Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Query Letters - the Right Approach?

Back on the 6th March I posted about the 'Queryfail debate', where American agents were sharing jolly tales of the worst approaches made to them by writers. It's a guilty pleasure looking at them (my favourite is 'My name is Maya and I'm an elf') - but also, you may find, rather depressing. How to approach, pitch, query the gatekeepers of the industry - it's a scary topic. So you may be interested in this (although daunted too): the agent Noah Lukeman has made his e-book How to Write a Great Query Letter available for free download at http://www.lukeman.com/greatquery/index.htm You can download it once only. He has already written a book some of you may be familiar with, called The First Five Pages (I think the title says it all). In his 95 page e-book he covers formatting, common mistakes, what you should and should not include in your query pitch, so there's a wealth of information there. His take is always this: agents and editors are looking for reasons to turn you down, not take you on. If you make the slightest error of tone or content, you're heading for the wastepaper bin. So it's good to know that you shouldn't tell the agent your family laughed like drains when you read it to them, that you shouldn't use green ink, that you shouldn't use bold or underlining, that you shouldn't drivel on about sub-plots, that you shouldn't be arrogant, that you shouldn't be defeatist either, that you shouldn't ignore the agent's own submission guidelines. You knew all this, of course, didn't you? You would never dream of thinking that the rules are for other people but not your sweet genius self.

There's a wealth of quotable stick-on-the-fridge phrases, starting with 'Writing is an artistic endeavour and the query letter is a marketing endeavour'. He tells us that a query is pointless if you've sent it to the wrong person. That it won't work if it's too fulsome. That its purpose is to get that agent to want to read more. That you shouldn't give up. The whole text is packed with practical advice and an insider's knowledge of the industry. So do download it.

BUT. I do have caveats: because he is part of the American publishing industry, his approach is intensely prescriptive and proscriptive, to such a degree that you wonder whether any originality or individuality can filter through. This may not be such a problem if your work is very genre-specific and you can define your market with some exactness. There are pages and pages of Rules - what to do, what not to do. If I tell you that chapters are devoted to The First Paragraph, The Second Paragraph and The Third Paragraph (because you're only allowed three paragraphs and your letter absolutely must not be more than one side long) I think you'll get the drift. You are told, continually, that this or that infringement is a 'red flag, a sign of an amateur.' He even tells you how many sentences per paragraph: 'The first paragraph should consist of one sentence.''Limit your plot synopsis to three sentences.' Aargh! Not for the first time, I find myself wondering, wearily, how any of us ever get published. It's like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom: one miss-step and you're kebabed by a spear or plunging, shrieking, into a pit of snakes.

I do think he means to be genuinely helpful but his tone of encouragement veers towards the platoon-sergeant's 'Pick up your feet you 'orrible shower!' When he tells us to be patient and persevere, that's all very well. I think most of us are quite remarkable in that regard: we keep picking ourselves up, dusting ourselves down and coming back for more, God knows why. So there isn't much consolation in being told 'most writers dig in for a 6 month battle when approaching the industry. If they are not successful by then, they give up. Dig in for a 10 year battle instead. Or better, 20 years. If you love the craft of writing and are truly in it for the passion of it, then 20 years should not seem like a long time'. Well, Jeez! I suppose that by the time success dawdles up to your door and rings the bell, you'll have decided to use the royalties to buy a Stannah stairlift. Now there's something to look forward to.

In the meantime, some of you may want to hit the bottle. I'm off to crack open another box of Lindors.


Lane said...

It does all sound a little OTT, not to mention daunting. In the music industry, it's far easier to get your demos heard and there are no strict 'rules'. I tell you Lorna, if I had a faint heart, I'd run a mile:-)

I was also interested to read on Graeme's blog the other day, how some manuscripts are returned!

(thanks for the eye advice btw. It seems you may be right)

Jean said...

20 years! When I got to that bit, my mind flitted to thoughts of how old I'll be then (if still around) and what I might be doing.

Yep, I'm off to hit the bottle.

KAREN said...

Daunting indeed, but interesting. With music demos in mind, it's a pity we're not allowed to phone agents and pitch our novels that way in say, 30 seconds, followed by a bit about ourselves.

Actually, that sounds quite daunting too ...

In 20 years time I reckon my arms will be worn out altogether!

Lorna F said...

Thanks for the comments, Lane, Jean and Karen. Certainly with the music industry it seems easier to get your own stuff out there and build up your own fan-base without those pesky music companies! Lane and Karen - I hope those eyes and that elbow are feeling better X