Friday, September 20, 2013

Friday Feedback: KISS those Queries

What life? We got a fucking puppy. 

So, I intended to do a monthly Friday Feedback on the first Friday of each month because that would've been nice and alliterative, but then we got this puppy and then my whole life turned into one big NOTHING BUT PUPPY.

FYI, if you think this is a good thing, think again.

I'm not exactly a dog person, as you may have read HERE.

Alas, my younger son is, and my older son has ditched us for college. So, there you have it. A pup was in the cards.

Do I want him? NO.

Do I love him? Sort of, kind of.

Okay, yes. Fine. Yes. (But he's driving me crazy!)

Am I happy for my kid?


At any rate, since most of you who may be reading at this point are probably Teachers Write! campers, many who spent the summer working on manuscripts, and because, in a moment of weakness** I offered to review a query for any Teachers Write camper who visited Friday Feedback more than twice, I've been, in fact, reviewing queries, most of which have been startling good for a first stab.

But some of you. . . well a few of you. . . ahem.

So, I thought I'd take five seconds (okay, maybe minutes***) to remind you what a query -- at least in fiction -- is and should be, and to the contrary, ISN'T and (dear god) shouldn't be.

What it is: THREE paragraphs. You heard me, THREE. If you need a fourth, so be it. If I see five, well, that's out of the question. The first: telling the particular agent why you're writing to them and what your manuscript is. The second: A compelling two or three sentence synopsis of your story - main characters, what the conflict is, what the gist of the resolution is. I know, I know: how am I supposed to do that in three sentences? That's part of the test. Part of letting an agent know you can encapsulate your story concisely, precisely and well. Just wait - oh, wait - until you have to help write jacket copy. And the third? That the manuscript is complete at ___ words, and one or two sentences about you THAT ARE PERTINENT. They don't really care if you blog, or tweet, or facebook -- EVERYONE does that now, though an editor may care ONCE you are agented and your manuscript is sold. They only care about some real and legit publication. I know that sounds harsh, but it's true.

Remember KISS? Keep It Simple Stupid? If KISS isn't in your brain from the moment you start writing your query to the time you finish, you're in trouble, I'm telling you now.

So, your query could look something like this (and I'm doing this off the top of my head in three minutes to make some points, so please don't hold me to polished -- understand concepts):

Dear ______,

I am writing to you about my manuscript THE PULL OF GRAVITY, because I read on Chuck Sambuchino's blog that you are particularly interested in contemporary YA fiction that tackles tough issues with a sense of humor.

THE PULL OF GRAVITY is narrated by 15-year-old Nick Gardner, an ordinary kid whose whose best friend, the Scoot, is dying of a freak disease. When Nick meets Jaycee Amato, a quirky new girl with Siberian Husky eyes and an odd affinity for Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, they set off on a secret whirlwind road trip to keep a promise to their dying friend. But when plans fall apart, will the pull of gravity be enough to keep everything together?

The Pull of Gravity is a poignant yet funny look at loss, family struggles, friendship and first love, complete at 52,000 words. When I'm not writing, I'm a divorce lawyer/mediator, which is why my stories often touch on the struggles of a family to stay together in a world that is often challenging. Pursuant to your information on Chuck Sambuchino's guide, I am pasting the first three pages below. I'd love the opportunity to share the entire manuscript.

Kindest regards,

Notice (if you've read my book) what my query leaves out: It leaves out setting (not important to my story in a huge way), it leaves out Jeremy (important to the story but not germane to the query!). It leaves out Rochester, Albany, The Doofus, that they play shuffleboard (one of my personally favorite scenes in the book), the fight with the spoon (yep, another favorite, but it doesn't go in a query, man!), the bus trip, the news station, the hotel, the fever, and so on, and so on, and so on. It even leaves out Nick's big, fat Dad and his quest to walk 200 miles to NYC! (way, WAY important to the story. And, maybe I'd try a second version leaving him in, but my point is, if you boil my story down to its essence in one paragraph, you've got Nick, the Scoot and Jaycee).

