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  • Jan Flynn

Query Weary

I attended a query workshop this weekend. A query, for those of you who don’t  speak writer jargon, is the thing you send out to

agents or magazine editors or anybody who you think might have a snowball’s chance in you-know-where of buying/printing/publishing or at least taking a peek at your work. It’s different from a synopsis, which is a (usually) one-page distillation of your book’s essential characters, plot points, and themes.

Writing either is about as easy as singing an aria when you’re simultaneously undergoing a root canal. Most writers, especially those who are politely referred to as “emerging,” turn queasy at the prospect of either. We might in fact opt for the root canal/aria option if given the choice. Alas, if we ever want our writing to have a chance at traditional publication, learning to write a strong query is a basic requirement.

Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators

Hence the workshop. Query 101 was organized and hosted by the San Francisco North and East Bay chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). This is an indispensable organization if you write anything ranging from picture books through young adult. In my case, I have a middle-grade, Christmas-themed novel that I’ve been playing around with for some years now and have decided it’s time to test the waters.

And I am doing so in the full knowledge that middle-grade fiction is possibly even more difficult to sell than adult or young adult, with a smaller market and hard-to-predict gatekeepers (parents, teachers, school librarians). Also common to writers is a fondness for tilting at windmills.

Clearly I need expert advice. Luckily the workshop was led by Samantha Bagood, a literary agent with her own firm, Samantha B Literary, based in Southern California. A petite, intently focused powerhouse who looks to be younger than at least one of my adult children yet who exudes professionalism and deep knowledge of the industry, Samantha took the timorous authors in the room through a series of exercises and questions. These were designed to get us thinking about queries in a way that helped us see things from the other side; that is, from the perspective of an agent who has little time and a lot of demands, yet a burning desire to find gripping, well-crafted, salable stories. “What is your goal with the query letter?” she asked us. Timorous hands went up at half-mast around the room.

“A book deal?” asked someone. “A contract offer?” suggested someone else. “A request for the manuscript?” ventured another.

Samantha gently but firmly guided us away from our overblown expectations (see tilting at windmills, above) and helped us with the correct answer. “Your goal with a query letter,” she explained, “is to get the agent to read the first line of your book.”

And that right there changed my thinking about my query in such a way that I’ve spent most of the remainder of the weekend completely rewriting what I’d thought was a fairly good effort. It’s now shorter, more direct, and hopefully leads with a strong hook. No, I’m not going to post it here: I’ve sent it off for Ms. Bagood’s critique, an opportunity I wasn’t about to pass up.

I expect I’ll have more rewriting to do once I hear back from her. I’ll let you know if I got anywhere close. For now, I’m pleased to have my homework done, and to have pushed myself well past my comfort zone.

What do you do to stretch yourself? Your comments are as appreciated as your courage, so please share.

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