Nathan Bransford, Author


Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Query Critique and a Few Clarifications

Hope everyone had a lovely and fulfilling Memorial Day weekend. Speaking of fulfilled, you should see my Inbox! (I know, I know -- forgive me, I'm rusty.)

I managed to spark a lot of confusion regarding my offer to critique queries after I've passed on them, namely, why did I offer to critique queries and then not critique a query? Well, you see, I'm going to do things a little differently. This is going to be more free-form. If someone asks to have their query reviewed, I might look past the query and try and elucidate why the premise of the novel didn't work for me. Or something else. So I actually was offering advice in that post to the person who asked the question even though I didn't critique the query.

As I outlined in a recent post, by the time many authors reach the query stage it's often too late. Agent blogs often detail the nuances of query letters, when really a query letter should be treated as an afterthought - if a novel is not built on a solid, marketable, original idea, it doesn't really matter whether the query is well-written or not. Conversely, if you just finished writing a wonderful book, it's almost impossible to write a bad query letter. So I'm going to try and offer some info on what types of things catch my eye in a good and bad way in the hopes of making your next project succeed.

Now. That said, to further confuse matters I'm going to critique a query today.

Here goes:

The News Clown tells the story of Thor, a young news agency reporter, as he struggles to advance in the Bay City news industry. It is a fast-paced tale about the news biz, studded with sex, humor and tragedy.

Though ennui surely crops up from time to time, it is overwhelmingly a novel of action. The story submerges the reader in Thor's news world of shootings and murders, car crashes and suicides, drug busts and fires. . . . It follows him through his shattering love affair with the ambitious lawyer Chrissy, the death of Heather, and his tangled relationship with the lonely editor Kate. . . .

In between, we encounter the antics of the war-launching, cross-dressing President Wolfgang G. Mnung . . . the suicide of rock star Christ Sunbeam . . . the execution of serial killer Stephen "Tex" Walker . . . the Lunabear Mind, Body & Spirit Expo in Colorado . . . and the Feed World Hunger Benefit with top Hollywood stars. . . .

And yes, much more. Above all, though, it is extremely well written. It has a style that combines the profane and the sublime, that mixes horror with the absurd. The result, I have been told, is a tasty and unusual -- and very readable -- elixir.

I invite you to consider representing me and this work. In the right hands, I think this book has a great chance of success.


This query fits into the mold of what I like to call the "Ingredients Query." Ingredients Queries are extremely common. They provide a list of what's in the book. Sometimes, like in this one, there are interesting parts of the book listed, other times it's just a bare bones description.

But here's the problem with Ingredients Queries: Sugar, butter, egg, baking soda, salt, flour, vanilla. Does that make you want to eat a cookie?

Ingredients Queries don't tell the story. The story is what I'm looking for.






38 comments:

Len said...

I have to be honest with you, Nathan, and I think the whole concept of the query letter is bull. A story that you've taken tens of thousands of words to tell cannot be boiled down to a three sentence sales job without something getting lost. the only reasonable way to judge any story is to read a piece of it, even if it is only one page. Because the only question worth asking by a reader of a manuscript is this: If I get to the bottom of this page, will I want to read another.

Nathan Bransford said...

Len-

I'm afraid I disagree. The query letter is the preferred system in publishing because it works. I can usually get an extremely accurate sense of a manuscript just by reading a query letter. It conveys the essence of the story, the tone, the author's writing style, qualifications... it's a great system.

To look at it another way, I suppose you don't like blurbs on book jackets, which give prospective readers a sense of the book before they buy?

Dave said...

Thor reminds me of Selig (Woody Allen) or Forest Gump (a lump). No one cares about Selig or Gump, they care about the events and people surrounding them.
And If I don't care about Thor, why would I want to read about his life and times? You have to tell the agent in the query.

KingM said...

It's amazing to me how many people don't understand the basics of plot: a character, in a situation, with a problem.

With the exception of some literary stuff, a reader (agents included) wants to see an interesting character, an interesting setting, and a problem to overcome.

As in, "Young reporter Thor thinks he has a Pulitzer-worthy scoop on his hands when he gets a hot tip that the cross-dressing mayor of Bay City is stealing money from a local charity for his reelection campaign. But Thor's investigation soon turns up more than the mayor's padded bras and girdles; it uncovers a dead man wearing lipstick and a leather bustier. Pursued by a gang whose members look like a cross between the Hell's Angels and the cast of A Chorus Line, Thor must find the missing money, clear the mayor, and bed fellow reporter and all-around hottie, Chrissy Scissorlegs, and all before the world's biggest rock star comes to Bay City for the televised World Hunger Benefit Concert."

