Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Gearing Up to Write a Query?

I’ve read a lot of queries. When you’ve spent as many years in the query trenches as I have, that’s just what happens. I’ve written probably two dozen drafts of queries for my own manuscripts, and I’ve done my time at sites like Absolute Write and Nathan Bransford’s forums, reading, learning, critiquing. Hosting “An Agent’s Inbox” has also exposed me to mountains of queries, and I can assure you I’ve read every single one of them. (You can thank Gmail and Blogger’s inability to preserve each other’s formatting for that.)

All of this is the roundabout way of saying I’ve had a little time to figure out what works and what doesn’t, and as I read through the “Gearing Up to Get an Agent” entries last week, one thought kept running through my head:

I don’t think these entries are as good as some of the other judges seem to think.

Now I only read the entries on my assigned blog (and as you read on, it’s going to become pretty apparent which blog that was if you followed the contest), and I really, really, REALLY don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. I only want to point out a few of the overarching problems I noticed in the hopes that, someday, somewhere, this might help someone make it through the hair-pulling, teeth-gnashing experience that is writing a query.

1. Contemporary queries, perhaps more than any others, have to showcase compelling, unique hooks. So many of the contemporary entries I read relied too heavily on a hot-button topic to draw the reader in. If you’re hoping your current, edgy subject matter will carry your query (“SUICIDE!” “ADDICTION!” “SEXUAL ORIENTATION!”), you’re probably going to be disappointed. The vast majority of the contemporary entries in this contest addressed one of these issues, so the issue in and of itself isn’t a strong enough hook. You need to do something more with it.

2. Historical queries must entrench us in their time periods and, at the same time, introduce us to timeless characters and/or problems. Historicals are tough, no doubt about it. You have around two hundred words to introduce us to a world and character we won’t immediately relate to, and yet you have to do it in such a way that we’ll see the parallels to our own lives. Most of the historical queries in this contest didn’t quite rise to this standard, at least in my opinion. I either didn’t buy the voice (because I thought it sounded too modern), or I didn’t buy the world.

3. When everything is said and done, tastes really are subjective. After I finished my first read-through, I had exactly ten entries on my short list but only felt strongly about three. I ended up crossing a few of those off and adding a few others, but one that I kept coming back to was also one that didn’t have the strongest hook. Still, I had a personal weakness for that type of story, so even though I knew it had some problems, I voted for it, anyway, and I stand by that vote. An agent may very well do the same.

Last but not least, I’ll add that there’s no one right way to write a query--and that there’s certainly no one person who has all of this figured out. So take this with a grain of salt, and keep plugging away. All the blog posts in the world won’t teach you what you’ll learn simply by giving it a try.


Suzi said...

Oh oh. I had two of those big hot button issues. Of course I didn't get voted onto the next round though.

I admire your honesty.

Amy L. Sonnichsen said...

Great post, Krista! Learning from you! :)

Tamara said...

Now that I realize you were one of the judges, can I ask you a super quick question? I am one of the fifty that made it through to the next round.

But, now that I'm there, no judges are commenting on my entry--not so far anyway, and it's been up there three days now. In your opinion, does this mean I should change my query before letting it makes the agency rounds? Or does the fact that it even made it into the finals round mean its strong enough to query with? Any opinions on that?

Beth said...

Oh yay! I've been trying to figure out who the judges were on that blog so I could thank them personally. All the comments I received were really encouraging, so thank you so much for participating.

(Restless #30)

Elizabeth Briggs said...

Krista is very wise. *nods head*

Melodie Wright said...

I had the same thoughts over at the blog I helped judge. I think there's a "voice" for querying (think voice over for Hollywood trailer) that once you get, writing goes much easier.

Krista Van Dolzer said...

Suzi, thank you for taking this in the spirit I meant it. I really didn't want to make anyone feel bad; I just wanted to help push those queries to the next level.

Thanks, Amy! Glad you found it helpful.

