Here’s the thing about nonfiction…

I happened to read Janet Reid’s post on nonfiction queries, and she hit the nail squarely on the head – as usual. I won’t bother trying to reinvent the wheel since Janet has done it so aptly. Go read it pronto – I’ll wait.

Hey, did you hear the joke about the beagle who tried to smoke a stalk of broccoli? Well, there’s this beagle….oh, you’re back? Ok, great. Let’s continue on the theme that Janet started.

Like I said; there’s no sense in repeating Janet’s post. But I do want to expand on her suggestion regarding the setup of your query letter:

you need to pitch the SOLUTION right up front with the problem.  Your book is about the solution first and foremost, not the problem.

This was such an ah ha moment for me that I wanted to smack myself for not thinking of it first. For years I’ve complained to the beagle about how authors don’t start with the relevance of their story – the solution, the “gotta have it-ability.” When an author states the solution up front, then I know what I”m getting into. It’s a great selling tool to entice me to read further.

As in: “Heckfire yes, I want to know how a brilliant detective is putting the hurt on pimps and saving the women, who are their victims,” I scream, scaring the beagle out of her freckled little hide.

This is especially important for those who write in impacted categories, like bipolar issues, divorce, Alzheimer’s, midlife crisis, etc. If I know up front what makes you unique to everyone else’s book, then I have a bigger desire to continue reading. If you just tell me that this is a bipolar book, my eyes begin to glaze over because I’ve been inundated with bipolar journeys since publishing the amazing Mommy I’m Still In Here – an incredibly unique book in this category, I might add.

And believe me, I would have glazed over Kate McClaughlin’s query letter as well had she not pitched the solution at the front. She knew she had tough competition and mere seconds to lasso my attention, so she led with the solution:

“This book conveys the physical realities and battered emotions of a family caught in the swirling storm of a child’s hallucinations and psychosis – and love and faith borne of their occurrence.”

This first sentence of her query – the solution – told me that Kate’s book wasn’t the normal diet of coping with bipolar disorder, but of transcending beyond it – to something greater and positive. How could I not be intrigued with an uplifting, inspirational message from someone who has lived a very extreme life, and discover that people can punch out on the other side of anything?

Remember, your query letter is the face to you and your book. Far too often, I have to guess what the solution is because the author fails to include it. They tell me what they’re book is about, but they draw no conclusions. This forces me to draw inferences. If I’m interested enough, I’ll ask. If not, I’ll send a form rejection letter.

And sure, I’ve wondered if there wasn’t more to the story than what they sent me. But I don’t have the time to ferret it out. I’ve had a couple recent exchanges with authors who, upon receiving a rejection letter, wrote back to expand on their query letter. One went so far as to suggest that her query letter didn’t do her nonfiction justice. And how exactly, is this my problem?

You’re writers…hopefully wonderful writers…and what you do is communicate what’s burning in your soul to the outside world. Effectively. Those who get published communicate in a manner that attracts a readership. Since your job is communication, it’s vital to learn how to explain your book in a manner that will enhance your goals. Think about your nonfiction’s raison d’etre.

And if you haven’t read Janet’s post, go do it now. Think about the solution. Then smile and go conquer the world.

6 Responses to Here’s the thing about nonfiction…

  1. NinjaFingers says:

    Hrm. I wonder how much of this would translate to a good *fiction* pitch. I’m still feeling my pitches aren’t doing my books justice.

  2. It could help. I do read my fair share of fiction queries that leave me scratching my head.

  3. Troubadour says:

    Lynn, I hesitate to comment, given I’m an author from whom you recently requested pages. But I couldn’t help myself. Why? My nonfiction query to you indeed began with a question — an engaging question, perhaps, but a question nevertheless.

    I wonder whether, in the case of both fiction and literary memoir, an eye-popping question or sentence (not explicitly about the “solution”) might be just as effective as beginning with the solution itself.

    After all, the goal is to both communicate and to raise the pulse of an editor’s acquiring heart. Now, perhaps giving the solution will do that in most cases, and it’s clearly your preference. However, in certain narrative circumstances, it may be effective to inspire, just for a beat, before revealing. Maybe?

    Just some thoughts. Carry on. I’ll go back to biting my cuticles (and hoping that posting here didn’t cross any lines).

  4. Hi Troubadour. Personally, I dislike questions in query letters because they feel like a commercial. “Have you ever gone dancing and had that itchy, burning feeling in your feet?” Thud.

    A question basically asks me to answer the question, and that’s not why you’re querying me. Rather than posing a question, simply get on with the business of telling what your story is about. A question – no matter how “eye popping” it is – is still a question and wasted space in my opinion. They don’t raise my pulse one digit.

    And of course you didn’t cross any lines! Anyone is free to comment here. Hope my answer didn’t blow cold air on your quill.

  5. Troubadour says:

    I appreciate the perspective.

    The quill continues to be at the ready. No cold air taken!

  6. […] from editor Lynn Price on non-fiction queries (hint: think […]

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