Jul 26, 2010

When More is Less

I've noticed an unusual trend in some of the queries we've been getting. They tell me...too much.

I realize why that may sound strange. It's the query! It's your one shot to tell an agent about your book, to convince him or her to read this major accomplishment of yours, and to sell yourself as client material. Shouldn't you tell an agent everything?

Well. No.

Ever since I first heard the words "query letters," I have had a fascination with them. I've read many articles and many blog posts from many different agents and editors concerning the Perfect Query Letter. And one very good piece of advice I've found in just about everything I've read is to "tell the agent what your story is about."

But I think that phrase has the ability to be misinterpreted.

It does not mean, "Give me a bullet point-like paragraph of traits about the main character plus a lot of backstory and then a set up for a plot, but no actual plot." Nor does it mean, "Tell me everything about the plot, including the names of every character in the book, and then tell me who dies in the end." There is a balance in the middle that will do exactly what you want it to: make agents want to read your story.

Ha. Easier said than done. Queries are hard. So hard that what writers are sometimes left with is the very vague advice to "give an agent the plot of the story and the characters, but without giving them the plot of the story or the characters."

But what I've been noticing is that writers want to say everything in their query letter--from the inspiration for the story, to the themes in the story, to a play-by-play of the story, to a detailed author bio that takes up a quarter of the page.

I've been thinking a lot lately about how to turn the advice "less can be more," something that definitely applies to queries, into something more concrete and helpful. The best way I can think to approach that is as a reader.

A few weeks ago, during the middle of the worst heat wave I have ever been in, I was trying, and failing, to sleep. My roommate, a fellow literary assistant, suddenly pushed my door open. "Are you sleeping?" she asked. "No," I said. "What's up?"

She had just finished reading Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher. And she needed to talk about it. Right away. Here's what she told me before leaving the book on my bedside table:

"It's about this kid named Clay. He comes home from school, and finds a package of thirteen tapes on his doorstep. He pops one in, and the voice that comes through the speakers of his stereo belongs to Hannah. A girl he loved. A girl who just killed herself. Apparently, there are thirteen people who made Hannah want to give up on herself. And Clay is one of them. Before she died, she recorded these tapes, one for each person, explaining how each of them made her life feel unsaveable. Now Clay has to find out what he unknowingly did to make the one girl he wanted feel so unloved."

So what about that made me decide to give up on sleep and read the book cover to cover instead?

1. The premise. Very interesting; very chill-inducing. I'd always wondered what the title of this book meant when I saw it on the shelf, and I loved the way it tied into the plot.
2. I already cared about the characters, Clay and Hannah. What happened? How did those wires get so crossed?
3. I had to find out what Clay did.

The set-up, the characters, and the hook were succinctly conveyed, and gave me a good amount of information without drowning me in details.

So it's not perfect as a written query, but you can see why I had to read that book.

I would love to be able to translate what worked here in all three areas into something more adaptable and usable for all the brave query-writers out there. So I need some help from you guys, if you're willing.

Tell me what makes YOU want to read a book. When a friend says, "You have to read this book," what do they say about it that convinces you? For writers who have already completed the query process, what worked for you when you wrote your query? What do you wish you'd done differently?

If it's an interesting topic for you guys, let's spend the week discussing :) I'm so curious to see both what hooks you, and what you've used as hooks.

And in the meantime, enjoy some more vague advice:


Holly Bodger said...

I think what your roommate gave you was basically the beats of the first act:
1) Premise: who is this about (in this case, teenage guy named Clay)
2) Inciting incident: what happens to Clay to rock his world (tape arrives on door)
3) Conflict: What does the inciting incident make the MC do? (find out why she recorded tapes and killed herself)
4) Character motivation: Why does the inciting incident make the MC do #3 (because she was the one girl he loved)

If set up well, this is enough information to hook me!

I don't think I used this exact list in my query to Joanna but it was fairly close. Only Joanna could tell you why it worked! :-)

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with the premise, less is more.

I also LOVED the video. Sometimes I feel like that when I'm plotting. :)

middle grade ninja said...

Very funny video:) And solid advice. Thanks.

Philangelus said...

