Monday, December 5, 2011

The Query-- What Worked For Me

First off, a huge thank you to Lynn(e) Schmidt from The Submission Process for the One Lovely Blog award, and to Richard at Writing and Living by Richard P. Hughes for the Great Comments Award. This was awesome. Thanks, guys!

Okay, onto more questions from that one post a couple of weeks ago. I got a lot of questions about queries in general. Tomorrow's the question about finding critique partners, and Thursday's is about researching agents. Next week-- probably Tuesday and Thursday-- it's how to know when your manuscript is ready.

I have been putting this post off for a very long time. Why? Because I am NOT, by any sense of the word, an expert on queries. (They're those little one page letters you write to get an agent to request to see pages.) Eventually, though, I decided that I'd share what worked for me. Who knows? Maybe something that I learned will help you. Or... sharing might make you think I'm a little insane. If you do, that's okay-- I felt a little insane doing it. If it starts to make you feel discouraged, though, STOP READING. That's seriously my biggest fear in sharing this. I don't want anyone who is preparing to query to think that you have to do everything I did. It is simply what worked for me. Queries are massively important. And they're hard. But regardless of that, YOU CAN DO IT. You may need to remind yourself of that a few (hundred) times.

If you're a writer, you need to write queries.

Fact of life. If you choose traditional publishing, you'll need it to get an agent. If you choose Indie publishing, you'll need it to sell your book. (If you are Indie publishing, just replace every word "query" in this post with the word "blurb" in your mind. :))

Writing Queries

I'm not going to write about the nuts and bolts of writing queries, because there are people who HAVE made themselves experts that you should go to.

Nathan Bransford is one of them. He's a former agent and an author, so he's read thousands of queries in his lifetime, and had to write a few himself. Click this link to go to Nathan Bransford's awesome post on writing queries.)

Another expert is Elana Johnson. (I went to Google Images and typed in "query letters," and Elana Johnson's picture came up. I'M NOT EVEN KIDDING.) Not only is she an amazing author, but she is an amazing person. She wrote an eBook on query writing, AND IT'S FREE. Because, yes, she is just that cool. Click this link to go to Elana Johnson's blog with links about query writing, and to download From the Query to the Call.) This book was a lifesaver to me! I used it as a bible as I wrote my query. Then, when I got requests, I looked in the book, and it told me exactly what to do. How to respond, what to change the subject line to, how to format my ms, everything. Then, when I got an email from an agent saying let's talk, it told me what kinds of questions to ask. Seriously. Download this book. It may make you want to hug Elana Johnson in the wee hours of the night when you've got questions and she saves you. I'm just sayin'.

The Hook

Ahh, the hook. They're awesome, and the experts will tell you that you need one. It's the thing that grabs you and makes you want to read more. For some books, it comes easy. It's even easy to get it in the voice of the book. For some books, it's REALLY HARD. Even though I thought of mine for more months than I'm willing to admit, I never came up with one. Is it simply impossible to come up with a one-sentence hook for some books? Um.. probably not. I'm just saying it was impossible for ME to come up with one.

So what do you do if you can't for the life of you come up with a hook? First, know that it isn't the end of the world. Then just tell what you need to in your query in the best way. Make that first line really interesting, even if it isn't something that could stand by itself as a hook. Just focus on making it the best you can.

Queries are important. Really important. Give them their due.

Some agents don't care as much about queries. Generally, if they don't, they'll say so in interviews, ask for short queries with the first five or ten pages pasted in the email, and they'll put most of their focus on the pages. THEY ARE NOT IN THE MAJORITY, THOUGH. Most agents think that everything they need to know is in that one page. They can tell if your book is going to be all over the place. They can tell if the writing is going to be strong. They can tell if it's going to have grammatical issues. They can tell if the conflict is engaging. They can tell if the voice is compelling.

Um... a lot to accomplish in one page, no? Don't let it stress you out or discourage you. DO let it compel you to give it your all. Think about how long you spent drafting and revising your novel. It would be a sad thing indeed if an agent who would've been perfect for you and that book turned it down based on a query letter that wasn't as well written as the book, right?


