Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Hello from San Diego and the SDSU Writers Conference or An Actual, Thrilling Post On Query Letters

(Explanatory note: This blog post was started on the evening of the 28th and is now being finished on the evening of the 30th.)

Dear Reader, what follows below is not for the faint of heart. It contains harsh truths, startling truths about the publishing industry, and may result in tremors or palpitations. If you are in ill health, I beg you to sit down, for my Conscience could not survive the Horror of being responsible for your death...

Welcome to the post about query letters! I'm writing to you not from my cozy little office in NJ, but from the opposite coast in sunny San Diego. I've been here since Friday afternoon, attending the SDSU Writers Conference, and generally having a great time, despite jet lag. I've heard twenty different authors describe their novels to me in formal pitch sessions (twenty authors x ten minutes each = 200 minutes of pitches), and had quite a few more pitch me spontaneously as I moved throughout the weekend. Without exception, everyone has been extremely kind and polite, and I've thoroughly enjoyed talking to people. I got the chance to network with many of my West Coast colleagues, I was on an agent panel, I got to hear Jack Graves speak (fascinating man!), and oh yeah, I ran a workshop on query letters. Me, critiquing and babbling about query letters for 50 minutes straight... what could be better? =)

Why sharing it all with you, of course!

Although I can't recreate the actual experience of sitting in a room and listening to me spout knowledge out of my head, I can at least attempt to pass along some of the pointers about query letters that I shared with the writers that attended my workshop. What follows below are some basic rules and pieces of advice that I think all writers should take to heart when it's time to sit down and get their query-writing on.

  1. Be professional. A query letter is a business letter, plain and simple. It should be no longer than one page, properly formatted a la business letter guidelines, and be succinct and to the point. You should always remember to properly address the agent who you're querying; I don't care if you say "Dear Jenny" or "Dear Ms. Rappaport" to me, but there are many agents who like to be given the professional courtesy of their last names. Please make sure that you know who you're sending the letter to as well: I am not "Mr. Rappaport" nor am I "Dear Sir/Madam" nor am I "Dear Acquisition Editors". Show me that you've done actual research into who I am, where I work, and what I represent; trust me, you'll start off by making a good impression.
  2. Space is at a premium. So, remember the little point above, about how the query letter shouldn't be longer than one page? I really mean it. That means you've got to be able to cram quite a bit of information into one page, and do it effectively. How does one do this, you ask? Simply by removing anything that's extraneous information. For example, I don't need to know that you've been writing since the age of five and that publishing a novel is your dearest dream. I'm damn well assuming that you want to get your novel published, or you wouldn't be sending me the query letter in the first place. I also don't need to know who's read your novel and loved it, unless the person who's read the novel and loved it is Stephen King. I couldn't care less that your dry-cleaner, your kids' babysitter, your mother, your aunt, your second-cousin-twice-removed, and your pet igunana all think it's a great book--their opinions have no impact on mine, since they have no status within the publishing world. Are we starting to see the types of information that aren't necessary for a query letter?
  3. Have a hook. There's been so much talk lately, over on Miss Snark, and other publishing sites about hooks. What is one, why do you need one, etc. I'm not going to rehash any of that here. The key things to remember are that you want to tell me who the main character in the novel is, what's their conflict, and why I should care about it. You also want it to be somewhat catchy and short (remember rule #2). So let's do an example, right now... let's say that you're writing a query letter for a book that tells the fairy tale, Cinderella (we'll use the Disney version for ease of recognition). Now here's what you could give me as a bad hook.... CINDERELLA is about a girl who has lots of problems. She has to live in an attic and no one ever, ever loves her. Her best friends are talking mice, which I've created because they have a high cuteness factor. Cinderella, the main character, has to solve lots of hard things along the way, before she can live happily ever after. That's not going to convince me that I want to read the book. Now let's do a better hook for it... CINDERELLA has a hard life: her parents are dead and she's forced to act as a servant for her evil stepmother and stepsisters. Her only friends are the talking mice that share her attic, and frankly, she's stuck in a rut. But when Prince Charming, the gorgeous heir-to-the-kingdom, decides to conduct a national search for a bride, it turns out that even a nobody like Cinderella might have a chance. With the help of a surprise fairy godmother, it's up to Cinderella to pull off a daring disguise, and convince even herself that a servant can be fit to be a Prince's bride. Do you see the difference?
  4. Themes are extraneous information too. As you can see from the sample "good hook" that I provided above, I haven't mentioned anything about the themes present in Cinderella. I've hinted at them, by subtly mentioning her insecurity and doubt in herself, but I haven't stated them outright. I haven't gone on and on about her quest for love will make her a better person, or about how her good nature will eventually triumph over her evil stepsisters. All of that shouldn't be present in the query letter at all. I couldn't give a rat's ass about what themes your novel is exploring; I want to know the story you're telling and why it's interesting. Now granted, my viewpoint is one of an agent who almost exclusively represents genre fiction, so there may be a time and a place for themes in query letters, when dealing with literary fiction. But I honestly don't think they belong in one, and that if you must tell the agent what grand things you are exploring, at least leave it for the synopsis.
  5. Writing credits can be both good and bad. Expanding even more on the extraneous info theme that I've got going (see, a theme!), let's handle the subject of whether or not to list writing credits in a query letter. If you have no writing credits, don't tell me that. A writing credit is something that has been published in a professional format. It is not your blog; it is not your local critique group; and it is not anything that is self-published. Remember these things because if you do list these as writing credits, it's going to make you come off seeming like someone who has no idea about the business that they're trying to break into. Now you ask, I've written a romance novel, but I have no romance writing credits... but I do have some nonfiction stuff.... will it matter if I list that? The answer is that you should list them, but in a subtle way. Say, for example, "Although I have no fiction credits, I have done extensive work in journalism, particularly as the crime reporter for the Asbury Park Press for the last ten years." This lets me know that, yes, you are a newbie when it comes to fiction, but that you're obviously capable of stringing two sentences together in a coherent matter, since someone has seen fit to pay you to write already.
  6. Leave out the bacon. Finally, this is the rule that I love the most. Let me explain. I had an e-query come my way, a few months ago, for a novel of some sort. In his query, the gentleman explained that he had once eaten 87 pieces of bacon in one sitting (you know who you are). This information had ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to do with his novel. If it was an attempt of some kind to be cute, it failed utterly. I looked at the query letter, decided the guy must be a weirdo of some kind, and decided to pass on it. I didn't want to work with someone who felt that he must boast about eating large quantities of greasy pork in one sitting, not to mention that the rest of his query letter was pretty poorly worded as well. Don't attempt to be cute or over-flattering when you're writing a query letter. Be honest and tell the truth; if you think there's a piece of information that I should know about you, then tell me so, but for god's sake, please make sure that it's relevant to the book you've written. By way of example, if you've written a science fiction novel about intelligent gorillas, and you have a Ph.D. in Biological Anthropology, then by all means tell me that. But if you've written an epic fantasy, I don't need to know that you've unicycled across the United States.
I hope that the above rules have helped some of you better understand the strange beast that is the query letter. It's not an easily tamed one, but in practice, you can get very good at writing them... after all, agents essentially do the same thing when they send out manuscripts to editors along with a pitch letter.

I'd like to also add that I'm back in my cozy office in NJ now, but that I really enjoyed working with the people who attended my workshop. We had only fifty minutes to work with, and only ended up getting about seven or eight query letters critiqued during it. I happened to have a free hour after the workshop, and since there were so many writers left that wanted to have some help with their queries, we decided to spontaneously extend it. Through the corridors of the hotel we marched, with myself at the head, and all the writers following behind; I felt like the mama duck in MAKE WAY FOR DUCKLINGS. =) We managed to commandeer the couches in the hotel lobby and then we sat there, continuing our workshop as we pleased, for the next hour. It was a pleasure to help everyone, and I enjoyed the fact that we were able to continue the workshop. Thank you all for making my time at the conference so nice. =)


Sadie said...

Wow...thank you so much for printing that!!! I still have about six months before I'm ready for query-ville...but your post just gave me tons of info in a wasteland of uselessness. I must admit that even after the HHCOM at Miss Snarks I was befuddled at how to do my hook, and subsequent query. Your straight-forward post helped straighten so much out for me!!

I'm glad the Conference went so well!! Glad to have you back!!!

Anonymous said...

As far as extraneous information, I've heard similar advice several times on various agent blogs, but they're always somewhat extreme examples.

Using your examples, "you've written a science fiction novel about intelligent gorillas, and you have a Ph.D. in Biological Anthropology" VS. "you've written an epic fantasy, I don't need to know that you've unicycled across the United States"

But what about more grey areas? A PhD in astrophysics and a science fiction novel, even if it's not hard SF? Or, since science fiction authors often write fantasy also (or vice versa) a similar degree and a fantasy novel?

I'm mostly wondering about higher education information. Undergraduate, graduate, Master's, PhD... how closely related to any given work of writing would such accomplishements have to be to warrent a mention in a query letter?

Jenny said...

anonymous, the gray areas are definitely the hard parts; I completely agree with you. In regards to higher education, I think it's perfectly fine to list what degrees you have, especially since you went through the hard work to earn them.

Among my own authors, that I can think of off the top of my head, I don't know what degrees that several of them have. Alethea Kontis, who does picture books and YA, has a chemistry degree. Doug Cohen has an english degree. Cate Rowan (pseudonym) is the one with the biological anthropology degree, but she writes fantasy romances. Joshua Palmatier has to have some sort of degrees in math, since he teaches mathematics at the collegiate level. I'm actually drawing blanks on the rest of them, although what I'm really trying to say is that even though I fully support a higher education degree, it's not going to affect my view of your novel.

