Thursday, February 11, 2010

lessons on query letters from Dadrat, the engineer

Query letter: art or science?

So a writer friend who is about to submit to agents asked me to check out her query letter for her today. While I was looking at the query letter, my dad called and asked me what I was up to. "I'm helping a friend with a query letter," I told him.

"Why does she need help?" he wanted to know.

"It's harder than it sounds, Dad."

"I don't know. I think I could write one."

"You're an engineer, Dad," I said sadly. "Real writers struggle with this."

"Well," said my dad, who is a practitioner of the religion of Spreadsheet, "I think all you have to do is put the most important stuff at the beginning."

"Huhn." Huhn.

"I'm not sure I ever told you," he went on, "but back when I was in college, they made all us engineers take a writing class."


"I don't know. I guess they didn't want us to not get jobs because we couldn't communicate enough to fill out the job application."

"Fair enough."

"Well, in this writing class, they taught us that you have to always be able to chop off the end of whatever you've written, and still have it stand on its own. If you're writing a newspaper article, you never know if they're going to decide to shorten a column after you've written it. If you're writing an essay or a business proposal or a letter, you never know when someone's going to lose interest or stop reading, so you need to say all the important things in the beginning."

"Huhn." Huhn.

I really, really didn't want him to be right or knowledgeable about this, but I couldn't in good faith argue with him.

"So," he concluded, "that's what I do if I were writing a query letter for a book. I'd just start with what was most important right off the bat, and then go to the second most important stuff, etc."

"Well, Dad, maybe you should write a book so you can write a query letter for it."

"No, I don't think so. I think the rules for writing a book are different."

So what do you think, agents? Would you take an engineer-style query letter?


JohnO said...

I think there's something to that. In fact, that's why I put a logline of my book in the first sentence ... then go into my pitch after that.

David Thornby said...

It sounds like good advice. I've learned the same thing about scientific writing, too. And it can be applied by section as well as to a whole document.

It does raise the question, though: what IS the most important part? I think that's why queries are so hard (and intimidating) to write - I don't know which bit is Important Thing One, and which is next, and so on. I suspect that because agents are (apparently) so subjective, the ordering would change every time. Which is annoying.

Mary said...

I'm not an agent, I'm an editor, but I'd be happy to get a query letter that understood at least that much. Dadrat might not have expressed it artfully, but he's on to something significant.

But then, I'm in a b-to-b publisher. So your mileage may vary.

Wendy (aka quillfeather). said...

What a great post! I think your dad's onto something there. Not bad advice, indeed :)

Philangelus said...

After critiquing query letters for a while on the QueryTracker forum, I'm convinced that most writers (myself included) have a hard time figuring out at first what is important to say versus what doesn't need to be said at all.

We have a vision of our own book, and we gauge importance based on that understanding whereas an agent is basing "important" on the saleability of the work.

If you asked me to tell you about my son, I could tell you many of the important things about him such as his intelligence, his wit and his social struggles. If I were talking to a doctor,though, the doctor's understanding of "important information" would be his height, weight and other indicators of health.

The difficulty in writing a query letter then is figuring out what is the "most important" stuff in order to put it at the front.

Taylor Taylor said...

Philangelus - I think you nailed the problem exactly. It is so difficult to know what is important.

I've been trying to focus on distilling the conflict in my WIP - and it has been a tremendous help. Perhaps combining the Dadrat concept with the most compelling conflicts of the story might be a starting point.

Hmmm. Much to mull over.

Stephanie McGee said...

There could be something there. Something to consider, at the very least.

Must think about it while writing my own query letter.

Cassandra said...

I'm an agent intern. I agree with Dadrat 100%

The most important thing in a query letter is the stuff about your book. Start with the title, the genre, and the word count.

Then go into the summary/pitch.

After that, say a few things about you as a writer like awards or schooling.

There's nothing more frustrating than reading an entire query only to find out at the end that it's in a genre my agent doesn't rep. This could also be solved by following submission guidelines but that's a whole other frustration.

Even worse, some authors send queries all about themselves and their hobbies (not even writing ones) and never mention their book at all.

There will be plenty of time to get to know you as an author/person after an agent signs you, so don't include things like "i'm a mom to three boys, ages 5, 7, and 9. I also like to whittle in my free time."

It's all about the book.

Shelley Sly said...

Valuable advice. Thanks for sharing. I'll have to take a second look at my query letters and see where I'm putting the most important information.

Tawna Fenske said...

