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Sunday, May 23, 2010

I CANNOT FEEL FOR OTHERS' WOES; I DARE NOT DREAM OF MY OWN

That is the lament of the 21st century man.
Through midnight hours that no longer yield their former harvest of rest, he stares up at the unblinking eye of the ceiling, seeing no hope. His spirit wanders over the wrecks of his former happiness, driven by haunted memories over the shoals of guilt and oceans of regret.

Words. Just words. But did they touch some inner ghost within your own spirit?

Our queries must do the same. But in a half-page.

What?

Doesn't seem fair or possible does it? What did Mark Twain write?

"I don't have time to write you a short letter, so I'm writing you a long one instead."
And that is so true. Economy in words is brutal and time-consuming. Ever been forced to use only one suitcase preparing for a trip? Ugly.

So much had to go. Not that those items weren't useful or even necessary. Just not as necessary as those items packed.

Agents will tell you that forcing you to submit a one page query is for your own good. Doing a half page query { the other half is filling in who you are and what you've published,} shows the agent we have the discipline of one of the 300 Spartans. If we had the skill, deliberation, and grasp of story-telling to arouse the agent's curiosity in a mere half page, it bodes well for what we did in our novel.

And all the above is true.

And it is applesauce as well.

It is not for us they demand the one page query. It is not even a measuring tool for the agent. It isn't about agent convenience either. It is about the agent's reality.


If an agent is reading this, she is probably sputtering. But as the British Daffy Duck might say to their great sounding reasons for the one page query, "Wank. Wank. Wank."

Bottom line : agents are drowning in a sea of unsolicited queries. They simply don't have the time to read a three page query that a 400 page novel calls for. But as Spenser might say, "It is what it is. So deal with it."

The half page query is forced upon us by the realities in which agents struggle. So we have to deal with it and do it expertly and with flair. If we want to communicate successfully with an agent, we must speak "agent-ese."

Can you squeeze your 400 page novel into three lines? Can you make them convey why your story is unique and absorbing, detailing background and characters? Sure, and after that, you'll establish world peace.

Here's an approach : go to http://www.imdb.com/ Type in the search box the title of a classic movie in the genre in which you write. I typed GONE WITH THE WIND. And I got : a manipulative woman and a roguish man carry on a turbulent love affair in the American south during the Civil War and Reconstruction.

Do those words sing? Do they capture the magic, scope, and heartbreak of the movie? No. They just lie there without life or spark.

Well, put a little spin to them : My novel is the saga of a selfish woman who doesn't want to admit her feelings about the man she loves, and she finally loses him.

Better but still murmurs "reject" to the agent. How about tuning up the summary in three sentences?

GONE WITH THE WIND is the epic tale of a woman's life during one of the most tumultuous periods in America's history. From her young, innocent days on a feudalistic plantation to the war-torn streets of Atlanta; from her first love whom she has always desired to three husbands. She survives going from the utmost luxury to absolute starvation and poverty and from being torn from her innocence to a sad understanding and bitter comprehension of life.


Are you beginning to see how you might be able to pull off the half page query?

Now, it is your turn. Your mission, Jim, should you choose to accept it, is to go to IMDb and type in five classic movies in the genre in which your novel exists. For each of the five, see what has been written in the summary section for the movie.

Re-write them in ways that sing and entice. If you feel like you're getting the hang of it after five times, then look at your novel as if you were writing the summation for its movie for IMDb.

Something else to think about. Your query letter is basically a job interview. And in the job interview you are thinking internally what the company can do for you. But what the company wants to hear is what you can do for them.

Same with an agent. Can you make the agent money? Period. The end.

Is your summary unique and "Oh, wow!" Do you include the punch line to your joke? No holding back to tease. If the agent presents an unfinished turkey to her editors, she gets her hard-earned reputation bruised.

Is your novel in the genre the agent handles? Her list of agents is genre specific. If she handles techno-thrillers, she doesn't know one editor who would be interested in your Western. And worse, you've shot your ounce of good will with that agent.

Agents are tired, impatient, and lovers of order. Agents want your summation to be three sentences. That's it. They want to see your entire query laid out in three orderly paragraphs. Short ones. Easy on the eye ones. Any more paragraphs, any longer, chunkier ones scream unprofessional rookie to them.

And they don't have time to be your mentor. They want a partner not a pupil. You are not in the remake of THE KARATE KID.

How about this for an introduction?

