Thursday, May 25, 2006

Q & A 21 Do queries really matter?

Hi Evil Editor. I noticed your tag line 'Why You Don't Get Published', and am wondering, Does perfecting query letters really have that much of an impact? It leads an agent to request your work... But so what? As Miss Snark often reminds us, it's the writing that counts.

It is the writing that counts. Now if there were only some way to convince you that the query letter is not music or sculpture or cake decoration, but writing.

So does concentrating on the query letter help anywhere near as much as, say, concentrating on the first few pages? Surely the first pages (included diligently with the letter) are much more of a deal breaker than queries.

No one's suggesting you write a great letter at the expense of your first pages. Everything you submit is an example of your writing ability. Why let any of it be swill? You should concentrate on everything.

I mean, what's the point of spending months tweaking and polishing a great query if you lose the editor before the fourth paragraph?

And what's the point of spending months tweaking and polishing the first pages if you lose the editor in the query letter? Furthermore, Months?! Evil Editor hasn't spent more than an hour tweaking any queries on this blog, and while they aren't all perfect, keep in mind that Evil Editor is working without having read any of the books. If you can put together a well-written book, you ought to be able to put together a well-written letter describing it. Conversely, you don't want the agent or editor thinking, She can't even put together a decent letter? Why should I expect that she can put together a good book?

Those who will benefit most from query critiques are those who write very well, but for some reason suck at writing queries. That's true. But those who boldly look beyond the query critique itself, to its lessons--organize your sentences and paragraphs logically, give specific information, focus on the important points--may find that those lessons apply to all of their writing.

Your query letter is your first impression. It's the clothes you wear to your job interview. And unless you're applying at Ringling Brothers, you're more likely to get the job wearing a business suit than you are wearing a clown outfit.


michael gavaghen said...

When you're driving in an unfamiliar city and looking for a radio station, do you ever hit the SEARCH button? How long do you stay on a station that isn't right for you? I hit a hardcore country station, I'm out of there in under ten seconds. I hit a hip hop channel, I'm onto the next one as soon as I can reach the button. Conservative talk? See ya.

Isn't that what agents and editors do? They know what they want, and as soon as they know something isn't going to fit their list, they hit that SEARCH button. If they can tell it from the query letter, why bother looking at the pages?

EE said EVERYTHING counts. You're competing in a crush of slush -- why the hell would you give an agent or editor ANY reason to reach for the next envelope?

Anonymous said...

::sigh:: There's always someone who wants to take shortcuts.

I reckon you can do anything you want. You can send your submission on pink-and-purple striped paper. You can include photos of yourself in full fancy dress. You can enclose illustrations done by your five-year-old. But if you want to get published, you learn the rules and you pay attention to the important details. And even then there are no guarantees.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like this person wants EE to start up a new crapometer. Maybe looking at first pages would be good

Brenda said...

I think the reason EE can summarize the queries better than the original writer is because he doesn't know the story. It's hard to distance yourself from the details and look at the big picture, and keep voice and tone and conflict all in there too when you have the entire story screaming at your brain of, "I'm an important part too! Include me!"

I've heard many times from various sources that it's easier to write a synopsis before you write the story so you keep the bare bones without the details. Of course, you can change it if the story changes overall, but you're basic premise is already there without the rest of it screaming at you.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if it isn't easier to write a query when you don't know what's in the novel! You don't get bogged down in too much information. You don't have to decide against including your favorite bit.

Some of us are lousy at writing queries and so we do take longer. I've certainly spent more than several hours on my recent query and I still don't think it's right.

But we sit at the feet of the master and hope for some enlightment. Thanks, EE, for the continuing effort.

Linda Maye Adams said...

One of the things that has surprise me the most about seeing published author query letters is that they seem so ordinary. No gimmicks, no fancy explanations--they are all right to do the point.

We studied a lot of different queries when we were originally writing queries, and kept trying different ways to find that magic piece (not even any requests for partials). What we didn't realize at the time was the novel didn't fundamentally work because of structural problems. Worse, to an experienced query reader, it was obvious in the letter. If the story itself doens't work on a fundamental basis, it's nearly impossible to write a coherent query.

Bernita said...

Well said - all of you!

Anonymous said...

When I was in basic training we used to wonder why the TIs were so concerned with whether or not we could fold and press our t-shirts into 4" squares. Finally, one of them asked us, "If we can't trust you to get something this simple right, then how can we trust you with a multi-million dollar aircraft?"

If you can't write a query letter why would anyone bother to read the novel?

Joyce Ellen Armond said...

I think we choke at queries because we have trouble telling the bare bones of a story's plot from the juicy flesh that makes it special and unique and ours. I'd wager that the "two plots the same" queries have very different juicy flesh.

I invite The Evil One to correct me, but I think a query should convey the bare bones and the sample pages show off the juicy flesh.

I know that I am deeply in love with the juicy flesh, so it hurts to strip to the bone in the query.

Anonymous said...

How can someone's query be so drastically different than the first pages (or any pages). If you write well, you write well. If you don't, you don't. I'm not getting it. If your query sucks I'm guessing the rest of your "stuff" does too (speaking in terms of sentence structure, grammar, punctuation, etc.). -JTC

Anonymous said...

"It's hard to distance yourself from the details and look at the big picture"

Hear Hear, Brenda! (Smokin' hot avatar, BTW. Grr-r-r-r!)

In a perfect world, we'd have a marketing service that read our manuscripts and wrote our queries for us with a clinical detachment.

Evil Editor said...

[Until then we're stuck with Evil Editor.]

Anonymous said...

"Evil Editor said...

[Until then we're stuck with Evil Editor.]"

And d*** lucky to have him too!

Cheryl said...

Dwight, there is some hideously horrible query-writing software available. Plug in the basics and wham! Insta-query. And I hear that agents immediately discard them because they are very similar to each other.

Write your own damned queries! (Or get EE to write it for you.)

Brenda said...

Umm, thanks, I think, Troubled Teen.

Anonymous said...

Cheryl (and everyone, of course), I wrote a post about some of that hideously horrible query writing software: