Friday, October 15, 2010

How I took my Query Letter from Ho-Hum to Oh-Yes

I am currently querying for the first novel I have attempted to publish.  I began my query journey about five months ago, from square one.  I had never really intentionally begun a writing career, I loved to write, I was always better at expressing myself that way, and I had an idea one day that inspired what has become three novel length manuscripts.  Then I had to figure out what to do next.
Like most of you writers out there, I learned very quickly that there was so much more to this process than I ever expected.  So when it came time to write my first query letter I gathered some advice from different sites and sat down to write what was probably one of the poorest query letters to reach several agent’s inboxes in that month (at least).  Yes, looking back on it now, it was bad!
I gathered more advice and wrote a new query letter which I felt was pretty good.  It summarized my story well, it was professional and concise.  I even had my critique partners and beta readers review it.  It got a thumbs up for good voice and story summary.  But I was still not getting the results I had hoped for with it.
I felt I had done everything right this time.  I was sorting through advice, I was following blogs and twitter and getting connected to the writing world.  I was portraying my novel well, or so I thought.
There were a couple pieces of advice that I kept focusing on
1)      Show your voice in your query
2)      Don’t tell the story, sell the story
Ok, I felt like I had done my best at these, but I was having a tough time gauging it.  I was so close to my story that everything had made sense to me.  Even my readers were just too close to my story.  I finally had an offer for a critique of my query letter, and I decided to utilize that.  What I discovered was that my story was interesting, but my summary left more questions than answers, and that people who know the story are not always the best ones to critique the query.  Most of you seasoned writer’s are probably aware of these things, but I had never seen this advice in particular.
It was time to rethink a few things.  Was I still summarizing my story, not selling it?  And…  Where would I find people to critique my query who didn’t know my story?
Soon I had an answer for the second question…
Nathan Bransford, an agent with Curtis Brown Ltd. Has a great blog, filled with good advice and writing commentary.  He has a place on his site where you can submit a query and every so often he selects one to review.  He also has a place, under Forums, where you can post your query and have it critiqued by other people who belong to the site.
I decided to give it a try.  I joined and viewed a lot of different queries.  I posted my query and then left feedback on a few others.  Soon I received some feedback on my query.  It was some positive, and a lot of questions.  Things like ‘what does this mean’ and ‘this doesn’t make sense’.  I revised and tried again, with even more questions this time.  I was frustrated.  I apologize now to all the reviewers for the angry rant that went through my head as I drafted what turned out to be the best query I had ever written.  I was saying things like, ‘what do they want?’, ‘if you want to know more about that you have to read the book’, ‘how can I possibly put all this in couple short paragraphs?’  I thought they were crazy.  Then finally, I said ‘ok, if that’s what they’re all saying they want all give it to them.’  Then I wrote what I called my angry query.  The query wasn’t actually angry, I was.  When I was done I looked at the screen and said, ‘wow, they were right.  This is really good.’
What had I done as I wrote this query that basically went through and said, ‘ok, you want to know that, I’ll tell you that.’?  I had FINALLY sold the story, not TOLD the story!  I didn’t even know what that would look like until all their questions prompted me in a direction I had never thought to go.  I think that someone could have tried to explain it to me over and over and I never would have quite gotten it.  I had to see what they wanted, see what someone completely disconnected to the story needed in order to feel it.  I had to step away from the story to capture the essence of it.
So what would my advice be to someone trying to write a query that sells their story?
1)      Show your voice in your query
2)      Don’t tell the story, sell the story
3)      Get help from a source that doesn’t know your story (try Nathan’s site if you’re unsure where to find that source  - it really works)
I just wanted to post a special Thank You to all the people who left feedback on my query letter on Nathan Bransford’s Forums:
            D.S. Deshaw  Website:
thewhipslip  Website:
Thank you, to each of you, for taking the time to comment on my query.  Thanks to your prompting and prodding I was finally able to break away from summarizing my story and actually attempt to sell the story instead.  I am now receiving a level of interest that had evaded me until now.  The requests are coming in and I feel positive about the future of my manuscript.
Thank you to Nathan Bransford who has created a great place to come and share your view and the knowledge you have gathered in your writing journey with others who are traveling that same road with you.  It was a source of invaluable help for me.

If you have any special advice for those trying to perfect their query letter, please feel free to share it here!


Len said...

Great Post!

Julie Geistfeld said...

Thanks Len! Glad you stopped by to check it out!