with a waste basket at fifteen paces, seeing how many wadded queries out of a hundred he could sink in five minutes. Oh, the irritation at having to pause and actually consider one.

Now I think I got it.

Patrice Michelle said...

Haha, Val Tear. Gives a whole new meaning to writing "trash".

So EE, before Evil Editor's blog, did you have any special rituals for really bad query letters?

Frainstorm said...

Gotta confess, I was thinking exactly what this letter writer is asking. Seems most every "How To Write A Query" article written by someone worth their salt says one -- two at the most -- paragraphs about your novel.

Paragraph one, the hook. Paragraph two/three, your story. Paragraph four, your credits. End. And most agents, I gather, get about two paragraphs in and decide.

These entries mostly come across as one-page synopses to me. Then again, my query must suck because I'm only batting about .150 (although today was glorious thanks to a request for a partial).

John

bill s. said...

curious difference in definition of blurb between US and UK. In UK the whole back cover is the blurb, the endorsements ("couldn't put this book down...") are referred to as puffs.

Write To Life said...

"(I can't tell you how many of Grisham's novels I've rejected because his queries all sound like 4th grade book reports)"

If you are rejecting potential blockbuster novels (proven even!) on the basis of a poor query letter, you need new guidelines!