Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Art of the Query and other Bits of the Biz

Since I’ve crafted a writing blog, a sporadic feature will focus on tricks of the trade—you know—those guru tips I pick up at writer’s conferences, online, or through my fabulous writing partners. And since I’m getting ready to draft a query letter for my most recent novel, I thought I’d enlighten you on the essence of an effective query.

Just what do I know about effective querying? Not everything, but considering my publishing credits can fit on the head of a pin and my query still netted me four fulls and four partials (aka “someone wanted to read my book!” Eek!), I think I can write a pretty good one.

Soooo—what’s a query, you ask?

In a nutshell, your query is your calling card, your business letter that, in roughly 250 words, tells wonderful agent people all about your fantabulous book and any pub credits you may have.

And I can’t take full credit for my query which—PS—I rewrote 139 times (but who’s counting?) My very first writing workshop ev-er featured the illustrious Janet Reid of Fine Print Literary. If you ever get the chance to just meet her—she’s as hilarious as she is informative and her blog Query Shark is a site every writer should check out. She taught me how to write a query letter and more importantly, how to write a log line.

The log line is often the first sentence of your query: your “hook”, your elevator pitch, a pithy snappy sentence conveying the gist of your story.

Wait. You’re telling me I have to boil down my 80,000 word novel to a sentence? What?

Daunting task? Yes.

Do-able? Yes, again.

Actually it has to be done. Especially if you're an "UN" (an unsolicited, unpublished aspiring author), you need to have the "hook" to reel 'em in.

And because my inner teacher can’t resist a game and relevant examples to reinforce that it CAN BE DONE, see if you can name the movie based on their log line (all courtesy of and IMDb)

a) When a Roman general is betrayed and his family murdered by an evil prince, he comes to Rome as a gladiator to seek revenge.

b) After a series of grisly shark attacks, a sheriff struggles to protect his small beach community against the bloodthirsty monster, in spite of the greedy chamber of commerce.

c) A psychologist struggles to cure a troubled boy who is haunted by a bizarre affliction – he sees dead people.

d) After murdering her lover, an aspiring singer struggles for stardom by using her crime as a stepping-stone to fame and fortune.

And my favorite…

e) Three friends retrace their steps to try and find the groom after a massive bender bachelor party in Las Vegas.

Let’s see how you did…

a) Gladiator
b) Jaws
c) The Sixth Sense
d) Chicago
e) The Hangover

So you see, when elegantly crafted, the log line essentially conveys these three things…

1) the main character (who the story’s about)
2) his goal (what he wants)
3) the antagonistic force (what stands in his way)

Check it out…

An archeologist (main character) is hired by the U.S. government to find the Ark of the Covenant (goal) before the Nazis (antagonistic force).

Um... that was, uh... High School Musical, right?

JK. Hopefully you clearly heard John Williams overture and saw Harrison Ford darting away from big scary boulder. (ahem - Raiders of the Lost Ark)

That’s a def biggie for your log line—convey the essence of the story.

Here are two more that describe the same book.

• After a twister transports a lonely Kansas farm girl to a magical land, she sets out on a dangerous journey to find a wizard with the power to send her home. (logline by Brian A. Klems,

• Transported to a surreal landscape, a young girl kills the first woman she meets, then teams up with three complete strangers to kill again. (Log Line by Richard Polito of the Marin Independent Journal, who writes humorously sarcastic briefs for the paper's daily TV listings)

Ah, yes… The Wizard of Oz. And two faboo log lines, but which one does the better job of telling the reader what the story’s really about?

Okay—so there you have it. Writing log lines. Easy-peasy, right?

Hmmm… not so much, but one can do it. In fact, for some writers—that’s their point of origin.

My log line for my first project is simple, yet effective. When I attended the Backspace Writer’s Conference in New York last November and someone next to me asked what a log line was, I just happened to be next on the “read your query” circuit. Upon revealing mine, one of the fabulous agents exclaimed “Now that’s a log line!”

Uh… can we say blush much?

Of course, my two seconds of fame shattered upon revealing my word count, but I guess it still proves I can write one.

And (cue drum roll), here ‘tis:

Jamie Peters hits puberty and discovers that she can turn invisible. And that someone may be trying to kill her because of it.

Yep. I wrote a book about superheroes. And yes—I did just declare my inner dork-ness to the online world (hehe), but who knows—maybe my next super-duper log line will net me the next step in the “road to publishing” excursion—an agent.

PS - in case you need some handy dandy sites on queries and log lines:

I Can Write a 120,000 word novel, but I can't construct a log line (Christopher Lockhart)

Query Shark

Guide to Literary Agents

Nathan Brandsford

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