"I finished my first book 76 years ago. I offered it to every publisher in every English- speaking country on earth that I had ever heard of. Their refusals were unanimous. And it did not get into print until 50 years later. By then, publishers would print anything that had my name on it. "

- George Bernard Shaw.


You, however, are not famous. You get one sentence to introduce yourself. Unless you met the agent personally or was recommended by a close friend, save the introduction to the end. Begin with the best hook you can.

As for the intro at the end-tro, make it as personal to her as possible. "I'm submitting to you because I saw your interview with Larry King, and you mentioned you were looking for just the sort of book I've written."

Well, I've taken up many more than three paragraphs, so I'll end now. Here's Diana Krall singing a favorite of mine from her concert in Paris :


22 comments:

  1. "But what the company wants to hear is what you can do for them" - excellent advice, something to keep at the forefront of our minds. Great post!

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  2. I love that Twain quote, and you mellowed me right out this evening with Diana Krall.
    The more I learn of what agents do, the more I appreciate the need for a great pitch. Very nice post.

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  3. Thanks for the kind words. Yes, we do need agents. It is a daunting process. But isn't every worthy goal difficult? And isn't Diana Krall a fantastic singer?

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  4. Thanks, Jo. Your praise means a lot.

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  5. Wonderful post. As is customary.

    I think I may hang around for awhile if you don't mind? Diana Krall, is one of my favourite singers. Of all time.

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  6. Isn't Diana Krall a wonderful artist? Stay as long as you like, Wendy. You're always a welcome guest.

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  7. Damn - this is twice I couldn't finish my comment before something erased it. Blogger's slow, or the Netbook is overheating, or something. Maybe its telling me not to be so long winded in my comment.

    Good advice, and I may check out the site. While I don't agree that Agents are too overwhelmed and too busy to spend a lot of time reading a query, I do think the limitations keep many writers from writing mini novels to get an agents attention.

    Half a page is short, but I have to say, it sure helps organize what is essential in the novel. No, it doesn't tell the whole 400 page story, but then - we also want to entice them to read the novel also.

    Thanks so much for the tips. I'll keep them in mind as I'm stalking agents over the next couple weeks. Wish me luck ;)

    ..........dhole

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  8. Donna, I've found that I've had to split a long comment into two comments or Blogger would lose it. That's why I've taken to saying thanks in two comments in the past.

    Agents' incomes stem from selling the novels of their current clients. They receive no monetary payment for reading hundreds of unsolicited queries.

    For the time they can spare on reading the slush pile, they are swamped, reading with half-listening eyes. The odds are against us.

    We have to come up with a short, winning query that stands out positively from the herd.

    Always good hearing from you, Roland

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  9. great post. Queries are probably the hardest thing a writer has to write.

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  10. What a fascinating post, and I suspect it holds much wisdom, too. Er, um, I might add something though..(blush), it may be wise to first FINISH your novel before finding an agent who wishes to see the full manuscript (arghhh, I've barely written a paragraph since)!

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  11. You give great advice Roland. It also struck me, as I was reading this post, that you were making me feel sorry for agents. It goes against my grain to feel sorry for agents but I definitely see what you're saying. It's just practical to do what works for them, at least when it comes to query letter length.

    Jai

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  12. Don't forget, however, that agents WANT to pull gold from the slush pile. True, they're overworked and no doubt suffer from an inability to approach the pile with anything but jaded and time-swollen eyes - but they're still seeking that story that makes the endless plunging through the pile worth it.

    That, and I think the short query is important: it tells you AND the agent whether you understand the focus of your novel well enough to pin-point it within the space of a few lines.

    Ever thought-provoking posts. Thanks!

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  13. Summarizing a story into such a short space is good mental exercise! (Sunny side, right?) Your suggestion to practice on movies is a good one.

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  14. Excellent post on the query letter. I became good at the query letter with my first novel - received great rejections or requests for more. Book wasn't as well written as the query, however. Perhaps with my next book.

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  15. krall is just your common, everyday, canadian superstar ;) lol

    good advice, as always...

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  16. I like your style and your helpful advice rolled into one.

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  17. Your advice to look at movie blurbs is one of my favorite tips. I make it a practice to look at these from time to time, just to snap out of my tendency to over-indulge words.

    You've very eptly described the agent's task. Makes one feel like a bit of a round peg in a square hole especially when it comes to matching up genres. There are so many stories that are cross-genre these days that query letters not only require reduction, but perhaps a bit of tunnel vision when categorizing your manuscript. Do I sound like a whiner? Sorry...but like you said...it's just the way it is.

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