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Terrible Tips Tuesday: Open Sesame!

March 1, 2011

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!


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  1. Good point! Selecting the right words makes all the difference! Nice post!

  2. Lisa Potts permalink

    RM, you are completely right about this one, which is also why a writer should query more than a handful of agents. You never know what each of their code words might be.

  3. Excellent post, and I agree with every point. We do, when writing queries, need to think about each word. Once I have my draft copy of my book I try to read it as a reader would do, and try to see their point of view when reading the blurb. Maybe I should apply this to my queries too?

    Fellow crusader also saying hi!

  4. Writing queries is like pulling teeth. I understand completely your frustration because your trying to sell someone on an idea as opposed to marketing your beautiful writing. And if you don’t sell them, well, they’re probably not going to even look at the first page. I think fetishes are interesting btw… what is it about red-heads that drives you crazy?

    Oh and btw…mutt, I know that you are going to be speechless by this, however, I’ve chosen you as one of the recipients for the “Stylish Blogger Award”! ZOMGAH don’t you feel so special nao?

  5. Gee Mike did I beat out the inanimate carbon rod?

    You know the thing about redheads at least here in Michigan is that they’re pretty rare. I mean real ones, not just a girl who dyes her hair red. I can sit around Starbucks or Panera Bread for hours and see plenty of brunettes and blondes (and bad dye jobs of both) but not a single redhead.

    Also there was a blog I used to follow where the guy kept posting pictures of his redheaded wife. That’s where I think this really got started. Bonus Terrible Tip: don’t post pictures of your wife and children on blogs because you don’t know who will be reading it.

  6. Oh my, writing query letters is….ugh. I’ve just started trying to do some drafts for mine, and everytime I write a new one I think, “Well, that’s interesting. …But I think it could be better. I want to really WOW them.” Seriously, it seems like there’s no end to it. Thanks for the tips. Hopefully they’ll make this go a wee bit faster.

    ❤ Gina Blechman

  7. Ethan Cooper permalink

    I’ve stopped reading editions of books made available through the Vine program. The reasons are:

    o The paper used in Vine editions is cheap, cheap, cheap. My experience with these books is that, if I write something in the margin on a right hand page, it will appear with mirror-image clarity on the left after I turn the page. Getting a book for free is cool but who wants to be reminded you’re a cheap f**k every time you write some marginalia?

    What to do:… tell the publishers we want better paper.

    o The Vine program is a system of guilt-driven oppression. “Haven’t written a review of the book you selected? Well, we’ll just keep it–your failed pledge, your promise broken, your shamefully deferred responsibility–right here in your Vine account. And if you continue not to keep your word, well, you just don’t deserve to be in the Vine program.” Well, screw you… how was I supposed to know the book was tedious beyond endurance?

    What to do:… direct your guilt-trip toward some weakling 10-year-old, for chrissake!

    o The Vine program is no better than homework. And, it’s a huge dissembling conspiracy, meant to remind readers that they are actually feckless students, no matter what their age.

    What to do:… if I choose not to complete a novel by David Liss, which you sent me five years ago, well… it’s your risk, not mine. Let bygones be bygones.


    • I can’t really disagree with anything you said about the Vine program. Some of the books they send are pretty chintzy. My copy of “Imperial Bedrooms” had red paper for the cover!

      Mostly though it saves me from driving five or six miles to the library or spending money on Amazon to buy new books. So it satisfies my laziness and cheapness. And I get to read books I probably wouldn’t have read otherwise.

      For XMas I ordered a bunch of “Juno Baby” stuff for my brother because he named his baby Juno (NOT after the movie!) and a couple other books too. Free stocking stuffers! Later I wrote fake reviews just to get them off my list. Not like Amazon is checking these for quality.

      • Ethan Cooper permalink

        Maybe I could try a “kid review” and get two novels that I no longer own out of Vine account. That way, I will not use my Vine account in the future with a clear conscience.

        But really… I hate those cheap editions and they should go direct to the outhouse.

  8. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. What works perfectly for one reader (or agent) is a turn off for another. In one sense it’s a losing game, but if you look at it from a different perspective, it’s a matter of knowing who your audience is. It’s not just a matter of ‘sci-fi’ or ‘fantasy’ or ‘romance’ – it’s more subtle than that, but if you know who your audience is and target them well enough then bingo – it’ll work.

  9. Oh, the dreaded query. It’s a toughie all right. To put the right words, in the right order, that intrigues–so hard.

    But it must be done. We have no other choice. We need to write it, rework it and rework it.

    Hey, crusader. Finally getting around to all the blogs.

  10. That’s so true. You never know what words you’re going to use that might turn on (or off) an agent/potential reader. So, we just have to try our best to capture the story and get it into the hands of the people who see the description and think “I’ve GOT to read this!”

    It makes me smile to hear a man say he has a fetish for redheads who read ;o)

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