Mark Terry

Friday, October 26, 2007

Writing The Most Excellent Query Letter

October 26, 2007

Over at the BookEnds LLC literary agency blog, one of the agents, I think Jessica Faust, in what I can only assume is an overwhelming attack of masochism, asked people to write the meat of their plot synopsis pitch and she would analyze them in upcoming blogs.

(Disclaimer: I am not represented by BookEnds. I am represented by Irene Kraas of the Kraas Literary Agency and, at present, have no plans to change agents. Yet, I did put a pitch up there, mostly out of curiosity).

When I checked this morning, there were 101 pitches in the comments section. I've read almost all of them. Check that: I've TRIED to read almost all of them.

Because honest to God, I can rarely get past the first sentence.

Am I saying mine is oh so wonderful? No. Here's mine, for what it's worth:


CIA operative Monaco Grace flies to Beijing to investigate the disappearance of undercover agent Peter Lee. Soon after making contact with Lee’s American friend, college professor Alan Richter, they find themselves on the run from assassins intent on retrieving information Lee gave to Richter. Trying to keep herself and Richter alive, Monaco makes a devil’s deal with a Chinese crime organization while attempting to untangle a web of lies and deceit that reaches back to the heights of U.S. government and threatens to topple the balance of world power.

First, I'd like to point out one or two things before I go on. I took Jessica's challenge somewhat literally. Early on in her challenge she suggested you write your query in 3 sentences. I think mine would benefit from one or two more. I'd like to get a little more specific about the devil's deal mentioned in the final sentence. I'd like to either expand the first sentence, which I think is a little bit abrupt, to give a little stronger sense of who Monaco Grace actually is. BUT...

I did this on purpose because unlike what I'm sure the majority of the bloggers were doing, ie., trying to get an agent's attention, I was primarily challenging myself to see if I could do it and how well I could do it.

By the way. From time to time I think it might be cool to be a literary agent. Then I read 101 query pitches or even the occasional unpublished and often unpublishable novel manuscript and decide that masochism (I've begun to think the term "glutton for punishment" might have been invented for editors or agents) and extreme patience may very well be the primary attributes for success in the field. I may very well have the masochism gene (I'm a fucking novelist, after all!) and I'm pretty patient, but I'm not at all sure I could slog through this crap day after day looking for the occasional gem.

So, I think I learned something from reading all those queries. And here, in my admittedly biased and not-really-knowledgable-point-of-view, are some tips:

1. Keep it short. You've got to catch the reader's attention in one big damn hurry. Read through these queries and ask yourself: Which ones make me want to read to the end of the query, let alone ask to read the book? (My opinion? Not very damned many.)

2. Don't slap it together like a first draft. Honest to God, people! Is this important to you? I wrote my query in about 10 minutes, but I didn't type it into the comments slot on the blog. I typed it into a Word doc and fussed around with it. I rewrote the thing 4 or 5 times, trying to get as much information into as little space as possible, trying to give a sense of conflict, at least a minimal idea of who the two primary characters are, and what the overall arc of the story was. If it had been an actual query letter I probably would have approached things a bit differently, starting something like: "I have a completed thriller novel titled CHINA FIRE that runs approximately 110,000 words." It was clear to me that an awful lot of people slapped their damn thing together and left it at that. But if it's that obvious, don't you think the agent or editor will think your manuscript is, too?

3. Be specific. A query that reads something like: "My character is a single Mom whose daughter is learning disabled and gets cancer," just isn't going to turn my propeller. I'm sorry. It's too general. You need to say, "Melissa Smith, single mother of Johanna Smith, who has Fragile X syndrome, is just trying to make ends meet by working nights as a waitress and days as a librarian, when Johanna is diagnosed with childhood leukemia."

4. Where's the conflict? It's hard to show conflict in 3 sentences, but you MUST realize that story, even if it's a romantic comedy, is about CONFLICT. With the #3 example, you see right away what the conflict is. Even before it continues with, "When a man she doesn't know who eats regularly at Joe's Diner where Melissa works starts paying for Johanna's medical bills, Melissa must choose between her dignity, her fear for what strings might be attached, and her daughter's life." (Yes, that's longer and less streamlined than I want it to be. I'd rewrite it. Several times).