You will get rejections. Also a fact of life. They're not about you. And a good portion of the time, they're not even about your writing! I like reading YA dystopians. Does that mean I like EVERY YA dystopian? Nope. Is it because some are not well-written? Nope. Well, sometimes, but not always. The point is, some books will resonate tons with you, while others won't. Even if they do with other people. It's the same with agents. You want your book to go to an agent who it resonates with! Besides. Sometimes they may love your book, but they don't have the contacts to sell it. That's no good either. Neither situation has anything to do with how good your book is. And it DEFINITELY doesn't have anything to do with how awesome you are.

What I did.

I really struggled with my query. I had a character with a strong internal struggle greatly influenced by her town, and a strong external struggle involving her town that was greatly influenced by people outside her town, and a unique setting that played strongly in both conflicts. It was incredibly hard to figure out what to include in my query, what to leave out, what brought out my book's uniqueness, and what weighed down such a short description.

I went to a conference last May, and had signed up for a query class with Elana Johnson. As part of the class, she had everyone email her their query beforehand so she could critique it. I rewrote a query a couple of times, and sent it to her. It stunk, and I knew it. I also knew that every critique only has the ability to raise it's level one or two. So if I sent her a query that was a 2, there was no way it was coming out of the critique as a 10. But the query was due, and it was the best I could get it. I knew that the critique wouldn't get me there, but it would get me closer.

Then I took it to a couple of guys in my writing group. They helped me really narrow down what needed to be in the query, and what I could leave out. Sometimes, it REALLY helps to get some outside perspective on that.

After that, I rewrote it a few (or maybe a dozen) more times, then had an editor look at it. (I'll talk more about him next week when I talk about manuscripts.) He suggested that I get my query condensed to 7 or 8 lines in my word processor. Not sentences. LINES. Ugh. Knife to the gut. I worked and worked and worked on it, and finally got it down to 8 lines, 140 words.

In late May, I took an online webinar from Sara Megibow, who used to read all 150 queries the Nelson Agency got every single day. One might say she's a bit of an expert. After her class, I rewrote it some more, then sent it to her at the end of June for a critique that came with the class. After I got her critique, I rewrote some more.

And through it all, I sent it to my CPs several times. I sent it to my friend who's great at grammar. I sent it to my sister enough times that I'm pretty sure I violated some anti-torture laws listed in the Geneva Convention.

But I finally got my query to where it was technically right!

In September, after a lot more tweaks to my query, David Powers King had a giveaway on his blog, and he offered to critique anyone's query. I decided to send it to him, because having someone who knows this business who DOESN'T know your book is very valuable. (Seriously. If you ever get a chance to enter your query somewhere, do it. Maybe put on a few layers of skin first, but do it.) It came back with some great suggestions, and LOTS OF QUESTIONS. After reading his questions, I realized that my query wasn't leaving the reader intrigued so much as confused. In my brevity, I had left out too much information.

So I started with a blank screen, and all the knowledge I had gained with the last couple dozen attempts, including those phrases burned into my mind that were the most efficient wording to SHOW a lot of the things that I needed to show. I just wrote. I didn't care about word count, I just told the story in the voice of the book. When I was done, it was 235 words. Almost 100 more than my one that was technically right.

But the thing was: this query was EMOTIONALLY right.

Even though it didn't fit in eight lines. Even though it didn't start with a hook sentence.

That's just it. You need to figure out what is right for YOUR BOOK specifically.

So after more than five months and what felt like a billion revisions, was I 100% confident with it? Heck no. I still worried that it wasn't nearly good enough. What I did know was that it was THE VERY BEST THAT I COULD GET IT. I knew that working on it more would not make it better; it would make me less sane. Plus, I knew that the quality of my query matched the quality of my book, and that's a good indicator of when you're ready to query. I knew in my gut I was ready. And sometimes, you just gotta go with your gut. So I clicked send.

Should you spend five months on your query? You're probably much faster than me, and can accomplish the same thing in a month or possibly even a couple of weeks! The important thing is to make sure the quality of the query matches the quality of the manuscript. Your gut will tell you when you're ready.

And then don't be afraid to click Send.


Shell Flower said...

