bane – noun
1. a person or thing that ruins or spoils
2. a deadly poison
3. death; destruction; ruin
DC Comics did a great job naming that character. I’ve never read the comics, but Bane in the movie personifies the definition perfectly. He murders and pillages, spreading violence and mayhem, almost taking Batman’s life. Almost . . .
That’s pretty much how writing query letters makes me feel. I’ve written close to a hundred tries. Yes, literally a hundred. Between my first manuscript and my current one, I’ve tried, and tried again, with very little success. And by success I don’t mean attracting the attention of an agent, though that’s the purpose of a query. No, I’m referring to a positive response from my peers before I send that bad boy out.
I queried exactly three agents on my MG manuscript a few years ago. The best word to describe that is premature. Not only did my contemporaries over at Query Letter Hell* on the Absolute Write forums tell me it needed work, but the MS was far from ready. I chalk it up to a learning experience, and after spending a great deal more time on the MS, I ended up trunking that project. Once again, a learning experience.
For my current WIP, I’ve taken two or three different stints through QLH. Still nothing great. Which is okay. I don’t mind the work. If it were easy, it wouldn’t be worth doing, right? I keep telling myself that.
The problem is, besides the obvious fact my queries are junk, there are so many opinions about what makes a good query. And a query that breaks all the rules and is torn apart by your peers could wow the agent of your dreams. Do you trust anonymous people online to critique your work or go with your gut?
There’s no concrete answer, which makes the process all the more difficult. Do you take a chance on a query that’s critique-approved or even something you love yourself and risk losing the agent you really want? It’s a gamble, and a costly one. Sure there are thousands of agents out there. Somebody is going to believe in your work. But the “better” the agent, the better chance you have of getting published.
So here’s my untested solution: I’m going to mix the two. Recently I entered the Like a Virgin Pitch Contest for YA writers. It consisted of a query letter and the first 250 words of your novel. I was a runner up. Not bad for putting myself out there for the first time, but I mostly attribute my limited success to my first 250. Still, if the query were that bad, I wouldn’t have gotten runner up, would I?
And besides that tiny vote of confidence, I came to the conclusion that those critiquing my query letters don’t know my novel like I do. In fact, most of them don’t write YA, so they don’t necessarily know the market. The biggest complaint I heard was that my MC didn’t have a name. “For the purpose of the query, your MC should have a name,” was a common comment.
Ignore a consensus at your own risk, but here is one time I decided to go with my gut. The name of my novel is I Have No Name. The MC not having a name is vitally important. What’s more, it is something that sets it apart from other post-apocalyptic novels out there right now. If I describe my story as “How a teenage girl survives after a plague wipes out the human population,” the reaction might be, “Um, okay, heard that before.” But if I lead with “Mentally broken, a teenage girl tries to forget her past and the pain of losing everyone to a plague, including her own name,” that might sound a little more interesting.
Of course, that example isn’t enough, but I know that I have to use the core conflict of the story to attract the right agent. I might get a good agent if I describe my novel as “a girl falls in love with her kidnapper, but will she choose him or the innocent romance she has at home?” but that’s not the story I want to sell. Yeah, it’s in there, but that’s the spice not the sauce. I want an agent who will recognize the sauce for what it is. Hearty, satisfying and deep. (At least I think so.)
So, I will write the query I want, including what I think sets my story apart from others, and still use the critiquing process to perfect what I have. I’ll listen closely to advice about the language, the structure, and how to present my story in the most interesting non-cliched way possible. In the end, if my peers tell me it’s junk, but I just can’t agree with them on the core purpose of my letter, then I’ll have to go with my own. After all, it’s not their neck on the line. It’s mine. And I have to be happy about my effort above all else.
There will be failure, but I will own it. I won’t fail because I took the advice of others against my own judgment. I’ll fail on my submission and my choices and what I feel in my heart is my best effort and the best representation of my work. But I’ll also succeed on that too. And that, as a writer, is all we can hope to do.
*You must be a member in good standing with at least 50 posts to post your work in this section of AW and have the password. That’s no biggie though. Just ask around and someone will provide. And you’re always welcome to fill your 50 post requirement with critiques of your own.