Nathan Bransford, Author

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Words Are To Writers As _____ Are To Basketball Players

Reader John Askins pointed me to an interview with Benjamin LeRoy, the publisher of Bleak House books, who offered quite a bit of awesome, quotable wisdom.

In particular, I'd point you to this fantastic nugget:

"As soon as I see awkward prose on page one, I reject a book. You wouldn’t trust a clumsy surgeon with a scalpel. I don’t trust authors who aren’t in complete control of their environment. Sloppy work is sloppy work. Doesn’t matter the profession, I don’t want it."

This is very true, and perhaps the number one reason I reject queries and partials: awkward prose.

Allow me to use a basketball metaphor. LeBron James (who should win the MVP award this year without a contest and frankly if Kobe Bryant wins I might hurt someone) might dribble the ball off of his foot from time to time, but he's not going to miss the backboard when he shoots a free throw. He's not going to overthrow a pass to a teammate by 30 feet. There are certain mistakes he's just not going to make in an NBA game because he's an NBA caliber player.

The same goes for writing. There are some mistakes and awkward phrasing that a publishable writer just isn't going to make -- it wouldn't even occur to them to make the mistake in the first place because it just wouldn't look right. I'm not talking about typos, which are like turnovers, but repeated misuse of its/it's, confusion of homonyms, run-on sentences, poor word choices... these are the equivalent of LeBron James missing the backboard.

This is also why I'm skeptical when people tell me they can write a compelling novel but not a query letter. Do you have a command of words or not? What if you need to craft a short, wonderful scene in your novel? You can't marshal the words to write it because it's too short of a space? You can't convey a great deal of information with an economy of words? (And sure, Shaq can't shoot free throws, but.... um.... did I say this was a perfect metaphor that would stand up to scrutiny?)

And then of course there is the fact that published authors have to write blurbs about their work and describe their work in a few compelling sentences all the time. I mean, when you go on Fresh Air and talk to Terry Gross about your novel and she asks you what your book is about, are you going to tell her that you can't describe it in a few sentences but totally swear it's a great novel and she should just read the first page instead?

Should I ask rhetorical questions the rest of the afternoon or should I stop now?

I'm sure there are instances when someone wrote a great novel but really did just lack the knowledge about how to go about writing a query letter (because if there's anything I've learned in publishing it's that there is an exception to everything), but this is all still hearsay to me and I haven't personally seen it.

But most importantly, your command of words is what you're banking on. It's like musical ability to a musician, athletic ability to an athlete, swinging on trees to a monkey. If you got it you got it.


sex scenes at starbucks said...

Do you have a command of words are not?

So is that a typo...or not?

Sorry, couldn't resist, Nathan. :P

Nathan Bransford said...

Hahaha, thanks SS@S.

When is a typo more than a typo? Don't know if I want to know the answer to that question.

150 said...

NPR geeks unite!

Anonymous said...

Ummm....what about Chris Paul?

Please, please Nathan don't tell me that you are that easily suckered by the "big names." (Because I have a lot of respect for you and really want to keep it.)

Chris Paul is complete player who WINS games. James can score like nobody's business, I'll give you that, but wouldn't you rather have a guy who can score 20+ per game AND make it easy for his teammates to score another 30, rather than a guy who simply scores 30 by himself?


J.P. Martin said...

I agree. If you got it you got it. I think that it is ludicrous that some aspiring writers expect agents and publishers to forgo their crap filter. People like to think that there are exceptions, but there are so few that they aren't even worth mentioning. And until Nathan says he's seen it, I won't believe it. Good writers write well and bad writers don't. Simple as that.

Nathan Bransford said...


LeBron put up 30/8/7 on a one man team. It was an astounding season. Yes, this is the year Chris Paul became the best PG in the NBA, but I'm not really a fan of the "let's give the MVP to the best player on the team with the best record" method. I think they'll end up giving it to Kobe or Paul because their teams defied expectations, not because they had the best individual years.

Anonymous said...

Nathan, you make a good point. However, I see it from a different angle -- the Hornets are one of the best team BECAUSE of Chris Paul, and Chris Paul alone. Without him, they'd be watching the playoffs from their $18,000.00 couches at home. Therefore, he is the prime MVP candidate: a guy who took a mediocore team and made them great. LeBron simply made a bad team in a bad conference, and okay team in a bad conference. Chris Paul is a more VALUABLE player. Value is the key word in MVP.

