Query Letters

For some time I’ve known that query letters were good for me. Rather than just something to send to prospective agents, they’re also a good way to analyze my novel and think about how to sell it. It forces me to consider what is most important about the novel and what can fall into the background. If I have trouble making it sound good in a few sentences, it may indicate that the novel needs more work. So I write query letters long before I’m ready to submit. They’re just for me to use during revising.

Another advantage to writing query letters early in the process is that they can also be revised over months, rather than minutes. The end result is a stronger novel and a stronger query letter.

You’ll find many examples of successful query letters online, and many agents say explicitly what they expect in a query letter. Don’t expect all this advice to be consistent. Some of it is contradictory. So I’m not going to add to the clutter by advising you how to write one, only suggest that you start early in the process and get dual use out of it.

Here’s a sample.

The Time Traveler

I’m working on a new novel that relies on time travel, which may or may not be possible, but no one has done it yet. But my character needs to go back to his childhood to save a little girl who died in part because of him. I decided not to get too hung up on the method of getting him back in time, and to instead work with the paradoxes. For instance, a time traveler couldn’t go back and kill his father before the time traveler was conceived. But there are other considerations having to do with cause and effect.

If you think about where you are right now and then consider how you got there, the answer is more complicated than you might first admit. Say you’re at a restaurant. Why this particular one? What is it about your history that led you to this city, this restaurant, and to order the fried clams instead of the haddock? You might begin by explaining a painful bone in the haddock you ate many years ago, and you might say that you liked the name of the restaurant because it reminded you of one in your home town. You get the point. Cause and effect goes all the way back, so who you are and where you are, what beliefs and attitudes you have now are in part the result of your past experiences.

What this suggests, of course, is that changing even one small thing in the past is likely to have consequences well into the future. It is this chain of cause and effect that turns an otherwise series of events into a story.

But this story I’m working on involves time travel, and if it follows the laws of physics we say it is a science fiction story. If, on the other hand, it breaks those laws as we know them, it becomes science fantasy. In science fiction, astute readers point out any flaws in logic or design by saying, “That’s not possible.” But science fantasy has no such requirement. It’s more of a what-if kind of story: What if we could travel back in time? That’s what I’m writing, just enough fantasy to send me back to my childhood.

How to Begin a Novel

My process has always been the same, whether for short stories or novels: I create a scene, put a character in motion, and throw in an obstacle. From there, it’s seat-of-the-pants. While this works fairly well for me with short stories, novels are a different matter, since it’s pretty easy for my characters’ lives to wander the way they often do in real life, without clear direction or goals.

The book Story Genius by Lisa Cron explains why that process is rarely successful. She could have used some of my writing as bad examples.

So I started a new novel with a general idea of where it was heading. My protagonist is a man driving (literally) into the past to save a little girl from suicide, in part just to be decent, but significantly because he’s been tormented by the memory of her all his life. The novel begins with him driving the car that will take him there, but because he’s moving into the past, he has no memory of where he came from or even why. It’s a cross between Memento and Back to the Future.

I wrote 10,000 words, much as I would have before reading Story Genius, but then put it down and began working on a one-page summary. I didn’t need all the details of where my character was going or what he was going to do, but I really needed the broad description of that summary. For the past week or so I’ve been getting feedback and revising the summary, and when I’m sure what story I’m telling, I’ll continue drafting without the anxiety that comes from not knowing what happens next.

Story Genius details a complete process for writing, which I admit to not following, even though it sounds like good advice, but I am using the central idea of knowing where the story is going before you begin (or at least get too far). I’ll know in a few months if it works.

Real people, revisited

Sure I know the difference. Real people are real, fictional characters are fiction. But. My wife and I were on a walk the other day, and I told her about some trouble I was having with revisions on my new novel. Lots of characters, multiple plots tied together by very little but family relationships. So I’m developing characters and relationships as the plot progresses. It’s complicated because I want it all to feel very real. So back to our walk. My comment to my wife was something like, “I have to remember that these are real people reacting to events that just took place.” Then we had a discussion about real people. Who is, who isn’t? That was interesting, but the problem that led to this was a bit different.

I’m pretty good at writing scenes. Yes, I’m bragging. But I have a tendency to view scenes in isolation, which means I don’t always consider what happened in the scenes that came earlier. Part of this is the way I write, which is not always linear, and part of it is simply a failure of story telling. One thing leads to another. It’s cause and effect. But weirdly, it’s not so much the effect I was overlooking as the affect. In other words, how would the plot affect the characters. That’s the root of my problem, the trigger for my conversation with my wife, and a reminder that these are real characters, and they’re not going to forget what happened five minutes ago.

