Larry’s Queries – Episode 1 Part 1

Larry: [sits down at table across from me] Hello, JD. This shouldn’t take long.

Me: [I smile politely. This is going to take forever] Hi Larry, good to see you too. So you’ve written a manuscript and now you want some help on the query letter. [I cringe, realizing I said the “h” word to Larry]

Larry: [raises a single eyebrow and turns carefully to be sure I can see the NASA logo on his shirt sleeve. Yes, we all get it, Larry. You’re a freaking rocket scientist. No, really he is literally a rocket scientist. Graduated high school when he was fifteen, blew through college and now he evaluates civilian rocket programs for NASA. So yeah, pretty much a genius. And up goes the other eyebrow to join the first, which means he’s getting ready to talk to one of us mortals] I’ve written a fiction novel and my research shows the next step is drafting a query letter to send to an agent. I do not need your help as I have already completed the query letter, but if you wanted to look over it, I wouldn’t be opposed to that.

Me: [I bite my tongue to stop myself from pointing out you don’t want to say “fiction novel” since a novel by definition is fiction. Fortunately I took several Tylenol before Larry came over because I expected one way or another I would end up with a headache.] Oh, that’s good. You’ve got a query letter already, so let’s just see how you did.

Larry: [carefully lays crisp piece of white paper on desk. Brushes at invisible flakes on shirt sleeve. Yeah Larry, I saw the logo the first time.] This is only my first try, but I’ve quite thoroughly researched all the standard conventions.

Me: [I read the first line of query]:

Ten year old Alexus LeGrand loves her stuffed unicorn, Pom Pom, more than anything.

Me: [I glance up at Larry. Maybe I took one too many Tylenol earlier]: So…unicorns?

Larry: [smiles and nods encouragingly] See how I get to the important stuff right away.

Me: [I pop 2 more Tylenol]

Dear agent,

Ten year old Alexus LeGrand loves her stuffed unicorn, Pom Pom, more than anything. Then one day Pom-Pom magically comes to life and tells Alexus about all the other magical creatures that exist all around them. Pom-Pom has revealed himself to Alexus because he needs her help to save the world.

Alexus goes with Pom-pom to meet his friends: Bombo the stuffed bear and Tinsley the plastic soldier. Together they travel through a dangerous swamp called the Fire Swamp and are chased by evil monkey-like creatures called OctoMonks, which have the bodies of monkeys but eight arms like an octopus. The Octomonks work for an evil wraith known as the Gordian-wraith.

There is a door called the Infinity Door that provides all the time to the universe. The Gordian-Wraith tied the door shut with a knot that no one can untie. But Alexus has a special talent that lets her untie any knot and that’s why Pom-pom came to life to get her help.

Together, the friends work as a team to get through the swamp and avoid the Octomonks. Finally they reach the Infinity Door and the Gordian knot. Alexus is about to untie the knot, but then the Gordian-wraith has an Octomonk, named Badger, capture Pom-pom. Even worse, he ties the unicorn to the knot on the Infinity Door. Now if Alexus unties the knot on the door, then Pom-pom will disappear forever.

Things take an even bigger turn for the worse when Alexus finds out the Gordian Wraith knows something about a secret in her past she doesn’t want to talk about. The wraith uses this as blackmail to make sure that she doesn’t help her friend Pom-pom. Will Alexus be able to figure out a way to save the universe before it’s too late?    

Send requests for full manuscript via email only, as it’s unlikely I will be able to respond to the number of requests using regular postal mail.

Sincerely
Larry.

Me: [wow. I need a pen to stab myself to death.] Hey, great first try, Larry. Could maybe use a little polish though.

Larry: [frowns very seriously] I was thinking the same thing. And you’re right. I should take the “Sincerely” thing out. It makes me sound needy.

Me: Uh, yeah. We could. But you know maybe we should throw a little elbow grease on a few other parts too. Just to make it really shine.

Larry: Hmmmm. Good point. You can probably get down and relate to an agent more on their level anyway.

Me: [I’m looking for that pen again…this time to stab Larry] So let’s start with that first line.

Ten year old Alexus LeGrand loves her stuffed unicorn, Pom Pom, more than anything.