Another excellent post. Wow. You really worked hard on that query. It paid off, too :) So, out of curiosity, how much did you edit your manuscript based on questions that came up with your query (if at all).

Leigh Ann said...

WOW. That is a ton of work on your query. I bow to you.

Thanks for reminding me what hard, hard work a query deserves. There are so many times I roll my eyes at the prospect of writing one for my WiP, especially because my current one just is not doing the job. But when it comes time to actually pound the new one out, I'll reread this post to strengthen my resolve. :)

JeffO said...

Great post, Peggy, thank you for sharing. I am curious about one thing: while you were working on your query, were you still tweaking the actual manuscript as well, or had you managed to put it aside and work on your query and your next WiP?

Kelley Lynn said...

Thank you Peggy!

I have rewritten my query letter probably twenty times. A few of those starting from scratch. It's really hard, but as you say, it's super important.

Ruth Josse said...

Eyes! Lots of eyes looking at our work is so important. Our stories are so ingrained into our heads, it's hard to have the perspective to see what changes need to be made. Queries are hard for me too so I'll take all the help I can get. :)

Jennie Bennett said...

Wow what is excellent post! I made the same mistake with my first manuscript and I had to put it away for awhile. Thank you for this awesome info!

Talei said...

Excellent advice! You have really done your homework and I think the results speak for themselves! What's that saying? Hard work does pay off? So very true.

I have a feeling the querying part for me will take a long time but I know when its right because it will feel right.

Thank you for sharing your journey with us!

S.P. Bowers said...

Thanks for the post. I'll be working on mine soon. Eeep. I think feedback from others is critical for queries. Sometimes we are too close and don't see the gaps and confusion because we know it all.

Melanie Fowler said...

This is amazing! I'm finally getting to these steps and this is very helpful information. Thank you thank you!!!!!!!

Cassie Mae said...

Sounds like a familiar story. My query has been 'under the knife' for so long, it's starting to turn my hair grey. (is it grey or gray? I never know.) And I'm going to download that book right now!

And thank you for this: They're not about you. And a good portion of the time, they're not even about your writing!

I have a hard time not thinking it's my writing that sucks. You've given me a boost on my monday morning. Thanks so much Peggy!

Cynthia said...

so stressfull. I'm writing mine now, and it's so hard! Loving what I'm learning though. :-)

Abby Fowers said...

You're going to have to give yourself some credit and add your name to the list of experts! This is an awesome post. I love learning more about querying - I think it is one of those things that makes us all nervous and we can all improve on. Thanks for this!

prerna pickett said...

My first few attempts at query writing were AWFUL! My skills have gotten better, but I still don't like doing it. However, hard work does pay off, as in your case. I'm looking forward to reading the rest of this weeks posts!

Kelley said...

Good points, especially how you ended. Queries are an art form :)

Julianne Donaldson said...

Wow. That sounded torturous. I am so happy for you that there was a happy ending for all of your hard work. And kudos for sticking to it until it was the best you could make it.

Just to be a stinker, I have to admit that I got my book deal and my agent without a query letter. It came from knowing my publisher and agent ahead of time and being able to talk to them comfortably about my book premise. So attending conferences and networking can be just as important as query writing.

David P. King said...

Great post, Peggy! And thanks for the shout-out! It was a pleasure helping out with your query. :)

Lynn(e) Schmidt said...

I'm still querying and it's awful. I too torture my sister on a daily basis to the point she usually stops responding :/ Oops.

Are you open to critiquing queries at all? (Figured there's no harm in asking :) ). I've had a couple of editor bites, but I'm still trying to get more agenty-bites.

Also--thanks for the shout out, as well :) You're a rockstar.

Small Town Shelly Brown said...

I'm exhausted just reading this post. Querying is not for the faint of heart.

Angela Cothran said...

This is book marked for sure. I feel like I need to take notes. Thanks so much for sharing. It really paid off.

Angela Brown said...

I couldn't agree with you more.

I've recently had a query critiqued by the lovely ladies at Unicorn Bell (Tara, Marcy, Huntress and Charity: You ladies rock!) and each of their critiques offered me ways to take my query into better clarity of story, brevity of space on the page and make it more bang with better word choice. Having outside eyes really and truly helps.

