DEBORAH CROMBIE: The first weekend in May, when many of
my Jungle Red cohorts and mystery community friends were attending Malice Domestic, I was attending the DFW Writer's Conference right here in North Texas as one of three keynote speakers. (My compatriots were my good friend, novelist David Corbett, and narrative non-fiction writer Michael Capuzzo. Both were brilliant!)
Although I've been attending fan conferences and literary festivals a good bit lately, it had been a while since I participated in a writer's conference. It was a great weekend, and if I inspired any yet-to-be-published writers, I can only say that I'm sure the attendees and the other writing professionals inspired me more! What a great and dedicated group.
One of the high points of the weekend was the final event on Sunday afternoon, a tradition of this conference, the Query Gong Show. Everyone gathered in the main ballroom. A panel of agents attending the conference was seated on the dais, each with a gong, and a supersize gong was placed on the floor for other agents' use.
Attendees had submitted anonymous query letters before the event. An MC (who did a great job) picked random query letters to read aloud, continuing until three of the agents had hit their gongs. Then the agents had to explain why they'd gonged--what was it about the letter that didn't work for them?
It was a fascinating exercise. As you can see here, out of twenty-three letters, only ONE made it all the through the reading.
It's been more than twenty years since I've submitted a query letter, but I do have to write a proposal for every novel, and the requisites are not so different. You have to encapsulate your story in just a few sentences, and you have to grab the reader from the first sentence or two.
Interestingly, I found that the agents had more patience than I did, but we agreed on most points. Although the one letter that made it through didn't do this, I found I wanted to know what KIND of book it was from the very first. Fantasy? Young adult? Mystery? Romance? Women's fiction? How many words? (It is clear from the first sentence of the successful query, however, that the book is a fantasy novel.)
Here, I gathered, are some DOs:
-Identify the type of book, as well as its length.
-Identify the protagonist immediately.
-Identify the CONFLICT immediately. I can't say this loudly enough!
-You would think it would be obvious, but be polite.
-Set out your credentials clearly.
And some DON'Ts:
-Cut the ADVERBS!!!!
-And the adjectives!
-Don't tell the agent they will like the book--that's for them to decide.
-Don't tell the agent what audience the book will appeal to--deciding that is their job, too.
-And, um, don't threaten the agent. Really...
It might be partly because the focus of my talks for the weekend was plot, but I found that what really stood out for me was whether the query made it clear that the story was going somewhere, and was not just a portrait of a static moment in time.
And another interesting thing, there was not a single mystery or crime novel among the queries. The majority were fantasy or young adult, with a romance or two, and a book that might have been women's fiction... (See what I mean about identifying what KIND of book?)
So, REDS and READERS, what would YOU want to see in a query? And if you've sent queries, tell us about your experience! (No GONGS on JR, I promise!_