Nathan Bransford said...


Chris Paul was integral to their success and if you took him away they wouldn't be nearly as good, but they still had David West putting up 20/9, Peja playing well, and Tyson Chandler being a defensive beast. Not quite the same thing as playing with Zydrunas Ilgauskas and other assorted dinosaurs.

But all that said, I definitely think you could make a very solid case for Paul. Kobe on the other hand.... don't even get me started.

Margaret Yang said...

Sheila Williams, editor of Asimov's magazine, writes an editorial for every issue. In this month's issue, she said that when she selects stories, she looks for someone who has control over her material, and makes her feel confident that she will enjoy the literary journey.

It's hard to put your finger on it sometimes, but when I read someone like Neil Gaiman or Stephen King, I know I'm reading someone who knows how to use the tools in the toolbox. And yes, I know within the first few pages. If readers know, then agents know too.

Heidi said...

The problem is that people can't look at their own writing and know whether or not they are good. Like all the singers who audition for American Idol who think they are the best in the world and can't hold a tune.

Who is the Simon Cowell of agents who will say, "Honey, don't quit your day job! You just don't have what it takes"?

Anonymous said...

What? Kobe is DA BOMB!

Haha, did I really just type that? Okay, I'm going to cut off my fingers with my gardening shears now.

Yeah, Kobe will win and he's the least deserving. Agreed.

Adaora A. said...

LeBron will win. I like Kobe too but unfortunately he's kind of getting washed up. He's going down the hill and LeBron is climbing right up it. He's so amazing and he isn't even at his peak yet.
Shaq is getting old. With newer players with amazing energy and great creativity his slacking is clear and glaring in comparison. I wonder how you could compare that to older writers. Older writers just get better with age. Hmm.

Perhaps we should just say writers should be like a fine wine that gets better as it ages. The young wine will still taste good (sometimes just as good as the older one) otherwise no one would buy it.

Love the B-ball metaphor Nathan.

LMAO You gotta love a monkey eh Nathan? Do they swing as well when they're drunk? I think so.

Adaora A. said...

David West putting up 20/9, Peja playing well, and Tyson Chandler being a defensive beast. Not quite the same thing as playing with Zydrunas Ilgauskas and other assorted dinosaurs.


I'm sorry I have to laugh. Please excuse me, I'm going to have to steal that statement when I'm yelling at the screen during the next b-ball game I watch. Good God that is full of win.

superwench83 said...

Wonderful post.

ORION said...

This is a terrific post Nathan-
I even get the football comparison...
Water polo?

yeah writters got tu use gooder words and in the bestest order so peepul with by there books

Idea Man said...

As Steve Martin once said, "Some people have a way with words, and others...not have way."

Anonymous said...

"Who is the Simon Cowell of agents who will say, "Honey, don't quit your day job! You just don't have what it takes"?"

LOL talk about the world's most boring reality show.

"Okay, everyone open the book to page one and read for 30 seconds....Time's up! Simon, what do you think?"

"Drivel. Pure drivel spewed from the mind of yet another shameless hack."

Paula: "I think as you continue on you'll work into your true voice. But you're not there yet, honey, I'm sorry."

Randy: "Dog, I'm just not feelin' it. Don't quit your day job, man."

Anonymous said...

and what about Faulkner?

I guess if he were out there, he shouldn't query Nathan?

Nathan Bransford said...


I don't think Faulkner is sending anyone queries.

And come on now. You know what I mean. It gets a little exhausting to have to put a caveat in front of every single generalization. Obviously there are run-on sentences that work. And for every one that works there are a thousand that don't.

Anonymous said...

of course Faulkner is not, he's run along...

and yes,you are right, and, as you have always said, there are exceptions...

it's just that sometimes, with "the rules" the exceptional or unique or different is ruled out

and I tend (not that I am anybody) to root for the unique voice

(differing from the one that can't use a comma, but may be in a coma???)

how I wish you might someday consider a contest for wild and crazy experimental writing

John said...

Faulkner to now: Where along that timeline was THE moment when writing became capital-A Art rather than lowercase-w work? Sometimes I think the worst disservice it's possible to do to a writer is to tell him he's a "good writer." (And he does himself no favors if he believes it.)

