The Elusive “Showey Tell” (a language unique to query letters)
Show, don’t tell is a common mantra in writing. When it comes to our manuscripts, the distinction is easy: “She got angrier as she listened to what the person on the phone was saying” is telling. “Her hand tightened around the phone, as if to strangle it, until the plastic seams cracked,” is showing. But we don’t write specific scenes into our queries, so the “show don’t tell” mantra takes on a different meaning in query, er, PBP, writing.
In PBP writing, there are two bad types of telling (and zero good ones, if you’re keeping score):
Bad Telling No. 1: Conclusions about your book.
The classic example (which, from agent websites I read, never goes out of style) is, “This will be a bestseller.” Or “Millions of people will want to read it,” “This will make you rich,” “Should win the next Pulitzer Prize for Fiction,” or some other bullshit claim that your book will sell tons of copies and you are a blossoming literary giant. Don’t. Just, don’t. Nobody knows which books will sell millions of copies. Publishers and editors and agents who have been in the business for decades routinely guess wrong. Any statements you make in this regard will come off as unrealistic, amateurish, and idiotic.
Still, if agents and publishers are going to represent and publish our books, they need to think there is a chance at least one of those claims could be true. Nobody’s going to rep or print a book that he thinks has zero chance of being a bestseller. The trick is, we need to show them why that’s the case, instead of merely proclaiming it.
How to Show Your Book will Sell Tons of Copies. First, start with specifics. How awesome you are is not specific. How awesome your mother thinks you are is not specific. How awesome you think your book is – you guessed it – not specific. Because you are pitching an unpublished manuscript, it is unlikely that there will be anything specific you can say about it’s likelihood of success, in and of itself. Do not dispare.
Market demographics are specific. The last thing I’d advise is to chase fads, but, if your book is about a topical and controversial subject, there is a chance you can grab free publicity because of it. A smart agent will connect these dots for herself, you do not need to spell out how your controversial and topical book will do that. But you sure as shit need to work that controversy into your summary, maybe even noting that you’re directly addressing a controversial topic. Let’s go to the opposite end of the spectrum. Maybe your topic is so noncontroversial that people have routinely been writing books about the subject for decades or centuries. Help the agent know why yours will not drown in a sea of like books. Find your niche. The field of “teenage girl falls in love with a dangerous boy” has been plowed so many times, you’d think it would be infertile [Note: Freudian slip of the day, my fingers automatically typed the word “infernal”]. Vampire stories are a dime a dozen. Be the first to market with those two worn tropes, and you’re a trendsetter.
In other words, know your market. Claiming that your book will appeal to everyone means admitting you haven’t figured out who it will appeal to and, by implication, is basically an admission that it won’t specifically appeal to anyone. The most common approach to identifying a market is to look at comps (comparable books, readers of which, presumably, should like your books based on the similarities). I think an otherwise excellent query can be helped by good comps, but not much. Think about what taking things one step further says to an agent. Instead of saying “Readers of X will like it” tell the agent “These statistics I easily found on the interwebs show that the same demographic that purchased a billion copies of Kid Detective are also the primary audience for America’s Got Stupid Hobbies.” Coming on the heels of your blurb, which describes a mystery solved by a young contestant on a talent/variety show, the dots will connect themselves.
What did you show the agent? Assuming you’re only sending PBPs to smart, experienced agents, you showed a little bit about your book and a lot about yourself. You indicated a demographic link that could make the book easier to sell, which, by definition, makes it more attractive to the agent. But you also showed up in your “I’m not a flaky artist” pants, acknowledging that this is how we’re all hopefully paying for the next round of braces for our kids and this book has to do something in the real world. Maybe I’m too much of a flaky artist at heart, but I’m not counseling that you piece together the ideal demographic for your book and then write a book to sell them. Write the book that wants to come out of your brain. But, after you do, put some serious thought into who would be most likely to want to buy it.
Bad Telling No. 2: Telling your book instead of showing it.
