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chracatoa
02-11-2017, 02:47 AM
I'm still a long way from starting a new round of queries, but this is something that baffles me.

Why is the acceptable query letter for agents seemingly so bland and similar? (one could say cookie-cutter?)

When I wrote my first query draft, the emphasis was on the book's theme (e.g. trust), its style (e.g. positive/fun scifi) and why I wrote it. I had one or two paragraphs for the overall story. However, it was quickly shot down in QLH and by any other person in the business that helped me. My latest version doesn't mention its theme at all, although it may be implied from the story. Nothing in there tells the reader it's 'fun' scifi instead of grim scifi (like the Redrising trilogy - which is awesome, by the way, nothing against this theme).

And the reason people write a novel may be relevant even for fiction books. For example, let's say someone writes a scifi book called "Exodus in Space". At first glance, it's just a regular scifi book, but if we learn the author is a Syrian refugee and that he wrote based on his experiences while fleeing, suddenly the idea of the book becomes more interesting.

Perhaps agents look at the first x pages to figure this out, but this is just a guess.

Note: I prefer my latest query letter - it's way better than my first drafts. I wish I could add some soul to it, though :)

cornflake
02-11-2017, 03:09 AM
I'm still a long way from starting a new round of queries, but this is something that baffles me.

Why is the acceptable query letter for agents seemingly so bland and similar? (one could say cookie-cutter?)

It's not.

When I wrote my first query draft, the emphasis was on the book's theme (e.g. trust), its style (e.g. positive/fun scifi) and why I wrote it.

Great. An agent gets a query saying someone has written a book on the theme of love, and it's a really lighthearted, funny book, that was written because love saved the person's sanity after they were hospitalized with a mental illness. That'd all tell the agent exactly fuck all about the book. Doesn't tell the agent if the book is well-written, interesting, whether it has a discernible or logical plot, whether it's something that can sell, to an editor, today, whether the characters or voice sound interesting.

What you're describing is a fashion show in which Georgina Chapman comes out onto the runway with a mic and spends 12 minutes explaining that the theme of her latest collection is based in the isolation she observed when she visited an Inuit village, and it's meant to evoke old-time glamour with a stark modernist bent, and she designed it because... without ever showing an article of clothing. No one actually cares about any of that; they want to see the clothes, because REALLY no one buying the clothes in the store gives a rat's ass about any of that.

No one, but no one, standing in Nordstrom's, is buying one of Chapman's dresses instead of someone else's because Chapman designed it while helping the Inuits or whatever. It's irrelevant in the extreme. Show the clothes.

I had one or two paragraphs for the overall story. However, it was quickly shot down in QHL and by any other person in the business that helped me. My latest version doesn't mention its theme at all, although it may be implied from the story. Nothing in there tells the reader it's 'fun' scifi instead of grim scifi (like the Redrising trilogy - which is awesome, by the way, nothing against this theme).

If they can't tell it's fun rather than grim from the query without being explicitly told, there's a problem. Ads for Georgina Champan's crap do not explain it's a collection of sparkly gowns. Ads for Logan do not say 'this is a superhero movie, but it's also sorta touching.'

And the reason people write a novel may be relevant even for fiction books. For example, let's say someone writes a scifi book called "Exodus in Space". At first glance, it's just a regular scifi book, but if we learn the author is a Syrian refugee and that he wrote based on his experiences while fleeing, suddenly the idea of the book becomes more interesting.

It really does not.

Perhaps agents look at the first x pages to figure this out, but this is just a guess.

Note: I prefer the latest version - it's way better than my first drafts. I wish I could add some soul to it, though :)

What you describe is not soul, but what you want to tell people, instead of showing them.

Maggie Maxwell
02-11-2017, 03:12 AM
How do you pick out books you want to read? Most likely, you look at the cover, then flip to the back or read the blurb, or open the website and read the blurb. Either way, blurbs are read. That's one or two paragraphs to grab your attention and go "this is what this book is about. Read me." Agents don't have a nifty cover to grab their attention. They have a full email inbox to go through and say "yes" or "no." So all you have to sell it is, effectively, a blurb, and it's going to be quick, because you're one in a dozen or more they have to scan through. Which seems more likely to sell your book when you're on a time limit? "It's a funny sci-fi tale about loyalty and friendship in adversity" or "John Doe fumbles his way through space and cadres of betentacled aliens to find his space-runaway best friend"? Your query is mean to be a bitesized sampling of your writing ability.