Since you've mentioned Elana's query book, I think I have that downloaded already but I need to check and do some referencing to it as well.

Thanks so much for this post.

Iain said...

Thank you for being brave enough to share, and for the amazing insight into your experiences. Looks like I need to do some more reading and re-writing :o)

Anonymous said...

Who needs queries when Word can just make a PDF you can email out to anyone?

Lan said...

Thanks so much for the great advice and the awesome link. I am completely loving these advice posts. Keep em coming!

Kristine said...

Hahaha! I had your query so memorized I was reciting it in my sleep! Really though, I appreciate you asking me!

Diane said...

thank you so much for sharing this process and all that you went through with it. Super interesting and real! :O)

Maggie said...

Wow, maybe I didn't put enough effort into some of mine :)

Romance Reader said...

Thank you for sharing this whole process with us. You really did a lot of work in your query and I'm glad it paid off!

Peggy Eddleman said...

Shell-- I didn't edit my ms at all based on the query questions. My ms was all ready to go, and IT had all those questions answered... I just hadn't realized how much I hadn't answered in the query.

Leigh Ann-- I think we just bonked heads, because you know I was already bowing to you.

JeffO-- Yes, still tweaking the ms. I started writing my query when I was on revision 8 on my ms, and the ms I sent to agents was revision 11. Nothing was changing plot-wise at that point-- the changes all involved strengthening all aspects of it, as well as making the language more efficient. I also started my blog during that time, and spent a lot of time blog building. I didn't spend any time on a new ms during that five months.

Kelley-- You sound like me! (Tell me the truth. Are we a little insane?)

Ruth-- Yes! Eyes! Lots and lots of eyes!

Jennie-- Thanks! And you're welcome! :)

Talei-- It's definitely hard work, and I think you can really tell when it just feels right.

S.P.-- Yes! It's so hard to see the gaps! Others looking at it make all the difference.

Mel-- I'm glad it was helpful! When I was done, I really just felt like I used a WHOLE LOT of words to say nothing. So, thanks! And you're welcome!

Cassie-- I totally understand the GREY/GRAY hairs! And I'm glad it gave you a boost! (Would you like some hair dye with that boost? I know I would.)

Cynthia-- It is hard! Best of luck with it!

Abby-- Hahaha! And thank you. You're so sweet!

Prerna-- I'm pretty sure everyone's first few attempts are awful! I know mine were. In fact, I'm not sure "awful" is an awful enough word.

Peggy Eddleman said...

Aaa! I'm too wordy again! It wouldn't accept my whole comment! Okay, the second half:

Kelley-- They are! And some people's are so creative. Sometimes going outside of the box doesn't work, and sometimes it's what makes your query golden.

Julianne-- I didn't know that about your agent/publisher! That's pretty awesome. You're right. Networking totally helps. Although, if everything had hinged on my pitch with Sara... well, let's just say it wouldn't have a happy ending. I was so nervous! The fabulous photographer came in during my pitch to get a picture, which was awesome. I actually own a picture of me pitching to my agent six months before she was my agent. I'll never share the picture, though, because you can tell by my body language just how awkward it was!

David-- And thank you so much for helping with my query! It really helped me to figure out what my next step needed to be. You are awesome for offering something like that.

Lynn(e)-- Thank YOU again for the blog award! I hope you and your sister get back on speaking terms. ;) I don't know about queries at this point. Idk-- maybe ask me in a couple of weeks? I'm feeling completely swamped at the moment, and I know I couldn't squeeze it in before then. Ask me a little later though, okay?

Shelly-- I know! It's a three-mile long post! I got exhausted just scrolling down through it. :) Good thing writers aren't born faint of heart, right?

Angela C-- Wow! Bookmarked! You just made me feel all kinds of special. :) Glad you found it useful.

Angela B-- Unicorn Bell! Yes! Definitely something people should check out! Thanks for mentioning it. I thought about it while thinking of this post, but forgot while I was actually writing it. Best of luck with querying!

Iain-- Wow. Thanks! And best of luck with the query and the querying!

Joshua-- Hahahaha! I know, right? It's not any harder to send the entire book to agents... :D

Lan-- Awww! You're welcome! I'm glad you're finding them useful! Sometimes I feel like I'm being anything but.