Me: Look Larry, agents are very busy people and they get dozens or even hundreds of queries each day. So you really want to grab their attention right away with a good opening line because that may be as far as they get. If it doesn’t catch their eye, they’re just going to pitch your letter to the side and go to the next one. What you’ve written is a statement that says your main character likes her stuffed unicorn.

Larry: [appears to be deciding if he should ask to see my high school diploma] Technically it says she “loves” her unicorn. So you mean I should add a bunch of words to the first sentence. Adverbs and adjectives. Maybe an exclamation mark or two for good measure. I could even change the font and color.

Me: No, that’s not it at all. Adding words and exclamation marks isn’t what you’re going for. Ideally, you want to add voice to that first line. You want it to grab the agent’s attention while giving them a sense of your writing all at the same time. If they like the voice, then hopefully they keep reading.

Larry: Voice? You mean like an mp3 attachment?

Me: [oh please lord, let me find a sharp pen]: No. I mean your writing voice. Add some pop, some zing to your query. If you’re curious about voice, here’s a link to explain a little more.

Larry: Oh you mean THAT voice. Yeah, of course. I’ve got tons and tons of voice in my manuscript. But I did my research and I know the query has to be really short and it has to cover my entire story, so I figured why waste words on adding voice. Shouldn’t I just get right into the facts of my story. I mean the story is the thing the agent really cares about, right?

Me: Well the story is important, but keep in mind an agent is getting lots of stories. If she’s looking for a specific one, then maybe she pulls yours out of the pile. But mostly agents are really looking for something that grabs their attention, and a query that starts out with great voice really improves your odds.

Larry: [shoulders slump slightly]: Did I tell you, I just finished approving the final specifications for the space station docking hub? The intake valves by themselves carry three new patents.

Me: [whoa. I think Larry just asked for my help. That never happens.] Adding a little voice just means using a writing style that gives the agent a sense of your story or characters. It could be humorous, spunky, dark or brooding. Also, you really want to make that first sentence pop and you want to have a hook so the agent keeps reading. Remember, that first sentence may be as far as the agent reads, so make it count.

Larry: So it’s not about adding more words, it’s more like adding tone and creating a question in the agent’s mind so they want to keep reading.

Me: [at least he learns fast] Exactly, Larry. But be careful with the “creating a question thing.” You don’t literally want to ask a question in your query. A lot of agents will see a question mark as an opportunity to fill in the answer on their own, and agents have a pretty good sense of humor sometimes. So you want to create a question…but do it without actually asking a question. That’s called a hook.

Larry: Oh I get it. And I know the perfect thing. Trust me. No one will be able to resist this hook.

Me: Really? What?

Larry: [smiling triumphantly] Hah! See, I got you interested in what the hook is without asking a question.

Me: [I chuckle] Ok, ok. You got me. But yeah, that’s exactly what you want to do. Put a statement out there that creates a question in the agent’s mind. Then they want to keep reading to find out what the answer is. So…did you really think of a great hook?

Larry: I got nothing.

Me: That’s ok. There’s plenty to work with in your story. It sounds like you’ve got a Middle Grade fantasy story here, with a fairly young protagonist. I’ll bet she’s spunky too.

Larry: Like the twin sister I never had.

Me: Good. That’s good. So you want your writing to bring that out about her in the first sentence. And what’s the deal with the knot tying? That sounds like it might be interesting. Because the other thing you want to do is try to throw out something that’s unique to your story. Remember the agent is probably going to have tons of MG fantasy stories and a bunch will have girls and unicorns and of course a bad guy. But the knot tying thing, that could be a neat little twist you could feature.

Larry: Actually it’s untying. She thinks it’s just a lame talent, but she can untie any knot in the world.

Me: Yeah. That could definitely work as a unique feature. So let’s see what we have so far for your first sentence.

  • You want it to pop with voice
  • You want to create a question in the agents mind (aka the hook)
  • You want to feature something unique about your story

Larry: Sounds hopeless.

Me: Well, there’s more. The first sentence usually needs to do some housekeeping too:

  • Usually you want to start with your Main Character (or one of the Main Characters)
  • Try to give an idea of the age level and genre – in this case Middle Grade Fantasy

Larry: [frowns seriously] Come on. That’s an awful lot of stuff.  It can’t be that important. It’s just one sentence.

