The Hard Part (II)

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I as said I would a few weeks ago, I dug out my dusty old query letter and put it under the microscope. I gave it a few tweaks, tightened it up a bit, and now I feel like it’s in serviceable shape. This is the meat of a letter I’ll be sending out to literary agents to try to tempt them to read my manuscript, or at least the first few pages. Conventional wisdom (of which I’m rarely a fan) says that the letter should be a page or less and needs to convey the basic concept of the book quickly, neatly, and preferably with a taste of your writing style. Sounds easy, right? Trust me, once you’ve spent a few years and over a hundred thousand words telling a story, boiling it all down into two short paragraphs is maddening. Here it is:

In the tradition of Johnny Tremain, THE FIDDLER’S GUN (100,000 words) is the story of a young woman’s fight for her own independence during the Revolutionary War.

The Sisters of the Ebenezer orphanage in Georgia don’t know what to do with Phinea Button. She matches knuckles with the boys, sticks her nose up at bonnets and dresses, is determined to do anything they forbid her, and is nearly a grown woman. But when the American War of Independence threatens her tiny community, Phinea’s reckless nature spins beyond even her own control. She kills a British soldier and flees the orphanage with a price on her head.

On the run, she joins the crew of a privateer ship and begins a new life on the high seas of the Revolutionary War. She can’t run forever though, the British are close behind and the home she ran away from is about to become a battlefield.

So there you have it. Is it good? Heck if I know. What bothers me about it is that it’s not accurate. It doesn’t convey the romance of the book. It feels like nothing but plot when the book is (in my mind) very character driven. And then there’s the fact that the plot as outlined is scarcely complete or even accurate. Why? Because to get any more detailed requires far too much exposition for the brevity required by the letter.

So here I sit. Stumped. I’ll tinker with it for another week or so while I move on to the next step: deciding whom to send it to. That brings up another problem. Most agents work with a select few genres and it’s important that I target those that deal with my type of manuscript. The trouble is that I’m not sure what genre my book fits into. Sometimes I feel like it’s Young Adult. Other times I feel like it’s Historical Fiction. Sometimes I feel it might even be Literary. A lot of advice I hear tells me to go to the bookstore and find books like mine in order to figure out where mine fits in. I’ve done that. In fact I do it all the time, and I have yet to really find any book that I think is terribly similar. I can’t even figure out what shelf it would be on. It frustrates me to no end. The only exception of note is the book that I reference in the query letter, Johnny Tremain. Though there are many similarities, I can easily place that book in Young Adult, a genre that I usually feel isn’t quite right for me. Did I mention that this is frustrating?

So as I ponder these ridiculous things, I’ll be scouring the internet and the local bookstores in search of another dozen or so agents to submit my work to. Meanwhile, if anyone has any input on genre or nits to pick on the letter, I’m all ears (or eyes, this being the internet and all.)

Pete Peterson is the author of the Revolutionary War adventure The Fiddler’s Gun and its sequel Fiddler’s Green. Among the many strange things he’s been in life are the following: U.S Marine air traffic controller, television editor, art teacher and boatwright at the Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch, and progenitor of the mysterious Budge-Nuzzard. He lives in Nashville with his wife, Jennifer, where he's the Executive Director of the Rabbit Room and Managing Editor of Rabbit Room Press.


9 Comments

  1. Eliza

    Hey —

    As someone who’s gone through the querying process a lot in the past two years, and revised those darn letters enough that they’re beginning to get partial and full requests, I have but one thing to say:

    If you’re not happy with it, it’s not done yet.

    You say the romance of the story isn’t in it; find a way to put it in. You’ve got to love your query letter as much as you love your book.

    I assume you’ve been to all the obvious blogs for help on this — Miss Snark, Nathan Bransford, Kristin Nelson, Jennifer Jackson, and the like. Also, Chip MacGregor is lesser-known to the secular market, but he’s amazing. Love that guy.

