Saturday, March 19, 2011

Query-less Timing

This week, my editing schedule has been severely delayed because I've been obsessing over my query. I know, I know--that doesn't make much sense, right? If I never finish the edits, I'll never need the query. Bear with me, though--I think this has actually been very helpful.

The point of the query is to distill your full-length novel down to its essence. Anyone who has ever tried it knows that this is HARD. Your query blurb is supposed to be only 250 words (or less). That's .3% of a 90,000 word novel. Try doing that with any other work of art:

5% of Starry Night

3% of The Last Supper

2% of the Mona Lisa
(Disclaimer: percentages are approximate and were not double-checked by someone who can actually do math.)

I tried, but my free photo-editing software wouldn't let me select smaller chunks of the paintings. If you feel like NEVER getting published, try submitting a 2500 word blurb of your novel in your query letter pamphlet and tell the agent that you tried, but you just couldn't say it with fewer words. I'm sure she'll give you an A for effort.

Anyway, one of the great things you learn while writing a query letter is whether or not your novel has a POINT. Also, WHAT THAT POINT IS and WHETHER IT IS STRONG ENOUGH. Ditto with the plot. (Plots and points are both important. So you know.) The earlier you figure this out, the more time you have to, you know, fix it.

For example, let's imagine you're writing your query and you say "John must choose between X-impossible-choice and Y-impossible-choice"... but your novel shows him practically flipping a coin on those options while he's in the middle of saving the princess. (Not that MY characters would ever do anything so foolish.) What to do? You can certainly revise the query to focus more on the princess-saving, but what if he really does have to choose between two impossible things? What if (now that you mention it) he struggles (or really should struggle) with those choices throughout the novel? Don't you WANT to make that moment of choice more important?

Now imagine that you don't realize the importance of that choice until you've run your novel through 10 rounds of edits, polished all the -ly verbs out of it, removed 5000 superfluous words, and tightened up the language until you can bounce a quarter off of it. Imagine you have your list of dream agents, complete with their detailed submission guidelines, sitting in a quick-access file on your computer, and you've set a goal to start querying... next week. Just as soon as you write a query letter.

Heck of a time to figure out what your novel is about, huh?

I'm sure I'll revise my query a few hundred more times before it's agent-ready. I'm sure the revision process itself will help me isolate what my book is about. Still, writing my query now has been amazingly helpful in pin-pointing exactly what I need to fix, what needs to be emphasized, and how my MC needs to feel about her choices. I tried to write a synopsis earlier, before I finished my first draft--it wasn't the same. It had a very "exercise" feel to it. There's a sense of urgency in writing an actual query letter that I'll actually have to use someday that makes me want to get it right--and to make it interesting to someone else.

What about you? When did you / are you planning to write your query letter?

(This post brought to you today by Elana Johnson's wonderful, amazing, splendiferous, FREE e-book: FROM THE QUERY TO THE CALL. Download it here. Read it. Love it. Use it. Why are you still here?)


  1. I can really relate to this post. I started working on my query about a month and a half ago, and I immediately ran into problems because my plot is so layered. Not layered to the point it doesn't make sense, but layered to the point I find it difficult what to focus on to grab someone's attention. Honestly, I'm starting to fear the central, basic plot is scaring people away, whereas there's much more to the story than that. How to shed light on the heart of the story while also pointing out this shocking choice is why it all takes nothing short of frustrating.

    Thanks for the free download!

  2. Ashley--thanks for stopping by!

    Thank Elana for the download--and, really, read her ebook! My query is 100% better today than it was last week, and I was finally able to squeeze in there both WHAT happens and WHY--without revealing too much. It was like a miracle.

  3. Writing myself a kick-A (if I do say so myself) fake back cover blurb gave me the same insight: "Oh, so THAT'S what my book's about!"

  4. Having read your back-cover blurb, I have to second the "kick-A" label. Hurry up and finish writing it!

  5. In my opinion the difficulty in writing a short 250 word summary depends on how much you preparation you make in preparing to write your novel. I spent over 10 years thinking about, planning, and writing story summaries for my WIP novels (some said I spent to much time in this phase and what they say has a lot of validity). But since I spent the time, I have a very clear understanding on what my story is and how I could easily write my query to find an agent.

    Of course, getting it correct is important so I am sure that we will spend more time on it then I plan.

    Hopefully by this time next year I will be ready to do such things. Best of luck in writing your Robin and in finishing your edits.

