Query Don’ts and Query Dos

Before I give some props and malaprops to good and bad query letters, I want to put in a good word (“pizazz,” perhaps?) for the Write-Brained Network writer’s group, which is looking to nudge its network of engaged writers over the 100 mark—and you could be the one to clap that ringing bell. Write Brained (led by the effervescent Ricki Schultz) is a fairly new group of writers from all over the country (and indeed some from out of the country) who critique each other’s work, supply contests and prompts to gin up your monthly word counts, post new approaches and developments in the world of writing, and much more. Check it out.

So, query letters. Below is a bit of bilge I penned that shows you how to oppress and alienate a literary agent with your fiction project. (Note: if you steal my sterling idea about the novel, I demand the foreign-film rights.) Below that is an actual query for an article of mine that was published in Writer’s Digest a few years back. Note that the first few lines of my query lead are the published article’s lead as well: write the query lead as though it could be the article lead—it displays your writing chops, organizes your thinking about the rest of the article, and it will save you time as well.

The So Bad, It’s Good (and Ugly)
Dear Agent (If you aren’t the right agent for my pitch, please forward this to the right agent. And please let me know you’ve forwarded it, and to who. I mean “whom.” Whomever it was forwarded to, that is. Whatever.):

So, I’m pretty sure I’ve invented a new, popular genre for my 263,437-word novel, The Nightmare from Which I Never Woke: I call it “high-fi, transmedia sci-fi.” It’s high-fi because I wrote the whole thing during a series of peyote-induced trances. In the desert. So, it’s like pure and all.

It’s transmedia because it will have some clickable pages that will send the reader to websites where they can order t-shirts. It’s sci-fi because the world I created has two suns. (I can work with editors if they need it to be three.)

Anywho, there’s some saga-like multigenerational stuff on my main planet, Hortog, and wars with lots of futuristic weapons (with step-by-step details on their manufacture and operations). But it’s really a love story, because my main character, Glig, has sex with an alien, who’s kind of like an old-fashioned egg-beater.

The novel’s also very meta. You know, self-referential and informing.

My mother has been hounding me to send this query, because I haven’t had much income for a bit, so if you could send me a little chunk of the advance now, that might help get her off my back. By the way, I paid for one of those deep Internet searches to find out your home address, so if you’d like to discuss this in person, I’m there in a heartbeat. I know you are busy—I will bring the coffee!

By the way, if you aren’t interested in this book, I also write a kind of YA-haiku combination that is killer.

PS I think my novel could be a series.

No-Nos
This query stinks up the joint because it addresses a generic agent (agents love the names their mothers gave them), it ruminates on pointless issues, it’s specific when it should be general, it’s general when it should be specific, and in offering to stalk the editor at a coffee klatch, it veers into prosecutable grounds. Though that YA-haiku thing might work, if it had a banging DJ.

The Good (Even My Mother Thinks So)
Dear Maria Schneider:

First-person essays span space, time and subject: the city dump, an obsessive bird, or a toy from the 60s—all subjects of essays I’ve published—are just one shuffle of an endless deck of compelling themes. It’s never the subject of an essay that tells, but the style and stance of its author. What might seem the least likely of essay subjects can be made a piquant page-turner by a writer’s winning hand.

I propose an article for Writer’s Digest on Crafting the Personal Essay. The article would cover these sections:

Topics
• How to choose a subject that suits your style (and vice versa)
• Finding subjects in everyday life
• Fleshing out topics (whether they are existing personal interests or burgeoning ones)

Slant
• Distinction between slant and topic
• How to choose, apply and maintain essay tone
• How to blend personal perspective with facts

Voice
• The presence of the author (formal/informal, in the background or up front)
• Avoiding heavy-handedness while promoting point of view
• Authority with a light touch

The Lead
• How to hook the reader
• Building on the lead
• The use of declarative sentences, humor, restraint and exaggeration
• Divergence from the lead

Rhythm
• Structure and cadence
• The musicality of words
• How to sneak up on a reader, and how to overwhelm them
• Maintaining momentum and topic drive
• Layering of ideas

Conclusions
• Packing a punch at the end
• Circling back from your lead
• Customer (reader) satisfaction

Markets
• Pitching your story

For relevant article sections, I’ll provide short examples of good and bad expressions of the outlined technique or approach. I will also cite some examples of essay compendiums that are strong representations of first-person essay writing, such as Philip Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay.

I’ve published essays or stories in the San Francisco Chronicle, Traveler’s Tales, the San Jose Mercury News (West and SV magazines), Things magazine, Verbatim magazine, and others. My website, www.tombentley.com has a number of my published pieces under the Freelance and Fiction links.

Please reply or give me a call if you’re interested in seeing my manuscript or in discussing the query further.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Regards,
Tom Bentley

Yes-Yesses
This query is directed to a specific (and relevant) editor, it opens with a strong lead, it clearly and explicitly discusses the article scope, it has some writer’s bio info, and it invites the editor to discuss the article possibilities. The editor is given a good sense of what the writer could do with the potentials outlined in the query.

And b’God, they even paid decently for it…

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6 thoughts on “Query Don’ts and Query Dos

  1. As a former editor (the kind who wads up crappy press releases and plays trash can basketball with them after making rude, irreverent and “Can you believe they actually sent that crap?” comments to the newsroom with them first) I would have jumped on the first letter and passed the second onto a junior editor.

    I was inspired to review my own blog after the brilliance of that “so bad it’s good” letter. My heart sank as I realized seriously I’ve been taking life this year and how many of my posts actually bored me on a second read! So I’ve vowed to have more fun, to wipe my feet on more raw nerves, to giggle hysterically at inappropriate times and to eat more cotton candy. I may even buy a wind-up nun who shoots sparks out of her mouth and plaster an “Anti-Christ”s Wife sticker on her back. I don’t know. So much potential irreverence, so little time.

    You are amazing and I love this post!

  2. Becky, we can collaborate on the second novel in the series—maybe we could introduce some proto-Vikings, alien shoe salesmen and perhaps a subplot that involves vegans.

    But despite sometimes taking a serious bent in your writing, I well know you know how to have some fun, and like to add to and share in the laughter. Beware the wind-up nun interests, though—once you start collecting, you’re a goner…

  3. Something odd going on (besides my shallow breathing) in the comments mechanics—even Lord Bentley can’t seem to post on his own site, so I have to go to the WordPress dashboard to be dashing.

    Anyway, Joel, the link for the article is in the post, but because you’re normally such a well-behaved boy, here it is directly: http://www.tombentley.com/CraftingEssay.pdf

    So go out and get crafty!

  4. Got it. There it is, right in the article. Yet, once again, my appearance of good behaviour comes through for me.

    I can uproot my family, abandon hearth and home, cross two countries, planning to escape on the front teeth of winter, and that’s just adventure.

    The idea of allowing someone else to decide whether or not my writing is worth publishing causes palpitations, a tingle at the nape of my neck, and, were I not so manly, a slight glistening in my eyes from the sheer terror.

    Maybe you have some advice for someone who’d sure love the confirmation from an outside source, really shouldn’t need it but does, yet can’t bear the thought of trying.

  5. Joel, my advice is often worth the electrons it’s printed on (and has darted about like mercury over the years), but my loose guidelines now are “They probably won’t want it, but what the hell.”

    Here, my expectations are never dashed, and occasionally I am delighted. The beauty of negative thinking.

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