Nathan Bransford said...

This isn't in response to a particular comment above, but please please please remember to keep things as polite as possible when discussing the author's query. He was kind enough to offer up his work so people could learn for it, let's not now tear him to shreds.

Constructive responses are fine, but please please be polite and light.

Kate said...

I'm surprised you didn't also mention the line, "Above all, though, it is extremely well written." I've heard lots of agents say that's an immediate killer, and for good reason--the author is the last person who should be making that judgment about his/her own work.

Nathan Bransford said...

kate-

Yes, you're right, it's probably not the best idea to praise one's own work in a query, although I don't see it as a kiss of death.

KingM said...

Nathan,

I know you said it wasn't directed to anyone in particular, but just in case my post was too harsh, I wanted to clarify. My point is, the book may, indeed, have a great plot, but the query writer fails to illustrate as much, going for, as you pointed out, a laundry list of stuff that the book contains.

John Askins said...

Nathan,

You're providing helpful information, so thanks. It would also be helpful if somewhere down the line you analyzed a query that came really close to working for you, but maybe had some fatal, not-so-obvious flaw.

Anonymous said...

I have a question about query letters (not really about this one but...) If you're querying a second agent at the same agency (the first rejected you) do you mention that the letter's already been seen by so-and-so and declined? Just wondering.

Nathan Bransford said...

Anon-

No, I wouldn't mention that you already queried someone else at the agency.

Derrick said...

Wow, My first draft of my practice query letter isn't like that. I guess I was wise for using Agent Kristin Nelson's example on her wonderful webpage!

Stephen Parrish said...

I agree with Len, the first commenter. Even if the query's good you have to check the writing. Yet many good writers have trouble composing engaging summaries of their novels. It can drive a man to drink.

And no, jacket blurbs don't do anything for me because they're necessarily glorious. I read the first page. If I get to the bottom, as Len says, I read another. If agents would demand samples rather than summaries the writing community would consume a lot less alcohol.

Nathan Bransford said...

Stephen-

I still disagree. Can you imagine arriving to an Inbox full of 50 first-pages to novels completely devoid of context, and then having to try and make sense of them? I'd have to read to the end of each page, guess what the novel is about, somehow make a decision... It gives me chills just thinking about it.

And forgive me for saying so, but if someone can't write an engaging short synopsis of their work, they're not a writer.

Marti said...

I've written several query letters that still sit inside my computer.

I hate them - LOL

They sound stiff and "like a list of ingredients". They're nothing like the way I normally write. I think a trap many authors fall into, is writing to a literary agent as if we're explaining our tax return to the IRS. Far too business-like and "just the facts".

I certainly appreciate these posts, and the authors who are willing to be used as guinea pigs. Thank you.

Back to the revisions now - LOL

Stephen Parrish said...

If I read a hook, blurb, or synopsis, I don't know if the book's any good. If I read the first page, I'm pretty damn sure whether or not I want to continue.

There's no way someone like me is going to convince someone like you to change his manuscript evaluation process. But if I can make you just a tiny bit more sensitive to the I-Hate-Summaries ground swell, I'll earn a place in Heaven.

And I do forgive you.

CMonster said...

To me, the query letter is the business suit of the writing world. A suit does not actually make anyone smarter (although it can make them better looking). It certainly doesn't make them richer. What it does is tell you a) how rich they already are and b) that they care what you think. A query letter tells an agent/editor that you a) can write and b) care what they think.

That last is highly underestimated. You have to care about your readers. If you don't give a damn, they'll not give a damn right back.
Sure, summaries are hard. But hey, so are novels.

Anonymous said...

Nathan, please keep posting those, it is very helpfull.

Pixy said...

Summaries are very hard. In one of my writer's groups we actually devoted a whole thread to help each other perfect them.

But a summary can do what hardly any other writing exercise can do. It gets you to really think about your "big picture". It gets you to show your voice and your writing texture in a way that's honed and concise.

I've found writing a "back cover" about halfway through an ms is also a good way to keep me on track and maybe grow my excitement for the project again.

