Query Smarter

Twenty-three letters were randomly selected and read during the Query Letter Gong Show. One made it through without getting a single gong.

One.

Curious about what black magic allowed one letter through while the others were mercilessly gonged and eviscerated? Me, too.  Turns out it is some witchcraft known as “querying smarter.”

The original letter:

Dear Literary Professional:

Killing a demon is harder than most people think. You can shoot a werewolf with silver, or an ifrit with brass, but that will only kill the body. Destroying the demon itself requires a special weapon, a holy weapon.

Spencer Mallory is a demon hunter who uses a holy revolver named Dämoren. After surviving a wendigo attack as a child, Spencer displays many signs of possession, even though the demon that marked him was killed. He understands all spoken languages, demon blood heals him, and mixing his own blood in water creates a compass to locate fiends.

After a violent series of demon attacks leaves only fifty holy weapons in the world, Spencer is recruited by the Valducans, an ancient order of demon hunters dating back to the Second Crusade. Many of the knights do not trust Spencer because of his powers. When sabotage and murders begin, the Valducans know there is a spy in their ranks, and Spencer becomes the core of their suspicions. Desperate to prove himself, and to protect Dämoren, Spencer fights to gain their trust and discover the nature of what resides within him.

DÄMOREN is a 98,000 word contemporary fantasy, set in North America and Europe. My short stories have appeared in Black Static and Flashing Swords magazines, as well as the “Time in a Bottle” anthology and the upcoming Rogue Blades Entertainment “Assassins” and “Challenge: Stealth!” anthologies.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

The writer took this letter to the Speculative Fiction Workshop. He also took the following four sentence plot summary:

Fourteen years ago a pack of wendigos killed Spencer Mallory’s family and damned his soul. Now, Spencer is a demon hunter armed with a holy revolver named Dämoren. When a cult begins destroying holy weapons, Spencer is recruited into an order of demon hunters. Desperate to protect Dämoren, Spencer fights to prove himself and discover the nature of the entity residing within him.

According to one participant in the workshop, they shredded the letter. The writer didn’t see it as a shredding, but an opportunity to improve. The comments offered were specific and directed him in how to make his letter stronger. A few of the comments stood out to him:

* Separate, more concise plot summary is catchier than the one in the query. (Jennifer Udden)

* Eliminate the list of the hero’s powers- it makes it seem like there will be no challenge. (Jennifer Udden)

* Writing credits are important. Include them. (Lou Anders)

In a perfect example of how to query smarter, he took the critiques, wiped away his tears and wrote a better letter.

Dear Literary Professional:

Fourteen years ago a pack of wendigos killed Spencer Mallory’s family and damned his soul. Now, Spencer is a demon hunter armed with a holy revolver named Dämoren.

After a violent series of murders leaves only fifty holy weapons in the world, Spencer is recruited by the Valducans, an ancient order of demon hunters. Many of the knights do not trust Spencer because he is possessed. When sabotage and assassinations begin, the Valducans know there is a spy in their ranks, and Spencer becomes the core of their suspicions. Desperate to prove himself, and to protect Dämoren, Spencer fights to gain their trust and discover the nature of the entity residing within him.

DÄMOREN is a 98,000 word contemporary fantasy, set in North America and Europe. My short stories have appeared in Black Static and Flashing Swords magazines, as well as the “Time in a Bottle” anthology and the upcoming “Assassins” and “Challenge: Stealth!” anthologies.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Can we have a moment of polite applause for a job well done?

The first letter rambles a bit and doesn’t really leave you with a feel for the main character or the story. There are demons…and stuff…and demon killers…and stuff. The opening lines are frighteningly close to a rhetorical question. The second letter is punchy and to the point. In the first two sentences you know your MC and his motives. Twenty-eight words and you already care about what comes next.

You may be thinking that your story is far to complex to boil down to a couple of short sentences. If that is the case, perhaps you need to take a closer look at your story. Chances are that you can boil it down and, if not, then your story probably lacks much needed focus. Make sure that every single word in your novel is moving the story forward. If you are sure your story is as tight as it can be, work on cutting your plot summary down to a 140 character Tweet. It is not easy, but you will quickly see what is important and what is window dressing. You have seconds (SECONDS!) to catch the eye of an agent reading your query– get to the point.

His hard work paid off. In addition to winning the admiration of the masses at DFWCon, he garnered two requests to see the full manuscript. The agent who had previously requested said the query was much more interesting than the pitch and she was looking forward to reading it.

What words of wisdom does query letter superstar Seth Skorkowsky have for the rest of us?

The big lesson I learned was to make the query as short as possible, and then make it even shorter.

Well said, Seth, well said.

YMMV

 Jodi Thompson is a life-long wordsmith who is currently spending her days in the new-to-her fiction arena. You can see more of her disjointed ramblings at www.thejodithompson.com or catch her any Wednesday night at DFW Writers’ Workshop.


Categories: Conference tips

Tags: , , ,

2 replies

  1. Great advice!! I missed DFW this year, but I’m alread signed up for next year!

Trackbacks

  1. The Website for Author Seth Skorkowsky – 5 Lessons I Learned When Querying a Novel

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 615 other followers

%d bloggers like this: