So you can read my books

Monday, November 8, 2010


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.


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 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 :


  1. A million thank yous. I'll be bookmarking this post for future reference!

  2. Ellie : If I've helped at all, I've accomplished what I strived for in this post. Have a great new week, Roland

  3. Thanks Roland,

    This does come in handy, since I will be rewriting and sending out some queries this week. I'm a wreck. Last year when I queried I had high hopes and took the bull by the horns .... Now I know better and each letter sent can ruin any chance for the future. But I'm still willing to take the chance!


  4. That Twain quote is priceless. Especially when it comes to writing queries!

  5. Michael : There are a great many agents out there. If you truly write a bad query, it will not blow your chances to be published. You will be learning to write a better one to the next agent.

    Have you ever listened to a rookie give a speech? You actually were pulling for them to do a good job. A good speech would make listening easier. Same for the agent. He/She is pulling for you to do a good job so that the letter is not painful to read. The agent wants you to do a good job and is actually pulling for you.

    Lydia : I love Twain too, and his words were dead-on for queries like you said. Always glad to see you here.

  6. I hear you. And I believe you. And I hate it anyway. *sigh* I suppose in my agent letter I'm not even supposed to capitalize words I'm EXCITED about or *use astixisms* How on EARTH can they know me if I can't capitalize or use astixisms?! Oh, the humanity! *cough*

    Still, you were more helpful in how to go about it than I've seen, so thank you for that. I might even find the strength to face it one days soon...

  7. Brilliant post - and Diana Krall to top it all off! Thanks so much for this.

  8. A great conversational piece on the query letter Roland! I'll be book marking to come back to in the future.

  9. I'm not ready for queries but it sounds like good advice.

    Love, Cry me a River. And how apropos to the query process;)

  10. Terry : I was wondering if anyone would guess why I chose "Cry Me A River." Leave it to a mystery writer to do it.

    Lynn : Thanks for thinking enough of my post to bookmark it.

    Talli : Wow. Brilliant, huh? I'm flattered. And isn't Diana Krall a great jazz singer?

    Hart : I'm with you, Hart. If I'm writing YA, shouldn't the voice of my letter be light-hearted, reflecting my novel's voice? It would seem so. Rats. Those nasty agents expect to be professionals. Party-Poopers.