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Sunday, November 28, 2010

Query Mutations

After I finished my adult suspense novel in the winter of 2010 I began the next step in the writing process: drafting the perfect query letter to snag an agent.  I soon learned what I really needed were three different things.  First I needed a good log line, next I needed a descriptive paragraph for my query letter, and last I needed an oral pitch for that opportune time when I might find myself trapped in an elevator with a potential agent.
I’ll begin with the log line.  On the advice of my critique group I purchased, Save the Cat! The Last Book On Screenwiting That You’ll Ever Need.   SCREENWRITING, you ask?  Precisely my response.   But here’s the thing.  Say you’re at a party and someone asks, “what’s your novel about?”  We’ve all heard that, and by now we all know people aren’t going to wait around for a long, convoluted description.  That’s when you snap out that log line.  Oh, and by the way, try to make it ironic.  Easy.  Right?
Here’s an example of a famous log line.  A cop goes to L.A. to visit his estranged wife and her office building is taken over by terrorists. – Die Hard
I’ve worked on mine for months and I’m still not completely happy with it.  A woman leaves her controlling husband only to hook up with a potential serial killer. – Behind Blue Eyes
Next I decided to peruse the Writers Market 2010, where I learned the do’s and don’ts of queries letters.  They even provide samples.  Again, I thought, this can’t be that hard!  Months and many mutations later I had:
Suspense, drama, girlfriends and dangerous romance – tough, resilient, and armed with her loyal Rottweiler; Isabel is determined to preserve her newfound freedom from her controlling husband.  Moving back to her hometown, she settles into her family’s secluded hunting cabin where she is besieged by old friends, potential suitors, and menacing notes.  When her brother’s friend, Luke, tries to deepen their relationship Isabel is drawn, instead, to Jackson, an exonerated murderer. Trying to start over amidst the comforts of familiar surroundings, Isabel finds that no one is quite who they used to be, and worse, one of them might be a serial killer.
It was OK, but I still wasn’t satisfied.  Then I attended a “pitch session” at Joseph-Beth book store on November 6.  It was presented by Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry as they publicized their new book, The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published.  On the panel was Nancy Martin, a local author.  Each writer had a minute to give their pitch.  I had decided that my query paragraph would suffice for a vocal pitch and that I’d only pitch if absolutely necessary.  After all, I’m a writer for a reason.  I LIKE dwelling behind the scenes.  Public speaking has always freaked me out.  After each writer’s pitch the panel gave them advice on how to improve their pitch.  There weren’t many people so after hearing 3 or 4 pitches I nerved myself up to do mine.  When I finished, Nancy had this advice for me; plot, voice, opening scene and the hook.
This was pretty basic, and a bit opposite to what I had produced.  After much brain storming, tweaking, and several trips to the kitchen for croissants slathered with nutella I had:
After the second body is discovered in the rural town of Cranfield, Arkansas, citizens fear a serial killer has once again come to hunt them. As a young man Raymond Fisher was motivate towards law-enforcement because of unsolved kidnappings and a murder in the 1970’s.  Today, a respected and many-times reelected sheriff, Raymond scrabbles to calm hysteria and solve these new murders in his town. Isabel, has newly returned to her hometown and is living in seclusion in a hunting cabin with her Rottweiler, Brutus.  But threatening phone calls from her controlling husband are disrupting her new life.  As a distraction she joins her old friend, Raymond and the ruggedly handsome Jackson, to flush out the killer.  But she is haunted with a terrifying theory that she dares not share with her friends.  Has her mentally abusive husband evolved to physical abuse?  Is he the murderer they are seeking?

Now I had a plot with too many characters before I ever mentioned my protagonist, Isabel.  After stressing I emailed my efforts to my critique group and my friend, Jenny came up with:
Isabel flees a mentally abusive husband and returns to her Arkansas hometown, a place still haunted by the memories of a serial killer from 20 years ago. Her family's secluded cabin was supposed to provide a safe haven, but her presence seems to have reignited the killing spree.  Is her new lover Jackson, once accused then exonerated of the murders, the guilty party?  Or has her rage-filled husband finally resorted to physical violence to bring her home?
Immediately I knew she’d got it right.  My Rottweiler, Brutus thought so too when I read it aloud to him as he lay in his usual position on my study’s couch.


I like Jenny’s version so much I plan on using it in query letters, and vocal pitches -- although I sincerely hope an oral pitch will not crop up in my near future.  The moral of the story is (bear with me here, I’m a writer and I like stories with morals!) don’t stress when your first, second, third, or even fourth attempt isn’t there yet.  Keep going, and, after investing in research, attending workshops, conferences, and finally asking good friends for help, you’ll get there.  Never, ever give up!
Carol Herder


  1. I can empathize with you, Carol. I spent months writing page after page of one-line hooks trying to get the perfect pitch and perfect query. I guess the only way I'll know for sure if I accomplished my goal is when I get an offer from an ever-elusive agent.

  2. Hey Carol, thanks for not mentioning the key role of Belgian beer when writing loglines.