    The thing that sticks out to me is I don’t see a specific hook. I like the character well enough, and I love YA historicals (it’s what I write) so I’m likely to read it for the setting, but there’s no singular hook, in the Miss Snark Happy Hooker Crap-O-Meter sense of the word.

    I’ve heard a lot of agents advise against having a nameless adversary in queries, too. It’s hard when the story is mostly man vs. himself, but readers coming in cold need a face of evil (or antagonism, at least).

    ‘Course, I’m not tryin’ to nitpick. I’ve just been there, and in some ways am still there, even though I’m working on revisions for an agent right now. And sometimes “your book sounds interesting” isn’t the most helpful thing for someone to say. Even though it does. 😉

  2. Pete Peterson

    @pete

    Thanks for the input, Eliza. I do read most of those blogs you mention (and quite a few others) and the funny thing is that the more I read about whole ‘selling’ aspect of writing, the more I’m averse to it. It makes me wonder how books like Jayber Crow ever get published, no hook, no antagonist, no action, and not even particularly interesting for the first few chapters. Sure, I know it wasn’t Berry’s first book but the same thing applies to books that are published all the time. Anyway, frustrating.

  3. John Michalak

    Since we have lots of space here, why not write for us what you DO find romantic about it, then we could offer some suggestions on how to fit it into a couple of paragraphs.

    Whatever the rules of the query, Eliza sure seems to hit the nail on the head in that if your passion and belief doesn’t show up, even subtextually, why would it capture the heart of the dispassionate agent?

  4. Pete Peterson

    @pete

    I’ll consider it, John. I’m not sure I want to discuss the book in detail here in public.

    As I’m sitting here trying to figure out why the query lacks romance, I’m thinking that it’s because I’m not comfortable talking about the subtext of my own work. To me it’s about heartbreak, it’s about broken people, about doing all the wrong things for the right reasons and having to accept the cost of that, it’s about losing yourself and not knowing if you’ll ever be found again. That’s all the stuff I see when I read it, when I write it. But I don’t feel it’s my place to tell people that, it’s the readers job to see what he can in it and it’s my failing if all that misty-eyed crap doesn’t come through. I’ve tried putting some of the sub-textual themes in earlier queries but to me, it makes the whole thing come out sounding self-important and pompous.

    Also, I wonder if I don’t need to have some good objective distance from it when I write the query. Whenever I’ve read successful queries by other writers they are generally quick, to the point, and pretty bland, rarely anything that would even cause me to pick up the book. Odd, that.

  5. John Michalak

    I wonder (not knowing), wouldn’ t a query letter, in a condensed form, look similar to the marketing pitch on the back of a book (or in the fold)? Perhaps compare your current version to that form. I’m not sure I’d buy your book if that was on the back. However, maybe this is all about making a final decision on your audience, then filtering the pitch that way (does the agent have a different expectation than the potential reader?). Would a young girl like your pitch? It’s close, I imagine, but not there yet. Dunno.

  6. Seth Ward

    New to the RR. First time commenter and a writer going through the same rigamarole. Currently full ms under review of two agents. Fingers crossed. Many rejections before. Query revisions: 36

    Overall, I think it is a good hook and an interesting story. I can see the romance in the story for sure. There were two things in the query that caught me a bit off guard. First, when you said “and is nearly a grown woman.” From what came before it seemed like you were setting me up for a young Jane Eyre type. Is she a grown woman by the time the story starts? If so, maybe put the grown woman part earlier or after. Also, for me, I didn’t need the last paragraph. The second left me in enough suspense to make me want more. The last paragraph almost putting it over the line as far a plot info, since it such an in-depth plot. I think there is enough in the second to get that she is being pursued and in danger.

    These are minor quibbles and it may just be me but those are the only things that threw me a bit or interrupted the flow.

    Also I’d say Historical fiction.

    Hope that is helpful. Sounds like a great story. Hang in there and best of luck.

    Seth

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