Friday, April 27, 2012

Query Letters, Parrots, and the Wisdom of Chipmunks

In a comment on this blog I was recently asked about query letters. I was also asked about killing characters, but I will get to that one a little later.

Query letters are the initial contact communications writers make when trying to sell their work. They’re the first step into a scary world. If you can imagine a giant crevasse dividing the landscape. All writers begin on one side living in a happy-go-lucky meadow of penguins, bunnies, battlestars, and butterflies, spending countless lazy hours stargazing and wishing on rainbows and magic fish. These are the hobbyists, those who write for fun. Rumors of war blow across the crevasse and tell of a place where dreams can be real, but…like any jinni or monkey-paw tale, there is always a price.

The crevasse is huge and runs past the horizon. Legends tell of bridges, only few know where they are. Legends also tell that some of the bridges are unsafe and if you try and cross them, you’ll fall into the depths never to be heard again. So what’s a penguin loving, butterfly-catching rainbow dreamer to do? Some look for a way to cross for a time and give up returning to the lush meadow content with the world around them. Others make a decision to cross the crevasse. These intrepid souls stuff a backpack full of mac-n-cheese, a solid audio playlist, and a pair of classic retro sunglasses, and set out to make their dreams come true.

Walking aimlessly gets old fast, so directions are sought. Anyone who knows anything about the bridges are listened to like oracles.

“There is only one bridge that is safe to cross. It is the oldest, and made of stone by the gods. Only there are six beasts guarding it, and they will slay anyone trying to reach the far kingdom. Still that’s your best bet. Oh, that’s my latte they’re calling, ciao, gotta go…love ya, babe.”

“Ha! Only a fool goes to the Stone Bridge! They eat meadowlanders. No, you must gain permission. You must first send a representative, a parrot—parrots can fly, and they can talk so they can bring your message across the crevasse to the six and not fall to their death. And also if they’re eaten it doesn’t hurt so much, right?” Wink, wink.

“How do you find a parrot to cross the bridge? You must stand in the Forest of Screams and shout very loud until one notices you from among the 14.3 billion other screamers. What do you scream? Hmm. I think you just scream.”

“No, no! You have to scream exactly the right words. They’re magic words. Only the special magic words will summon a parrot. What are the special magic words? Well…um…”

This is where the journey ends for most battlestar-flying stargazers. They go to the Forest of Screams and scream everything and anything they can think of. They gather together at campfires after dark, the only time it is ever quiet enough to talk, and discuss what they think works and what doesn’t.

“I saw a parrot once. I was screaming about plum pie and pudding tarts and one appeared, but it just flew by.”

“What’s a pudding tart?”

“I don’t know. I was just screaming stuff.”

“Maybe that’s what you did wrong.”

“Or maybe that’s what I did right!”

After losing voices to the trees, and getting no more than cursory glances from a sparrow, or a duck, most give up and drag themselves back to the meadow in defeat, drowning their angst in a plastic, gallon-size, container of Safeway mint-chocolate chip ice cream—because Ben and Jerry’s little pints won’t cut it this time.

Those that remain, lie passed out on the needle carpet of the forest floor and have strange dreams where a chipmunk scrambles up on their chest and suggests, “Try not screaming. Would you like to be screamed at?”

With the dawn a new idea occurs. Why scream? The chipmunk is right, (as chipmunks usually are) no one likes to be screamed at. A second idea occurs. What do parrots like? A quick trip to the Safeway, which isn’t as quick as it might be because of the long line of people buying gallon containers of ice cream, and the hopeful is back in the forest with a bag of possibilities. 

First up is a can of peas. Nothing. What were you thinking with peas?

Second is a Brussels sprout. Nothing. But a parrot did fly by.

Third the parrot-seeking  dreamer holds forth a slice of a ripe plum. And there you have it…a parrot lands, gobbles the slice, then tilt’s its head and says, “Provide me with the rest of the fruit and a SASE, and I’ll get back to you within sixty days. I prefer to eat on an exclusive basis. My time is valuable, and I make a 15% commission which I’ll receive when I sell a plum like this.”