WHY am I leaving so many rich, important parts of my story out? Because agents DON'T HAVE TIME. They get hundreds of these a week. They need to know scrolling your query in ONE MINUTE what your book is about. They don't want to read seven paragraphs and then go, huh. So what is the book ABOUT?

What you shouldn't do then? DON'T:

  • be chatty and familiar (oy! -- they'll be happy to be chatty and familiar with you when they take on your representation);
  • tell them why these characters are your babies and how long you've worked on the book and how the world needs this story (let them be the judge of that, sorry);
  • tell them minor details. Come on, writers, you can figure this out! 
  • tell them all the things you've published that are anything but major stuff in mainstream media -- yes, Huffington Post can count, but every other minor online site, not so much;
  • tell them your friends, family or BETA readers loved your book.
Am I being harsh? Maybe. But make no mistake: even though we are writers and writing is creative, it is a business, too. This is your first opportunity to show that you get it. That you understand where to be creative and rambling, and HOW to be objective, compelling and concise.

For other information on how to write a good query, check out:

Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors and Literary Agents
Publishers Marketplace (Robert Lee Brewer)

So, now you know. Good luck! And my offer still willingly stands. 

Oh, and, YES! It's Friday Feedback! So, if you want to post an excerpt between now and Sunday morning, please do! You know THE RULES!!! (and if you don't, please click on that link and read them before you post!). See you in the comments.

xox gae

** I am honestly completely happy to review your queries. It may be the lawyer in me, but it's rather an easy, enjoyable exercise for me to show you how to hone. But try first to Keep it Simple, okay?

*** okay, maybe an $)*&%$(*&%!! hour


  1. Hi, Gae,

    Thanks for the guidance. I'm working hard at revising my WIP, and I will mark this page as motivation and a model for the day I'm finally ready to query. Miles to go....

    Thank you, too, for hosting Friday Feedback. I've missed them! This is a scene from Chapter 1, during a long ride home from a ball.


    Parties might be less tedious, she mused, if you had some idea that they might hold something for you other than failure or mortification. If you thought you might do something clever or glowing, or if you had a chance of meeting someone interesting. If you weren’t worrying about mussing your hair or spilling things or stepping on feet or saying something you shouldn’t or offering an opinion on really anything at all. If you weren’t trying so hard to be a completely different person.

    But if you were just the plain-looking daughter of an Earl, one with a stunningly beautiful stepsister, the most you could reasonably expect was lots of sitting and waiting, droning conversation, and polite dances with gentlemen who hadn’t managed to find a better dance partner. There was always the dim hope that the third son of a Lord, the kind that were always looking for a girl with a sizeable dowry, plain face or not, would unexpectedly turn out to be fascinating. Or maybe a fortune-hunting scoundrel would happen along, though she didn’t really wish for one of those. So far, with one painful exception, the third sons all were dull and spent their time gazing over her shoulder. So far, the fortune hunters had been kept at bay. So far, Miranda was just along for the ride.

    “And then there was Miranda.” Lady Catherine’s sharp tone broke her thoughts, signaling the next phase of the stream of complaints.

    Taking one one last look out the carriage window, Miranda braced herself for the onslaught. A dragonfly rested on the outer sill. Its gossamer wings stopped beating, and its iridescent green back gleamed in the sun. Almost unconsciously, Miranda noted the oblong shape of its translucent wings, different from the banded wings she sometimes saw on the dragonflies that circled at the creek. She had also seen a bird’s curved wing up close, had watched the feathered fan unfold and catch the air. How was it that both animals, so differently winged, both could fly?

    1. Wow, Jane,
      I almost feel just how your wonderful character feels from this great sort of backwards description - the juxtaposition of what others obviously CAN do at parties with what she CAN'T is very effective in showing me, not telling. It's great!

  2. Oh, Jane, this is just perfection. I love the voice of it and the last paragraph -- the sparkling dragonfly -- in relation to the weariness of having played second-fiddle again... just perfection. Keep going.

