Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Queries: winning.

Most writers who have done their research obsess over the query letter like nothing else. We read countless templates, lists of dos and don'ts, agent blogs, and examples of successful query letters. The blogs and guidelines tell us to be brief, be clear, avoid rhetorical questions, don't get into backstory, prove we know something about the agent, give a word count (and it had better not be more than 100,000 words), and, above all, get the story on the page.

So, what do the successful queries have in common? Quite often... not much.

Take this recent GalleyCat post listing successful queries from a wide swath of genres. They're attention-grabbing (which is really what matters), but several of them break at least one rule that an agent blogger somewhere has railed about.

Let's start with the adventure query. The novel is about 50,000 words longer than many publishers will accept from a novice, and the writer appears to be querying a young adult novel (though this isn't totally clear) based on the agent's interest in "adult fiction."

Then there's the fantasy query, which has one paragraph full of rhetorical questions and another that is almost as long as some query letters. While many agents insist that 250 words is the target, this query is over 400. The thriller is 500, and a large chunk of that is author bio.

The literary fiction example has plenty about themes and Big Ideas, but almost nothing about the novel's plot.

Of course, one of the most memorable winning queries for me was a letter read aloud at the recent Backspace Seminar. There were three or four agents on the panel, and after explaining why several query letters failed (no sense of the conflicts or story, rhetorical questions, beginning with backstory, vague pronouncements of doom, too much scene-setting, etc.), they read a handful that had enticed one or more of the agents at the conference. And then they got to an Iliad of a letter that had been chosen... by an agent who was absent.

It broke just about every principle they had just discussed. It was sprawling in length (almost two full pages) and meandering in its content (the plot summary described several different settings without giving any idea of how the characters or stories connected). As they read, you could see the agents struggling to explain how this one had succeeded.

In the end, the answer was that there wasn't a specific reason--something in this query had just resonated with the agent who had picked it or matched with something she was looking for. And that was the same explanation the agents gave when they disagreed at other times during the panel. A character description would strike one agent as vague and another as clever. One agent liked a chatty bio, and another thought it was too personal. Several queries were nixed because they contained too much backstory and set-up while another of the winners had a long paragraph that was nothing but world-building.

My takeaways from this are threefold:

  1. As in writing, you can break the rules if you break them well. In most cases, however, it's probably safest for me to assume that I'm not going to break them well, so I'll stick to the guidelines as much as is feasible.
  2. You'll be forgiven some query-writing sins if other aspects of the letter are excellent. But again, I'd rather avoid giving any agent a reason to say "no," so I'm going to assume that I'm not the exception.
  3. Most importantly... a certain part of this process seems to rely on getting the right query to the right agent at the right time. 

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