Every writer goes through bouts of depression. Or more accurately I guess, bouts of self-doubt. I suppose right now I’m going through another one.
It starts with queries. These sweet little letters of torture to agents and/or publishers drive me mad. I’ve read at least a hundred of them now, examples of successful ones, and still have no idea how to write one that does the following: reflects your story’s tone of voice; introduces all the main characters; details the plot of the story without giving away the end; does not tell too much of the plot of the story; is not too specific; is not too vague; is not too convoluted; is not too simple; is not too long; is not too short. Is, in short, all things to all people.
What I’m driving at is there is more advice about queries than there is for writing. So that’s, like… a lot. It seems queries, even more so than novels, have to be tailored for each and every agent you write to, and you don’t get a chance to find out ahead of time what types of queries they are most likely to respond to (unless they are one of the tiny handful who have posted examples of queries they’ve received where they ended up repping the author).
Agents are a tiny fraction of the reading public, but their tastes and preferences are as varied, and they have to choke down dozens of queries a day, which I can imagine makes them way pickier than almost anyone in the history of ever (and rightfully so, that’s not a criticism). They are also the gatekeepers to the world of an author being published through one of the publishing companies (to distinguish from authors who wish to self-publish or go other routes). They aren’t the ONLY path to this type of success, but they are by far the most likely route, and its their tolls you are paying.
So far, my queries for Summer have gotten mixed reviews. I’ve put it in several critique contests with actual agents reading it, and they’ve universally panned it as not containing enough details. But of course, I’ve got a request from one agent I submitted it to “for reals” for a partial, which suggests they thought it really wasn’t that awful. Still, four versus one is hard to ignore, so I keep re-writing it. Every comment is another learning opportunity.
Here are my versions of the query for Summer:
First Version –
Hammond River doesn’t believe in relationships. He spends his time avoiding them while developing a reluctant reputation among his friends as a womanizer However, there’s something irresistible about June July August, the woman he meets at a Memorial Day party. Now he’s in a relationship and no one his more stunned than he to realize his heart has betrayed his bachelor ways.
But there’s more to June than a beautiful smile and the ability to open him to truths that lie buried beneath the facade of the world. There is another world that he discovers, a place called Summer. When June disappears Hammond must enlist the aide of her mother to locate her. Together with his friends, Mel and Fran, he travels to Summer, where magic is real and steam engines the highest level of technology. They plan to rescue the girl he’s come to love from a fate that seems unreal. June might be the goddess of the land itself, whose destiny lies in marrying Lord Winter and restoring the magic of Summer. Without that magic, Summer will die, and his world with it. Hammond and his friends become pawns in a game of powerful forces that seek to save or destroy Summer, and June is the prize they all seek.
Can Hammond save June and save his heart without destroying two worlds?
Meh… I’m lukewarm about this now, though at the time I thought it was hot shit. Isn’t that always the truth about our writing? I heard “not enough details” and “why the introduction of these new characters late in the query?” Fair enough…
Second Version –
Hammond’s a game programmer, an if/then warrior, with commitment issues. June’s a mysterious woman who enjoys sketching while nude, loves waffles, and who might be a witch. So, when he meets her at a Memorial Day party, no one is more surprised than himself when he falls head over heels for her.
His friend, Fran, is pleased he’s finally settling down. Mel, who seems to idolize Hammond’s womanizing ways, wins the office pool by guessing the nearest date to Hammond’s first profession of love. Even his heart keeps ignoring his logical assertions about the dangers of relationships. But June helps him learn how to see the hidden truth of things. It’s not magic she says, but every moment with her is magical.
But when he discovers the truth of another world that lies beyond his own, his balance is upended. And now June is gone, lost to a land where magic is real and people with swords will make you bleed. Fran and Mel are willing to make the journey with him to find her and bring her back. But each choice they make will change them, and lead them further away from each other. And every decision seems to guide them inexorably to the midsummer festival, where the fate of both worlds rests in the balance.
Hammond faces a difficult calculation: he must find a way to save June, his friends, and his heart, and do it all without destroying two worlds.
Now, the second one is actually much longer than the first. It’s better written for sure, and I did more to weave Mel and Fran into the query, and show their relationship with Hammond, try to capture more of the tone of the characters, which is integral to the story. But, after having it critiqued, it still suffers from a lack of specificity. And the Fran/Mel stuff seems to confuse people still.
So, I’m trying this Third Version now –
Hammond’s a game programmer, an if/then warrior, with commitment issues. June enjoys sketching while nude, sex in public places, and loves waffles. When he meets her at Ernesto’s Memorial Day Moose Bash and Buffet, no one is more surprised than himself that he falls head over heels for her.
June does more than open his heart. She opens up the universe to him and helps him learn to see the Truth of things, the secrets hidden behind their facades. It’s not magic she says, but every moment with her is magical.
When he discovers the truth of another world that lies beyond his own, his balance is upended. And June won’t explain, except to tell him she might be a witch and that she’s sorry. She leaves Baltimore to visit her mother in Massachusetts, and Hammond has to decide whether or not what he’s seen is real or a hallucination. Is it the Truth, or the delusion of a love-addled mind?
Now June is gone, pulled from his world through the rift his visions opened to a land where magic is real, technology is suppressed, and soothsayers run the local newspaper. Hammond is willing to journey into the place called Summer to find her and bring her back. But each choice they make will change them, pulling them deeper into the tangled plans of those who seek to gain the power of the land. And every decision seems to guide them inexorably to the midsummer festival, where the magic of both worlds rests in the balance, and June is the fulcrum point.
Hammond faces a difficult calculation: he must find a way to save June and his heart, and do both without destroying two worlds.
I’m dropping the references to Mel and Fran. Focusing on Hammond and June reduces complexity. I’m increasing some story details. And.. I’m just not sure about it. I’ll have to get some fresh eyes on it, and once the editor has given me back her notes on Summer, I’ll see if she has time to help with this. It still feels off to me, somehow.
The biggest thing I’m dealing with on these agent reviews now: everyone seems to feel the “inciting incident” is the discovery of Summer and they want me to get to that immediately in the query. To me, it was his discovery of love with June. Yes, it’s a fantasy story. It’s also a romance. Learning about truth and magic doesn’t lessen the impact of his relationship with June, it complicates it. Sigh… well, more chances to get this critiqued will come. When I finally get repped, I’ll let y’all know what the hell finally worked.
Queries: these things will give you cancer.