Sunday, August 21, 2011

In Retrospect

The general idea for this post was suggested by dear friend-of-the-blog Wilkins MacQueen. After critting 100 queries and 20 synopses, along with their revisions, here and commenting on and rewriting dozens more on other crit sites, could I sum up what it takes to write a great query or synopsis?

At first blush, it seemed like such a post would entail little more than a quick, down-and-dirty bulleted list of the do's and don't's of query and synopsis writing. But when I started to really think about "lessons learned," I realized that the true take-aways can't be distilled that easily. Besides, you can find any number of agent sites and writerly type blogs that present lists of do's and don't's that mirror most of what I would say in that type of format anyway. And here on this blog I've tried to steer clear of simply regurgitating advice you can so readily find elsewhere.

We've worked here to refine and clarify a lot of queries to varying degrees of success. As critters, we become quite invested in the work we critique and develop a bit of a skewed belief that there are a whole lot of good stories out there waiting to be read. Invariably, at some point it becomes a numbers game.

So here's my decidedly unhelpful retrospective on the business of the query letter (and synopsis).

What Gets Requests

A strong, confident query with a unique spin, a unique hero or a unique voice will get requests.

It will garner even more requests if it contains popular elements in a genre that's currently on an upward trend.

A few sleeper queries will get requests.

Minimalist queries that say little and leave everything to the imagination inexplicably also get requests.

Queries that break every query "rule" out there get requests.

Queries that seemingly have little in common with specific agents' preferred genres get requests.

Queries for beautifully written, beautifully imagined stories don't get requests.

In short, it's a crap shoot. The only query that for sure doesn't lead to a request is the one that never gets submitted.

How Many Requests Should You Be Getting

It's tough out there -- and getting tougher. There are a lot of good stories demanding to be noticed. If you're getting a 15-20% request rate, I'd say you're doing decently.

I have noticed most people taking the "query a handful of agents at a time" approach seem to do things a bit backward. They query the big agencies first. At big agencies, there's more competition to get in the door. And if your query isn't *quite* there yet, you've blown your chance. You can always send to "practice" agents first -- those you may not think are your first choice and/or those with a reputation for turning a response around fast. See if you get requests from them. If not, it gives you a chance to tweak your query. And if they wind up offering, you can still approach your favorite big agent with the practice agent's offer and do a little line-jumping in the process.

Some Don't's

Don't overworkshop your query and lose spontaneity and voice in the process.

Don't be quick to blame the query if you're not getting a high request rate -- maybe it's your pages or your unconventional story or an oversaturated market. Trust your gut.

Don't completely discount that it could be the query. If the style or voice of the query doesn't match the genre of the mss, that disconnect could be enough to trigger form rejections.

Don't point to all the great works that were rejected at one time or another and declare all agents and editors are clueless.

Don't forget that most great works have been rejected at one time or another, and many good works never see print because they can't secure a champion.

Don't pin all your hopes on any one agent/editor.

Anecdotally Speaking

Requests are made on "imperfect" queries all the time. Sometimes what resonates is a concept or a spark in the writing. Sometimes it's just gut reaction.

Sometimes agents request knowing they won't offer but they want to satisfy their own curiosity about how the story ends or how the author pulls off a certain macguffin.

Agents get swamped. Some agents prevaricate. One virtual buddy of mine got a rejection nearly 1 year after she submitted her query. The agent apologized, saying she'd just found some old queries in her spam filter. That was the same excuse she'd used on her website 6 months earlier saying she'd found some queries in spam dating back to the time my buddy had sent hers in. If you think your queries aren't being read, you may be right (although I'm betting most are).

The Secret

You could have a truly great story but an agent may be shopping something similar right then. Conversely, an agent may be considering repping a new genre when your query shows up in her inbox.

Accept that there are things beyond your control and mitigate those possible risks that you can control.

And the big secret: Approach the right agent/editor at the right time with the right work.

It's that simple. And that hard. It's creating that perfect storm through writing and editing talent, timing, research, perseverance and a little luck.

Here's to creating your perfect storm soon!

1 comment:

Wilkins MacQueen said...

Thanks for this post. I suspected having the right query in the right place at the right time has a lot to do with requests.

Of course a beautifully written query with a great hook/twist in it helps.

I think reading the archives is imperative to get the feel for a great query. Query writing is tough but as we've seen, it can be done.

All those revisions you worked on have been invaluable in showing me how queries can be improved.

A real education. I quite often go back and reread the rewrites to take a look at how problems can be solved in the query.

Thanks! A lot of meat to digest in the archives.