Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Query Letter

We hate it, don't we? For months, years, decades maybe, we struggle with our books, draft after draft, searching our frazzled brains for just the right word here, lyrical turn of phrase there, clever twist of plot over there, rewriting, editing, rewriting, editing until we've got the damn thing all un-typoed and "polished"...

And then we find out the way the publishing industry works the future of our creation, our future, the future of our children's hopes for college, rests on a single page of prose that must be dead-on, fascinating, extraordinary, but not too long or cute or literary, and don't get into too much detail but make sure you can capture the essence of your novel while grabbing the agent's attention and...

WTF? It reminds me of what Mr. Natural said: "Dis is a system?" (For you children out there who don't know who Mr. Natural is, Google "R. Crumb." Google "Jimi Hendrix" while you're at it.)

Alas for us, from the agent's perspective it makes perfect sense. A quick tour of writers' forums will reveal that every housewife with a laptop is churning out a romance, every dork who couldn't get a date in college has his third fantasy underway, every middle-aged woman has a Young Adult novel or a "cozy" in the works, every ex-CIA agent like me... Oops, almost revealed too much there.

So they need to cull the herd. Throw out, right off the bat, the 50% of the hundreds of queries they get each week that are written by semi-literates who can't even reach the very low bar of being able to string together two coherent sentences. Toss the stuff that's been done to death (vampires, anyone?) or won't sell (here's an idea: a cozy mystery set in the wizard land of Gonderel narrated by a vampire!). Try to figure out who they can possibly take a chance on by asking for a partial manuscript.

Still, it makes you wonder if Thomas Pynchon could get published if he were starting out today. Imagine the query for his epic, groundbreaking novel V. :

Benny Profane drinks too much but before you get all involved in that let's take a detour to late 19th century Egypt where there are some Cook's travelers and spies and references to Fashoda but then it's back to New York City and a weird crew and some alligator hunting, then off to turn-of-the-century Florence and some more spy capers and talk about Vheissu, which may or may not have something to do with V., then let's take a trip back to New York, then off to pre-war Sudwest Afrika and some goings-on with the Hereros (the reader will need to consult a dictionary to discover these are not the Bushmen) and then more back-and-forth till we eventually end up in Malta and the 1956 Suez crisis, with lots of jokes thrown in for no good reason along the way, innumerable characters whose names begin with V, which also may or may not be the V in question, in short, an inscrutable novel written in complex, paragraph-length sentences. Thank you for your consideration.

As Janet Reid would say, "Form rejection!"

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