Art of Fiction: The Three Paragraph Query

December 1, 2006
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Dissonance
Dissonance, a Novel by Lisa Lenard-Cook
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The Art of Fiction: 

The Three Paragraph Query

by Lisa Lenard-Cook
December 2006

Lisa Lenard-Cook is a regular columnist for Authorlink. She is an award-winning published author and writing instructor. This is another in the series, The Art of Fiction. Watch for her insights every month on Authorlink. Read more about Lisa.

"Far too many writers simply begin their search for publication by sending a query to every agent and editor . . ."
—Lenard-Cook

As regular readers know, I tend to deviate from the norm when it comes to teaching fiction writing. The same holds true for that all-important next step, after your fiction is ready to go out into the world, the query letter.

Far too many writers simply begin their search for publication by sending a query to every agent and editor whose name begins with an “A.” You can save yourself a lot of stamps—and a lot of the heartache that comes with standard rejection letters (see last month’s column, “Dear Author,” for a few samples)—by doing a bit of homework first.

"But don’t stop with the names.
The publishing industry is
notoriously liquid . . ."

—Lenard-Cook

Whom Should You Send To?

How do you learn which editors are buying, and which agents are selling, the type of fiction you’re writing? The simplest and most effective way is to open the books in that genre that you already own and see whom the authors thank in their acknowledgements. Authors almost always thank their editors and agents by name.

But don’t stop with the names. The publishing industry is notoriously liquid, and editors move from house to house often and rapidly. Sending a query to an editor at a house where she no longer works won’t put the query on her successor’s desk; it will get it back to yours with a standard rejection that also means you can’t resend to that house.

"Numerous websites, including this one, can keep you apprised of where a specific editor or agent is . . ."
—Lenard-Cook

Just as you would in any business, you’ve got to know your customer, and that’s what an agent and editor is: your first, and hopefully best, customer. Numerous websites, including this one, can keep you apprised of where a specific editor or agent is now. The best way to check, however, is a simple Google search of the editor’s or agent’s name. In fact, many editors and agents now post their specific needs and preferences online.

The Three Paragraph Query, Paragraph 1

Armed with your best information about which agents or editors you’re going to query first (and, yes, multiple queries are fine, so long as you let the recipients know you’re doing so), you’re ready to write paragraph 1 of your three paragraph query. This first paragraph will answer the question, Why You?

". . . pay attention to that editor or agent, and what she’s done."
—Lenard-Cook

Hour after hour, day after day, week after week, editors and agents read first paragraphs that scream, Me! Me! Pick me! If it sounds a lot like being a teacher, you’re not far off the mark. So imagine a child approaching that teacher and saying, “I love being in this classroom because you take the time to know us individually.” Or, “I know how hard you work, and just wanted to let you know you’re making a difference in my life.” I’m not talking about brown-nosing here; I’m talking about paying attention to another person.

That’s what you want to do in the first paragraph of your query letter: pay attention to that editor or agent, and what she’s done. For example: “I’m writing to you because you represent the work of my favorite writer, Jane Doe,” or “As a longtime reader of Jane Doe’s work, I appreciate anyone, like you, who works hard on her behalf.”

An editor or agent who reads nothing but Pick Me queries day in and day out will not only appreciate this acknowledgement, she’ll read on to the next paragraph. While my own agent and I met at a conference at which we were both teaching, I’d first sent her a query which began by saying just that, plus that I’d love to buy her a drink while we were there. (I didn’t. I spilled a Diet Pepsi on her. But that’s another story.)

"This paragraph answers the question, Why This?"
—Lenard-Cook

The Three Paragraph Query, Paragraph 2

This paragraph answers the question, Why This? This is where you describe, in 100 words or less, the novel you’ve slaved over for what seems like more than half your life. For most novelists, this is more daunting and terrifying than writing the book itself, which is why I encourage you to ask someone in your writer’s group to write it for you. This is not cheating; it’s good marketing. Plus, if you’re the writer I think you are, you’ll edit what that person writes for you anyway.

"This is the Why Me paragraph."
—Lenard-Cook

The Three Paragraph Query, Paragraph 3

This is the Why Me paragraph. It’s not just about your short story publications, awards, teaching experience, and conferences you’ve attended (although they should either be listed, if they’re few, or synopsized, if they’re many), but why the novel you’ve written compelled you to write it in the first place. This brings us right back, yet again, to the first column I wrote for Authorlink, 33 columns ago, “It Begins.” Your fiction began with a burning desire to tell a story that only you could tell in this particular way. So answer this question: Why did you write this fiction? That’s the bulk of your third paragraph.

"Finally, the three-paragraph query should be no longer than one page."
—Lenard-Cook

One Page, One Simple Page

Finally, the three-paragraph query should be no longer than one page. I don’t care if you’ve won a trunk-full of awards and published hundreds of short stories. (If you have, it’s unlikely you need to be writing a query in the first place.) The query letter is not the place to list everything you’ve ever done. If you feel you must list your accomplishments somewhere, attach your Curriculum Vitae or a page summarizing them. In your query, however, synopsize, synopsize, synopsize: “Among my many honors, I’ve been short-listed for the PEN Southwest Book Award,” or “I’m the fiction columnist for the website authorlink.com.”

Now, print your query out and read it out loud, one word at a time, beginning with your letterhead. (I’ve received enough correspondence in which the sender’s name was misspelled to know that you need to start at the very beginning.) Check especially the spelling of the agent or editor’s name. Reading aloud will also help you catch missing prepositions and foolish transpositions, as well as wrongly inserted words. (As a recovering dyslexic, I’m especially prone to such errors and know whereof I speak.)

This little bit of effort will go a long way toward helping you at least get some agents and editors to look at the work itself. And who knows? One of them may well “fall in love with it.”

Happy holidays to all my readers, old and new. Here’s to a 2007 of hope and peace.

About
Lisa Lenard-Cook
Lisa Lenard-Cook's novel Dissonance was short-listed for the PEN Southwest Book Award, a selection of NPR Performance Today's Summer Reading Series, and the countywide choice for Durango-La Plata Reads. She lives in Corrales, New Mexico, where she is currently adapting Dissonance for the stage.

 

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