If you get a second chance, don’t blow it

I like to compare query letters to football. The author is the quarterback, and it’s their job to ensure that all the players understand the play in order to execute a run to the goal posts.

If you piqued my interest with your particular play (which is your pitch) but didn’t include all the pertinent details in order for me to know where to run downfield, I may ask you to try it again – meaning give me a proper synopsis.

I really don’t expect the SECOND EXCHANGE to go like this:

“What is this book about?”
This is the adventure of a boy and his dogs… Non-fiction

This bare bones reply is what you say to your neighbor, who you really don’t like very much because he borrowed your hedge clippers and never returned them. It’s a very quick, “bugger off” explanation that doesn’t invite further discussion. I’m not likely to ask for further clarification

This is a hapless log line that doesn’t promote excitement. A log line is that one-two sentence description of your book, and it’s purpose is to engender a “Oh, how cool! Tell me more!” Example:

An accidental publisher’s hands are full with five ladies in their mid-seventies, an internationally famous novelist, and a nosy reporter who is determined to expose their identities as writers of some of the hottest erotica to hit the shelves.

Log lines are quite unnecessary in a query letter because you don’t have much space to waste (queries s/b half to one page in length). Log lines are used in promotion; not queries.

I call this The AlmostTease. This is NOT what you present to an editor because it doesn’t give us enough information to make us care about your story. The Almost Tease makes you the fulcrum on a literary seesaw. The fulcrum isn’t a position of strength because you are powerless to  influence which way I will lean. Am I shopping for dog stories, and this one sounds interesting enough that I’ll put aside my irritation and play 20 Questions? Or will I fall in the other direction and reject it because it’s obvious the author doesn’t know how to write a query letter? Quarterbacks aren’t fulcrums; they’re about taking control,  action, being desisive and clear.

Getting back to our hapless quarterback, I asked for the plot, and this is what came back to me:

From the hope and desire to one day have a German Shepherd Dog, to police K-9 service, to successfully showing dogs, this is an adventure in love and the devotion shared between man and dog. This book is about a continuing adventure with a series of dogs and the relationship with them. It is a humorous and passionate story of incidents in that chain of relationships. If you’ve read “Marley and me,” then you will understand the “what” of this book. [bolding mine]

I’m sure this is inadvertent, but the author put the onus of my understanding his story squarely on my shoulders. He gave a general theme of the book and then basically passed me the football and told me to run the rest of the way to the goal posts. Problem is, he didn’t give me the play.

What aspects of Marley and Me explains the “what” to this author’s story? Is it Marley’s endearing and free-fall buffoonery? The trials and tribulations of the main characters’ lives? What? Stories always have a lot of twists and turns, and my tinfoil hat can’t begin to figure out what aspects of Marley and Me this author wants me to focus on. And what if I didn’t read Marley and Me? This author’s entire plan results in a disastrous tackle, and I’m left limping off the field with a broken finger.

This author does not understand the rudiments of PLOT:

Exposition: this is the information that gives the setting, creates the tone, presents the characters, and presents other facts necessary to understanding the story.
Dilemma: this is what creates and defines the plot. This is the conflict to the story
Climax: the turning point when characters try to resolve the dilemma. It’s high point of the story for the reader that results in the highest interest and greatest emotion.
Resolution: the events that bring the story to a close, it rounds out and concludes the action.

Authors are rarely given a second chance to clarify their queries, and if you are, don’t blow your second chance. Be a smart quarterback and deliver clear directions about where you want us to run.

4 Responses to If you get a second chance, don’t blow it

  1. MagicMan says:

    Lynn,

    There are so many ways to mess up a query. I love the picture of the quarterback, but I have also seen too many complex plays come out of the quarterback’s mouth leaving the players with question marks floating above their noggins.

    I love your log line. Send me a full please. LOL.

    I do believe the pitch to a publisher needs more meat than a pitch to an agent. An agent may nibble at a query that is primarily a log line.

    Is there a difference in a query to agent vs publisher?

    Smiles
    Bob

  2. lynnpricewrites says:

    I do believe the pitch to a publisher needs more meat than a pitch to an agent. An agent may nibble at a query that is primarily a log line.

    I’m not sure that I agree, Bob. Agents needs as much information as editors do in order to decide whether they want pages. They need the plot. The log line example I used provides the meat and bones of the story, and most importantly, it provides the conflict.

    If I had just said “this is about an accidental publisher who publishes five lusty ladies in their mid-seventies,” it would have been met with a yawn. Why? Because there’s no conflict. There isn’t a direction.

    If an author wants to lead with a log line, they have to include the beginning, middle, and end – and include the conflict. That’s a lot to ask of one or two sentences, and few can do that well.

    That’s my problem with the author’s log line. It rambles without a direction, so I have no idea where this is going.

  3. MagicMan says:

    A number of the successful queries I assisted with started as mini novels over a thousand words and counting.

    I guided the author to find the main unique elements by starting with the log line. I then had them beef it up with a vivid protagonist and at least the first conflict/antagonist. To close the query, I had them add a teaser concerning the next obstacle. I don’t believe in including the story ending in the query.

    The end result is a neat 200 word query in the author’s voice but constructed as a sales pitch instead of a mini story.

    When submitting to a publisher, I have them include a lot more bio info. I also have them include all but the final conflict. That usually adds an additional 100 words (not counting the bio).

    I hope that is not a mistake.

    Smiles
    Bob

  4. lynnpricewrites says:

    No, Bob, as always, you have good advice, and I’m sure your author’s query was bang on.

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