Our local newspaper prints occasional columns by a student at a university here. I can't even begin to appreciate whether his opinions are valid, because I'm so distracted by all the polysyllabic malapropisms, ungainly clauses that wander off a cliff, verb-less... and all the letters to the editor praising him for his eloquence. I bet he writes a hell of a query letter.

Paul West said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nathan Bransford said...

paul west-

Do they? Off the top of my head I can't think of a published novelist I know who can't write a good short story. Now, maybe a solid novelist can't write a GREAT short story and some people are better short story writers and some people who are better at novels.

But a good solid short story? Every published author I know could do it.

Nathan Bransford said...

Also I never said to give up.

Paul West said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Morgan Dempsey said...

I'll say that I couldn't write a query to save my life. Queries to me are akin to "selling" yourself, which is something I can't do.

Even in hunting for a job, this was a stumbling block for me. I have been told I have an impressive resume, but cover letter? God no.

I don't have the first clue on selling myself. I just put forward what I am and the work I've done, and pray they stand on their own.

Then again, maybe I'm just a crap writer :)

Anonymous said...

I am an artist.
I have to confess, that learning how to talk about my art
has been a long, strange road.
I have mastered it.
I should.
I created the work. I should be able or capable of talking about it.
But it required I change gears.

Paul West said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Paul West said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

We will We will

Anonymous said...

Novels and queries are nothing alike. They both have words in common, but I think they come from different parts of the brain. One is creative and one is analytical. When you're writing a novel, you're inside the ink. When you're writing a query, you're outside it. It's the difference between van Gogh painting a canvas, and van Gogh at an art show, being asked to paint a separate work-- on a tiny bit of paper-- that explains the first.

I think a writer can be good at both, but not necessarily. A person who is comfortable losing herself in a novel might be uncomfortable with the spotlight of a query.

Linnea said...

Unfortunately I think you're right. I loathe writing queries but I'm well aware they are the first, and possibly the only, representation of my work an agent will see. It darned well better be great.

Keri Ford said...

When I started writing, I couldn't write a query letter. I didn't want to work at it, because I didn't like doing it. Neither did my muse and even chocolate couldn't coax her out.

But you know what? When you ain't got a decent letter, nobody gonna want your story.

Now, I am not saying I have got the mad query lettering skills down (Nathan did reject me recently, so something's not peachy there) but I know I'm getting better. The trickling of requests coming in proves that.

Like every basketball player, talent will get you so far, but practice, practice, practice can tip you over the edge.

Look at some of your favorite authors. if they're auto-reads, don't read the blurb or the catchy little thingymabobs (sorry, brain pause here) on the front of the cover. read the book, and write the blurb for it. then compare to see how you're doing. You'll get there.

Anonymous said...

I personally enjoy writing the hook part of queries, but that might be because I write action-thriller novels, which I think are easier to summarize than, say, a character-driven literary exploration; it can still be done, though.

But I enjoy writing 1-sentence blurbs so much that I keep a file of them, and whenever I think of a concept for a novel, I make myself condense it into a TV-Guide style blurb. Then when I'm selecting which project to write next, I go over the blurbs, and whichever is the most compelling (combined with a loose outlining for what actually happens in the story), is what I go with. And if you have an editor/agent, this greatly aids the next project selection process by giving them a choice without having to read an entire ms.

I often start them with "When...."

"When a [insert profession here] discovers [insert what they discover here], "they find themselves confronting [insert what they confront here], before [insert super-bad thing happens here].

I think of it as dialing the detail level of a story up or down. The blurbs are Detail all the way down, the 5-page synopsis = medium Detail, while the completed ms. is of course 100% Detail.

Sometimes I just imagine the movie made based on my book, and in my head I picture the Netflix sticker on the DVD, and I just write that down.

Anonymous said...

I will add that I used to do the same thing that Keri suggests--every time I finished reading a novel (if it was in my genre), I wrote my own jacket copy for it and then compared it to the real thing. That is great practice,and now it's one of my favorite parts of the entire novel writing process.

Anonymous said...

What's frustrating as a writer is when many agents/editors say that your prose is top-quality but the narrative isn't compelling enough. Sigh.

Nathan Bransford said...

