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Queries In Voice

First off, a caveat to say that this is my opinion, not necessary The End All and Be All, though I’ve heard other agents who share my thoughts.

I am not impressed by queries that come to me with too much voice. Of course you want your query to have some voice, in the same way that good advertising copy has a personality. But one type of query I often see and that tries way too hard is the query written “by” the protagonist that “introduces” me to the protagonist’s author. It goes something like this:

Hiya! I’m 12 and my name’s Mackenzie. I’m in a story about all these crazy adventures that my friends and I go on. Even though everyone says I run the show, the gal taking it all down on paper is Jane Doe, a schoolteacher from Philadelphia who has a B.A. in Child Psychology. Whatever that means, teehee! If you want to read my story…

Etc.

Point is, a query is a cover letter for your writing. It’s your foot forward and your first contact with an agent. It’s also a business letter. I know I’d never apply for a job by submitting an overly playful resume that’s covered in hologram stickers unless I wanted to work at a clown college (and I’m sure that even clown colleges respect a degree of professionalism). That’s gimmicky. While gimmicks sometimes pay off, more often than not, they become the stories agents tell when they’re hanging out after hours at conferences: “Did you hear the one about the guy who showed up to the pitch slam dressed as a giant baby?” (That’s a fictional example I pulled off the top of my head but, actually, I’m sure it has really happened.)

This reminds me of that episode of Arrested Development in the third season where Tobias, a struggling actor, enlists Maeby, his daughter, who has been cutting school because she’s secretly a prominent film executive, to help him make goodie bag packages for casting directors. He stuffs them full of headshots, candy, vaguely threatening notes, and packets of glitter…all in the hope of catching their attention.

Maeby, by this point way jaded by the film biz, says, “Casting directors hate this!” Then the scene cuts to a casting director opening one of the packets, getting a shot of glitter to the face, and yelling into the phone, “The glitter queen struck again. Never hire Tobias Fünke!”

Just as I discussed in my post about social networking abuse last week, there are good ways to get attention, and there are bad ways. Glitter-filled packets? Bad. Queries that bend themselves into pretzels trying to be clever and “voicey”? Not my cuppa.

The #1 surefire super-secret can’t-fail way to impress a literary agent? Your manuscript!

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  1. Emily White’s avatar

    The sad thing is, there are how-to books out there actually telling authors to send gimmicky packages to agents and write gimmicky queries in the POV of your MC. I know this because I purchased one. After seeing that particular advice (and no, I am NOT in the habit of doing this, but I felt it was warranted and very necessary at the time), I threw the book into the garbage.

    I now stick to taking the advice of blogging agents. It seems to be more reliable.

  2. Jackson MacKenzie’s avatar

    Another great post!

    Any advice for people with the opposite problem? (ie. difficulty cramming voice into a 250-ish-word blurb)

    Thanks :)

  3. June’s avatar

    This is the first time I’ve heard of people doing this. I guess the idea is to be cute, but it sounds over-the-top and silly.

  4. Julie Daines’s avatar

    So, what about writers kidnapping agents and tying them up in the trunk of their cars. I’m pretty sure something like that may have happened…

  5. Luvina’s avatar

    I always try to add a bit of voice into the query, but my most recent project makes that a challenge. My MC is illiterate and sort of emotionally stunted, so using her voice would have required double the average query word count just because her vocabulary is so limited.

    Thats an extreme example, of course. But there are occasions where I find my voice is just more efficient than that of my protagonist. Again, I guess it’s about balance.

    Also: “and I’m sure that even clown colleges respect a degree of professionalism”

    I snorted.

  6. Franziska Green’s avatar

    Oh man, this post reminds me of some hilarious stories people told over at the Blueboards about their attempts to attract editor/agent attention. There was perfume sprayed on envelopes, ribbons, all sorts. I admit, I still find myself thinking about putting query letters into rainbow-coloured envelopes. You know, just so my envelope is more noticeable than all the others in the slush pile!!

    I know I’d love a rainbow envelope in the mail instead of all those white ones with the little clear window… How jolly! I’d think to myself as I tore open my latest electric bill. But I guess for editors/agents it sends a different message!

  7. Jan’s avatar

    If the worst thing you ever did was send a query in a colored envelope, I doubt you’d even nudge the average editor/agent nut-o-meter.

  8. Melinda Joy’s avatar

    Thank you for your posts. Love your blog.

  9. Stella Michel’s avatar

    Thanks so much for this post. It’s such a great relief to me because every time I tried to write a query using a voice from my novel – as I’d heard that we should – it came off sounding phony and down right bad. I’d much rather make it more of a business letter, as you suggest.

  10. Jade’s avatar

    Oh, Tobias! If nothing else, the man can wear a pair of cut-offs like nobody’s business!

  11. attorneydavid’s avatar

    Funnily enough, I’ve been trying to get help in some forums and everyone’s going on there not being enough voice. It’s a third person adult novel and everyone’s writing children’s stuff it seems so I can only imagine how voicey children’s queries are getting.

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