Querying: Sharks, Limericks & Quirks of the Game

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I have never spent so much time on 250 words in my entire life.

Nope, not for college applications (for undergrad or grad school). Not for scholarship essays. Not for cover letters for past or current jobs. I have no idea the total hours I have now dedicated to adjusting and readjusting my query letter, but it’s taken up cumulative weeks and soon possibly months of my life.

Hubby suggested I should just send agents a limerick about my novel because that would be way easier:

There once was a girl named Wendy
With a blog that was oh-so-trendy.
Her friend Peter (Pan)
Said, “I bet that we can
Never grow up ’til the ending!”

He gets massive applause for that stunning poem, but it’s not quite going to cut the mustard, or whatever that expression is, or some better expression that means what I want it to mean.

My poor brain is so absolutely shot that I don’t know that I can come up with a single coherent sentence right now, let alone any clever ones. Because clever sentences are what I’ve been aiming at and I have exhausted all propensity for them and still don’t have a decent query letter.

Okay, actually I have fifty query letters at varying degrees of decent. Possibly half a dozen in the okay-enough-that-I-could-actually-send-this-to-someone category.

But I have none that fit the holy-cow-this-makes-me-want-to-read-my-own-book-right-now description.

Still working on it.

I’m only letting myself out of query-letter hell long enough to write a rebelliously wordy post that lets everyone know I’m still alive, still writing, still pursuing publication, and still cursing at every version of my query.

The limerick is looking better and better.

If anyone else is in the same [crappy] boat (trying to limit my cursing to when I’m alone with my computer, since it doesn’t get offended), I figured I could offer up the few tips that have (somewhat) saved my sanity through this process. Take them or leave them as you like, but these are the saving graces I’ve gone back to again and again.

1. Read Query Shark.

It’s a blog that rips actual query letters to shreds and then gives the (anonymous) author a chance to revise until the shark approves. Read and read and read those examples until you feel like you could recite the basic rhythm of a query letter in your sleep. This is important. Query letters have a flow to them. They follow a pattern. Theoretically you master the pattern, plug in the specifics of your novel, and voila!

While this is in no way, shape or form an indication of how much time and effort it will take to achieve said “voila,” reading real live awful and awesome queries is the only way to get there eventually.

2. Hone in on the core essence of your book.

Every time I realize the current query isn’t working, I ask myself again what it is about my novel that excites me. What’s made me stick with it for three-and-a-half years? I don’t mean the intangibles like the themes and meanings (necessarily, unless I can show them in a tangible way); I mean the characters and the story. I try to find an intriguing way to introduce my characters that gets right to the action of the story. It requires trimming out half the things I think are interesting about the book and focusing on only what’s essential.

3. Find critical readers.

This does not mean your mother if your mother will only tell you how brilliantly creative you are. This means braving feedback from the kind of people who would interrupt a conversation to let you know you mispronounced “often” (“By the way, the T is silent. Like in soften.”).

This is the least pleasant but most crucial step. Every time I start to think I’m on to something, I polish that version and then show it to my husband, my sister, my writer friend who is also querying right now, or my author friend who has published over a dozen books. They are my personal sharks, and they veto my less-than-stellar attempts.

Normally as humans our inclination is to shy away from pain. For this to work, you have to train yourself to seek pain. You have to convince yourself that pain is good because it’s going to get you closer to an amazing query letter. (Incidentally, it works the same way with the novel itself and with childbirth.)

4. Save every single version.

I used to think it was a given that revising makes writing better. But there are so many times when I show my husband my latest query and he grimaces and says, “No way. Your last one was much better.”

Also, when I’m trying to hone in on that core essence one trick is to comb through past versions and select the best nuggets of each. Half of my new drafts are created by rearranging old ones. Last night in a taste-test scenario, the query Hubby liked best is a blurb I wrote two years ago before the book was even finished! So today I’m taking that and trying to dovetail it with crucial aspects from more recent ones.

That’s all I’ve got for now. There’s an important step missing, I’m sure of it, because 3 steps or 5 steps would make a nicer set of instructions and there has to be a fifth thing I haven’t discovered yet since I haven’t perfected my query yet. When I stumble upon it, I’ll let you know.

In the mean time, I’d love to know what other people’s tips are. What’s the secret to slaying this shark?

Leave a comment!

p.s. In more successful news, I cut 15,000 words from my novel! It’s now down to a less-grizzly 102,000 words. It took a month to do it, but slashing the wordiness made a huge difference. So sorry that I’m too cranky to do the same for this post. 😉

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