Tamara, it's hard to say. Did more than one judge vote for you? In a way, it's a numbers game--they can't all be wrong, right? :) But if you're concerned, you might post your query on a site like Absolute Write, Agent Query Connect, QueryTracker, or Nathan Bransford's forums. I think random strangers--well, random strangers who write--actually give really great feedback on queries and can help you spot problem areas.

You're welcome, Beth. Good luck!

Thanks for the plug, Liz;)

Great point, Melodie--writing a query is much different than writing a manuscript. Some skills translate, of course, but it's not automatic.

Ink in the Book said...

I *loved* this advice. I have came back and read through the post 3 times already.

You know, I wish there was no thing as a query. And the more I try and get mine right, the more I discover, I don't like them.

But this advice was timely and extremely helpful.
Thank you:)

T. Drecker said...

This is great advice, and it's nice to hear you being so open about it. I'll definitely read this post through one more time - at least :)

Karen lee Hallam said...

Ah, query trenches--that's where I'm at. Thanks for the post Krista!

Carrie-Anne said...

I know it's hard for me to write a query for a longer historical, since mine are set over longer periods and more about a journey, not fast-paced and plot-centric. I agree with you about some modern-day historical writers sounding too modern, though I'm not really expecting to see parallels to my own life when I read historical. A lot of YA historicals I've encountered lately (like The Luxe and Gilt) come across like Gossip Girl in period clothes, with historical characters talking and acting in completely inappropriate, anachronistic ways for their era.

So far, I've gotten query advice from contests and bloghops, and from the now-inactive Pitch University boards. I really didn't feel comfortable with the atmosphere at Absolute Write, and felt a bit dogpiled there instead of given constructive, helpful critique.

Krista Van Dolzer said...

Talynn, I think writing queries is a lot like riding a bike--you have to fall down a lot while you're figuring everything out, but once you do, you never forget. (Which isn't to say I still didn't go through a million drafts of my queries, because I did:) I just had a better eye for spotting the problem areas.) Good luck!

I'm glad you found it helpful, T. I really tried to be honest without being mean.

You're welcome, Karen! Best of luck!

Carrie-Anne, thanks for sharing. You made a good point about Absolute Write--it can be a little brutal, so thanks for mentioning these other query-critiquing sites. And what I meant about seeing parallels is just that I think every book needs to give the reader something to latch on to, something to grab hold of, especially in YA. People are people, so while the settings and circumstances may have changed over the years, the underlying motivations are often the same. That's the beauty of writing--it reveals common ground, crossing age, gender, culture, and even time.

Jeanmarie Anaya said...

Krista, thank you so much for your insight and for volunteering your time to GUTGAA. With all of the recent pitch/query-honing contests, I am continually amazed at how supportive the writing community is and how willing everyone is with helping each other.

I was lucky--I received supportive, constructive feedback on my contemporary YA entry at GUTGAA (Operation Breakup). I hope that other writers who have had, *kind* (for lack of a better word) experiences at other forums will give GUTGAA (and Pitch Madness and Cupids Lit Connection) a try next year.

Larissa said...

Another, much nicer place to vet your query is the Verla Kay Blueboards. No snarkiness is allowed there. :) (I am a moderator).

Traci Kenworth said...

Thanks for the tips!! I will be diving into the queries waters all too soon and these will help.

Anonymous said...

Uh huh. So basically what you're saying is, write a book that's actually worth reading!!?? :D Seriously, more writers need to hear this; really relevant concepts on things you would think are common sense but everyone throws out the window. Thanks for the great tips! Cool blog, too! ;D

Krista Van Dolzer said...

You're welcome, Jeanmarie. And good luck with OPERATION BREAKUP. I hope I get a chance to read it someday:)

Larissa, maybe you can help me. I tried to set up an account on Verla Kay about this time last year, and the server said my account approval was pending. As far as I know, it was never approved. Do you know why that would be or how I can rescue my long lost account?

Good luck, Traci!

Anon, thanks for stopping by!