I am back! A round of digital applause for the intrepid guest bloggers last week for keeping us all entertained, informed, and uplifted. A fine job all around.
While I was away I was chatting with a friend who reads grants for a living, a job that bears some striking resemblance to query letter answering. And if you happen to be thinking about writing a grant at this very moment, I have a piece of advice for you: don’t quote Gandhi.
Apparently everyone who applies for a grant quotes Gandhi! And while Gandhi is no doubt eminently quotable and no one will argue with his very uplifting and memorable sayings, reading Gandhi quote after Gandhi quote will steadily drive even the nicest grant reader insane.
Her experience struck a chord with me having judged two contests and having answered a deluge of queries, and it gets at something really basic. If you want to stand out, think for a second about what you think everyone would do: the joke everyone would make in a query, the approach everyone would take in a writing prompt, the pacifist leader that everyone might quote in a grant. Then do something different.
I know this isn’t the most earth-shattering advice in the world (it may not even be porcelain shattering), but just stepping back and thinking about what you’re about to write from a “what would everyone do” standpoint can save you from doing that very same thing. And trust me: when writing a query or entering a contest or writing a grant it pays to stand out from the crowd.
Elizabeth Poole says
As usual, Nathan, you’re reading my mind. Quick, I am thinking of a number between one and ten….seven! Correct! How do you always know?
I am currently working on my query letter. I have found trying to cram an entire novel into one paragraph akin to writing haiku. With my toes. On a stamp. Using the papyrus font.
Anyway, I think you get my point…it’s difficult. But the solution, in my opinion, is no different than any other writer’s problem: practice, precision, and loads of caffeine. I am editing the book I am writing the query letter for (I figured if I started the query letter sooner rather than later I would actually have something decent instead of a letter jotted off immediately following the completion of my editing), and it’s the same process. Write out what you are trying to say. Now edit that back to plain English. Let it rest for a bit. Now edit some more. Lather rinse repeat, until you are about to go insane. Now start over.
Yet, the space limit of the query letter has forced me to find stronger words and tighter punctuation, just like when I am editing with a bloody pen. Therefore, the space limit has forced me to write better. Try to think of the space limit as setting you free, inside of chaining you to just one measly paragraph (at least, that’s what I am currently trying to convince myself, with the query letter on it’s tenth draft and it STILL reads like gibberish).
Quality writing with a clear conflict and relatable characters is going to catch the agent’s eye quicker than a quote, or something creative you do with the font, or format. At the end of the day, it’s about the writing, not the window dressing.
That's good advice.
I think it's the kind of thing you hear from everyone who has to read similar things for hours on end. By the end of hour five, the person who can still elicit a reaction (laughter, excitement, interest, etc.) gets a lot more attention. The person doing the same old thing gets an eye roll.
Donna Hole says
Originality in a query is hard to come by these days. Mine was unique – until I started visiting blogs. Agent blogs mostly.
Well, can't help but keep at it, cause my story is amazingly awesome.
Other Lisa –
I am so glad I'm not the only one who pictures that Buffy scene whenever I hear the name 'Gandhi'!
sex scenes at starbucks says
Throw out your first ten ideas. That's what I do, if I ever get an 11th.
Be careful. You might actually end up encouraging the wrong people. That is, unless you enjoy getting queries on flowered paper or letters coated in glitter or a bag of cookies (..ok, so getting cookies is kind of cool, but still).
But I do know what you mean. 🙂
Marsha Sigman says
"No, improvising is wonderful. But, the thing is that you cannot improvise unless you know exactly what you're doing."
Which I think sums up this topic very nicely.
Other Lisa – lol. I still miss Buffy!
But first, the important thing, Nathan's back! Yea! Welcome back, Nathan. The guest bloggers were great, but it always feels like something important is missing when you're gone.
Can't think why. 🙂
So, this is an interesting post.
In terms of the query – the problem is that if you write a business letter, it will be boring. Business letters are boring by definition. On the other hand, if you don't, it's very risky.
So may I just take a moment to once again say how much I dislike the whole query system? Boy, do I dislike it. But anyway, I think the key to the query is voice. Not the parts about why the author is querying the agent, or qualifications, etc, but the part about the story. That should jump off the page. I think the way to do that is to tell the story from the narrators voice even in the query. With a few adjustments for continuity with the rest of the query.
But I imagine that's just as hard to do as it sounds.
Fortunately I do think the best way to stand out, period, is to write a fantastic book.
In contests…yes. I did that in the last contest. I didn't mean to, it just sort of happened. I was thinking of what to write about, and found an old essay in a teen's voice I could work up that was heartbreaking (at least to me). Then, I looked through the contest entries and thought, uh huh, no way. I need to write something light-hearted.
So, I hope people don't think I cheated, I certainly wasn't trying to. I always take as much time as Nathan gives to think about, write and edit my entry. And I read the entries more of interest than some type of scheming. But in this case – well, the angst on that thread could have powered a nuclear reactor, and it seemed smart to write something lighter.
Really interesting topic. I actually have alot more to say, but this post is pretty long already. So, I'll stop here.
Oh, I hope it didn't sound like I was disparaging the other teen entries, even the angst-ridden ones. I'm so not. If there was one thing I noticed, it was the terrific writing in that contest.
I'm just saying that I thought a lighter entry would stand out, that's all.
Other Lisa says
Thanks for the Buffy love, y'all…that scene still cracks me up!
Makes you wonder how Gandhi got where he did without all those killer Gandhi quotes to help him.
If you want to stand out, think for a second about what you think everyone would do: the joke everyone would make in a query, the approach everyone would take in a writing prompt, the pacifist leader that everyone might quote in a grant. Then do something different.