Kristine-- Have I mentioned lately that I love you? (Thanks again for not turning me in on all that torture.)

Diane-- You're welcome!

Maggie-- Please tell me I didn't discourage you, though! Yes, they need a lot of time and effort spent. No, it doesn't have to be a crazy amount of time and effort. :)

Romance Reader-- You're welcome! I'm really glad it paid off, too. :)

i'm erin. said...

Yep, you put a ton of work into that query! And it paid off. You are my hero.

Jessie Humphries said...

You better believe that I am going to call you in an expert witness on my query trial in a few weeks.

CherylAnne Ham said...

Thanks, Peggy. This is an excellent post. I've been working on my query for what feels like forever so I know what you mean about the 5 month thing. I think I've past that mark. To my credit, I'm still working on revising the MS so I pull out the query whenever I need a break or the mood strikes.

I love From The Query to the Call. It has improved my query skillz big time. I bet Elana's class was awesome.

Thanks for sharing this. It's really good stuff. :D

LisaAnn said...

Oh my gosh, that's some serious dedication! Your hard work has definitely paid off in a big way, and this post is filled with EXCELLENT advice. Thanks for sharing this!

Kristen Pelfrey said...

Hooray! What a wonderfully inspiring post, Peggy! Thank you so much--I'm bookmarking this one!

Hannah Hounshell said...

Another source for query letter critiques?

Query Shark.

I'd mention Miss Snark, but she doesn't post anymore. Her archive is definitely something to take a peek at if you're in the midst of writing a query letter, though. Even if it is just for a laugh.

I'll bookmark those links you posted though. I haven't gotten to the point of being ready to query, but I'll be there eventually, lol. In the meantime I'll add them to the many sites to review when the time comes.

Thanks :D

Carrie Butler said...

Man, I just can't escape the Q-word today, can I? *grins* Great post, Pegasus! It actually made me feel a little better about the whole process. (And that's quite the accomplishment!) Thank you! :)

Susanna Leonard Hill said...

What a thoroughly helpful and informative post! For all your worry about queries, I think what you've presented here is great! You may nave spent 5 months on it, but at least in the end it got you a publishing contract :)

Cortney Pearson said...

Five months definitely paid off! Thanks for sharing the links that helped you.

Christa Desir said...

I wrote my first query an appalling number of times. Appalling. I queried wrong. I queried badly. I queried when I wasn't ready. I wrote a new book. The query came out in a simple draft. I got feedback from bloggers and revised once. I queried to five agents. Got requests from all of them. In my case, it was the book, not the query. I consider myself one of the very lucky ones. (I still have 87 query drafts from book one which I still am not satisfied with...go figure).

Anonymous said...

Excellent post -- thank you! I spent the past month trying to get my query letter right, and for sure critiques are vital. A crit from someone who doesn't know your book can be painfully illuminating, lol. :)

Connie Barnett Dowell said...

Wow! So much editing and that's just the query. I've just started working on mine and it is a lot harder than I expected.

Peggy Eddleman said...

Erin-- YOU put a ton of work into that query. :) Thanks for that.

Jessie-- Hehe! Getting all lawyer talk on me. It always makes me giggle when you combine your lawyer job with your writing one.

CherylAnne-- I think that's the best way- working on it while you are working on other things. That way you don't get so antsy and send it too early. Isn't Elana's book the best?! And yes, her classes are always awesome. She's not only knowledgeable, she's funny.

LisaAnn-- Aw, thanks!

Kristen-- Wow, Thanks! I feel honored. :D

Hannah-- Yes, Query Shark! And best of luck when you get to that stage.

Carrie-- Then my work here is done! :)

Susanna-- Thanks! And it's the end that matters, right? ;)

Cortney-- Thanks! And you're welcome!

Christa-- That is one of the most incredible stories I have ever heard! Thanks for sharing that! That's a million kinds of awesome right there. I guess it goes to show that sometimes, you've just got to put down an ms that you may love, and get on to the book that's going to sell.

Sharigreen-- PAINFULLY. :) Best of luck with your query/querying!

Connie-- They are hard! Best of luck with it all!