Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Art of Query Revision

I recently saw an ad for a class being taught by someone who made the critique blog rounds with their query a couple of years ago. The first version I saw (on Evil Editor's site, and no I'm not going to link you directly to the query in question because I don't have permission and, besides, that would be rude) was, shall we say, not very good. Naturally, EE and the minions came through with some really brilliant and considered advice to help improve it.

The query then started popping up on other sites, revised for the better each time. By its fifth public version, the query had gone from bland to spectacular. In fact, when version 5.0 appeared on one agent's query critique site, the agent didn't just ask for pages, she demanded them. While THAT agent didn't take on this author, another did. (It's been a few months now and the ms that snagged the agent hasn't sold yet, but they are pressing forward and working on other projects together.)

What's important to this conversation is not the revelation that getting an agent doesn't always translate into a book sale to a publisher (although that's a reality we all need to keep in our back pockets) or that people actually get paid to critique queries (EE, you're missing out on a bucketload of change to slip into your back pocket, it seems), it's that this person put their ego aside and learned from the critiques. Now those early versions were beaten, kicked, shredded, gutted and left a bloody mess. It took courage to subject those attempts to public pummeling -- not once or twice but multiple times. And it took bull-headed determination to get that query to the point where it had agents begging for more.

I have tons of respect for writers so willing to learn.

So, in easily digestible form, here are the takeaways from today's sermon:

  • It generally takes several revisions to get a query to the point it can do its work well.
  • Query writing is a skill that can be learned (some writers will always be better at it than others, just as some people are better at writing brilliant marketing pieces than they are at writing technical documents, but if you have any kind of general writing skill, you can learn to write a good query)
  • You have to be able to filter conflicting advice and choose what works best for your unique style and voice.
  • While feedback is subjective and you might easily ignore advice you only hear once, if several people are piling on over the same issue, realize it's a "you, not them" problem and CHANGE IT.
  • Initial drafts (plural) usually suck.
  • There is no one way to write a query; even the pros in the biz differ on length, ingredients, and spoilers.
  • Listening to conflicting industry advice and trying to cater to every conflicting "rule" out there is a sure way to madness. Pick a style that works for you and do your damnedest to perfect it.
  • The same people you're thinking of paying for advice might well be the same people who learned for free -- the same way you can learn for free.
  • Whether you pay for advice or not, be sure to solicit multiple opinions and not rely on any one person's blessing or evisceration.
  • Even a killer query can't overcome a story that isn't perceived as marketable (go back and read that one again -- it's important).
  • Pay it forward -- once you've learned the skill, pop on the critique boards and help others hone their skills as well.
Phoenix's 5 Stages of Query Writing

I posted these in the comments on EE's site awhile ago and thought they would be fun to include here, too.

Version 1: It might need a little tweaking but it can't be that bad. (Oh, but it is.)

Version 2: Ouch. But OK, I've cleaned up the stuff readers had issues with and it really is better. (Uh-oh, new issues have been introduced.)

Version 3: OK, I am going to meticulously answer every reader's concern and concentrate on exactly that and nothing else because, frankly, I'm getting pretty frustrated over all of this. (Only now, the query has lost its voice and, somewhere, the story's tight plot and style.)

Version 4: Ah, now I see that I can leave out some of those problematic issues completely and the query experience for the reader will actually be improved. Less really IS more. (And it is. Often, V4 is a complete re-envisioning of the query, with a cleaner feel and fewer plot points and characters.)

Version 5: Gah, how could I have misspelled THAT and not seen it until now? (Final grammar check, but it's now ready for submission.)


Michelle Massaro said...

Good article, and so timely! I am STILL revising my query every time I consider another agent to send it to. Just last night I was asking my husband about cutting the last paragraph so as to leave more "mystery" to it (i.e. it read like a brief synopsis when I thought introducing the main conflict might be enough for the query to do its job). I thought about sending you an email last night to get your thoughts on this, and then this morning here is this article!

Thanks! And happy Father's Day everyone! If this is a difficult day, my prayers are with you.

~ Michelle

Anonymous said...

Ditto on "The Art of Query" and Father's Day.
Divine Miss P:
I am happy to hear that posting on other critique blogs is a good thing. I had no idea. Each run through the wringer would be very positive if the writer incorporated the grand suggestions and changed/deleted the poorer aspects of the query. I never would have thought to keep polishing and send it to another place.
Great points, also loved "Editing Out Voice". So much to think over.

Robin S. said...

Hey Phoenix,

Thanks for this post! I have a real query-writing phobia, I'm sure what I do will suck, so it does. Then I write what I think is great, and it isn't. That kinda thing. Nice to know I'm in good company!

Glynis said...

I have to write my first query sometime soon. I am having night dreams about it, not quite mares but closing in. . . lol.

Interesting post, thanks.

Phoenix said...

Hi Glynis:

Make sure to give yourself plenty of time to revise and you'll be fine. I wrote the first draft of my last query well before the book was finished (that one appeared on EE's site) and then revised it several times before sending it out. The difference between first and last draft was pretty big, at least in my eyes, and the feedback I received from EE, the minions, and my critique group was absolutely essential.

We're ALL query blind when it comes to our OWN work ;o)

Good luck!