Friday, November 30, 2012

Things I've Learned About Querying (Thus Far) -- Part I

Edinburgh, Scotland during Hogmanay as seen from
the frontmost top seat of a double-decker bus.
Much earlier this year I wrote a post called "Things I've Learned About Writing (Thus Far)." At the same time, I wrote a companion piece -- this entry, in fact -- but never managed to finish nor post it.

I am about two weeks away from learning if I will be sending out a new round of queries for The Book or if the agent who currently has it is interested.  As a result, I've had querying much on my mind again.

I will note that The Book has received attention from a number of agents.  This interest did not stem from my vast network of contacts, the brilliance of my manuscript, or from agents knocking on my Inbox door after reading my engrossing blog entries.  No, indeed.  In fact, as a contact-less first-time author of no special regard, I have had to sink or swim in that mire known as The Slush Pile.

And the only way to do that is to write a good query letter.

Here's what I've learned about querying thus far:

1. The whole querying process is completely unfair for writers.
Yes, you're right.  To a writer, it is completely unfair.  Now get over it.

2. Wait -- you must not have understood!  I've worked on my manuscript for years and now I'm supposed to cram all that's wonderful and special and unique about my story and my characters into two or three measly paragraphs?  This is so unfair!  How can a query possibly covey all of the finely-crafted complexities I wrote into this story?  I just know an agent will love this manuscript if only I can get it to them!
No, I didn't understand.  I've been through the same "this is so unfair" tantrum -- and have since made my peace with it.

Like any game you did not create, this one has rules that you did not get to make up.  That they don't favor you should not be much of a surprise.

The fact is, if you want to be "traditionally published" your book needs to be published by one of the Big Publishing Companies.  Big Publishing Companies don't have time to weed through the thousands and thousands of requests to they get from writers looking to be published.  Big Publishing Companies use independent literary agents to do that weeding for them.

Most agents get a few hundred emails/letters every day from writers looking to be published.  Most, like me, arrive in their Inboxes without any formal introduction.  In order to stand out and get noticed, I have had to:
* Have done my research on this agent ahead of time to know s/he represents the type of book I'm writing. 
* Write a good query letter that shows the agent I can express the fundamental elements of my story cogently and in such a way that intrigues and gets the agent to ask for more.

That's exactly what I did.  Is it hard work?  Sure.  In fact, in some ways it was just as hard as writing and revising The Book, if not harder.

3. But how do I compress all that's wonderful and special and unique about my story and my characters into so few paragraphs?
Stop thinking you can condense the entirety of your wonderful novel into three brief paragraphs.  Seriously, just forget it.  You can't.  More importantly, that isn't what a query is all about anyways.

A Slush Pile query is little more than a knock at the door with you saying, "Can you come out and play?  I've got a great game..."  and then you tell the agent about the game in a way that makes them want to play along.

A query is a description of your story told from the 10,000 ft level.  You're telling an agent about the genre, the time/place, the main character, the conflict, and what's at stake if the main character fails.

And that's it.

(Look for Part Two, coming next week!)

-- Tom