I view it as a professional credential. You could have a law degree and want to write a fantasy. That's fine. Tell me you got the law degree from Georgetown; I'll respect you for it. But don't tell me that you've written this novel because you no longer want to defend criminals, as it's taken too much of an emotional toll on you. That's too much information.

PS. This is Jenny Rappaport; I'm not logged in properly in blogger, so that's why it's going to display without my full name.

D.L. Rankin said...

Hey, Jenny. I'm glad you enjoyed your trip to sunny (lol) California! Great, helpful query advice. I do have a question, though. Some people say yes to this, some say no, but do you think authors should mention similarities to other authors/books in their query letters? Do you think doing so could help or hinder the agent's decision? Let me know your thoughts.

BuffySquirrel said...

I'll have you know my pet iguana is very well read.


Rashenbo said...

Great post, Jenny. Thanks for sharing :) Why on earth would someone want to eat so many pieces of bacon in one sitting? Unless it was an experiment to see if arteries clogging is actually audible.

The Beautiful Schoolmarm said...

Thank you. I thought the hard part would be writing the novel (turns out that was just the time-consuming part). Hooks, synopsises, and query letters were much, much harder.

When I query, is it worth mentioning that I'm an English teacher? I've been told that yes I should, and I've been given that infuriating, condescending "Those who can, do, those who can't, teach," sort of answer as well. Or is it another piece of information that probably won't matter one way or another?

December Quinn said...

So, wait, do you want to know how much bacon I can eat, or not? :-)!

I admit I put a piece of info that may or may not be extraneous in my queries: that I am an American living in England. Because I don't want an agent to see the UK return address and assume there will be a problem with US payment and taxes, etc (and because at least one publisher sent me a W9 form and told me I needed to get a Federal Tax ID number, not realizing I already have a handy-dandy little Social Security number!)

I hope, though, that comes at the end of an otherwise impressive query, and so is forgiveable and somewhat relevant.

I just hope this

Yasamin said...

this is very much needed so thanks for that

and 87 pieces of bacon is disgusting. talk about sodium overload.

Dumb Doc said...

I am a physician and I wrote a suspense thriller with a young physician protag (though the novel has nothing to do with medicine) and was thusly accused of writing of my own physician-fantasies (when I posted a hook/query with credentials in a different venue).

How does one argue that? I'm tempted now when I query to omit the fact that either the character is a physician or that I am.


Tess said...

Great post!!! Thanks for all the advice :-)

Linda said...

For my query letter in submission now, it was double the problem--it had to be short and be for a set of co-writers. We finally ended up putting down the two writing organizations we belong to and that we'd run agent pitch sessions at conferences.

Southern Writer said...

I loved the image of Mama Duck and all her little ducklings. Thanks for the information.

Tryst said...

Hi Jenny, I do have a question about credentials and "extraneous information" that some people may find helpful too.

Let's say you've had your book up online for a while and you've accumulated a humble following of a few hundred people, most of them rooting for your book to be published. Would that be of any interest to an agent? It's a bit different than "my mom loves it" because the people are strangers, and I read on one agent's blog that if you have a following, it could help get someone's attention.

I'd just like to know your personal opinion. :)

Jenny Rappaport said...

d. l. rankin, mentioning your book's similarity to other author's books is a risky thing. You could come up with a really great comparison, but that's rare. The chance of you being the next Tom Clancy, Stephen King, or J. K. Rowling is even rarer. And when I see authors make claims that they are those authors or other well-known authors, in their query letters, I just roll my eyes. It doesn't help, and it occasionally hinders in the sense that it pushes me closer to rejecting the query letter.

beautiful schoolmarm. I don't think it will hurt you to mention that you're an English teacher, although occasionally I come across people who mention that they are teachers and yet their query letters are in an atrociously bad state (bad punctuation, grammar, sentence construction, etc), and I wonder who in the world is teaching America's children...

december quinn: not extraneous at all to mention that you're an American living in England, for exactly the reasons you stated. And how cool too! If I ever get over to that side of the pond, I must see if I can meet you in person. =)

dumb doc, I'm honestly not sure how to go about solving your problem. I wouldn't ever accuse someone of writing out their own career fantasies, although I can see that being done. I would most likely omit the fact that your main character is a physician, if it's not essential that the agent know that.

tryst, to me, posting a book online is somewhat sacreligious. I don't want to go out and try to sell something that's already been "published", so to speak, online. There are a lot of publishers who don't look very happily on such things. And honestly, a few hundred people liking it isn't going to make much of a difference to me either. You get John Scalzi telling me that he's read your book online and likes it... that makes a difference because he can give me a blurb (and I trust the man's taste). Any random person on the internet... not going to really matter.