Relevant information like a refugee writing about scifi refugees is 100% acceptable and highly recommended. Just put it in the bookkeeping at the end as a way of going "I know what I'm talking about." Sell the story first, then sell why you're the perfect person to have written the story.

chracatoa
02-11-2017, 03:25 AM
Interesting. Show, don't tell even in the query itself.


What you're describing is a fashion show in which Georgina Chapman comes out onto the runway with a mic and spends 12 minutes explaining that the theme of her latest collection is based in the isolation she observed when she visited an Inuit village, and it's meant to evoke old-time glamour with a stark modernist bent, and she designed it because... without ever showing an article of clothing.

Yes, but why not both? In fact, GC herself said that


The Fall/Winter 2015 collection is inspired by the haze of an opium dream: billowing smoke, sumptuous fabrics and rich jewel tones. Keren and I wanted to convey a sense of mystery and vintage glamour. (http://blog.neimanmarcus.com/art%20&%20culture/georgina-chapman-and-keren-craig-of-marchesa-4/)


How do you pick out books you want to read? Most likely, you look at the cover, then flip to the back or read the blurb, or open the website and read the blurb.

I was looking at a comedy scifi book at Amazon and the blurb is all show (no tell). But the most voted review said "I laughed (or chuckled) out loud a few times." That's what made me buy the book.

Granted, the blurb itself was funny.

Aggy B.
02-11-2017, 03:25 AM
I think I agree with Cornflake here.

It seems like you are doing what a lot of newish writers do which is try and sell a story based on how cool your idea is compared to other similar ideas. (And I'm saying "you" but that's a general you.) Have you (individual you) ever had that experience where you tell someone (who isn't a writer) that you are a writer and they immediately spend 30 minutes telling you about a fabulous idea they have and just ramble all over the place trying to sell you on the unique angle? (If this hasn't happened yet, trust me, it will.)

I know it's really tempting to want to focus on how you've handled certain themes and how some personal experience adds depth to the feels in the book, but in the query the agent is looking for signs that you can actually tell a story - beginning, middle, end. They want to see a plot, not a bunch of themes or insight. (At least in fiction. Relevant expertise is a selling point for non-fiction.) They want to be able to identify a central character and see that they have a goal, and some obstacles, and a motivation to overcome those obstacles to reach that goal.

All that other stuff (which is not unimportant, but is not a selling point in the query letter) is best saved for when you are talking to the agent person-to-person. (And I can't say my agent has ever asked me about the themes in my work, but we do talk about stuff that is related to the book, but isn't plot.)

So. Deep breath. I know it seems like queries seem identical, but they aren't. And your plot isn't either, you just need to keep chipping away at it to find the *right* details to really flesh it out.

Marissa D
02-11-2017, 03:25 AM
I'm still a long way from starting a new round of queries, but this is something that baffles me.

Why is the acceptable query letter for agents seemingly so bland and similar? (one could say cookie-cutter?)

It's not, necessarily. What it is is an efficient way to communicate what your book is about and if the agent reading it decides he or she wants to know more.

When I wrote my first query draft, the emphasis was on the book's theme (e.g. trust), its style (e.g. positive/fun scifi) and why I wrote it. I had one or two paragraphs for the overall story. However, it was quickly shot down in QHL and by any other person in the business that helped me. Big hint there... My latest version doesn't mention its theme at all, although it may be implied from the story. Nothing in there tells the reader it's 'fun' scifi instead of grim scifi (like the Redrising trilogy - which is awesome, by the way, nothing against this theme). What should be doing this is the style in which the query is written--you may be telling the details of the story, but the voice of the query should communicate (dare I say, show) the story's mood.

And the reason people write a novel may be relevant even for fiction books. For example, let's say someone writes a scifi book called "Exodus in Space". At first glance, it's just a regular scifi book, but if we learn the author is a Syrian refugee and that he wrote based on his experiences while fleeing, suddenly the idea of the book becomes more interesting. In a case like the specific one stated, an agent would probably like to know that because it's topical...but other "why I wrote this book" explanations might not be.

