Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Just When I Thought I Knew What I Was Doing

As a writer of queries, I thought that I had the process down. Intro the story, share the voice, and toss in the big hook. Then, you persevere through the arduous process of editing: looking up every grammar point in The Chicago Manual of Style, tightening each sentence so that the end of each leads inexorably into the beginning of the next, and agonizing over verbs (is this verb too weak, is this verb too pretentious, is this verb too...verby).

I knew it was a lot of work, but I knew how to do it. I knew that if I went through the process and worked hard, I’d have a good query at the end. But then, I tried to write a query for the platypus. (If you’re new to the blog, click here to find out more about the novel I call the platypus.) 

I started writing the platypus’s query. It didn’t go very well. The first version sounded boring. Yawn. Okay, I thought, I can deal with this. So I rewrote it. But the second version sounded like a thriller. The platypus is suspenseful, but it is not a thriller. I started from scratch. I floundered.

I floundered more. Then I realized that I was writing the wrong kind of query. I wasn’t thinking in terms of genre. In fact, when I was writing the novel, I didn’t think in terms of genre. I just wrote the story in the voice and style that it needed to be. I hadn’t even realized it was lit fict until I took the platypus to a writers’ conference, the conference leader encouraged me to get my literary fiction into the hands of an agent. I said, “Literary fiction?” He said, “Of course.”

Right, lit fict. I learned to write that in college. But I sort of turned my back on it after all the weird, self-indulgent short stories that I had to read. (Of course, since then I’ve read really good lit fict—books with deep resonance. For example, Leif Enger’s Peace Like a River .) 

So I set out to write a lit fict query, and I fell flat on my face. It wasn’t right, and I didn’t know what was wrong. Even after reading scads of successful lit fict queries on Query Tracker and Guide to Literary Agents. (BTW, they both have lots of successful queries in all genres. Check them out if you’re stymied.)  Finally, I wrote a query that was okay. Not great, but passable. One of my betas said that it was good, but not quite great. I sent it anyway. But in small numbers. That way I wasn’t committing myself to this query. And, of course, like most writing problems, the answer would come to me when I was doing something else. Several different nights just as I was falling asleep, phrases would come to me. I keep a pen and paper next to the bed to write down the thoughts. But the other night, I couldn’t find my flashlight (which I usually have near the bed for just such occasions) so I turned on the lights. Cal grunted. I said, “Just inspiration.” He rolled over—he’s used to this sort of thing. And I made a note to buy another flashlight.

I don’t want to bore you with all the details. But I finished the query on Monday and sent out queries. Yesterday, I got a full request from a very good agent. J Here’s hoping that more requests follow. 


  1. Yeah. "Just Inspiration." Heh heh.

    But all the same, the stories and books they make you read in college are dead boring, or at least the ones I've had to read so far.

  2. What a great story! I'm in the process of revising my query that got a few requests, but mostly rejections. The body of it I feel much better about, but I can't for the life of me come up with a hook sentence that doesn't completely misrepresent the kind of story it is. I like the "let it cook" idea. As you say, that's how most of my writing dilemmas were eventually solved.
    Good luck with the new query! Hope you get some good news soon!

  3. Fantastic!!! I know you're trying to sound matter-of-fact about it, but by golly, this is exciting news! No matter what comes from this agent, take pride in knowing that you've taken another step toward your goal. (You must've come up with a great query!) Good luck.

  4. Breaks and distractions are so important when you're stuck. My bright ideas usually show up when I'm in the shower. Need to invest in some sort of waterproof writing device or something. Haha.

    But congrats for finally getting that query just right and CONGRATS! on the full request! I'll keep my fingers crossed. :)

  5. Oh, hooray for your full!
    Your query writing hell sounds exactly like mine. I finally jumped back into the querying pool. So nerve wracking!

  6. Yay! I think that's great! Keep on keeping on!!!

  7. Yeah, Connie! That's exciting!! Perhaps this will be the summer vacation we pop the bottle of Champagne;)