Writes of Spring II: The Query Process

Mood: Still up, but trying to refocus now on my next project.
Music: Byzantine chants, perfect for writing fantasy on a Saturday morning.
Backpack: Just finished Fool Moon by Jim Butcher, turning back to some Rilke.

In my last post, I alluded to the idea that shopping for an agent is like dating. I’m not the first person to make this analogy, but I can take it a step farther: it’s a lot like Internet dating. You craft a query letter, you hope to intrigue a stranger, not look too desperate for representation, and most of all, create a life long relationship that will benefit you both. When I first crafted my query letter, it was pretty bare bones. As I visit more and more sites, I realize different agents want different levels of detail. So the letter has spawned many, many versions. Just like an online profile, I keep testing what to share, what to hold back, and where to hint that I might have a bit more up my sleeve than a cliché opening line.

Things have changed a lot since I shopped my last book. More agents are working through email. This is great for the cost savings, the faster turnaround time, and of course the paper we’re all saving. It also means I can craft a letter on the bus and then fire it off once I get to my day job. It also gives me the chance to reference materials on my web site without bogging down the query letter. Who wants to type a URL from a snail letter into a browser?

The query letter shifts a bit to reflect different agents’ needs. The bare bones is the same, but the more research I do into an agent’s client list, the more likely I am to see if I’m going to align with what they’re looking for. The key to improving the letter is the key to improving any writing: editing and time. The pitfalls are also the same: know how and when to let it go and stop fussing with it. I’ve dropped my kid off for his first day of school. Let’s see if I’ve given him the skills to survive rejection, grow through adversity, and the wits to avoid having his lunch money stolen by scammers. The query also means taking a bit more time for research: the agent has to represent young adult fantasy and hopefully have a track record with the genre. It’s an extra plus when I see they rep an author I love, but like dating, it can also make me more nervous about the introduction.

Then there are the criteria. Some agents go off the letter alone, no pages wanted. This means they’ve got to be intrigued by the blurb alone. Fair enough, think of them as browsers in a bookstore, looking at the back of books. If that’s enough to get them to read five pages, I’ve written the right blurb. Some agents linger a bit longer. They want the first few pages. Always the first few, so make them count. This is the second impression, the first actual date. Try not to blow it. Dress appropriately – is your copy error-proof? Write down the directions – did you include the right contact information, the right format, the right number of pages. Be a gentleman – Be careful to make sure you’ve got the agent’s name and other letter details right. So far, so good. You’ve made it through dinner.

This brings me to the delicate art of the synopsis. A little reading online tells me I’m not alone in finding synopsis writing a challenge. I think one reason is that it’s reversing everything we’ve learned about showing and telling. You have to tell in a synopsis. How else are you going to get the details of your story out in a few pages? That doesn’t mean it can be boring. Even the synopsis has to be punched up to intrigue. My first synopsis draft was too short. It made no sense because I was trying to get the entire story crammed into two pages. My second draft was five pages and way too long. The current, and hopefully final, form is three pages. With each draft I’ve gotten great input from my support network and the language has become more active. It’s not the whole story by any means. I had to leave out a lot of great secondary characters and interesting side-trips, but the meat of the conflict is there. This is the version of the story you’d tell your date over dinner. Don’t bore them with detail but don’t leave out anything critical that’s going to cause her to lose interest. Try to imagine at what point I’d lose my friend or she would start yawning. Really, this is the same process the book should have: at what point was someone able to put it down? When did they get bored? Those are the parts to edit or take out.

Like dating, querying agents means a lot of rejection and a lot of practice. Some people may get lucky and connect with the right agent on the first go, but I’m willing to bet that for most of is, it’s a longer process.

The last bit of leg I can get out of this analogy is that the rejection can get you down. You can feel down about your work and worn out from your efforts here. Taking a short break, working on your next project or even putting writing away for a few days altogether can recharge your batteries. The one piece of advice that won’t hold up is to stop looking. You have to query many, many agents in a wide pool. You have to put yourself out there and stay in the game. Hold me to that as the rejections come in.

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