  6. Eric--that's all well and good if you aren't utterly hopeless when it comes to outlining. :) Good luck on your book--a decade is plenty of time to spend on one project! :)

  7. Hi, Robin! I'm from the West of Mars. :-) Nice post and one of the things that I find toughest about this business. The only thing even more mind bending for me is the synopsis. . . hate that thing.
    ~ Frances

  8. Ugh, Frances, don't get me started on the synopsis. I hates it! I hates it so much! I have no idea how to write one of those monsters, so I'm putting it off as long as possible. Do I REALLY have to have one before I start querying? What if my dream agent never asks for one? :P

  9. Hi, Robin. Here from West of Mars. And offering sympathies. I *hate* writing queries and synopses. You have the essence of the problem. How do you distill your novel into a few short paragraphs without losing the flavor and the fun of it? I still haven't figured it out. Good luck with writing yours.

  10. Thanks, Jaleta. I think I always figured that publishers would write the back cover copy for me. Slackers! Making us do their job for them. :)

  11. Great post - thanks! I usually write a pitch very early, and then revise the pitch before starting revisions on the novel. I agree, it really helps me focus on what I intend the focus to be on! ;)

  12. Thanks for stopping by, Shari! I resisted writing the pitch until my first draft was done because, well, I wasn't sure WHAT my book was about, and trying to figure it out gave me a headache. :) Now that the whole thing is written, I have a much better idea. :)

  13. I wrote my query while I was still outlining, the two informed one another. I'm sure it will get changed up eventually but for now my logline, query and outline are guiding me through the first draft. Despite having all these guides I still know I'm going to be cutting some scenes, but in writing them I got some ideas about plot and learned about two minor characters so I can't complain too loudly.
    - Sophia.

  14. See--you're smart, Sophia. Writing the query first is an excellent idea. Except, as I think I've mentioned, I can't outline. :(

    Make sure you save those cut scenes so you can post them on your website after your book is released! :)

  15. Thanks Robin for the post. I just downloaded the e-book. Thanks Elana for such a great resource!
    I too am in the process of the query letter. And just posted about it yesterday on

    Such an important topic and one that fills many of us with dread.
    Great blog!

  16. Oh. My. Heck! Now I'm scared, Robin. I've already been worrying about this, and now this post has really got me thinking. *sigh*

    Okay. Time to start learning how to write a query. I so suck.

    Brilliant, post, btw. Thanks to you and Elana is are just sheer awesome.

  17. Elena (Aitken--why you confusing me with another Elana while I'm crushing on Elana Johnson?)--I love your post. Everyone needs to go read it. And follow the links. Before I overload them all. :)

    Donna--scary, huh? At least you already have your sticky board. That should help. Read Elana's book. And the other Elana's blog post. :)

  18. Wow, excellent post, summed up the process perfectly. Something like THIS is what I should have written. If only I'd thought of it. *sigh

    (oh, love the fishes btw)

  19. I've written query letters before. (Well, one and two halves, to be precise. Long story. I have one book published and three more under contract/contracts pending.) But as I'm working on writing another query letter, I'm finding it is harder to write than the last one. It's so daunting--especially trying to boil the plot down to a short summary. O_O

    I think I would cry if I got to the summary and realized that I didn't really know the point of the book and I had to do it all over again. Then wipe my tears and attack the novel. ;)

    I had never thought of writing a query letter this way! Thanks for giving me something to chew on.

  20. Ian--what is it with everyone posting on querying lately? Something is in the air. :) Your post was good, though--but for the timing of the query-writing itself, exactly what I would say.

    (I saw the fishes on J. Scott Savage's site, and my boys absolutely adored them. When I saw the gadget on the blogspot menu, I couldn't resist. :))

    Laura--I can't tell you how disheartening it is to learn that it doesn't get easier. Good luck!

  21. Aww, it might be way easier for you the next time around. I guess I should have been clearer: in one sense, it's easier to write query letters once you've got one good one, because you have something upon which to base the next one. The only reason I'm finding this one harder than the last is because summarizing it in a (hopefully!) catchy way isn't as easy this time around. My last book was a piece of cake to summarize. This one? Not so much. I know what my theme is and what the message of the book is--trying to figure out how to word that is just more difficult.

    I'm sure you'll do brilliantly as you work on (and rework) your query letter!

  22. I know it's scary, but running a query through the Query Shark is always a good thing to do. I say this as someone who was once slandered/libelled (take your pick) online by another online query site. But I know the Shark. You're in good hands; her aim isn't to skewer but to help all of us improve. Heck, reading the archives is an education in and of itself.

  23. Laura--I hear you. How can the awesome complexity that is my novel be summed up in 250 words? The current version of my query doesn't even mention her bff! Bff's are important!

    Susan--I LOVE Query Shark, and if I ever make it through the archives, I'll seriously consider submitting. :) (Sadly, I also keep flunking her quiz.) Still, every time I go read a month's worth of queries there, I end up spending another hour trying to fix the same mistakes in my own query.

    Also: slander is spoken. Libel is written. 8-)