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.
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. says
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 says
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!”
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.
“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.”
@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 says
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.
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.
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.
Babies and girlfriends? 😉
(PS) No excuses for Tom Brady either.
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 says
@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 says
(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.)
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 industry…be able to give 100%, 100% of the time.
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 says
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 says
“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…
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!
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.
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.
@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.