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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Why a Query is like a Poem

I've been thinking a lot about queries since Write On Con. Well, actually, I was thinking about them even before that. I've been wondering what makes a good query.

I've come to the conclusion that a good query is startlingly like a good poem. Somehow, somewhere inside, it resonates with your soul. It makes you feel. It makes you wonder. The purpose of a poem isn't just to exist, but to make that connection between reader and poet.

The purpose is the connection.

When I read through the queries on Write On Con, I found the comments very interesting. And I found myself disagreeing with most of them.

Because there is not just ONE way to write a query, much like there is not just ONE way to write a poem.

And people, anyone who tells you there is only one way is wrong.

I think there is a tendency towards creating some kind of generic query that follows all of the rules like a good school boy. And then guess what happens? All of the queries end up sounding the same.

Generic writing is not compelling writing.

I know of which I speak. For I, too, once wrote a generic query.

I followed all of the rules....or the rules I thought existed out there and squeezed (hammered, chiseled, stuffed) my thoughts into a recipe for what seemed to be a successful query template. And I made it all fit.

Kind of like a too-tight sweater that pulls in the wrong places and isn't really that flattering.

I mean, just because you can wear something, doesn't mean you should.

(Sorry, metaphor switch. At first the query was a poem, then a schoolboy and now it is a sweater?? I'll get back to the poem part, I promise. I just can't help but sometimes put in a little motherly advice. And the just because you can doesn't mean you should line is one spoken often in the Thomas house. I mean, I have teenage daughters.)

So, anyway, after a bit of time (and very little response to my little query,) I looked at it again and realized that I followed all of the rules but that my query did NOT reflect very well the book I had written. As in not at all. I mean, I wouldn't even want to read the book I described. And I wrote it.

Then I realized that the query doesn't need to be the best query. It does not need to be the best little school boy. It just needs to make the best connection it can between my book and the reader.

And connections of any kind are magical. Everyone knows that.

So, I sat down and thought like a poet. I let the words flow out of me, allowing the voice I had so easily let loose on the page when writing my book have a turn at describing the book. I tried not to think about the agent or editor who might read my words, but rather that a friend might actually have to read it. I took all of the pretentious stuff out, since I hate sounding pretentious to friends. I allowed a more genuine take on my book to fill my heart and spill out.

And I thought what the heck? At least this represents my book better than the last, dry, generic query did. If an agent is going to reject my book, at least they will know what they are rejecting, right?

Now I am not saying that I actually wrote a poem and sent it in as a query. There were no rhyming words. There was no iambic pentameter. (But it would be funny to try some day.....) But there was an attempt to write a query that provided an electric connection between my book and whoever read it. I let my query sound like it was written by the same person who wrote the book.

And the first agent I sent the query to is now my agent, the wonderful Joanna Stampfel-Volpe.

So, I guess what I am saying is that when you write your query, remember that its sole purpose is to create a connection. The only rule it has to follow is to make the reader go dang I want to read that book. Now.

A beautiful poem is remembered not for its words (though they may be lovely or haunting or achingly perfect), but for the chord it strikes within the reader's soul.



Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Well, you just struck a chord within me. Next attempt at the query, I'm gonna pretend I'm telling a friend and try to connect. Fabulous post, Shelley. Thanks.

Elana Johnson said...

This is the best post on query writing I've read in a long, long time. Thank you!

Matthew Rush said...

What a lovely analogy (and pretty darn astute observation as well).

Karen Amanda Hooper said...

Beautiful advice. I will definitely keep it in mind for my next query. And woo-hoo for Joanna having great taste. Love her. :)

Jemi Fraser said...

Great analogy. I think you're so right - poetry and queries are all about voice and emotions. Nice.

Myrna Foster said...

Thank you, Shelley. I hate writing queries, and I think it shows in my query letters. However, I love writing poems. I'm going to try it your way.

Is there any chance you'd be willing to post your query?

storyqueen said...

Tricia-I've been trying to find a way to express my frustration when dealing with my own query process...I hope I made sense.

Elana-Now you, my friend, have a gift for being able to tell what will resonate and what will not. One of my favorite posts you did on queries encouraged folks to abandon all the junk and get to the heart of the book in one or two sentences. That really helped me.

Matthew-I think your query (which won a contest for you) was a great example of just talking about your book in a very genuine way.

Karen Amanda-thanks! Joanna is the best!

Jemi-Yeah, when I let my voice in, it really helped.

Myrna-I'll ask Jo when she gets back if she would mind. It's not amazing or anything, but I think it explains the book better than I did before.

Hayley said...

This is great advice, and I love the connection to poetry, I love poetry, this was just crafty and insightful. I needed to read it today, thank you!

Jackee said...

You are too right, Shelley. That connection has to be made, if not soul to soul than taste to taste at least.

Maybe that's why I'm so excited to read Trinket.... :o)

Sharon K. Mayhew said...

Very nice! You are so right. It's all about making them want to know more about you or read more of your lovely words.

Lisa and Laura said...

I think you might need to change your name to the Query Queen.

Margo Berendsen said...

This is such excellent advice! We learn to follow all the rules so then we can gloriously break them. Poetry, connection, query... this all rang true.