Me: So was “One small step for man…”

Larry: [jumps to his feet and throws his hand over his heart] Neil Armstrong was a giant among men and you should wash your mouth out for defiling his words with your apish mortal tongue.

Me: [I brought this on myself. Last year I forgot Armstrong’s birthday and Larry filled the entire inside of my car with some kind of space age gel that smelled like old socks.] Sorry. Sorry, I didn’t mean it. Let’s just get back to the query.

Larry: [sits back down, but I can tell he’s made a mental note of where my car is parked.] Fine. But I don’t see how we can shove all that stuff into one sentence.

Me: Look. You wrote an entire manuscript right? That’s a lot of work and a lot of words. So use that big oversized bean you’re so proud of showing off. Think about your original sentence, and then come up with something way better. Do it for Neil. [I can see that hits home]

Larry: [his back stiffens as his eyes glaze over with determination.] So originally I wrote

Ten year old Alexus LeGrand loves her stuffed unicorn, Pom Pom, more than anything.

Larry [probably visualizing Neil looking down on him.] What if instead I used:

In the history of useless talents, ten year old Alexus LeGrand swears untying impossible knots has to be the lamest thing ever – that is until she gets roped into helping save the universe.

Me: [wow, where did that come from?] Hey, that’s great, Larry. Compared to your first try this one is way better. There’s a spunky element to the wording, you highlighted the knot untying ability and you created a question in my mind. I want to know how untying knots could possibly save the universe. And I really like the way you used “gets roped into” to keep the knot tying theme going. Really well done.

Larry: [touches the NASA logo on his sleeve.] For Neil.

Me: [last time it took three weeks to get the smell out of my car.]

Larry: Ok. So that wasn’t so hard. I’ll just make that change…oh yeah and pull out the “Sincerely” thing and then I’m ready to fire it off to a couple thousand agents.

Me: Whoa. Hold on there, space cowboy. That was just the first sentence. You’ve got a lot more work to do.

Larry: What? Well you can’t possibly expect me to go through every sentence and add voice and pop and all that nonsense. The query would be longer than my book.

Me: You’re right. You can’t add a ton of voice to every sentence. Queries need to be short, because as we already talked about, agents don’t have a lot of time. So you’re going to have to do some straight out telling in some parts. However you can try to work voice in where you can (especially the beginning) and there are a few other minor tweaks you should really consider.

Larry: [there goes that eyebrow up again.] Tweaks? What kind of minor tweaks?

Me: [I’m going to regret this.] Well, looking at your query I think you should probably:

  • Change your last sentence so you leave the agent with a sense of anticipation.
  • Get rid of a lot of the unnecessary names and details.
  • Be clearer about the stakes.

Larry: [stands and carefully picks up crisp white paper from the desk] I’ve got to get back the lab. I’m working on a large vat of that high-viscosity talcum gel. You remember the talcum gel, don’t you JD?

Me: [my poor car.]

Larry: [stops at door. he rolls his shoulders like he’s trying to crawl out of his own skin.] Tell you what. How about I stop by again tomorrow?

Me: [I smile.] I’ll see you then, Larry.

Links related to this Episode:

A closing note from Larry:

Hey gang. I wanted to recap the things I taught you today. What’s that? Oh please, I already knew all that stuff JD was talking about. I was just pretending like I didn’t know so you would catch on faster.

So anyway, today was all about that first sentence. Remember, that may be the only sentence the agent reads, so you’ve really want to put your best work out there. Do your best, but don’t go crazy over it. The first sentence needs to be good…but not perfect.

Things you want to get in that first sentence:

  • You want it to pop with voice
  • You want to create a question in the agents mind (aka the hook)
  • You want to feature something unique about your story
  • Usually you want to start with your Main Character (or one of the Main Characters)
  • Try to give an idea of the age level and genre – in this case Middle Grade Fantasy

That’s a lot for a single sentence, but keep in mind you need to stand out from the hundred other query letters sitting in the agent’s slush pile. So get off on the right foot with a strong first sentence and you really improve your odds.

Do it for Neil.

Until next time,
Larry

If you care to comment on this episode I would love to hear it. If you have a suggestion to improve Larry’s query I would love to hear that too. Heck you can even rewrite the whole thing if you’re feeling ambitions.

All the best,
JD

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