Clearly this is all fine and good for meadowlanders seeking magic parrots, but what of aspiring writers? What magic words will catch the attention of a literary agent. Surely not a plum.

That’s the first thing of course. If you’re trying to get traditionally published you’ll need to get an agent to cross the crevasse for you. Otherwise you’ll need to look for one of the other two ways across. You could try the Rickety Rope Bridge of Independents that doesn’t require either parrots or agents. Or you can get climbing gear and scale the freaking cliffs on your own, no bridge required, just blood, sweat and tears. 

So when “Ender” asked: “I was wondering if you would be willing to share your "single compelling paragraph" that you used for Riyria when you were sending query letters to publishers?” I was puzzled at first. It had been years since I thought of such things and when creating queries I sent them to agents, not publishers. Second, the one that found me my first agent was horrible, and I racked up more than 200 rejections before it finally caught the eye of my parrot. Alas, whatever plum she offered on the other side of the crevasse was not well received, as it didn’t result in any sales, so I wonder if it would be of any use. The letter that managed to get me published by AMI, a tiny Indy Publisher in Minnesota, has been lost. Stupid me for not realizing that the Smithsonian would be asking one day.

My present agent was obtained through channels rather than through letters, and a horse of a different color (more like tartan plaid) as I was looking for a foreign agent to handle sales I already had. It was she who then submitted on my behalf to Orbit, and I have no idea what the “packet” she sent looked like.

Right now Ender is dissatisfied with my answer I am sure, but allow me to give some pointers based off your question. Looking back at what Ender wrote (which is also in the comments section at the end of the previous post) it reads thusly: I'm mainly curious to see how you managed to condense the essential story to a paragraph. The way I see it, you can maybe condense character growth/motivations to a paragraph, or you can condense the plot to a paragraph, but being able to talk about both and having it as a single paragraph would be a daunting task.

The thing is you don’t. You have to imagine what a parrot—I’m sorry—what an agent wants, not what you wish to give them. What a parrot agent wants is to be sold, not explained to. Sell the agent and they can sell the six and get you across the bridge.

In plain English, don’t think synopsis, think movie trailer teaser.

Pretend you’re a marketing writer with the job of typing up those words you hear after the “This Preview Was Approved For All Audiences…” Imagine that deep booming voice saying, “IN A WORLD…” and go from there, only leave out the “in a world part,” No one likes the “in a world” part. If you’re having trouble, go to a bookstore and read the backs of books like yours and see which one makes you want to read it. Which ones don’t?

This might be my paragraph if I wrote it today:

The spellbinding Riyria Revelations series begins with the first volume, The Crown Conspiracy,  which introduces Royce Melborn and Hadrian Blackwater, two enterprising thieves who end up running for their lives when they're framed for the murder of the king. Trapped in a conspiracy bigger than they can imagine, their only hope is unraveling an ancient mystery - before it's too late.

As you can see, I’m not trying to explain the story, or the characters, or their motivations or any of that. I’m just trying to get you to want to read it. Because you see, the writer who can get an agent to want to read their manuscript more than the 3,000 other ones they’ve received invitations to in the last month—that’s the writer whose books will sell. And that’s the author they want to represent.

Think like a parrot. Stop screaming. Then pitch a tent in front of the stone bridge and let the bird fly. Or you can try one of the other two ways across to the Promised Land.


  1. Nice post, Michael :) I originally wrote that question because in your first reddit AMA, I believe you mentioned something about writing query letters. The sample you wrote above answered my question, which was mainly just to get an idea of what a query paragraph might look like in relation to a story that I actually know, so thanks a bunch for that!

    I still have your second reddit AMA to read through, since I missed out on it due to having to spend time with the in-laws for Anzac Day holiday (it's a New Zealand thing). I'm saving that for a nice relaxing night!

    Thanks again!

  2. An entertaining way of explaining query letters. Stop drinking before you blog.

    That's all.


  3. Excellent post. I have a book called "The Writer's Book of Hope" which gives similar advice, but I love your story-book analogy. It really put things into perspective, as I suppose only a fantasy writer can do.


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