Terrible Tips Tuesday: Open Sesame!
If you look back a few entries, you’ll notice where I was working on a query for a story called A Hero’s Journey. As a rule I’d rather have another six root canals than write a query letter. It’s tedious work.
While tossing and turning one night, I got thinking about the query and asked myself, “Would I buy this book if I hadn’t written it?” The answer was a qualified no.
The query description goes something like this:
Some people are born to be heroes while others stumble into the job. Dr. Emma Earl’s path to becoming a hero begins when she’s nearly disemboweled by a monster known as the Black Dragoon.
In the hospital, Emma is led by her mother’s ghost to a hidden cavern beneath the museum where she works. There she finds a suit of red plate armor that allows her to jump long distances, deflect bullets, and turn invisible. By donning this armor, Emma becomes the latest in a line of heroes known as the Scarlet Knight, the Dragoon’s sworn enemy.
So it’s about a woman who becomes a superhero. To which if I were looking at the description on Amazon I’d say: What’s in it for ME?
Now on the other hand if I said it’s about a young redheaded woman who likes to read who finds a set of magic armor and becomes a superhero, then it’s a whole new ballgame. Why? Because I like redheaded women, especially if they read. (Seriously, it’s kind of a fetish.) And I like superheroes. You put the two together and you’ve got me hooked.
Or take the description for my novel Where You Belong:
Frost Devereaux’s odyssey of self-discovery spans three decades and takes him to every corner of America. Guiding him along his journey are the twin loves of his life: Frankie & Frank Maguire. Through his tempestuous relationships with them, he learns who he is and where he belongs.
Again, what’s in it for ME? Self-discovery is nice, but am I going to spend $12.99 for that? (99 cents for Kindle!) Probably not.
Now if I said it’s written in the style of The World According to Garp about a young writer with a deformity that makes him a freak and outsider, then I’d be first in line! Why? Because I’m a writer, a freak, and an outsider and I love John Irving books.
Sometimes when I’m browsing Amazon’s Vine newsletter for books to order and review I employ that same strategy. I look for books that feature subjects or characters that might interest me. For example, I picked James Hynes’s Next because it’s about a guy from Michigan. I’m a guy from Michigan! Or recently I picked a book called After the Golden Age because it’s about superheroes and accountants. I’m an accountant and I love superheroes! And I picked one called Losing Graceland because it’s about Elvis. I love Elvis!
So as you can see, sometimes you just need the right words to unlock a reader’s interest. Which is probably why most query letters fail. Maybe the agent would be more interested if he/she read the story, but the query doesn’t use the right password to get him/her to unlock the door.
Unless you know the person intimately, it’s probably tough to figure out what those code words might be. So all we can do is essentially throw pasta at the wall and hope something sticks.
Of course I should probably mention the opposite is also true: sometimes you can use the wrong words and cause doors to close. Going back to the Vine newsletter, I weed out books that have descriptions that don’t interest me. If it mentions a mother and daughter bonding I toss it. I’ve read a few of those and that was enough. Recent immigrants from Grakistan or Kookamunga? Pass. Again, I’ve read a number of books about people coming to America and their hardships. Give me something that at least sounds like I haven’t read it a dozen times before! This usually leaves me with one book left on a list of 200 or so.
I’m sure agents’s interns feel that way when they go through the Email and see one story after another about a vampire falling in love with a normal girl. I’d just get up to the word “vampire” and hit the Send button for the form rejection Email. Maybe that’s just me, but I’d say you probably want to give them an idea very quickly how your vampire story is different from the 20,000 others filling the Inbox. Otherwise that door is going to slam in your face very quickly.
Check back next Thursday for another scintillating entry!