My own query letter hell and the dangers of information overload

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WARNING: Don’t get excited if you’re an aspiring writer. I’ll confess at the outset that I have absolutely no insight into how to write a query letter. When I was in graduate school, I thought I had discovered the form of writing at which I sucked the very most; I could not write a scholarly journal article to save my life. But that was before I discovered the query letter.

For those of you who are not acquainted with this particular genre, a query letter is one of the flaming hoops you must jump through in order to get published. Only before you attempt your hoop-jumping, someone cuts off both your legs and blindfolds you. And the hoop is the size of a cantaloupe.

On the nature of the query letter

I exaggerate–a little. A query letter is about 250 words in which you attempt to convince an agent that your book is worth reading and perhaps even representing. It’s not quite a synopsis–you don’t want to reveal everything that happens in your book. It’s about 250 words so there’s a lot you have to leave out. But somehow, you need to shine. To sparkle. To completely entrance the person reading it so that they will bend to your will, your will being to publish your novel.

You can understand the logic of a query letter. It’s a bit like the cover letter that you send when you’re applying for a job. Only the job you’re applying for is all about writing, and so every single word in this letter matters. A friend of mine described the query letter as the best one page of writing you can possibly produce. No pressure there.

In my extensive research on the query letter, I’ve learned that some people will write the query letter before they even write a draft of their manuscript. You can see the usefulness there. First, writing a completed novel is infinitely easier than writing a query letter, so you have that most unpleasant task out of the way. Second, writing the query letter first helps you think through some essential questions about your story: what’s at stake; what are the obstacles preventing your main character from getting what she wants; and what happens if your main character doesn’t get what she wants. It all sounds so simple, doesn’t it? A chimp could write a query letter. If you know of a qualified chimp, please let me know.

Alas, I did not write a query letter before I sat down to write the manuscript for my first novel. This was partly because I wasn’t sure I could write a novel. And then there was the fact that I didn’t, at that point, have any idea what a query letter was. So I find myself in my own query letter hell.

MRI’s, back pain and too much information

magnetic resonance imagingIn his book on decision-making, Jonah Lehrer details the interesting case of MRI’s and back pain. Before the invention of magnetic resonance imaging in the 1980s, the prescription for most back pain was bed rest. It seemed to work; about 90 percent of patients improved with bed rest after 7 weeks. But doctors didn’t really know why, and they didn’t know much about the actual causes of lower back pain.

Enter the MRI. This tool gave doctors detailed information about the complicated tissue of the lower back. Looking at the images of patients with lower back pain, doctors could diagnose things like spinal disc abnormalities; people with lower back pain seemed to have degenerate discs which were the cause of their pain. Lower back pain began to be treated with epidurals to quiet the pain and surgical removal of the offending tissue.

Only the MRI images actually had nothing to do with the back pain. In one study, doctors were sent MRI images of the backs of patients who suffered from no lower back pain. Doctors concluded that nearly 90 percent of these patients had some form of disc degeneration. These were the same abnormalities often used to justify surgery, and yet none of these patients were experiencing back pain.

The MRI, Lehrer argues, provided too much information. As one doctor explained, the only place to find a truly healthy spine is in an 18 year old. The information the MRI gives doctors about a patient’s back is probably not important to the actual treatment of their pain. In fact, another study demonstrated that patients whose back pain was diagnosed with an MRI and those diagnosed with X-rays experienced the exact same outcomes. The group diagnosed with an MRI, which gave their doctors more information about their spine, fared no better than those diagnosed with a less detailed X-ray. Sometimes more information is not a good thing.

Saturation

In qualitative social science research there’s a concept called saturation. When conducting qualitative interviews or observation, you reach a point when you have collected all the information you need. In qualitative interviews, this happens when your interview subjects are telling you nothing new. This is not, after all, research that involves large-scale sampling. Generalization is not the point, and so if your subjects keep telling you the same thing over and over again, it might be time to stop collecting data. That’s saturation.

It’s a useful idea to think about. How do you know when you already know enough? There’s a great deal of information available out there about how to write a query letter. If you’re at all interested, you can check out forums like Absolute Write Water Cooler and their query letter hell. Gracious agents like Janet Reid regularly critique query letters in order to help authors get a sense of what it’s all about. There are countless workshops, webinars and books. You could spend the rest of your life figuring out how to write the perfect query letter.

On the QueryShark blog you can eventually “win”; this means you have revised your query letter in a way that satisfies Janet Reid. It doesn’t mean you get an agent. That is a whole other thing. There is no such thing as a perfect query letter. There is only the query letter that gets you an agent and one that does not. Here’s what I think might be true: there is no way sure-fire way to tell the difference between the two.

There are query letters that are better and query letters that are worse. But in the end, getting your book published is a crap shoot. Don’t tell my students, but sometimes the difference between an A and a B on your paper has less to do with the paper you wrote and more to do with the particular circumstances when I’m grading it. It makes sense that this is true of query letters, too.

At some point, there is nothing more you can know. You either make that leap or you don’t. You’ve done your research. You’ve written your drafts. If being published is what you want, it’s time to make that leap. It’s time to acknowledge that there’s only so much you can know and to plow ahead anyway. And that’s never a bad lesson to learn.

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