5. Stay away from the high-concept pitch. This might just be me. There are a couple high concept pitches on this blog and although I think they work okay for films, I'm skeptical about what they do for you for agents and editors. At least as a first line. You might use it as a closer. For instance, my next Derek Stillwater novel, ANGELS FALLING (scheduled for May 2008) I have called "Die Hard Meets The G8 Summit." I might sell it that way to movie people either at the beginning or ending of the pitch, but probably not at the beginning. Now, our story with Melissa, let's say the third sentence to this story is: And when Melissa begins to wonder if her mysterious benefactor is the serial killer known as DRAMA, she finds herself in a no-win situation, forced to use every bit of her wiles to escape. (Actually, this isn't where I was going with that story, but I wanted to make a point.). The high concept might then be: "'As Good As It Gets' Meets 'Silence Of The Lambs.'"

I'm sure if I keep going I'd come up with more, but these 5 points would help most of these query letters.

Mark Terry


Blogger BookEnds, LLC said...


Thanks for the promotion and terrific advice. I think you absolutely nailed what a writer should do. Now I have to go back and tell 100 or so people that.

Wish me luck!


9:37 AM  
Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

I'm sorely tempted to bat out something for a non-existent book, just to try my hand at the proper format. Just to try the theory.

You have to like the idea of an agent named Faust making your deals.

9:48 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Yeah, there is something about a name like Faust as an agent, isn't there?

Good luck, Jessica. Better you than me.

10:15 AM  
Blogger Joe Moore said...

I dropped by there yesterday when there were only 50 or so posts. I got to the point that I only read the first 2-3 words before I scrolled to the next one. You could not pay me enough to be an agent.

Regarding short pitches, I call it the TV Guide test. Every week, thousands of complex motion picture plots are summarized in one or two sentences in TV Guide. I believe any writer should be able to summarize their book in the same amount of words. If they can't, then maybe they don't know what their own books is about.

12:50 PM  
Blogger spyscribbler said...

The biggest problem I see with pitch-paragraphs like that is they include so much information that you have to re-read it several times and split it into smaller bits before you can make sense of it.

Why always the long, complex, confusing sentences?

7:21 PM  
Blogger spyscribbler said...

(Your pitch kicks ass, by the way. I think you have a knack for female leads, but that's just me, LOL.)

7:31 PM  
Blogger Bernita said...

"the majority of the bloggers were doing, ie., trying to get an agent's attention"
Very likely.
Not me, however.
When I want attention, I'll query direct.
But who can turn down the opportunity for feedback and therefore improvement?

5:59 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

SS--thanks on both compliments.

I was just at the BOokEnds site curious to see how many more had been posted. It's up to about 117 now. And you're right, one of the biggest problems I see is they're trying to get so much information in that they get long, convoluted sentences.

When you're writing a brief, brief synopsis, it really comes down to choice. You're boiling things down to its essence. You need to be specific enough that the reader doesn't feel like the idea's too general, but general enough that they can get a sense of the total arc.

It's not easy. I'd be one of the first people to say that. That's why I still feel like my most important advice here is #2--rewrite the damned thing. Work on it until it does what it's supposed to do!

(I would point out, though, that there are 3 or 4 pitches there that, if I were the agent, I would ask to read at least a partial. A couple of them are pretty good).

7:29 AM  
Blogger PJ Parrish said...

I must be feeling masochistic today, Mark, because I went over to Jessica's site to take a look.

I skimmed maybe thirty of the pitches before my eyes glazed over. There is just so little that is fresh in them. (And believe me, I know how hard it is to write a great pitch or query. I am terrible at it.)

But sometimes, it's not the quality of the pitch that dooms a project. It's the project itself. If the idea behind the book is stale, no amount of perfect pitching is going to help it.

This makes me think of the advice I heard from an agent (might have been Miss Snark) that for a query to succeed, ie result in an agent taking on the writer as a client, it must pass the three-question test:

1. Is the story unique?
2. It is well-written?
3. Is it written in a compelling voice?

The agent said that if even one of those questions gets a "no" the manuscript is rejected.

