Friday, January 09, 2009

Writing That Dang Query

STATUS: I have to say that it’s 7 pm on a Friday night and I’m rather ready to go home.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? MAN IN A SUITCASE by The Police

I have to say that Courtney Milan and her query sparked quite a debate, which took place over at Nathan’s blog. I think battle lines were drawn.

So it seemed like a good idea to highlight a few more thoughts on the query letter and who should be writing it.

Do I think that you should write your own query letter? Yes. Quite simply, I think the writer of the novel should be the writer for the query because hands down, that’s the best person for the job. Voice and all that (which was discussed at length over in the comments section of the debate so no need to add more comment here).

But whether I think this or not is moot because I’m not going to know whether you wrote your own query or not and I’m probably not ever going to ask (unless it suspiciously reads like something that Sherry Thomas would write….)

I do think both Sherry and Courtney brought up some good points. First off, Sherry took a stab at writing it to show Courtney the rhythm of it and what to include for plot points or conflict. And then she quite firmly said that Courtney should use her attempt as a guide only. That really it was better for the pitch to be in Courtney’s voice.

Courtney also chimed in to say that the experience of struggling with the pitch in her query letter was well worth it because it gave her a lot of insight into the manuscript and what may or may not need to be revised in the opening.

I actually heartily agree with is. You know why? Because I’ve given my query pitch workshop at numerous conferences and as you all know, I beat that already dead horse to death again by nattering on about the plot catalyst that starts your novel and how that should be the centerpiece of your pitch.

And you know what I’ve discovered? When workshop participants are forced to figure out what that catalyst is and take a stab at their pitch blurb in the workshop itself, some epiphanies have happened.

For example, in the last workshop I gave (which was at Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers I think), one participant realized (to his dismay) that his plot catalyst was near page 100. Now I don’t know for sure (because I didn’t read his chapters right then and there) but my guess is that he had a lot of backstory that was filling up the opening chapters. Story that a writer needs in his head but probably doesn’t need to be there on the page.

See what I mean? So there is real value in the struggle to write the pitch.

But then here’s an interesting take on this. I know some agents who have their authors write the pitch blurb that the agent will then use in the letter to the editor.

I’ve never done that. I have always written my own pitch blurbs. Now, I certainly do ask for the author to take first stab at it because I want to see what the author perceives as the crux of the story.

If this is a debut author, then the pitch blurb has already been done in the query and I often lift elements from what the author wrote originally when crafting my own letter. You can see this in the Courtney Milan example as I lifted “wardrobe malfunction” straight from the query. That totally made me laugh and I thought an editor would find it funny as well—to have this super contemporary phrasing in a letter about a historical romance novel.

However, if you take a look at Jamie Ford’s original query letter and then my pitch letter to editors [see links in sidebar], wow, quite different.

And yet, in the debate, the emphasis on the author’s voice was really highlighted as being of the utmost of importance as to why the writer should write it him/herself.


Copyeditors at the publishing houses often write their own cover copy for the work—taking nothing from the agent’s pitch letter and they certainly haven’t seen the author’s original query.

Now I have had copyeditors lift direct lines from the copy I’ve written (which really flatters me! I give good copy!) and put it into the back cover or flap copy. Most of the times, not. What they created is wholly new.

No real point here. Just food for thought.

No matter what, I do think you should begin by writing your own pitch blurb as you will learn about your own novel in the process of doing so. Where it goes from there is ultimately up to you but whatever you do, just don’t make it generic.