Perhaps agents look at the first x pages to figure this out, but this is just a guess.

Note: I prefer the latest version - it's way better than my first drafts. I wish I could add some soul to it, though :)

The short answer is that query letters are what work for agents as a way to get through their submissions efficiently...and can work later on, too--the jacket flap of my first published book was more or less my query letter.

cornflake
02-11-2017, 05:29 AM
Interesting. Show, don't tell even in the query itself.

Yes.

Yes, but why not both? In fact, GC herself said that



See, yeah, but no. Billowing smoke, opium dream, sumptuous fabrics and rich jewel tones are basically voice. Thar's not 'the theme is...' It's all evocative description. However, the question was, quite specifically, tell me about the collection. That's different than showing the collection.

If someone asked you what inspired the book, that's when you can answer that. A query is a runway show. Both are trying to get buyers to place orders. You've got 12 minutes, haul out the clothes.

I was looking at a comedy scifi book at Amazon and the blurb is all show (no tell). But the most voted review said "I laughed (or chuckled) out loud a few times." That's what made me buy the book.

Granted, the blurb itself was funny.

If there were no blurb, and no reviews, and simply a paragraph from the author saying, 'this is fun sci fi, with themes of community and love. It will make you laugh out loud,' would you feel the same way?

Quickbread
02-11-2017, 08:42 PM
And to add to what Cornflake said, with a query, you don't even get 12 minutes to impress. You get, like, one or two if you're lucky. The reading agent is actively looking to either fall in love and read on or to put it aside and get to the next query that's piled in the inbox.

Agents want writers to get to the point, which is the work itself. That's the only thing the agent can sell, not the explanations behind it. If you try to keep your query to 250 words or less, it becomes pretty much impossible to write a strong one without showing vs. telling. So let that benchmark guide you to a stronger draft.

You wrote a whole novel, so you can do this, too. Good luck!

mayqueen
02-11-2017, 10:20 PM
My deeply oversimplified answer is this: theme doesn't sell, story does. If your manuscript doesn't have, at heart, a good story (which means a compelling plot), then all the great themes, cool premises, and fantastic prose aren't going to sell it.* Query letters tend to follow the same kinds of norms because that's the best and more efficient way to convey the story. Occasionally there are exceptions, but generally that's just how it goes. Every industry has its standards in terms of how one gets noticed. The query letter is ours.

*At least for commercial fiction. Literary fiction -- and I'm not just talking fancy prose and upmarket ideas, I'm talking actual, I-have-an-MFA-from-Iowa-and-have-sold-stories-to-all-the-best-lit-mags literary fiction -- is a different beast. But not entirely. THE LUMINARIES, which won the Man Booker recently, has an extremely elaborate structure centered around a complicated literary device, but it's still got a central story at its heart.

Toothpaste
02-12-2017, 01:09 AM
People can have the best personal story how they became an author, the coolest theme ever, and think their book is just about the funniest thing since funny was invented. But if the book itself is crap, none of that matters. And that's the thing. None of that stuff matters ultimately. Yes it can be an interesting thing to note after someone has decided they like the book, but knowing such things will not make a bad book better.

Show don't tell. Be funny in the query, demonstrate the theme of love, capture the reader's imagination. Be the storyteller you are, not some press release copywriter.

Jeneral
02-12-2017, 06:27 PM
Agents ARE interested in the themes, and why you wrote the book. But not at the query stage. Like others have said, you have one minute, maybe two, to snag that agent's interest, and you do it by hooking them with what's unique about your book. About the story itself. That's what you need to focus on for the bulk of the query. Now, you can put a sentence in the housekeeping info at the end that shows why you're the person to write this book: "EXODUS IN SPACE is informed by my own experience fleeing a war-torn country" or something. And once an agent has requested the full and then set up a phone call, they may ask more about that experience, at which point you can elaborate. But that's very far down the road. For now, focus on the story.

RightHoJeeves
02-13-2017, 05:58 AM
Show don't tell. Be funny in the query, demonstrate the theme of love, capture the reader's imagination. Be the storyteller you are, not some press release copywriter.

