April 19, 2012

Q is for...Query and Queasy

The word QUERY feels like it should have a duh duh duhhhh* sound after it (that sound following things that are supposed to be foreboding). To me, the thought of QUERYING is QUEASY-making.

Some time back I started looking into what this query business was all about, and started crafting my own long before my story was even done (it still isn't). I'd read somewhere that this was a good thing to do to get a better idea of whether or not your story was compelling enough, or if you even had a story to tell at all. One resource on writing queries suggested looking at the book jackets of books that you read, particularly in the same genre that you're writing, to get ideas for wording your query (they often sound similar). This sounded like a really good idea to me, so I gave it a try.

In the process of trying to write a query I discovered a few things:
1)  I have a story to tell, which I believe is compelling (phew).
2)  I have no credentials to add to the conclusion of my query.
3)  I suck pants at writing a query letter (at the time I tried).

Those things are hard. Making sure it has the right tone, the right information, the most compelling details...not easy. Any way that I wrote it, it came off sounding cheesy or comedic (it's not). I know this just means that I need practice, and the letter itself needs work. And I'm prepared for that, but still. Aside from inadvertently spewing out a cheestastic description of my story, the part of writing a query letter that freaks me out the most is #2 on the list just above. I don't have an MFA, I've never published anything in this journal or that newspaper, nor do I have professional experience on the subject that I'm writing. I'm just a 30-something unemployed teacher plunking away on her keyboard trying to tell a story, hoping that somebody out there might read it.

Does this matter? I sure as heck hope not. Many of the agents advising on query letters say that it's not crucial, but I wonder if they really mean it. Will they make assumptions about my writing based on my lack of credentials? Do I really need to step up the rest of my query letter to make up for this?

Like I said→ QUEASY-making.

In my search for query-writing tips I came across some tools and information that I found helpful:
Query Shark→ She may be harsh at times, but her query critiques are really informative.
Query Tracker→ Under the heading "Querying", author Elana Johnson has some good tips.
Agent Vickie Motter→ She provides both a skeleton and details about what to include.
The Other Side of the Story→ Janice Hardy breaks down the query into manageable parts. She also has many other posts on this topic which you can find here. And here's her own query broken down.

There are many other valuable resources out there for navigating the querying process, I'm sure.

How about you? Have you written a query already? What resources did you find were most helpful?

___________________________________________________________
* I typed this into Google to see how to spell out the sound I was thinking of. Google's autocomplete feature brought up duh duh duh duh song. I totally lol'd because I knew the exact song someone had been searching for→ Beethoven's 5th Symphony. We spent the better part of a semester in my grade 11 Strings class studying the finer details of this symphony on vinyl, so I couldn't help laughing.

Beethoven - 5th Symphony 1st Movement

Powered by mp3skull.com

38 comments:

  1. Every workshop I've ever been to says not to worry about the credentials - all they care about is a good query letter (I know that's not all that encouraging, since the query itself is IMPOSSIBLE to write!)

    Try Agent Kristin Nelson's blog: http://pubrants.blogspot.ca/

    She breaks down client queries and has query workshop info in the links along the right side of the blog. She is so helpful and informative!

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    1. I've been to Agent Kristin Nelson's blog, and you're right, she's very helpful. In my head I know that credentials don't really matter if you're story is good, but it's just one of those irrational worries that crops up when I get stressed about the query. I just need to finish my story and do the query already. :)

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  2. As you know, Jaime (being a faithful reader of my blog--and many thanks to you for that), I'm querying my novel at the moment, and my query is on my blog for all to see. I don't claim it's the greatest query ever (I don't have an agent yet, so draw your own conclusions), but it doesn't suck. The most important lesson I think people need to learn about querying is this: the query is just a vehicle to get the agent to look at your manuscript. That's all. Which means, YES, read the QueryShark archive, research, and write the best darn query you possibly can. But then don't stress over whether you've followed all the right rules, etc. Agents have signed clients based on queries that broke all the "rules" because in the end, the query was so compelling they had to look at the manuscript. Also, some agents ask for the first 5 or so pages because they know a sucky query doesn't always mean a sucky manuscript.

    Anyway, there's some thoughts on querying that will hopefully ease some of the queasy. :)

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    1. I'm heading over to your blog to check out your query right after I finish this reply (thanks for pointing me in that direction). I think it's good to see how others have put together their query, just like reading other books helps you with your writing. Thanks for the reminder that it's about the story and not about having the most stellar query letter in the world. :)

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  3. I agree, don't worry about credentials...I had no credentials other than my education degree and some teaching experience with teens, but I still got my first partial request w/in ten queries. You win an agent over with your story idea and how well you sell that story idea with your writing (the query)...those are the things that matter most.