I had one mentor who insisted that you should write one before you even write the ms. He talks about it in his "snowflake method". Step one is the "Hook", like Nathan talked about last week or so. Step two is "back cover" but with the spoiler ending. Step three is the short synopsis, and so on...it grows from there.

It’s a more painful way to write (I have some friends who use it for NANO) but it works for a lot of writers. And it can save a lot of editing later.

I still seem to suck at it (I'm too much of an "artist" for my own good), but I’m thankful when I sit down to write out that query that I practiced the dickens out of my summary. It really helps (Plus, when you need to pitch at a conference it saves those “Um...” moments from coming on).

Thanks for being willing to be a guinea pig, secret writer. Blessings for your future endeavors!

Twill said...

Actually, Kingm, I thought your version was great! It made me want to read pages.

The ingredients version didn't - especially with all the "my writing is great" comments. With regard to how good your writing is, please remember the classic advice--"show, don't tell."

original bran fan said...

Another big problem is that every agent seems to want something different. Kristin Nelson wants three paragraphs of summary, Donald Maass wants 50-100 words. Kristin Nelson says to always thank an agent for his/her time. Jacky Sach says to never thank an agent for her time, because this is business.

All we can do is what the wise Miss Snark told us. Query widely.

Nathan Bransford said...

OBF-

I can definitely understand the frustration with the myriad requirements. I try not to sweat the little things, just as long as the story as good.

whitemouse said...

All you query-disdainers:
Nathan still has to read the whole book to know if he wants to represent it, i.e. it does come down to the words on the page eventually.

However, that doesn't mean that the query letter was meaningless. If Nathan says it's a useful tool, then it's a useful tool - he's the expert on this.

I will disagree that it isn't possible to write a poor query if you have a great book, however - hell-yes, I can write a crappy query for my very excellent book! I've done it before; I can do it again, bucko!

Writing a great hook or summary is a completely different skill than writing a great novel. Any author capable of writing a great novel should be able to learn to write a great hook/summary, but they don't necessarily know how to do it yet.

Anonymous said...

If you just finished writing a wonderful book, it's almost impossible to write a bad query letter.

Your whole post could have been boiled down to this one statement. I too believe in the direct correlation between a good book and ease of query writing.

Queries are often compared to back of the book blurbs, but maybe to take the pressure off, think of it this way: Someone is asking you what your book is about at a party. What do you say? If you can't answer within party conversation time limits, then you might need to take another look at your book.

Ways to practice:
Write a query early on, when you think you know what your book is about, to test the hook.

Write queries for other people. We do it over at crapometer.blogspot.com all the time.

Write queries for published books and see what ingredients they have that yours lack.

I really do believe a query letter will reveal the flaws in your work. It's a painful thing (been there!) but in the end, it's worth it to know.

This is a valuable thing you're doing here, Nathan. Thanks.

sylvia said...

I'm surprised that someone from the crapometer agrees that a bad query means that there is something wrong with the story.

I've spent the past few months watching people submit queries for critique and I've seen a few of these go from quite bad to getting partial requests (and in one case, getting a deal). The story was quite clearly the same, the query had completely changed.

Now it may well be that a good query always means a good story, but it's not hard to find examples where a bad query doesn't do justice for a good story.

It's a skill. I like the business suit analogy and I'll happily concede that any good writer must take the time to learn that skill.

I'm not saying that queries are worthless, it's a good system. Simply put, writers that don't learn how to distill their story into a strong query generally won't get their partials looked at. But not being able to write a good query from the start doesn't mean there is something wrong with the story so much as the story-teller.

Dave said...

I'm with Sylvia, writing and finishing a book doesn't mean you can automatically write a query letter. It's a different beastie and requires some effort and work.

Since a query letter is the way to get a book represented and then published, then authors have to learn how to write one.

Len said...

Nathan--

You said that, with query letters, you "can usually get an extremely accurate sense of a manuscript just by reading a query letter. It conveys the essence of the story, the tone, the author's writing style[.]"

However, the query that I sent you conveyed neither the tone nor style of my novel, which was written in a very different voice than the one I use for business correspondence. Also, I spent the whole trying to jump through the various hoops that are set up concerning "what makes a great query letter" that there was no room left for providing the essence of the story's tone or style.

Query letters work great for the Dan Brown's. The Da Vinci Code has a great hook, but little else. However, would you really repond to a query for "A young man wanders through Dublin for a day and we encounter almost every moment in his day and that of a middle-aged Jew"? I have to doubt it, because Ulysses is a great book without a hook.

