Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Arcane Art of Query Writing

"Ten demerits to Hufflepuff for an improper salutation."

The query letter is an endless source of anxiety for many writers first preparing to send their work out into the world.

The author's goal in writing a query is to explain what the book is about in a clear, coherent manner, and to avoid making mistakes that reveal that he is a bad writer and that his book is therefore bad. The query is a test of the author's proficiency at communication in the English language, and it is a useful tool because the vast majority of people who submit to agents fail this test. 

Once you understand that query letters are about writing, you'll realize that this isn't extremely complicated.  There is not a secret handshake.  You don't need to get hung up on the nuances of agents' individual submission guidelines.  An agent isn't going to reject you because you put your word-count in the first paragraph instead of the last.

The "rules," such as they are, are about the efficiency of the agent's slush review.  Following them shows a degree of professionalism and awareness of industry norms.  But compliance with rules is not the criteria agents use to determine what they request.  That doesn't mean you should break the rules; following the rules is one way you can demonstrate to agents that you are not a crazy person.  You just don't need to obsess.  If you understand how to correspond in a way that is sane and professional, that's really all you need to know.

The query process does not exist to filter out the people who don't know the rules.  Its purpose is to filter out people who can't write.  If your book is, in fact, a book, and your query meets the rough definition of a query, what matters is your writing.  It is on the basis of your writing that agents will request materials or reject you.

If you can write four coherent, grammatical paragraphs that explain what your book is about, and if you send that query to twenty-five appropriate agents, you should get at least a couple of requests.  If you are capable of demonstrating a little bit of voice and verve while still complying with the basic norms of business correspondence, you're likely to be fairly pleased with your results.   

So, if you think you've written an awesome book, you shouldn't be intimidated by the prospect of writing a query.  Your kung fu is strong, Bro!  Of course, if you don't feel like your book is awesome, maybe you should consider revising before you submit.

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