Funnily enough, most journalists would tell you that press releases without an obvious news angle (ie, more tell than show) are worthless fluff.

OP - save the stuff about theme and your inspiration for the Oprah interview.


For example, let's say someone writes a scifi book called "Exodus in Space". At first glance, it's just a regular scifi book, but if we learn the author is a Syrian refugee and that he wrote based on his experiences while fleeing, suddenly the idea of the book becomes more interesting.

If a friend told me about a great SF book written by a Syrian refugee, I'd probably be interested, sure. But that's because of the assumption that a book put out by Random House or Penguin or Tor is already at a baseline level of quality and competency. At the querying stage, details like that just aren't as important as the actual book being good. And by good, I mean having a well written story. No one is going to buy a SF book by a Syrian refugee if the book itself is bad.

Toothpaste
02-13-2017, 07:22 AM
Funnily enough, most journalists would tell you that press releases without an obvious news angle (ie, more tell than show) are worthless fluff.


And that's the difference between fiction and non-fiction :) .

CameronJohnston
02-13-2017, 02:52 PM
Relevant information like a refugee writing about scifi refugees is 100% acceptable and highly recommended. Just put it in the bookkeeping at the end as a way of going "I know what I'm talking about." Sell the story first, then sell why you're the perfect person to have written the story.

Geez, why would you not mention aspects of your life that make you an expert in something or add something special to the writing? If I wrote e a space opera and was an astronomer or physics professor you can be damn sure I'd mention that at the end of the query to help me stand out from the huge crowd of queries. Same with being a policeman writing crime. A refugee whose experience has informed their scifi writing is not only interesting, it's a great soundbite for future marketing. A query letter is meant to make somebody interested enough to crack open that partial manuscript and pay it attention. They don't want to know why the novel was written, but as Jeneral already said "EXODUS IN SPACE is informed by my own experience fleeing a war-torn country" is probably all you need to pique their interest. After that it's all down to the writing.

Aggy B.
02-13-2017, 04:15 PM
Geez, why would you not mention aspects of your life that make you an expert in something or add something special to the writing? If I wrote e a space opera and was an astronomer or physics professor you can be damn sure I'd mention that at the end of the query to help me stand out from the huge crowd of queries. Same with being a policeman writing crime. A refugee whose experience has informed their scifi writing is not only interesting, it's a great soundbite for future marketing. A query letter is meant to make somebody interested enough to crack open that partial manuscript and pay it attention. They don't want to know why the novel was written, but as Jeneral already said "EXODUS IN SPACE is informed by my own experience fleeing a war-torn country" is probably all you need to pique their interest. After that it's all down to the writing.

Yeah, but if the story is mostly about the daily boredom and routine of surviving in a refugee camp (even if it is "in space") not every agent is going to be interested in that*. Even if it's about trying to assimilate into a new culture and succeed, not every agent will be interested in that**. But some might. There are lots of different ways personal experience can play out in relation to a story, but not every story will appeal to every agent that's why you start with the story. If you have relevant experience it goes in the housekeeping paragraph.

*One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is a pretty compelling book, but it's 1) short and 2) only covers one day. The appeal is that the level of politics and struggle to survive in that single day are what happens every day making survival a Herculean task. But if the story covered more than a day it would be boring.

** My aunt and uncle sponsored a family of Cambodian refugees back in the 80s. Disney made a movie about it back when they still did Movie of the Week. It's cool, but the vast majority of the movie is the family learning how to use toilets, go grocery shopping, live in the US, etc. (And one of the daughters goes on to win the National Spelling Bee.) It's a great little slice of life, but not at all the same as a movie that focused on the upheaval that drove them from their home, the journey to reach some place relatively safe, the danger of the refugee camp, etc.

Toothpaste
02-13-2017, 07:43 PM
You can absolutely mention relevant information, but as a supplementary piece of info, not the main course. Ultimately, again, this is how it works: good story blurb + meh bio and discussion on themes = likely full request, vs meh story blurb + awesome bio and discussion on themes = not likely a full request.

The point is: focus on the story synopsis part of your query first and foremost, everything else is window dressing.

chracatoa
02-18-2017, 12:51 AM
I just saw this today - Laura Zats Q150 (https://twitter.com/LZats/status/832677348851978240).