Now, I'm not trying to compare myself to James Joyce. What I'm trying to say is that query letters cannot always transmit the feel of a manuscript.

Also, reading a first page is no more labor intensive than reading a query. You're talking about a similar number of words. It should provide its own context or else it has failed as a first page.

Writing a good query letter is more akin, in my mind, to intuiting a secret handshake for a fraternal organization than anything else. It's part of why I wish I had just gone and gotten the damn MFA. Possessing an MFA is a kind of a high sign in a query letter that states that the writer is already an accepted member of the club. My mistake.

Nathan Bransford said...

Len-

Query letters work. They do. Whether they're for the lowest denominator commercial fiction or high-minded literary fiction. I'm sorry your project wasn't for me, but that doesn't mean that the entire insitution of the query letter is on shaky ground. Perhaps there are great books who languish due to bad query letters, but from my own experience this is extremely rare. If you don't feel that your query letter conveyed the tone and style of your book, respectfully, it wasn't the fault of the query letter system. Even within the constraints of good-query-letter format it's possible to write a great letter. (think Robert Frost writing great poetery within very strict constraints)

And I'm afraid I also feel that you're mistaken about an MFA guaranteeing admission to "the club." I know a whole lot more unpublished MFA grads than I do published, and when someone tells me they have an MFA in a query letter it doesn't even guarantee I'll ask for a partial. It's a nice sign that someone dedicated themselves to the craft and received admission to a program on the strength of their writing, but it's not even close to a guarantor.

Anonymous said...

On Absolute Write, you said that you dislike series and trilogies. But, if someone were to query one of these, is there anything they could do in the letter to get interest? Something that might even out the disinterest that comes when you read the world "trilogy".

Nathan Bransford said...

Anon-

I would avoid treating it like it has to be a series, and just say that it could be expanded into a series. It's better to show an agent that it could stand on its own if the agent or future editor thinks it works best as a single-title. Or, if the agent agrees with you that they'd like it to be a series, you have your bases covered.

Charlie said...

As someone who was recently rejected by Nathan, I agree with what he says (and I'm not butt kissing here, honestly).

I looked at my query again. I had the horrible stomach churning realisation that it sucked. I felt ashamed that I had let it crawl out from my PC.

I had someone else look at it. Amongst their many criticisms was: "I don't get a sense of the story from this."

Lo and behold, they were right

I've rewritten the damn thing til I'm blue in the face. I've rewritten the synopsis too as I realised it had the same problem.

Being a good writer may not mean you can automatically write a killer query. But I do think a good writer will be able to learn that particular skill.

I'll send out some more submissions soon. If I get rejected all round, well, I'll shove the MS under the bed and get on with writing something new and better.

I think sometimes us writers have to accept that we are not getting rejected because of the system, we are not getting rejected because of agents and publishers who can't see our talent - we are getting rejected because we're not good enough.

Yet.

Nathan Bransford said...

Well said, Charlie.

The Kid said...

I agree with Charlie. It's hard to come to terms with because we'd all like to think we're "the next big thing," the heir to Eragon and Harry Potter, but most of us aren't. I think query letters are an excellent way to get a sense of a novel (I happen to be a fan of book cover blurbs, too).

Anonymous said...

The opposite can also be true - some bad books can have good query letters. I have lurked here and there and seen some good queries, carefully crafted, which got my interest. But the writing of the story itself was abysmal from the first sentence. The author obviously obsessed over the query letter thinking it would get them a foot in the door, but in the process they forgot about the novel.

I think I'd go nuts if I were an agent. The job must be more difficult now that people are able to run their queries through internet workshops and peer groups so easily.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

I think queries are difficult to write, but not nearly as difficult as writing a novel.

Anonymous said...

Whitemouse said: Writing a great hook or summary is a completely different skill than writing a great novel. Any author capable of writing a great novel should be able to learn to write a great hook/summary, but they don't necessarily know how to do it yet.

This is SO true.

And it is also MUCH harder in many ways to summarize your own work than someone else's.

Anonymous said...

Nathan,

Excellent critique. I hang my head because I have written the ingredients query. But no more!

Aimee K. Maher said...

I have to agree with Nathan. I've been hammered with information on critiques. The emotion, the conflict, the major plays. Bang! If you can write an entire book with meaning, you can write a few paragraphs about what it means. It's a resume, polish it.

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