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.

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:

• 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)

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

• 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

• 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

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

• 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.

Tom Bentley

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…

How to Sell a Story (Dress It in a Miniskirt)

Have you ever noticed that the way certain things are packaged or presented instantly influences your feelings about them? In this age of Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink or the myriad of studies about marketing preferences or tastes, savvy shoppers are aware that a rice package that has an artfully designed classic “homey,” or retro or “Miz Maybelle’s Cajun Rice Paddie” look might contain nothing better inside than old-school Rice-a-Roni (which was never really embraced by San Francisco for its alleged treatness to begin with).

Yet, even if we know that the packaging is pointedly positioned to persuade, it’s hard to be objective. The photo above shows the packaging for a pair of bath soaps, sandwiching a box of individually wrapped chocolates. Indeed, the soaps were quite nice, and the chocolates delightful, but their artful and expensive packaging immediately disposed me favorably toward them, psychically relieving me of at least a smidgen of critical objectivity.

Apple does this very well with their packaging, everything done just so, from the typography to the way the electronic components rest snugly in their recessed cubbies. The “Tiles” box above is indicative: these weren’t mere chocolate squares, but “tiles.” This told you they were special little chocolates, with a bit of architectural snootiness. The packaging, of course, tells a story. Here’s an interesting take from Seth Godin on putting a worldview in your packaging.

And WTF Does This Have to Do with Writing?
Glad you asked. One of the chunky nuggets of advice you’ll get about sending a query to a magazine editor is that you lead your query with your article lead. Write the actual first paragraph of the article you intend to write and that’s what your editor-in-waiting looks at when they open your cleverly crafted email. Your product’s packaging is immediately in their face, so that they know your article is “Dreadnought Dave’s Eye-Searing Hot Sauce” or “Winsome Winnie’s Willow Bark Soap.” They can taste your writing immediately, not having to wade through “Dear Editor Toadstool: I’d like to write a piece for Amalgamated Amalgams on surfactants that subside, and rarely surface. I’d cover these fascinating points…”

Here’s a query lead I used about a proposed article on bathtub distilling that did grab an editor and that indeed did begin the published article itself:

Maybe it’s the down economy, maybe it’s a renewal of that do-it-yourself ethic that characterizes this country, or maybe it’s because it’s a closed- door, wink-wink, just-the-other-side-of-legal enterprise, but there’s a resurgence of home and hobby spirits distillers. Your neighbor might not make home-brewed hooch, but there’s a fair chance he knows how to get a hold of a bottle or two.

This “in media res” style of querying has worked for me a number of times. However, I’ve lately been shopping an article on roller derby gals for which the query begins thusly:

What’s got a raucous crowd, a heart-pounding pace requiring strength, stamina and mad skills, an undertone of potential violence, a flash of spandexed sexuality and enough tattoos to open a carney parlor? Why, roller derby, of course—and Santa Cruz, California roller derby in particular. Roller derby has speed-skated its way to tremendous popularity in the US over the past decade, returning from what was represented as a sort of underclass—though popular—theatrical spectacle in the 50s and 60s. There are leagues all over the country, and national organizations such as the Women’s Fast Track Derby Association, which counts nearly 100 leagues under its skates.

Disclaimer: All You Editors Out There About to Receive Queries: I Don’t Mean You
That is how I’d like to start the actual article, because I think it’s vivid, particular and expressive. But, I’ve sent that query out to 12 separate relevant publications, and only received a single reply. (The fact that many magazines or papers often don’t even send out a polite—or even impolite—”no” these days should be the topic of another post.) Though I do like the feeling of the query lead, and think it tells an editor what the article would feel like, perhaps something is lacking. Or perhaps it simply doesn’t fit the editor’s calendar, the magazine’s style, or any of a number of reasons, quality of expression notwithstanding, for which a piece doesn’t flutter the hearts (assuming editors have them) of your magazinish recipients.

I have a small collection of liquor flasks, most of which are very nice pieces of metal tooling. Many of them are quite old, with beautiful engraving or filigree, delightful in their heavy feeling in the hand. But I have a couple that also look quite nice, but there’s something off: the base metal is cheaper and lighter, the metalwork not finished with flair or with that quiet competence that indicates quality. So maybe there’s something cheesy about the roller derby lead I’m not seeing.

Keep sending those queries out and keep tailoring their packaging with your writer’s eye.