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 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.

Monday, March 09, 2009

It's Really Not Personal

Must be the trend—and it might even help. Seeing some of the supposed big hitters are posting no-no query beginnings, thought I’d get in the act by posting a few received over the weekend. Seeing everyone’s using the same format, I’ll use it too—the writer’s query then mine in brackets.

There are fools and there are great fools. You are a fool. (and I suppose that’s news)

I am writing to ask if you are looking at general novels. (possibly, if I can figure out what a general novel is)

I have read your updated guidelines, and believe my work fulfills your requirements in all regards. (Great Beans!!)

I am writing to submit for your consideration my 60,000-word women's literature novel (Yea!! And only about 30,000 words short)

Now, since you brought up the subject of "God," let me begin right there. (Oh you smoothie)

Hello Robert. Thank you for taking the time to read this querry. (q-u-e-r-y)

I’m searching for a literary agent for a recently completed novel (and I’m searching for writers who can write)

Hello, I am writing to you in regards to finding a Literary Agent. ( tea for “to” and you boo-boo)

While researching your agency, I followed the link to your needs list on your blog. (Good show. Would have left breadcrumbs, but)

I am a novice author and have a completed manuscript. (Then you need a novice agent)

What do you suppose all these query’s first or second sentences have in common? Give up? They all begin with personal stuff that shouldn’t be included in a query letter. So, even though it’s beginning to sound like a mantra, I’ll repeat it one more time:

A query letter is a business letter and therefore is impersonal—no personal information.
See a great example of a typical query letter here: