Friday, February 17, 2012

Query Hell, Part Dos

Status: I've decided to roll out my queries instead of sending them all at once. Primarily, this is so that I don't make mistakes. I don't want to get into a mindset of, "I've just done this 14 times in a row. I'm sure it's perfect. Let's just send it and get on to the next one." That's how to end up with a subject line like "Qurey: Diamond Tears." And if I have query spelled wrong in the subject line, I doubt the agent would even bother opening it to send me a form rejection. (For the record, the closest this has ever come to happening was when I submitted a college application to NYU, but forgot to take out the reference to Trinity College in one of my essays.)

Number of agents queried:9
Number of form rejections: 3
Number of requests for additional materials: 0

Since I'm on the subject of queries, I figured I might as well talk about how horrifying it is to have to write one. I honestly don't think I would have survived the experience if it wasn't for Query Shark. I cannot recommend her blog enough. Even though I've never had one of my queries posted to her blog, just going through her archives, seeing what others did wrong, and reading her explanation of why it was wrong and how to fix it was absolutely invaluable.

So around six months before I finished my book, I started writing a query letter. Because I remembered how much trouble I had with it the last time around. It literally took me over a year to get a query letter that I thought was ready to send out. And you know what? That letter absolutely sucked. I rewrote it after my first ten or so form rejections. Then I got seven more form rejections after that. Though I'm well aware at this point that there were some pretty serious flaws with my book (more on this later), I'm also aware now that my second query letter sucked, too. Not as much as the first. But it still sucked.

The reason is that I was trying to get too much information into my query. I read something interesting the other day, though I honestly can't remember where. Probably on an agent's website. But it said that the query is not like a synopsis. It's not supposed to sum up your book in any way. Instead, it's supposed to basically sum up your first 30 pages. What happens in the beginning of your book that causes the rest of the book's events to happen? What's your hook? That's what you're supposed to put in your query. If I'd known that, my query for book #3 would've been about half as long and about fifty times more exciting. Because it's hard to make something sound exciting when you're basically just listing events. First she moved here. Then she met him. Then she discovered this. Then such and such a horrible thing happened. Etc, etc, etc. Insert the most interesting characters and events you can possibly come up with, and it still doesn't sound interesting, does it?

So don't give back story. There's plenty of room for that in the synopsis, or in the sample pages themselves. And back story just isn't interesting enough. You need to start where your book really starts, where things really start happening. You need to keep it brief. You need to keep it simple. You need to leave them wanting more.

And for the love of god, even with all that help from Query Shark, make sure you have beta readers. As many of them as you can get. I went through something like fourteen drafts of my query letter, implementing as much of the knowledge gleaned from the Shark as possible. Then I sent my letter around to several people who hadn't read my book. Half of them were confused. I made some leaps of logic that they just weren't following. And the half that got it thought that 2/3 of my letter was boring. And you sure as hell don't want to be boring. This is an actual conversation I had:

Beta Reader: "Your third paragraph kicks ass. That makes me want to read the book."

Me: "But not my first two paragraphs?"

Beta Reader: "No, not really. I mean, I guess the idea is interesting. But the way you wrote it is just...blah."

Me: "So if you read the whole letter, after my third paragraph, you'd read sample pages?"

Beta Reader: "Absolutely."

Me: "But would you keep reading through the first two paragraphs?"

Beta Reader: "Honestly? No. I'm not even sure I'd make it past the first."

So back to the drawing board. And you know what? That was absolutely priceless information. I was happy with that version. I would've sent it out into the world. And I have absolutely no doubt that it wouldn't have gotten me anywhere.

But by the time I got to version 18, I was kicking some serious ass from start to finish. That very same beta reader, who hadn't read a single word of my book and had basically been blowing me off for over a year called me the second she finished reading and told me to send her the entire novel as soon as possible. That is the reaction you want. You want the agent to want to read sample pages the second he or she finishes reading.

So far, I'm still at 3 rejection letters and no requests for partials or fulls. But with a query letter like mine (I got that reaction I just talked about from multiple people), it might not stay that way for long. I just hope I'm not deluding myself! :P

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