Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The What Ifs

Like many agents, the practice of using a rhetorical question to open a query letter rubs me the wrong way. I've never really been able to pinpoint why, but over the past month, I've heard ample pitches and read ample queries to allow me to figure this out a little better.

Many of the pitches I heard began with the rhetorical question that probably all authors ask themselves when they begin to write: "What if?" What if spaceships landed in the Himalayas and aliens infiltrated a Buddhist monk colony? What if a woman was charged with murder after the accidental death of her husband? What if Rachel Zoe was actually a zombie? What if The Breakfast Club took place on Antarctica? (In case you were wondering, these are not pitches that I heard.)

This question and the wonder that follows can be the root of inspiration for a story--the knot the author seeks to unravel; the beads the author worries into a plot. So the "What if?" can be a rhetorical question that the author asks herself. It doesn't bother me as part of a pitch. An in-person pitch has more room for conversation, after all, and rhetorical questions are often used in conversation. That being said...

The rhetorical question doesn't work as well in the query letter. I think it's because, in writing, it comes across as a lazy device. This book--an entire manuscript, thousands of words(!)--has been written by you, the author, and has been plumbed from the depths and heights of your imagination. One of the reasons I love reading query letters is because they offer glimpses into that imagination. But using a rhetorical question to start a query letter takes the onus of imagination off of the author and places it on the reader/agent's shoulders. This is a risky practice. It takes an agent out of the query letter and away from your story, when your query is your one chance to showcase the writing and imagination that you poured into your story. You'll be hard-pressed to keep a rapt audience with rhetorical questions, and you need a rapt audience to get the attention your query letter deserves.


ChristaCarol Jones said...

Not to mention the what-ifs that turn you off like, "What if you woke up one day only to realize you've killed dozens of babies?" I'd think some agents might be a little offended in someone assuming they might wake up one day to realize that. ;)

But, for what my opinion is worth, I agree. Starting a query with any kind of question is over done and almost cliché now.

Anonymous said...

What's sad is that writing a competent query letter now has more value than writing a competent novel. Personally, I'd just ask to see the first 10 pages of a novel and go from there...

Anonymous said...

Anon 10:19

Writing a competent query letter is just another weapon in a writer's arsenal. It takes time and practice, no different than the effort a writer puts into their craft.

There are countless sources online to help writers develop this necessary skill. There are even writing forums where other writers will critique and help you develop your query to maximize your chances.

As for the first ten pages, unless an agent's guidelines state otherwise, I always include the first ten pages pasted at the bottom of my query.

And many agents, at this point, ask for sample pages, whether the first chapter, the first five, or even the first ten.

If the agent doesn't want to read the sample, or isn't interested in your novel, they can just skip the pages. But, if they're interested, there the pages will be.

JVRC said...

You are not the only one. Most of the agents I've followed in blog form all pronounce a distaste for the opening rhetorical question. I am paying attention to that detail!

Sandy (DL Havlin) said...

As you're aware more than any of us on the "other side," the query letter is a prayer, we, the great unwashed, offer reverently to the ladyships in the pub biz. (Yep, I agree the industry runs on estrogen as you seem to recognize in your post by referencing to authors as "herself.") The rhetorical question you offer up as a turn off IS one of the techniques espoused by staff's at WCs and in many of the books professing to clear the mysticism fogging a writers attempts to write a query that will simply get them an opportunity to be "read."

Unfortunately, most agents and editors websites don't provide the those of us who do diligent research before submitting a query, the type information you've included in your blog. I think that's great.

Looking at titles and authors an agent represented does nothing to delineate ones taste (or distastes)in correspondence. It puts we "slobeans" in limbo, hoping we can strike the chord, the one that resonates. After reading your post, I wonder how many rejection letters I've spawned by doing my best, but....

I have one question that isn't rhetorical in nature. Do you folks on the "inside" ever consider how many EC's are out there, standing in the cold rain, tin cup extended, a "Harry Potter" sheltered under their ragged coat?


Naomi said...

@Anon 10:19--The competent query letter hasn't replaced the stellar novel, but it is a good stepping stone to getting your novel read. Although your suggestion & Anon 4:31's of including sample pages in case the agent wants to read them isn't a bad one.

@Sandy--I think most agents & editors definitely consider the fact that the query letter or pitch is the author's best attempt at securing a vessel for their hopes and dreams in the form of a novel. It's a difficult truth to negotiate, but a reality for a business in which everyone (authors, agents, editors, etc.) faces rejection at some point(s).

Naomi said...

Sidebar to @Sandy--My use of herself is not meant to be a commentary on whether or not the publishing industry tilts toward females. I started intentionally replacing the "generic" pronoun of he/him/himself with she/her/herself a few years ago. Using "he" as a general pronoun doesn't offend me, but when I started to use "she" instead, I found that my subconscious thought process surrounding the potential actions, aspirations and achievements of women expanded.