Dadrat is describing what journalists call the "inverted pyramid." I never really thought about it, but as a recovering journalist, I still write precisely this way when I work on submission cover sheets with my agent.

We start with a few lines describing the story, then a few lines about why the market is hot for this sort of story, then a line or two explaining that readers fond of blah-blah author would like this book, and finally, a few lines about the author (that's me).

I never really considered it, but that's definitely an inverted pyramid. Old habits die hard, I guess.

Great post, Moonrat!

writtenwyrdd said...

That's an engineer for you: total pragmatism. (I worked at an engineering firm for 6 years, and Dadrat could have been any one of them talking about a project or proposal.)

My problem is that I always try to decide what is important To The Recipient. I think that's a bass-ackward approach, after reading Dadrat's comments, and I hadn't really considered that this is my tendency. Especially considering I KNOW the query is about what's in the book, not about the author OR the recipient.

Laurel said...

Queries are harder than writing a book. And I suspect Dadrat is right.

At any rate, deciding what is most important IS most important.

I wrote my first MS, gleeful and enamored, and started putzing the internet for what to do next. Query letters, that's next. Then I started reading about query letters and stumbled across some nonsense about how you should never submit your first draft of your first novel ever ever EVER. Oh, and you should show, not tell. And some stuff about passive voice and how you shouldn't use it extensively.

I started working on the query and the rest began to make sense.

Queries are hard. BUT. If it is impossible to distill your MS down to two to three paragraphs, your story might not be tight enough. Or your writing. Or both.

Jemi Fraser said...

Dadrat is pretty darn smart :)

Heather Snow said...

My degree is in chemistry...wonder if I could distill my query down to a formula... I'll have to think about that.


Nice Post.

Yvonne said...

Your dad is a smart fellow. I want to follow you. How do I follow you?

Meghan Ward said...

As a former newspaper reporter, I agree with Dadrat that the inverted pyramid is the way to go with query letters (sounds like Cassandra agrees). Great post!

Kim Kasch said...

I'd say a very nice Dadrat. Not only is he wanting to help you but your friends too.

Linguista said...

I agree with Dadrat and Philangelus.

Put the important stuff first, but the trick is to figure out what's important.

Query Shark says the same thing. Get the hook of your book out there in the first paragraph. Otherwise an agent may already be bored, by the time they find the hook. If they're still reading...

Jon Paul said...

I think the engineer approach is sound. In the military, we call it BLUF, or Bottom Line Up Front.

But as Philangelus points out, the BLUF changes depending on market and audience. Figuring that out is the real trick.

Bernita said...

Dadrat reminds me I once taught English to first year engineers.
Wish I'd had him in my class.

The Novelist said...

I love engineers. They are efficient.

Patrick DiOrio said...

Your father obviously paid attention in his writing class. As an ex-journalist with a degree in journalism he was giving you the rules for writing a news story and he was absolutely right on target on the structure of a news story. Your dad must have gotten an A in the class and I'm impressed he remembers it so well.

Carolyn said...

Sounds like great advice to me!

Like most great advice, the devil is in the details.

Maria said...

He's right you know. Just the facts ma'am and in order of importance...


Matilda McCloud said...

Great advice from Dadrat. Papa McCloud was also an engineer and a very good writer too!

Kristi Faith said...

What is it about men that can make everything so simple? It's yet more proof that my dad was right.. "It's all logic. If you don't get it, aren't logical."


Nishant said...
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Sarah Laurenson said...

I'd love it if the engineers I work with could spell. I doubt any of them have taken any sort of writing class. But I'm one of those weird engineers who writes children's fiction.

We do tend to take the analytical approach.

Tan said...

Wow. That advice sounds like it could have followed my dad's favorite line: "I may not be an educated man, but any idiot can see..."

He's right an irritating number of times.

Anonymous said...

yeah,yeah,yeah......having just watched a great Beatles/musical "Across the Universe"....a must see for Beatles lovers.....
Once again, your father is right! Damn! Truth to tell, I have been applying this advice to my meager writing responsibilities ever since he first told me this, some 30 years ago.
Thanks, Dadrat.
Your loving Valentine, Momrat

Anonymous said...

I don't know about query letters, but your dad's right about newspaper articles. My dad has been editing/writing for newspapers since Benjamin Harris. When I was freelancing for a local paper, he's always berate me to just chop off the last few sentences, and he was usually right. Of course, Dad's sage newspaper advice didn't generally apply to, say, AP essays, but would he believe that...?