The Humiliation of Spring Cleaning

Have you seen that show “Hoarders?” I still can’t get over the episode where they lifted a stack of boxes and old magazines only to find the woman’s mummified cat. Now, my house keeping isn’t that bad. (Mom, if you’re reading this, it is NOT that bad!) But I invariably find things when I start to purge the drawers, boxes, and closets.

Today, I came across a folder full of agent charts, old query letters, and stacks of rejections that I received for my second novel (which lives under my bed). It was so demoralizing! I couldn’t believe I actually sent those emails out the door. I offered a public apology on Twitter to every agent who received an email from me back then. So sorry for adding to the clog in your slush pile.

If you are struggling with queries, here’s an in depth article from Agent Query on how to write the hook.

And after lots and lots of trial and error (which finally resulted in finding an agent), here’s my method for how to structure a first draft query (emphasis on first draft):

  • Step One: Pull Out Some Quirk

Most agents seem to like some degree of weird. So don’t let their first impression be déjà vu. For example, rather than introduce your main character as a middle-aged high school teacher, focus on a weird quirk or trait, such as: “Mary Olson is a middle-aged drama teacher with a paralyzing fear of heights.”

  • Step Two: Stir the Pot

Next, show agents where they’ll find your main character when the story starts and, most importantly, give them an indication there is some unrest that is about to be stirred up. You can do that simply by using the expression “at first.” For example, “At first, acrophobic Mary thinks her life is perfect—great hair, great job, ground-floor apartment on the Nebraska plains.”

  • Step Three: Raise the Stakes

Then show the conflict. No conflict, no story. At the query stage, agents don’t care about our craftily constructed themes, our inspired use of metaphor or, by the way, that our story might be a modern-day retelling of Pride & Prejudice. They want to know what’s at stake. An easy way to show conflict is a sentence that starts off “But when” or “Everything changes when.” For example, “But when the circus comes to Omaha, and Mary meets tight-rope walker George Maserati, she risks an anxiety attack for the chance of finding love.”

  • Step Four: Holy Cliff Hanger, Batman!

Then drop the bomb. Leave the reader wanting more with the classic Batman ending. Remember the 1960s t.v. show? The Joker would throw a punch at Batman, then the scene would freeze and the announcer would say in an angst-ridden voice: “Will the Joker drop Batman into the vat of boiling oil? Will Batman get the last laugh? Tune in next time for the conclusion of . . .”

In a query, the Batman ending could translate into something like: “Mary climbs to the heights of hot circus love, but who will catch her when she falls?”

As I mentioned, it took me a loooong time to figure out the querying process, and I didn’t do it alone. I got help along the way from a few authors who were generous enough to lend a hand. If you’d like help on a query, I’ll happily pay it forward by giving a critique to the first person who asks (maybe the second, too). I can’t guarantee results. I am NOT an agent. But sometimes just another set of eyes helps so much!

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7 Comments

Filed under How to Write a Query Letter, Writing

7 responses to “The Humiliation of Spring Cleaning

  1. Great post! I’m marking this as a favorite and using it as a guide. Thanks for sharing, Anne.

  2. Hi! I hopped over to your page from the Writer Unboxed FB page. Very helpful post, since I am almost at the query stage. 🙂

    • Let me know if you want any help! I need a distraction from my own writing issues right now!

      • Thanks Anne, that is really nice of you. I am working on a second draft (urban fantasy) and have bashed out a query along the way. I’ve rewritten it about 20 times and have lost all perspective. It would be really great to get some idea if it sucks or not, especially since English is not my first language.

  3. Anne,

    This is pretty great and useful. Would you be willing to share any embarrassing excerpts from your first query letters? Or let us know what was so bad about them? (desperation, excessive confidence?)

    • You are such a sadist! I think the first sentence went something like this:
      “My story is about a man, a woman, and two dogs. It is a modern day retelling of Pride & Prejudice, where the characters of Jane and Mr. Bingley are a tad hairier than in the original.”
      Happy? Truly embarassing.

      • Yes, pretty bad. But better than anything I have sent out (which is nothing). Plus, who’s in line to have several books published by a major publishing house? Right, you!

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