While some people are finding it discouraging when I say that someone with a publishable novel should be able to write a good query, I really hope you'll look at it another way: it's affirmational.

You have the tools. If you've written a publishable novel, you can write a good query. It may take some time to get the hang of the format, as others have pointed out, it takes practice, and it may not feel right to brag about yourself. But you can do it.

LeBron didn't become an MVP candidate on talent alone.

If you're a writer, you have the tools. And people are offering some really great tips on how you can practice in this thread.

R.C. said...

Doing anything well takes practice. Just because you are struggling and find it difficult doesn't mean you can't do it if you keep working at it.

It's difficult for everybody. It's drudgery, it's frustrating. But to just say that query writing isn't reflective of writing ability is a cop out. You can do it if you work at it hard enough.

Of course, using this line of thought means Shaq should really have a better free throw percentage, but there you go.

And, idea man, I love that Steve Martin quote! I can even hear him saying it though I haven't listened to him in years.

nightsmusic said...

Why can I write queries for others, condensing and making the blurb catchy enough that it attracts that 'request for more' from the agents they query and yet, I can't write my own to save my life?

I think it's because I am so close to my own that I can't find a way to step back from it and look at it the same way I do other writers. That coupled with the fact that I am forced to write my query three or four different ways depending on whether the agent in question wants a two paragraph query or one...

*sigh* I keep trying. Maybe in thirty years or so, I'll have figured it out.


nightsmusic said...

I should add to that comment by the way, that I don't write the entire query for them, but I do crit it before they send it, making adjustments where I think they are too verbose or not descriptive enough.

Whatever I'm doing though, it helps them enough to work.



Anonymous said...

I hope this is inspirational:

(although maybe it is more indicative of my slow learning process?)

I applied to a number of graduate schools five different years.

I had an incredible background.

However, I was rejected time and time again.

I didn't understand how to sell myself, how to write about myself, how to "do the strokes."

The fifth time I "got it."

I was not only accepted by five universities, I was offered my choice of fellowships, scholarships, teaching assistantships, etc.

Some skills take walking into walls before you get them.

I do hope,however, it won't take such a huge learning curve to get published.

Anonymous said...

Hoop's Hoop in American Basketball

Kirsten said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kirsten said...

That's definitely sound advice. I have a veritable complex surrounding queries, though I can comfortably write otherwise. This is partly influenced by the fact that as a visual artist I can't stand the accompanying essays that hang next to paintings, asserting lofty notions and deeper meanings. (It's right there!! Either it's working for the viewer, or it's not.) Incidentally, I'm hella bad at talking up my work (sorry, urge to quote Cartman could not be suppressed), but happy to stand in front of it and listen to people tell me what they see.

But since a novel is not something that can be taken in at a glance, the importance of a fitting query and (shudder) synopsis is obvious.

I'm happy writing stories, but totally out of my comfort zone in the 'now I have to talk it up' realm, and the focus shifts from my characters to me. I guess I need to alter my perspective here... to view the query as an extension of the story itself. Or pretend it's someone else's book, and I'm suggesting it to a friend. There must be a way to make writing queries feel more natural. I can't seem to shake the 'job application cover letter' feeling/tone from mine.

Ithaca said...

Being in command of one's material is not quite the same as avoiding awkward prose, though - P.G. Wodehouse was in command of his material, but Bertie Wooster ravaged the English language. (The books would hardly be improved if Bertie's mixed metaphors, hodgepodge of registers and inarticulate fillers were to be cleaned up.) And somehow writing in the voice of a character or characters is not much help with query letters, which are supposed to be in the voice of the author.

London pub. A: 'In the North "cunt" is an offensive word. You say the word "cunt" when somebody's with his girl he'll have your head off.'
B: 'Yeh. Yeh. In the South you hear it all the time. "I'm all cunted out."'
A: '"Stop cunting me about." I've heard that.'
B: 'So stop cunting me about, you cunt, are you in or out?'
A: 'Oh all right then. You know what they say, Tel, unlucky in love.'