    I'm also a big believer that shorter is better for queries...don't feel compelled to tell them everything...bait the hook and get them to nibble...if they want to know what happens in the whole story they'll read it:)

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    1. Sounds like you and I have similar credentials. :) I guess I need to stop worrying about something so inconsequential when it's the story and the story idea that matter the most. I tend to agree with you too on the length of the query. I've read some over on Query Shark that seemed painfully long. I think you're probably more likely to get passed on if an agent has to slog through a mile long query letter.

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  4. Agree with all the other comments - having amazing writerly credentials are not necessary, at all. If your query is well pulled together, your writing shines, and you've done it all in a professional manner, than having an MFA isn't going to be what makes them request your story. It just isn't.

    And I'm not sure why it is - but I absolutely love this part of the writing process. Most of my CP's think I'm nuts - but sending my query out into the world, and getting responses (even if they're not favorable), means someone in the industry is acknowledging that I write, to begin with.

    I have a simple matrix I picked up in one of my writing query classes, if you're ever interested (just shoot me an email) - it's one of those things that makes you wonder why you were so stressed out, with how simple it is. And while I'm not agented / published yet, I'm leaps and bounds ahead of where I was before I learned all that I have, on queries. If you ever need a second pair of eyes on yours, I'm here!

    Hope you're feeling better!

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    1. I know in my head that credentials ultimately don't matter, I get a little irrational when I start thinking about querying. It's not something I should really worry about. I think the more I do it, the less stressful it'll feel for me. Wish I loved it as much as you do, though. :)

      I just sent you and email request for this matrix you mention——sounds really helpful! Thanks for the help and the encouragement, Erin :)

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  5. I haven't done it yet. I'm scared to. :(

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    1. You and me both, Jaycee. You and me both O_o

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  6. I write my queries before my novels, my brain just works that way! :D I've queried three novels and it can definitely be soul-sucking, so make sure you have lots of chocolate and writer friends available! Good luck, you!

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    1. Chocolate...check. Writer friends...check. :)

      I think it's a good way of ensuring that you have a halfway decent plot. If you can't sum it up in a query, then maybe it's a good indication to go back to the drawing board. I'll probably continue to bumble my way through early on in my writing for this reason :)

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  7. This is a great post! I wrote the query for my most recent WIP (my second novel...I shelved the first a while back) between drafts. It really helped me see the holes in my writing to help me get better. I also got lucky enough to win a query critique on a blog contest, which was IMMENSELY helpful. I'd say to look for these sort of things--contests, charity auctions, etc. A lot of agents will offer a query critique as a prize.

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    1. That's what I was aiming for in my first query letter attempt. It was actually really helpful to look at my WiP that way. I've noticed a lot of query critique contests, but I'll have to keep that in mind when I have a completed WiP and query letter :) Still scares the pants off of me, though.

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  8. Definitely get feedback from fellow writers on your query before you send it out-- but wait until the end for all of that stuff. You have plenty of time. I write them as I work, and the query always develops along with the book.
    I think the credentials are practically irrelevant. I have none relevant to writing MG/YA and listed none in the queries that got me full reads and agent offers. I think it's far worse to try to turn something that's not really a credential into one.
    IMHO, the most important things are having a good idea well executed and being professional. That's it. :0)

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    1. I've seen examples of bad query letters where someone tried to make something of their credentials that just wasn't there. How embarrassing! I don't think I'd go that route just to make myself seem/feel better.

      I do like the idea of developing a query along with my WiP. It's a great way to find holes in the plot :)

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  9. My philosophy is that aside from figuring out general guidelines for a query letter, you shouldn't overthink it. I'd recommend making the letter simple, straightforward, and professional but full of voice--and then focusing more on the attached pages and making sure they are perfect.

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    1. Great advice, Rebecca :) That's kind of what I'm aiming for (simple, straightforward...). To me, it's the story that matters, and if I can hook them just enough then my attached pages can do the rest :)

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  10. Query does equal queasy for me as well, Jaime! I have tried so many time to write mine (I´m still not done revising my WiP so I still have time) and while I do notice it is getting better (yay!), it´s still not there...

    The good thing my first very crappy attempt showed me is showing me where I needed to tighten my plot :D

    I also check out the Query Shark to see what works and what doesn´t but I have the feeling that we do need to keep it simple, intriguing and full of voice (as Rebecca mentioned too :D))

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    1. I'm still not quite done my WiP either, but it is helpful to attempt a query to look for plot problems, and just to summarize the point of your story. That's why I attempted one anyway (like you did too). :)

      Query Shark is super helpful. I like to see the evolution of a query from not so good to so much better. Her tips are invaluable.

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  11. Heh, I hadn't even considered credentials (I'm not at the query stage yet). Coming over from acting, I just figured this field would be like acting, where no one cares AT ALL whether you have an MFA or even a BA/BFA. I actually had a lot of people tell me that I should major in something else, because a theater degree is basically useless to actors. (Of course, whatever you might actually LEARN in a program like that is a different story. But the credential itself? Nah.)

