Wednesday, March 11, 2009

What's Your Purpose?

I received a comment about posting a good query to even things out—good and bad. Good advice…and when I find one, I’ll post it. I’ve spent the day looking; however, thus far I have not found one letter that gives me enough information right up front to evaluate the query letter effectively. The problem may be that writers are being guided by those who believe they understand the art of query writing but have never been on the receiving end. My time on Writers.net and other writer information boards tells me this might be part of the problem.

Writers recently reached an agreement that a query is a business letter and that’s a big plus. However, there’s a consensus among the so-called query experts that the perfect query should have a hook right at the beginning and, on that point, I disagree for a couple of reasons. First, new writers now think that’s all I should get—no greeting, no nothing—just a hook. Secondly, anyone who has studied business writing knows the letter’s purpose, the “why you are writing” part, should come first. Those who advocate the hook method forget about the letter’s purpose. Their theory is if we get right to the meat, we’ll like the side-dish and will clear our plates for their work. The problem with this philosophy is that many people are vegetarians; don’t like meat, and so skip the meal.

Proper business letter etiquette states that the writer should state WHY he or she is writing. This normally is missing, or hidden, in most queries I receive.

Oh, do I hear mumbling in the back of the classroom? Thought I heard someone say, “Dumbass, the purpose is to find representation. That’s a given, so why state it?”

No, that part is assumed. But that’s not the purpose I’m looking for. In a literary agent’s case, what do you want me to represent? Is it a novel? How about a screenplay? Maybe you’re an actor. I don’t represent actors, but how do I know if you begin with a hook? So I’d like to simply know, right up front, what it is that you want me to represent—book, novel, novella, short-story, poem, screenplay, etc. Is it’s a non-fiction book, do you have a proposal written? This is information that professionals include in business letters to and from professionals. The purpose.

What bothers me is that the general advice given by writers to writers is to hide this information. Put it last because it’s thought if a writer makes information difficult to find, the agent will be forced to read the entire query letter to find it and just might fall in love enough with the project to ignore all that silly nonsense about word count, title, genre, and such. Who cares about those things anyway.

I do. I have to. Too many writers think that if I fall in love with a project, I can sell it no matter how short it is. No matter whether the genre is marketable. No matter whether it meets any kind of standard at all. Many writers just want me to take them on and try to sell their work, thinking if I just try hard enough and believe in it strongly enough, I can sell it. Selling books is like a relationship…there’s more to love than that.

Hiding important information might have worked back in the typewriter days, but email word processors have this little gizmo on the right side called a scroll-bar, and I can use it to go looking for vital information, although most times I don’t. If I don’t find it, I reject. If the information doesn’t match my requirements, I have no option but to reject also, no matter where it’s hidden. When I open a query, I read nothing until I find at least the word count and genre. So my question would be why not put it right into the purpose—that first line that should say something like:

I’m writing today to introduce my latest work, a mainstream novel of 90,000 words entitled To Heaven and Hell, a tale of terror, loss and love on the high seas.

I’ve also heard that some agent from Writer’s House wants his queries with the hook right up front. Not all agents work for Writer’s House; neither do all agents like poached eggs. We are all individuals, so our likes and dislikes vary. So my advice would be to check each particular agent’s likes and dislikes before querying. Mine are listed right here for your convenience.

12 comments:

Bradley Robb said...

This is, potentially, the clearest, best written piece of advice I've ever seen handed to new writers regarding the act of writing a query letter.

Jolie said...

Janet Reid says she wants queriers to start with the hook, because that's the interesting part, and leave the basics about the book until later in the query.

*shrug* This, I've discovered is one more big benefit to the blogosphere. A lot of blogging agents talk about these preferences so you know how to tailor your query for them. For example, I will never send Nathan Bransford a query that starts with a rhetorical question. Colleen Lindsay doesn't seem to mind them, though. And another thing about Janet Reid is that she tends to get impatient when queriers spend too many words thanking her for her valuable time, etc., as though we should be extra-grateful that she's reading our query.

Wylie Merrick Literary said...

Thanks for your comment, Jolie

If you send a query to Janet, you should indeed hook her right up front.

As for myself, I want information like title, genre, and word count up front. If you want to mix it in with the hook, that's fine and, being professional writers, you should be able to do that. This post gives an example of how that is done.

I think most who query me misunderstand what constitutes a hook. Maybe that's the problem. In my opinion, a hook is one sentence that adequately describes your novel, book, poem, screen play, short story, etc. If you, as a writer, cannot tell me what you've written in one sentence, then, again in my opinion, you have no idea what you've written

Anonymous said...

Good points and great advice plainly stated.

It's too bad that even with good advice, most of us will continue to practice the age-old writers' arts of querology and rejectomancy.

Broadway Mouth Blog said...

I've just discovered your blog. This is really great info to get when you are contemplating writing a query letter. It's amazing what pre-conceived notions we have. It's great that you are stripping that away and giving us an agent's perspective. Thanks!

Shelli said...

lesson is do your research on guidelines and agents! It is not one size fits all. Thank goodness b/c all writers are not the same either :)

Haarlson Phillipps said...

Good advice, no, corrected, excellent advice. Thanks for posting.

Jim MacKrell said...

It seems that most agents are raving and rolling about "query" letters to get us writers off message that most agents aren't doing much business these days. This sounds like a group of want to be actors sitting around a coffee shop discussing why their last interview wasn't successful. It wasn't successful because it didn't work..same for query letters and this volatile
business in general

Wylie Merrick Literary said...

Mr. MacKrell,

What you’re experiencing are more agent blog posts focused on query letters and from the comments received, most writers are appreciative of the fact.

Writing a letter that details a novelist’s purpose, a short overview of what he or she has written, and his or her writing experience should be a piece of cake for anyone who has the potential to captivate a large reading audience, don’t you think? If that ability is not present in a query letter, then that writer doesn’t have that capacity. It’s that simple.

Jim MacKrell said...

I just read a piece by a well known Agency that a query letter is the equivalent to writing liner notes..
In my past experience as an Actor in Motion Pictures and TV. All of the snappy dialogue is worthless unless the performance is there.

steeleweed said...

I was directed to your blog by comments about your view of Query Letters.
Having lost patience with an entire industry of people telling me what a QL should be, I found your approach refreshing and very sensible. My own view is that just as a QL should address a specific agent in the greeting, so it should also address that
agent's preference in content and layout. It's certainly to my advantage to present my case the way you want it presented.

Further along in your blog, I came across your Needs List as of 01/09.
I was pleasantly surprise to realize that two of my books may fit your categories.

I appreciate your willingness to provide some guidance to authors and will continue to follow your blog.

Best Regards

steeleweed said...

I was directed to your blog by comments about your view of Query Letters. Having lost patience with an entire industry of people telling me what a QL should be,
I found your approach refreshing and very sensible. My own view is that just as a QL should address a specific agent in the greeting, so it should also address that
agent's preference in content and layout. It's certainly to my advantage to present my case the way you want it presented.

Further along in your blog, I came across your Needs List as of 01/09.
I was pleasantly surprise to realize that two of my books may fit your categories.

I appreciate your willingness to provide some guidance to authors and will continue to follow your blog.

Regards,
Ray