I usually tell people to pretend they haven't written past the first hundred pages when they're writing their query letter. That keeps them from oversharing.

The long list of details (of who said what and the characters and every character's backstory) is generally what I hear from friends when they're NOT recommending a book. They start with the premise but then need to vent, and by the end I feel I know the book and all its flaws, and I've got no inclination to read it. And yet we feel the urge to do the same with our own writing when we query.

Larissa said...

I love a query that reads a bit like jacket copy. It tells me enough to make me care without telling me so much that I know what's going to happen. It should entice me to want to know more.

Monica said...

Hmmm...things my friends say to hook my attention... I think, for me, they are usually intangible. "Unputdownable!" or "I stayed up all night reading!" or "This made me LOL (or cry or hide under the covers all night)!"

Set up, characters and hook are important, but I guess I want some hint that there is extraordinary execution of those things.

As for my query, I imagine I conveyed character and voice pretty well. But those things, rather than premise, are the biggest selling points of my book. IMHO, of course.

Interesting topic!

Shelby Bach said...

Dude, awesome post - now I totally want to read 13 Reasons Why! (I usually don't go for "weepies," either.)

Here are a few reasons I tend to go for a book:

-Someone I know <3's it like whoa and won't stop bugging me until I've read it (But it has to be someone whose taste in books matches mine)
-The voice is just too loveable to put down
-The hook interests me

Stephanie Blake said...

DING! This really makes sense. Especially after Holly commented.

storyqueen said...

I wrote a not very good query at first...including the stuff I thought needed to be there....there stuff they always tell you to put there.

When I took a little time away from it and then read it, I realized it was dry....it might have told a little about my book, but it had no flavor, no voice. And I realized that the voice was a HUGE part of the book itself.

So, I tossed the query and sat down, pretending I was just trying to get a friend to want to read my book (Just like you did in the office! HA!)

That was the query that landed me an agent.

Great topic.


Samantha Clark said...

I love this topic. I agree that writing query letters is hard, because it's a very different skill than writing a novel.

I think one of things we (writers) get hung up on is what to reveal about the story. We know our story so well, and love our story so much, that we want to tell everything, and there's only so much we can put in a single sheet of paper.

One of the best pieces of advice I've read on query letters is from an old post by agent Kristen Nelson, who said that, for the query, just think about what happens in the first 50 pages of the novel. That advice kind of gave me permission, for want of a better word, to ignore the fun stuff in the middle and end and just concentrate on the premise of the story and the main character conflict.

And, Thirteen Reasons Why does sound like such a great book. It has been on my to read list for a while, but as I write middle grade, I've been reading MG ones. Glad to hear it's as good as it sounds.

Joanna said...

Holly B did all those things in her query and one more teeny tiny thing: voice. Blythe's voice was allllll over your query. And I wanted to get to know her.

Storyqueen points this out as well. It's important! More important than getting in all of the facts or details of your story.

I do agree with Sara--less is more!

Rhyanna said...

Usually when I pick a book, its from a writer I know. then I read the back cover, read a bit of the first few pages, several pages in the middle and of course the last page.

If its from an author I don't know, then I'd have to rely on the back cover, again the first few pages, a page or more in the middle.
Then I'll get an idea if it will interest me.
Usually if the first few pages are flat, I hesitate, but then select some pages in the middle, if it can hold my interest, I'll check to see if the library has it before buying it.
If I really like the book and the author, then I'll buy the book, as I tend to read it more than once.
This includes children's books-YA (I write childrens, young adult, romance, paranormal, etc. so Seeing what is out there can help me gauge whether or not to shelve something I've started/working on until later (I don't want to overkill).


Rhyanna said...

When it comes to writing Query letters, I have to admit that I've been guilty of putting too much info. I really hesitate especially when the submit guidelines say a detailed query letter and synopsis. Sigh..So just how much to put in is a tricky situation. Because I've also been told that my query letter didn't tell enough, yet that the manuscript I submitted did need some work.
Ok...so I'm rewriting both... patience especially when health issues crop up and the writing bug is bugging you.

Hope Clark said...

Love the new blog. Any chance you could add Feedburner or Feedblitz to allow email notifications when it is updated? Many don't use RSS feeds. Thanks!

Hope Clark