Problem is. As an eavesdropper in a pub I instantly want to know more, without having any idea what the story is, because I think A and B do more interesting things with language than whatever well-behaved sentences I might come up with. As a reader, I'd be likelier to want to read a book with that on the back than I would reading some sort of plot summary. So a pitch is hard because it involves stripping the book of the thing that would draw me to it in the first place, the thing I love in (say) Peter Carey's work, and coming up with something compelling in my own voice. But I don't have an interesting voice, I'm just an eavesdropper. If a book is any good at all, it'll be because I eavesdropped on some interesting people; I then got out of the way and let the reader eavesdrop on them too.

Ann Regentin said...


Every professional athlete misses. A lot. Babe Ruth, if I remember correctly, held the record for strike-outs for quite a while. Want that guy on your team?

I don't write good queries because I'm not comfortable selling myself. I'm an introvert who was raised to know my place as a woman and stick to it, and it's taking hard work to unstick myself. I'm working at it, and my queries are getting better, but I still tend to rely on contests and world-of-mouth, where my work itself or my reputation can speak for me. Maybe it's a weakness. Maybe it's just another path. I don't know.

I also have a disease that affects my cognitive function in such a way that certain kinds of typos are my middle name, especially the kind that spellcheck doesn't catch. I do my best with repeated hard-copy edits, but I don't always catch them, either.

Thankfully, the editors I normally work with tend to laugh more than snarl, but I'm in a genre where good writing is relatively rare. If the story's solid, they'll fix the typos, and I can deliver solid stories. That part of my brain is just fine.

Here's the thing. The folks who hit most frequently, in any field, do so because they're willing to risk missing. LeBron James got where he is because he was willing to miss the backboard more often than Joe Schmoe. The difference was that he didn't throw the ball down and flounce off the court after he missed. He reassessed his shot and tried again until he had it figured out.

And he still dribbles the ball off his own foot, right? What does that tell us about pro performance?

Anonymous said...

sex scenes at starbucks said...

Do you have a command of words are not?

So is that a typo...or not?

Sorry, couldn't resist, Nathan. :P

Q: was that a Nathan typo that was since corrected?

RC Gale said...

Words are to writers as misdemeanors are to basketball players.

Anonymous said...

fell on knees?

sex scenes at starbucks said...

This might be a controversial opinion, but if your book can't be nailed down into a persuasive query, I respectfully submit you might look at the book rather than your querying skills.

Also, I am biased toward the short form, but then, so are many of the universities and writing courses in the country. If you haven't learned how to write a short story, then it's high time you started. For learning to write, studying the short story (reading and writing) is invaluable.

And yeah, Nathan fixed it. He's a sneaky one, our Nathan!

nightsmusic said...

I'm sure there are people out there, a few here have mentioned it, that can write a killer blurb for a book they've read that isn't theirs simply because it's not theirs. I'm not sure having trouble writing one about your own correlates to that. There's a difference between being emotionally vested in something because it's a part of you, and having to condense it into a few words, and being bowled over by something you read and are writing a rave blurb about it.

Then again, maybe you're right, maybe my stuff is all crap and I'm just wasting everyone's time here. And if so, I apologize!


Keri Ford said...

I know for me I can see an explanation of something, but until I get that hands on with something I've written, I don't get it. So, if you are still not sure about query before sending it out, send it to Ms. Reid of FinePrint to critique. News of this new blog came to my inbox today:

Or, brave EvilEditor who, as far as I know, crits EVERY query letter that he gets:

Anonymous said...

Well said, Sex Scenes!

I don't feel comfortable with queries yet, but found my last one much easier to write after I'd clarified the plot.

I believe writers can write a good query. If we've taken the time to craft our story, to chose words with the perfect shade of meaning, to find the cadence that suits a scene, then we can damn well write a query. Certainly not the first time, probably not the tenth time, but, yeah, we can do it. We really can.

The tenacity that produces a good book will produce a good query

p.s. I loved the crapometers in Miss Snark's archives. It was so helpful to see hooks, queries, and cover letters critiqued. I know I saved myself many mistakes by seeing where other brave folks had made theirs.

Here's the link:

Man, I hope I haven't missed any typos....

Liz Wolfe said...

It doesn't matter if you're good at writing query letters or not.
It doesn't matter if they are easy to write or not.
What matters is that you HAVE to write them. And you have to write them well. Otherwise, you won't get enough agents/editors looking at your novel to ever sell it. There are a lot of aspects of writing that are hard. The query letter is just one of them. A lot of writers have been told that they need to work on POV or dialog or any number of things. And they do and they get better. So, practice. Write a hundred query letters if you have to. Get other writers to critique them. Do what you have to do in order to write a good query. Because your writing career could very well depend on it.
Um, what that too harsh?