Let them work it out

I know the difference between real people and my characters. I really do. But sometimes I call on them to get me out of a jam. For instance, if I’m not sure where the plot is going (or should go) I put my characters together and see what happens. Given their personalities and the events that preceeded this juncture, what they do next will be a natural outgrowth of the story, rather than something imposed by me. The current novel I’m working on came to just such a point, and for a few days I thought and thought (and got nowhere) and finally threw my three main characters together inside a pickup and let them go. They’ll work it out.

In another novel, I wasn’t totally clear about what motivated my main character, so I wrote a scene where he made a list of what he wanted. Again, because it was coming from my character and the personality and voice already established, his desires were more organic and believable.

So I know my characters aren’t real, but if I’ve created a consistent, unique character, then at critical points they can help me out. This doesn’t mean that they are completely predictable. Like flesh and blood people, they sometimes behave in unexpected ways. You might think of this as the monkey-wrench approach, which has saved more than one of my stories from tedium.

Revising a Long Short Story

I made an interesting discovery recently when I tried to turn a novella into a novel, then into a long, short story. Everyone knows that the market for novellas is pretty small, but I had written a story of 30,000 words that seemed just right. It's a story I've been trying to write for a long time (I'm into the third decade with this one) and I finally thought it was perfect (at least the length of it). But I also wanted to publish it, and I thought the chances were better with a novel of 60,000 words or greater, so I began to expand. Some of you are probably already thinking, "Dumb idea," and it was. I made it longer, but not better. I gave up at 35,000 words.

Then I got the opportunity to publish it as a very long short story, so I began to whittle. Twenty revisions later it's 32,000 words, and much better than either the original or the novel attempt.

So what I learned is the value of expansion, followed by contraction. Making the story longer meant adding more detail, and some of them were pretty good, and when I then began to shorten the story, only the very best was left. That sounds easier than it was. I probably cut 8,000 words during revisions, and added in more.

I know this is all a little incoherent, but let me summarize. I found that by first lengthening, then cutting a story the result was a tight, good story. A less positive lesson was that trying to lengthen a story leads to mostly fluff that should never have been added. It was more like padding, and I am so happy I cut it out.


Yesterday I got the galleys for my story "Black Chevy" which is to appear in the Iowa Review this spring. I've always thought it was one of my best stories, so I'm pretty happy (and grateful) that it will finally see print in such a great magazine.


Anyone hoping to find an agent for a book can profit from these sites:

Agent Query allows you to search by agent, agency, genre, whether the agent is a member of AAR and whether they accept e-mail submissions. It's free and easy to use. For those sites with links to their home page, be sure to check the latest submissions requirements.

Query Tracker maintains a database of agents and agencies, but also keeps statistics about response times and acceptance rates. It's user provided data, but you don't need to log your own submissions to take advantage of those who do.

Publishers Marketplace isn't free, but for $20 a month you get access to all the deals for each agent and agency. Want to know how many debut novels agent X has placed this year? You can find out here, along with the size of the advance.

Absolute Write Watercooler is a forum for writers that discusses, among other things, experiences with agents and publishers.

Preditors and Editors helps you avoid unscrupulous agents and publishers by compiling users' experiences and rating the businesses.

The Association of Authors' Representatives maintains a searchable list of members. This is the primary organization for agents, and has a code of conduct that among other things prohibits reading fees. It's a good list, but not all good, scrupulous agents are members.

The Hook

So you do your research at one of various sites devoted to agents, you find the agency and the agent that seem just right, then you send a query letter and cross your fingers that you'll hear back. In a day, a week, a month (once I got a response after two years). I see the query letter much like a resume. You have about three seconds to capture their attention and avoid the delete button. So I spend a lot of time on the first sentence, what they call the hook. If that's off or wrong or simply bad, they probably won't read any further, so I try to get it perfect. I write a dozen of them, show them to my family, take votes of which one they like best. Then I do it again, because it doesn't yet seem perfect. It's not easy capturing the tone, central conflict, and what's at stake for the narrator in one sentence. You'll find advice all over the web of how to best do this, but when it's your novel, your story, you have to do it yourself. Templates and examples are great, but it has to be something only you can write. It can't be too formulaic, and it can't be trite.

I claim no expertise. My novels are better than my queries, and the skills required to tell a story in 60,000 words are not the ones required to reduce it to a sentence. But agents are busy people, and authors who can give them the flavor of their book in those few seconds are more likely to get read.

Call me a Psychiatrist

I'm not, but sometimes my writing leads me to the neighborhood, makes me circle the parking lot. As I've said before, life is hard in my fictional worlds, and my characters lead lives we would not wish upon the dead. Not that they don't have fun, but the things they have to overcome (death, disappointment, betrayal, ignorance) can drag you right down. They do me because I have to live with them. I'm right there in the cesspools, the bad places where the blood runs, where the water chokes the life out of my best friends, my lovers, my sister. So I circle the parking lot, imagine that I will go in, try to explain why I need antidepressants. It's not me, I will say. It's them. Their lives are really screwed up. They need help.

Copyright 2021 by Philip Tate