Tuesday, February 8, 2011

What Your Query Says About Your Book

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

We all know the query letter is the first impression our manuscript will make, and when it doesn't make a good impression, it's not uncommon to hear someone ask (often in frustration), "How much can you really tell about my book from a query anyway?"

A lot, actually, and probably not what you'd expect.


A Query Sums up an Author, Too
Since a query is so short and so tight, any inherent flaws in your writing are magnified. Prone to passive voice? Odds are it'll show in the query. Use a lot of cliches? There are probably some in that pitch paragraph. Your manuscript could use some tightening? Yep, that'll show, too. Good news is, just as the bad stuff gets shoved forward, the good stuff also shines through. That's why a not-so-great query can still catch an agent's eye. Because the writer's strengths come through even if the query needs a little work.

Let's look at some of the things that could be holding your manuscript back.

Still Needs Editing
This is a pretty common flaw in almost-there manuscripts. It shows in the query by extra words, repetitious phrases, weak nouns and verbs. It could be because the writer moved too fast and submitted before they were ready, or it could be they need to learn a few more polishing skills. If this is why you're being rejected, there's hope for that manuscript yet. Tighten it up, put a shine on it and you could find yourself getting requests instead of rejections.

Weak Plot
If you can't sum up the core conflict of your novel in a few paragraphs, there's a decent chance you're not sure what it is or it's not strong enough in the novel. You might even have a premise novel. But the problem is at the heart of the story, and until that gets figured out and revised, the book won't be strong enough to stand on its own. Find that core conflict, clarify those goals, and you'll be back in business.

No Voice
If all you're doing is describing events, the sense of the storyteller will be missing. If the query is more focused on the what and not the why, there's a good chance that the novel reads the same way. If the query sounds bland, the agent will assume the novel is just as flat. Let your voice and what's unique about your novel shine through and show people what you can do.


Lack of Focus
A query that rambles and introduces five characters and six plots in three paragraphs is a pretty good indication that the novel has way too many things going on. Multiple POVs, tons of subplots, and none of them really connect to any one major storyline. Find your real story and weed out the subplots, and your novel can start getting attention.

No Stakes
A query that can't tell you why all these events matter is one that probably has low to no stakes. This implies your characters are acting for plot reasons and not because they want anything on their on, and there's a good chance there's not a lot of narrative drive. Determine why your plot matters to your characters and up those stakes, and you'll keep readers turning the pages. 

Queries make fantastic diagnostic tools, because they really do boil the essence of your novel to one page. If there's a major flaw in that novel, it'll rise right to the surface. Next time you're having a hard time with your query, take a step back and see if it's the novel itself that's the real problem.

17 comments:

  1. Amazing post. Excellent points here.
    Thanks!

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  2. CherylAnne: Most welcome!

    Ben: Thanks

    Vicki: Glad you found it useful

    Holly: Thanks!

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  3. Love the points. They're also good indicators of what can be wrong with a story idea, too, if you write the query synopsis first.

    I used your technique of planning-novel-by-query-synopsis a few months ago, and it worked great. I couldn't decide if I wanted it to be primarily a coming-of-age novel or a romance novel, so I wrote the query synopsis for both books. Picked the one that would have me focusing on what I wanted to be the main section of the story.

    -Carradee

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  4. I have been combing the internet for a post like this for days...THANK YOU! I was wondering WHY my query was so difficult to write...It turns out my story had a confusing plot and no stakes. Now I have a plan to fix the plot, up the stakes and boom! The query is suddenly easier...But not easy LOL!

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  5. Thanks for this. I had the help of a consultant to write my proposal and it was an eye opener. No wonder I was getting nowhere before. I'm interested by the concept of the 'premise novel', I've googled the term but all I can find is references to the premise of a novel rather than the term the way you use it.

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  6. Query letters are my big fear. Which is strange because I love getting the chance to pitch my work to people. I think it's the sense of "this is my one real chance to get noticed" that intimidates me.

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  7. Carradee: Awesome! Good to know it's working as intended :) A synopsis is one of my planning tools as well. It's often vague, but it helps a lot at getting the basic plot down.

    Roberta: Most welcome! I don't think queries will ever be easy, but easier is good :)

    Jack: I did a post on premise novels and here's the link:

    http://blog.janicehardy.com/2010/06/re-write-wednesday-look-its-idea.html

    Let me know if you have any questions about it ;)

    Paul: A lot of pressure is put on them, and there's this feeling that if they aren't exactly perfect we're doomed. But that's not true, and you hear agents say all the time that a not-perfect query caught their attention. The idea is really what matters, and as long as you can get that across in a professional way, you're usually okay.

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  8. Great stuff! I know what you mean; I've read queries posted online where I figure the person's novel is similar to their query--for better or worse. It's a logical assumption. If a writer can pull it together in a page-long query, chances are better that they can design a full novel.

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  9. Wow, great post! It really puts it in perspective. I'd better take another look at mine . . .

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  10. Carol: Exactly. Queries are hated, but they're fantastic writing tools.

    Janet: Good luck! Hope it shines :)

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  11. You are oh so, oh so, oh so, right!!
    Great post to get the old cogs moving!

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  12. Escape Artist: I love when something gets those cogs moving. :)

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  13. I just heard about your blog through a friend. I know this entry is older, but just wanted to say still helpful. I think it's what I needed to hear about my own query letter. I'm looking forward to reading your other articles, so thanks for posting them!

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  14. Great post! I've finally (after 2+ long years of polishing) been getting partial and full requests from my query letter which has been tossed out and restarted so many times. I've actually saved almost every version and its so cringe-worthy to read back. But it *is* nice to see how far its come :)

    My trouble now is getting agent replies like, "Great/fresh idea/approach, but 'didn't connect to the voice as much as I wanted to.'" I interpret this in a lot of ways, but I do think the voice in the query is the same as the voice in the MS, so it's hard to know what to do next.

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