J.P. Martin said...

To everybody that says that writer X didn't or couldn't write in a particular fashion (i.e. query, short story), you are forgetting that that particular writer was able to match their unique style with the right agent. I highly doubt that the writers mentioned in the examples were represented by the first agent they queried. The examples simplify the situation. It's easy to look at somebody that has already achieved success and say: Look. It has already been done.

On the one hand agents and publishers can't or are unwilling to recognize unique writing and then on the other hand examples of unique writers/writing styles are given to strengthen the argument that unique writing has its place in literature. So which is it?

I am always amazed at some aspiring writers' lack of economic understanding. I have read many agent blogs, websites and articles where agents claimed that they receive 5,000-8,000 queries per year. Life is short. Time is money. Agents can't read every manuscript. If a writer can't write a phenomenal query letter they only have themselves to blame. Period.

Writers need to stop blaming the system.

Anonymous said...

I only recently got better at query writing - and wouldn't you know it? Requests for partials follow.

However, I think there are a few different skills in play. The first, and most basic, is understanding sentences. If you don't understand sentences, you're not yet ready to write a book.

There's also voice: using words in interesting ways. That can be true of people who are not writers, and still is probably a writer's best tool. I think probably, in query writing, interesting voice is the peak of the skill. The pique for the agent.

Then there is form. This is the part where query writing was difficult for me. I dislike reading blurbs, so of course I disliked writing one. A query puts on a suit and goes to an interview. Wearing that drag comfortably is a skill.

Then there is content. Content can also be an issue. What is the most interesting content? Is it the geography, characters, plot, theme? Which aspects of each? What is interesting to me as the author is often several layers deeper than a reader might care about. In fact, that is definitely the case: if anyone one cared as much about the things I care about in my own work then they're crazy like a fox and should be avoided.

All of these forces need to collude.

If you can write a novel, however, you have to have a knowledge of words, sentences, voice, structure, form, and plot/content. And if your novel really IS good, then your knowledge base means you can, with sufficient effort, learn to query.

Which leads me to think the query really is a good tool for judging ability. A good author can write and send a crappy query, I think: but that means they've not done the *work* part of learning a new form. I imagine an agent is also looking for markers of willingness to do work. However, a good author can learn to write a good query, with sufficient time and research and feedback - just the way they learned to write a good novel.

Adaora A. said...

If you know your book and if you're passionate about it, can't you sell it? To me the only hard part of a query is how to personalize it. I over-think whether I am being too funny and whether I am personal enough. I don't find it very difficult summarizing what my story is about.

Actually another thing that worried me was the fact that I'm unpublished. Luckily I learned (through this blog of course) exactly how to address it in a query. I love the internet.

Sarah Garrigues said...

Typo Humor

My husband recently told me of a T-shirt that he had seen on the internet.
On it there is a picture of arms and fists raised high with the words:
"Poor Spellers of the World . . . Untie!"

Wanda B. Ontheshelves said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Luc2 said...

I'm late, so probably this will go unnoticed, but I partly disagree.

As much as the writing is important - and it is - IMO, the storytelling is what sells. If someone writes a compelling story, with characters that seize you by the throat from page 1, and a plot that keeps drawing you in deeper and deeper, I'm thinking agents and editors will take awkward prose for granted and just leave these hiccups to the editing phase.

What would you rather have: a fascinating story with some clunky language, or perfect prose without a story? As much as the prose is an important tool, it is that: only a tool. I think most people want to read stories, more than the prose.

MVP? The bottom line is winning isn't it? Great stats are meaningless if you can't get the W.
LBJ can't win by himself.
Would David West or Tyson Chandler be this good without Chris Paul? Did LBJ make better players out of Hughes, Gooden or Ben Wallace, allowing them to help him win games? LBJ passes when he has no chance to score. CP passes to help others get into their game, ignoring opportunities to improve his own scoring statistics. Same with Kevin Garnett. Anyway, I hope Kobe doesn't get it (can't stand him). And I hope that the storytelling is viewed as the most important part of a novel.

Anonymous said...