  3. Gae,
    I want to publicly thank you for your help with my query letter. It is out now to a few agents. That part is so time consuming, finding an agent to query, and with school and all (no puppy, but a dog and a few cats), it's hard to find the time. I have had one rejection, so that's a good sign, right?
    Thanks for your honesty. We need it!

  4. Oh, Gae, this is the greatest help! I'm making notes in my notebook for when the time comes. I am so looking forward to the day when I am ready to write my query letter and you read it... I'm still plugging away (still determined, still loving it) at Kate, feeling good about this do-over and getting it right. Here's a scene from Kate's first day of teaching, which I really glossed over. It is almost first draft, still, but it's what I"m digging into right now. In rewriting, it's as if all these people I made up just because there needed to be some people in there are finally becoming real, and connections to them later in the book keep popping out at me and hitting me in the head and insisting that they be put in there too. Exciting and scary.

    Kate took a deep breath and moved toward the desk. There was a sheaf of papers there, containing the lists of students in each of her classes, and the hours each class was held. She found a pot of ink and the roll book in which she would enter all those students. Soon they’d become faces and personalities to her. Roll call first, then, and learning new names. Kate sighed. She was terrible with names. Edna had suggested a few tricks for remembering, and maybe she’d try. First off, though, she’d just come clean and tell the students that she would forget their names, but would learn them eventually. That was the thing with young people. They always found you out if you weren’t genuine from the start. She certainly had no plans to try to deceive them.
    She laid out her materials for the first German class. Second year. She’d have to find out what each one knew first thing. Maybe they’d lost it all over a summer spent in other pursuits. She laid a German grammar at each desk, delighting in the worn brown covers, fingering the tatters and thinking of how they’d likely get more as the year went on.
    She looked up at the sound of footsteps and realized that the students would be coming in at any moment. Best stop lingering here dreaming! It was time to get started with the day. A sudden surge of panic welled up inside her; Kate banished it and stepped forward as the classroom door swung open.
    A dark, curly head appeared around the door-jamb, and Kate stood, waiting to see who would appear.
    A tall slim boy appeared, stepping hesitantly into the room. His cuffs were tattered, dark pants worn and stained. He ducked his head as Kate took another step forward, slipping into a desk and folding his hands. Kate introduced herself, aware that the young man was as likely as nervous as she.

  5. Just a love excerpt, Valerie, the voice as consistent and sure as ever. Only minor edit (and yes, I know you would catch it eventually) is the word appear appearing three times in this brief bit:

    A dark, curly head appeared around the door-jamb, and Kate stood, waiting to see who would appear.
    A tall slim boy appeared, stepping hesitantly into the room.

    So maybe edited to something like: A dark, curly head appeared around the door-jamb, and Kate stood, waiting. A tall slim boy peeked in, stepping hesitantly into the room.

    Great stuff. So happy to get a glimpse of Kate again!

    Keep going.

    xox gae

  6. Oh, thanks as usual! I knew there'd be a funny thing like that that I would head-bang over when I reread after posting...

  7. Valerie,

    I really enjoyed this--I love Kate and always look forward to reading more of her story. I was especially struck by the line: "They always found you out if you weren’t genuine from the start. She certainly had no plans to try to deceive them." I think it fits especially well in Kate's story. It struck me that this is a bit of a theme--Kate has little tolerance herself for falseness, interesting to see that flipped here into Kate making sure she herself is genuine. The English major in me is also wondering whether this fits in with the translation piece--getting to the root of meaning and what is real.

    I also enjoyed that this scene is less about Kate's pluck and steely resolve (which I adore) and more about her opening herself to a new phase. It adds new dimensions, and makes me eager for more. --Jane

  8. Thanks so much for this, Gae. I'm back to be buried in teaching, planning, grading.. but querying is next in line on my fiction list, whenever I catch a breath, so this was really welcome advice.