No. 2 speaks to having your craft down. And no. 3 is a bit ephemeral. But no. 1? Man, with all the competition there is out there today, if your story is just the same-old same-old, you haven't got a chance.

Originality might be the single most underrated requirement for success these days.

9:32 AM  
Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

I think P.J.Parrish has it exactly right. I'd say bad technique can ruin a good idea but good technique can't turn a bad idea into a good one.

Re what Bernita said...yeah, I'd think people who really wanted to sell something would query direct. I sort of took this as a chance to test query technique. I mean -- Mark -- you weren't actually trying to bag a new agent. Do you suppose most of these are for real though?

8:45 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I think coming up with a unique story is tough, at least in three sentences. Actually, tough isn't the word--"impossible" might be the word. I've often taken the notion that the execution is what's unique, rarely the idea.

Eric, although I accept the notion that if you want to get the attention of an agent, it's better to e-mail the query directly to her, I still suspect a majority of those posting are doing so in hopes of catching Jessica's attention. I think that's human nature. Hey, here's a way of making an end-run around their usual vetting process.

I've found it to be an education in a lot of ways. I agree with PJ--I was startled by just how hackneyed so many of the ideas seem. And hell, it's not like the idea for my own is so blazingly original. If anything, what makes it original is the operator is a woman and almost the entire book takes place in Beijing. But some of these practically make me yawn just reading a couple sentences.

Maybe we all need someone to bounce ideas off who says, "Boring. Try again. Heard that one last week. Try again. 'Mission Impossible II." Try again. Every night on Oxygen and WE. Try again."

8:15 AM  
Blogger Aimless Writer said...

I hate query letters. Its like taking the final exam at the end of a semester. I look at things and can't imagine how to clean and shorten them to get to the conflict. Then when I see you (or Bookends) do it its like a lightbulb goes on...oh yeah, I get it....
Thanks Mark! Maybe some day I'll master this talent!

2:56 AM  
Blogger Josephine Damian said...

I like the idea of getting feedback from these blogging agents, none of whom represent what I write.

The goal is to refine my pitch/query etc. on these blogs so I can later (hopefully) impress the agent of my choice in a letter.

It's good to see "PJ Parrish" back on the blogosphere.

6:04 AM  
Anonymous poor mouse said...

Jessica Faust doesn't handle my genre, but I entered anyway in the hopes of improving my pitch for agents who do accept my genre. I expect that most people who entered had a similar motivation. I certainly had no idea that she would request the queries for the pitches she liked.

I'm guessing it's been a bit since you've cruised the wannabe writer websites. I've seen many of those pitches before on other websites as the authors obsessively re-write their hooks to make them as perfect as possible. I seriously doubt anyone put a "first draft" version up. I'd guess that the problems you noted were caused by people trying to cut their 10 or more sentence query letters down to a three sentence hook for the contest. That technique often leaves the hook sounding disjointed.

I begin to think that we should be required to put our query letters aside for a month before sending it out so that we can get some distance from the material, but I doubt anyone is willing to wait that long between re-writes.

1:23 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

"I seriously doubt anyone put a "first draft" version up."

I hope you're wrong, because a lot of them read like first drafts. If you're correct, it suggests a lack of writing skill, which wouldn't necessarily surprise me. It's something you can fix by practice, practice, practice. Although, I'm told some people just have no talent. I don't know if that's true or not. There may be a lack of demonstrated talent that may merely be lack of practice. And they quit before they develop skill.

I still hold that it's good advice. Rewrite the query.

1:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Mark,
I slid over here because Jessica Faust suggested it. Might I say, excellent information on pitches. Something we writers need to hear because too many novel writers find brevity to be a study in back breakers. The point about 'high concept' made me stop and veg off into deep thought because all too ofter this is exactly what so many, me included, think is what the pitch is all about. NOT! And is for the exact reasons you stated. Thanks a heap!
Don't think Jessica will critique mine, but I know have a better understanding for those pitch sessions at cons. Patg

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is really great advice. I have rewritten my query at least fifty times and although I love my manuscript, I can't find the right words to adequately say what needs to be said.

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