"A good author can write and send a crappy query, I think: but that means they've not done the *work* part of learning a new form. I imagine an agent is also looking for markers of willingness to do work."

Well put.

SFWriter said...

@Ithaca: I know what you mean. It is those gems we want to overhear that pull us into a book, and it's those gems we want to show off. But it's not what keep us in a book, or makes us want to buy another one by the same author, and that is what a query should sell.

I've been suckered in by a cool premise or a neat quote once or twice, only to be bored by the overall story. An author must be able to maintain the tension throughout. Quoting an overheard tidbit won't prove it in a query.

Bija Andrew Wright said...

Anonymous 3:58: Van Gogh actually did some amazing sketches in addition to his paintings. While they aren't as developed as the paintings, one can still look at them and recognize his mastery of composition, proportion, perspective, etc. Which is, I think, what Nathan is getting at here: a good writer will show mastery at every level. (Still, if you want to talk about commercial success during your own lifetime, Van Gogh may not be the best role model.)

Perhaps that's the way to think about it. A successful comedian going on a talk show to support a movie is not going to distill the movie to a two-minute pitch, but is going to convince the viewers that he/she is funny--that is, he/she has mastery of the craft of humor.

That's a journey I went through in my own query letters for a book on Buddhism. My book is meant to be at least a little bit fun, in addition to tackling serious issues. My first query letter was dry and businesslike, and got no positive response. I re-wrote it to demonstrate the personality of the book, and that was a lot more successful.

So rather than trying to collapse a book into a rushed one-page synopsis, try to use the query to demonstrate your writing skills. If the book is supposed to be funny, make the query funny. If the book is supposed to be haunting, make the query haunting.

Chro said...

Put me in the camp of 'authors who have trouble selling themselves'. I've always been an extremely shy, modest person, to the point where if I try to brag, I get a queasy feeling in my stomach. Job interviews, resumes, and other instances where I'm selling myself have always been difficult for me.

But, if I have to pitch my work in order to get published, then I guess I'll just have to learn.

John said...

Anonymous@7:53 -- outstanding comment. Were I an editor (I'm not) or an agent (ditto), I'd ask for a glimpse at your next work just on the basis of those eight paragraphs.

Anonymous said...

Babies and girlfriends? ;)

(PS) No excuses for Tom Brady either.

Anonymous said...

Writing a query is a matter of being able to put your own work in perspective. To an author who has labored over a book, it's sometimes difficult to distill the story down to the important parts, because (naturally) the entire thing is important to the author.

And having a handy two-sentence elevator pitch isn't necessarily the same as writing a catchy summary. You can get away with things in conversation that wouldn't fly on paper.

Not saying short-form skills can't improve with practice, of course. But I write concise, conversational material for a living, and I wrote a novel that sold, and I still want to hide under the desk when I'm asked for a summary.

Margaret Yang said...

@Luc2, I must respectfully disagree. Clunky prose jolts me out of the story, and I won't ever find out how wonderful and cool it is because I'm working too hard to "get" it.

Read a couple of pages of Cell by Steven King or Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman or The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood. See how straightforward the prose is? Those authors know how to use all the tools in the toolbox. The prose is confident and strong because they use all their tools--words, grammar, syntax--so well. It lets their amazing stories come through loud and clear.

You ask, would I rather have good writing or a good story? The answer is, both. I don't have to choose because the shelves are full of writers who can deliver both. Agents don't have to choose either because their in-boxes are full of the same thing.

Mickie the Trigger said...

(I don't think this dead horse is quite beat enough yet...)

I hate to write "I agree with anonymous" but the nameless bloke is right. Paul should get MVP before James is even considered. (And what's with all these first names doubling as last names?) No offense to the scoring leader in the NBA, but Chris Paul is a basketball player, whereas LeBron James puts up points; he doesn't necessarily make his teammates better, he makes highlight reels.

On another note, your blog is the pick-and-roll to my writing. I can't wait to see if you pick me up in the off-season. (If only for the endorsement deals.)

Anonymous said...

I used to work as a model during my teens. While I got great bookings for fashion and had a decent portfolio for print, I didn't get a lot of repeat jobs for print work. My agent told me, "Sure, you take great pictures...but the customer expects ALL of the shots to be publishable, not just half of them."

That is the difference between a newbie and a pro.