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    1. I keep hearing that you don't need an MFA, and I believe it. It still freaks me out a little, especially having zero credentials of any kind. It's not so much not having an MFA, it's more that I've never published anything. Ah well. If my story is good enough, they won't care, right? :D

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  12. I'm about to start the querying process, and I definitely agree, it was super helpful to me to write up the query while I was still in the throes of editing. Looking back, I think for my next WIP I'll just write one up front because it will really help keep my story on track!

    I love reading through others' successful queries on sites like Absolute Write, YA Highway, and AQ Connect. I've got a few more links on my resources page. It's so inspiring to see queries that worked!

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    1. It is a great tool for making sure the plot is okay. That's why I attempted one so early on :)

      I like reading other people's queries too, just to see how they worded it mostly. I especially like when authors share the query that got them an agent and ultimately a book deal. So cool :)

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  13. The best advice I've seen for having no writing credentials is to list an affiliation like SCBWI. If you join a national organization like that, or Romance Writers of America, etc, it gives you access to critique groups, conferences etc. I'm not sure what's available to you in Canada or if those orgs are open to international membership. Maybe worth looking into!

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    1. I have an SCBWI membership already. Do you mention stuff like that in your query? I'm not sure if I've seen that or not. SCBWI just sounded like a really great organization to belong to :)

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  14. I always liked to read agent interviews to get an idea of what they're particular tastes are (and what they don't like to see in a query). That helped me a lot when I was looking for an agent!

    I agree with Stephsco up there that mentioning you're a member of SCBWI/RWA/etc. helps, as does mentioning if you're in a critique group. It shows the agent you're serious.

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    1. I read agent interviews too. It's great to see what they're looking for in stories that they receive, and what they're looking for in a query letter (especially common pitfalls—> those are really helpful). :)

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  15. Ugh... queries are SO HARD! I just wrote what was essentially a query, pitching a story idea to my agent. Thankfully, she loved it, but I was super nervous after hitting send! I've found that getting feedback from people who HAVEN'T read the manuscript is invaluable. They're often able to tell you what's confusing and what feels unnecessary. Also what's working! Good luck with the query writing and querying, Jaime!

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    1. So question for you: once you have an agent, do you have to write a formal query letter ever again? I'm assuming not, but I'm just curious.

      I agree that finding people who are unfamiliar with your story is a great idea. I'm going to run into that problem soon since the people I trust with my story already know too much about it. I'll have to branch out to others soon (which freaks me out). :)

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  16. Oh man. The first time I tried... I don't even want to think about. I had no clue what a hook was, and basically rambled on how I came up with my title for half the letter. *cringes* It's ridiculously mortifying to think about, hehe. But I totally agree with you on the resources -- they're basically what got me on the right track and made me realize what I was doing (horrendously) wrong! :D

    In the end, though, it really comes down to your story, I think. A good query letter is essential, but a fantastic novel is the true selling point.

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    1. I did a bunch of research on the query before I attempted it, so that was really helpful. Still couldn't get it quite right, though :)

      I think it's definitely the story that's most important, but the query is the front door, you know? They have to be enticed inside to check out your story. Does that make sense?

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  17. Uh, I hear you. I'm am re-writing my query for the umpteenth time. BLAH

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    1. I haven't returned to it in recent months, but I'm not really thrilled about the idea. I know it's going to be something that I fiddle with over and over again to get it perfect. Blah is right :)

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  18. Queries are not fun. One of my LEAST favorite parts of the writing process.

    Like others have said, credentials aren't necessary. A good book is. If your book and letter are polished and compelling, agents won't mind that you don't have any credits.

    Good luck when you're ready to query!

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    1. I'm working on the story-polishing part, so I'll worry about that until the time comes for a query letter. I just hope I don't spend too much time making sure both are perfect. I think there comes a time where you have to just trust that it's at the right point to send in. Otherwise, I could fiddle with both until the end of time :)

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  19. Queries are a necessary evil. And yes they do make me queasy! love your site.
    Nutschell
    www.thewritingnut.com
    Happy A-Zing!

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  20. What I've heard regarding credentials in querying, is put them if you have them, and if not, most agents just say "Tell us why you should write this book". And that's exactly what you should do. Use experiences you've had, tell them what you're passionate about. I think being a teacher should give you tons of that - plus a really good reason to write MG and YA. I have an MFA but it's nothing to do with writing, and the SCBWI is good to add. I've started putting that too since I joined.

    I agree that short is better with queries (but not so short they don't include a good synopsis). Also, don't overthink them (I'm guilty of doing that). They're there to 'hook' the agent so however you do that is the way you should go.

    Queries are a LOT harder than I thought when I first tackled them, but once you have a good one, all your work is worth it. Good luck!

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