Probably important advice for writing your book, as well. 🙂
So may I just take a moment to once again say how much I dislike the whole query system? Boy, do I dislike it. But anyway, I think the key to the query is voice.
Mira, I (kindly) think that the key to a really good query is having a really good book behind it. 🙂
This is what I always tell my creative writing students–first thought is not usually best thought. It's all about invention. Simple, to the point, great post.
Abby Stevens says
Lol @ Sheila for the Mork reference. Sometimes the most obvious pieces of advice are the most necessary ones, and I think this falls in that category. I think this is where a little research comes in handy as well. If you are up-to-date on your subject, you may at least learn some of the common pitfalls and overused bits.
Christine H says
This is very easy for me. I don't pay any attention to what everyone else is doing, so I can't possibly imitate them.
Ashley A. says
I'm echoing others here, but could part of the problem be all that "thinking about what everyone else would do?"
I'm a big believer in the idea that we'll all be better off if we choose to act from a point of desire (I want to use a Gandhi quote in my grant proposal) instead of intellectualization (I think the grant reader will be impressed by my decision to quote Gandhi) or obligation (Here's where I'm supposed to quote some famous do-gooder.)
I'd like to point back to Suzannah's word nerd/grammar rebel guest post: If I follow the agreed-upon, ironclad rules set forth [by an agent,] and I act from an honest and informed place, then I can feel free to express myself within those bounds.
I would drive myself crazy if I felt like I couldn't send out a query unless I had first read the minds of, well, everyone. But I don't have an agent yet, either.
I'm seeing some pushback in the comments about how hard it is to be "different" without sparking the ire and mockery of agents…
Come on. Is it really THAT hard to be professional and creative at the same time?
Even among those agents who give a list of rules you must follow or suffer automatic rejection… the rules are pretty commonsense and straightfoward. They're not out to trick you. They just want you to do basic research and understand that it's a profession.
Since I started writing novels, I have learned so much more about novels. Now I even read differently.
The same-ol-same-ol stands out like a broken record in some genres, can be all too formalistic. And so I am beginning to see how one type of novel may work in one treatment and not in another (similar but missing that something, sometimes way missing it). Of course, I also see the formulas sell pretty consistently. Maybe, there's the rub.
But when the magic is what gets me, even in a genre retelling of a tale, then I get the wow affect.
And original and beautiful writing is such a treat. I am probably also a bigger fan of quirky than the publishing industry (that seems to go more for quirky-with-a-big-name or a-big-award behind it rather than unknown quirky).
But for my tastes, when I have been in NYC and go off-off Broadway, in these little twenty seat theatres, although sometimes what I find is just plain odd, I often feel like I have just entered a special, special world where all sorts of magic can occur.
Carolyn V. says
I love that thought. As I have read other writers work, I am always shocked at how um….alike they are. It makes the reading boring for me. But when someone has a new idea- I keep reading. I think that is something to keep in mind when writing.
Moira Young says
It's funny you should mention that. I analyzed my own submissions after the fact (always after; silly me) and came up with the same conclusion.
e.g. I realized my guest blog entry was a nice piece of personal writing, but wasn't very useful as a blog entry. And while my Teen Diary entry was a great way to start a novel (I hope), it didn't stand well on its own.
Self-analysis is vital for growth. I'm so good at figuring out where I went wrong after the fact. Aside from "stop and think", which has the potential to induce the Am-I-Crazies, do you have any advice to help a person learn how to get it right the first time?
Kelly Bryson says
This is why I LOVED your first paragraph contest, Nathan. And critique groups. And spending five hours in a bookstore, just reading the blurbs and first page. "No, really, honey, I was doing market research. I promise."
There's just no way to know what's original without surveying.
I'd love a list of jokes that are overdone! (Monkeys are still good, right?)
This is an original comment. 😛
Marilyn Peake says
"Come on. Is it really THAT hard to be professional and creative at the same time?"
Of course not. That’s actually quite easy. But there’s no way that writers who spend years writing a book can possibly know how many people will mention a similar theme in their query letters. There's something about zeitgeist – similar ideas often hit lots of people living in the same culture at about the same time. Unfortunately, with so many people writing books these days, agents’ eyes have got to be glazing over having to read so many query letters. Did you know that Stephenie Meyer received rejections from agents for TWILIGHT, including one insulting and angry rejection letter, but an assistant at one agency who didn’t know that TWILIGHT broke too many rules pulled it out of the slush pile and passed it on to those higher up in the agency? Stephenie Meyer talks about it here, under "Getting Published". I’ve worked in jobs where people work very long hours on similar themes, and eyes do glaze over after a while.
The Pollinatrix says
"Everybody has to be a little lucky, I think."
"Words are little bombs, and they have a lot of energy inside them."
Heidi Thornock says
So I'm confused, can I still use Gandhi for my query letter?
If you did not get a chance to read it, here is an actual query letter posted by Janet Reid, an agent, that is original, and totally caught her eye:
Absolutely fabulous example.
Heidi Thornock says
Didn't work the first time, so let's try again.
Janet Reid's "Best Opening Lines in a Query Letter" Post
I had a lit professor who posted a quote on the board the first day. It was something to the effect of: "You have a paper to write. Your professor is going to read 99 essays describing Moby Dick as a whale. You tell her that Moby Dick is really symbolic of the People's Republic of Ireland and you will get an A." 🙂
Josin L. McQuein says
Sounds like a piece of advice my high school lit teacher gave:
If you're given 3 prompts:
The best day of my life.
The worst day of my life.
My favorite bug.
Go with the bug.
By the end of the day, the person reading will be so sick of birthday happiness and car accident horror that even the driest dissertation on the streaks of a beetle's shell will stand out and make them do a dance.
Eerily appropriate ver. word: "wobetto" — wobetto any query newbie who thinks they're the first one to use a cliche.