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Sunday, November 10, 2013

Novel Query Letters Should Lie

You wrote a great novel. You had its beginning and its query checked out on AbsoluteWrite and other forums. You studied Query Shark. But all agents reject you and your novel will never sell.

“Why?”

It is lost in the query-letter slush pile. Slush is muddy, melting, dirty snow, with some pieces of ice and some pebbles. Agents negotiate contracts of clients who have proven they can make the agents money. Agents edit works of proven writers to make them more salable. Agents hunt for markets worldwide. They help to sell their writers' published books. They socialize with writers to acquire new content, and they socialize with publishers to market and sell content. No agent has much time for, nor enjoys, rummaging through piles of query slush.

Reading slush is a smelly, disgusting task. Millions think they can write and they send their work to agents and publishers with great hopes. But in nearly all cases, it is hard to keep down one’s breakfast after reading more than a few words from the slush pile. Most slush is terrible. After years of reading slush and finding very little of value, most agents know it is a waste of time. They look for reasons to reject each query quickly, so they can discard as much slush as they can in as short a time as possible.

“But my work is great and will stand out and be noticed, won’t it?”

NO! IT WON’T! No matter how great your novel is, it will not get read, with one exception. The greatest piece of writing has to be your query letter. A diamond query letter looks just like a piece of ice amid the slush. A gold query letter is tarnished by the smelly stuff around it. The query must be stunningly brilliant and not let go. It has to be untarnishable gold with a very sharp titanium hook.

Unfortunately, query letters for great novels are rarely great. Writers of great novels are proud of their novels and try to be true to their novels. That is a big mistake. Query letters should lie! If your novel has a fascinating, convoluted plot that has the reader bawling like a baby at page 300, your query letter must get the reader bawling at sentence three. To do that, you must lie. Throw away the fascinating convolution. “A” should cause “Z.” “A” should not cause “B” and then “B” cause “C” etc. The query must be powerful immediately. The only thing that matters is getting an agent to read your novel. Truth does not matter.

For example, your novel is a legal thriller in which the protagonist is the deciding Supreme Court justice for a case in which a woman is not guilty of attempted murder because she used poisons covered by international treaty, and the case was originally tried in a state court (Bond v. United States, used here as an example). That is what you write in your query, right? WRONG! Your query should say that the novel is about a sterile wife who poisons her best friend for having an affair with and getting pregnant from the sterile woman’s husband. Forget the Supreme Court Justice. (She would be the fourth character mentioned, and that’s too many.) The query might state that the case goes to the Supreme Court, but it should imply that the wife is the protagonist. Under the limitation of a paragraph or two in a query, she is the interesting character. The only thing that counts is that the agent reads the novel. Being truthful will make sure your novel is not read.

“But won’t agents eventually notice?”

Even if they do, they won’t care. If your query is so good that it persuades an agent to ask to see the full novel, your book is probably good enough that it will be obvious that your talent will bring the agent money. Chances are the agent won’t remember your dishonesty, but even if so, your honesty or dishonesty does not affect the agent’s pocket. Your writing ability does. That’s what matters. The agent might ask you about the inconsistencies, but will still offer to represent you.

“Should you lie about word count?”

Damn right, you should! Your novel might be the best thing ever written, but it will not be read if you tell agents it is over 135,000 words. Remember that agents are looking for a reason to reject your query and move on to the next one. A high word count is the number one reason for a rejection. The agent you persuade to read your book will not care after reading the 150,000th word that the novel is too big if it is a great book. Again, you must use any means to make sure agents read your novel. Think “by hook or by crook.”

“So, having a well-crafted, lying query letter will get my novel sold?”

That depends on your novel. The whole supposition here is that you have a great novel. If you do not have a great novel, it will be rejected no matter how golden and titanium your query is. The point is that a great novel will not even be read unless accompanied by an even greater query letter. But query letters for great novels usually are not good because the authors try to remain true to their novels.

Your ultimate goal is to sell your great novel. If concern about dishonesty keeps you from achieving your dreams, then you are not being true to yourself. Shakespeare says “To thine own self be true.” If lying in a query letter helps you be true to yourself. Then lie, lie, and lie, and sell your great novel.

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