I was a newbie...excited that some clicks were actually good enough ... when the expectation was that every shot should be.

Same advice from my music coach: An amature practices until she gets it right... a professional practices until she can't get it wrong.

Sure there are other thiings to know about fashion (be on time, it's about the product not the person, don't get a tatoo without talking to your agent) and about music... but the bottom line in any able to give 100%, 100% of the time.

Luc2 said...


I never insinuated that good prose isn't important, but when I have to make a choice, I'll go for the good story over the good prose. And writing "both" isn't making a choice.

What I'm getting at is that the tools can be taught, but if you can't tell a good story to begin with, it's useless. Just my opinion.

Merry Monteleone said...

I came a little late to this one, but I have to agree with Nathan - if you can write a good novel, you can also master a good query letter. They are different sets of writing skills, but as a novelist you should have a mastery of them all - think of the amount of time you took learning the craft of writing - if you really want to publish, you should spend at least some time learning the craft of query writing (it's basically business writing with an emphasis on marketing)

If anyone's interested in practicing, or dropping by to give links of good examples that have worked for you, I just put up a query / pitch critique post yesterday that's open to anyone who'd like to work on theirs, or just read along... feel free to stop in. You can find the post here

Mon Chéri said...

“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” ~ Mark Twain

That's all I have to say...

superwench83 said...

Liz Wolfe said...

It doesn't matter if you're good at writing query letters or not. It doesn't matter if they are easy to write or not. What matters is that you HAVE to write them.

Right (write?) on. Here's the thing. Why do we work so hard at polishing our novels? Because we know that we can't sell our novels unless we do. Likewise, we can't sell our novels unless we write good query letters. Sorry to sound like an evil hag, but suck it up. I know that writing queries is hard. I've done it. Writing a good novel is hard, too. But you've got to do both if you want to get published.

Oh, and on a completely unrelated note, this:

Poor Spellers of the World... Untie

is freaking hilarious!

Kai said...

I didn't read all 74 comments prior to responding myself, but here are my two cents (sorry if I'm repeating some things others may have already expressed. Likewise, my apologies if I’m disrupting the flow of conversation)

I treat my writings with an open mind founded on technicalities. At first I just write, but (and I hear it's "bad" to do this) I do check what I've been writing regularly, once or twice before moving on actually. Since I always meet my 3000-words-a-day quota, I can say that this does not stop me from progressing the way I want to.

Eyes for details. Subtle mistakes I might make or small things I could improve, I try to catch them, to catch them often and to catch them fast so they do not ruin my feelings for what I've written. I believe that my “writing with an open mind" while "checking thoroughly at all times" are not similar in nature. They are however two necessities I rub together.

This actually helps me when writing a query, because I switch from creative writing to doing actual business and being technically correct without any real effort on my side. I've read in one comment here that writing a query and writing a story require two different functions of the brain because the story is creative in nature and the query analytical. I think the trick you should be working towards is writing your query creatively. I also think the negative attitude from writers towards queries arises out of the notion that they are trying to sell their work and of course that attempt is the very first step of rejection. That it could also have wonderful consequences does not rule out the negative result one might obtain. For me, my writings are me on paper so it’s no surprise that rejection of my material could hurt. And it does hurt, just not enough to stop trying.

Anyway, a query will always be a query and should contain the necessary components but it's also an individual piece (or should be) and is therefore subject to the person who writes it.

tkersh said...

For years I strove to write complex artistic literature that could rank with Joyce and Proust. I took it as a point of honor that my work "crossed genres" and "could not be pitched in a few sentences".

Then I learned that "genre" is the aisle you go to in the bookstore and "pitch" is the blurb you read on the back cover to decide whether to buy the book. Since then I've spent many years cringing over my old pretentious self and wishing I could go back and give all of my literature teachers a nice boot to the head.

Nathan's absolutely right. Unless you're firmly in the literature camp (and heaven knows how you'd sell one of those these days), if you can't pitch your story in a few sentences, it probably isn't clean enough. Now I write my pitch first to make sure I have the story down. It's so much easier to refine a few sentences than 200-300 pages!

And yes, the metaphor goes even further. We get as much time as we want to make a handful of really good shots.

Arwen said...

@john - I was Anon at 7:53. Thanks very much. That's the sort of comment that will sustain me through a round of rejections.

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