This is where the tricky “showey” kind of telling comes into play. Here’s the PBP version of a bad telly tell that tells a lot:
[Editorial Note: To accomplish that end, I wrote out a 2 minute mock blurb that consisted of pairing the single most overused trope in lit fiction with my favorite uncle’s first name and a sheep, then packing it full of cliches. Last night, I received a scathing message telling me it was obvious who I was making fun of. I don’t think the complainer is aware that I was making fun of the dead-horse trope, but — screw it. I already did another bad telly blurb that tells a lot in the Star Wars Example, below.]
The “telly” problem query usually contains no shortages of clichés, discusses the protagonist’s emotional, spiritual, and/or intellectual growth as though it’s a concrete thing, and phrases everything in conclusory sentences. Even queries that should be showing exciting events frequently get bogged down in “telly” summaries. Here’s a bad, telly summary of Star Wars:
A restless dreamer of farm boy finds adventure when he embarks on an adventure with a spiritual mentor who teaches him the ways of the Force. Together with a ragtag group of misfits, he rescues a princess from the brink of death and defeats the forces of evil through his newfound powers.
It sucks, right? But it’s also a fairly accurate description of Star Wars’ narrative arc. In a bad, telly way.
How do you show a book in two hundred words?
This one is trickier than hell – cue the unicorns and rainbows, call in your inner flaky artist, then read Query Quagmire, the Query Shark Archives, and the billion other resources out there about querying and try to get a feel for it, because it makes little intellectual sense. The easiest way to put it is that there is a special “showy” kind of telling that makes a query blurb work. The only real test for whether you’re there is the same test Justice Potter Stewart stated as his threshold test for illegal obscenity in Jacobellis v. Ohio : “I know it when I see it.”
I could post 1,000 words a day for a year trying to explain this concept and it wouldn’t do the job. I’m not kidding about hitting the Query Shark Archives. Ms. Reid does a great job of breaking down why queries work and don’t work (in a constructive way, actually oriented toward helping queriers, not just trashing them for fun like some on queryfail). But the correct solution for any specific manuscript will be unique to that manuscript. I’ve even found that the right language for the same manuscript can vary by agent. Your voice as an author needs to be the driving force, balanced with the incredibly small amount of space we have to work with – maybe 200 words. For me, the test was reading through archived and criticized query letters until I got to the point that I could guest blog for the agents and nobody would have a clue I was substituting. With enough time, you’ll be able to see exactly what works and what doesn’t and know why before you even get to the agent responses. In other, geekier, words, you start beating the remote even though Obi Wan put the blast shield down on your helmet.
You can’t follow the novel-writing version of show versus tell. You have to encapsulate the main characters and key conflict from a 100,000 word novel in 200 words. There just isn’t room to have people’s knuckles turn white while they’re holding onto the telephone to show they’re angry. There isn’t even room to talk about a specific telephone call. So, step one is acceptance: you’re going to be telling. The key is telling in a way that the conclusions (Luke learns to stop whining, gets a little Force action going and blows the Death Star to shit) are obvious from the events you summarize. Taking another run at Star Wars:
Luke Skywalker had no intention of joining crazy old wizard Obi Wan on a mission to rescue a princess from the Galactic Empire, even if she is beautiful – and scheduled for execution. But when the Emperor’s henchman, Darth Vader, brutally kills the only family Luke had ever known, he joins Obi Wan and the rebellion against the Empire’s technological tyranny. Obi Wan has been guarding a secret about Luke since his birth. That secret may be the only hope for the rebels, or Luke, in their battle against the planet-killing Death Star, the Empire’s ultimate weapon.
First, cut me some slack here. I don’t write sci-fi or fantasy, and this is a first draft blurb (meaning it’s about twenty revisions away from what I would really be willing to send someone). I can tell you right now that I wouldn’t ever send out a query that started by saying what someone did not intend to do. I can also see that a second draft would move the ultimate weapon/Death Star part up to joining the rebellion, and probably up the stakes by specifying I mean Planet Fucking Killing – billions of people at a time killed – highass stakes. But the point is, the second version has a rebellion, people being brutally killed, a scheduled execution, an evil henchman and a planet-killing Death Star that must be stopped. It hopefully has less clichés, and creates tension in the form of saying what the stakes are (although not well enough to send, yet). It also has a secret. Secrets are cool. It doesn’t say anything about resolving the conflict because, hey, that’s what the manuscript is for.
Now, if that prose were in a novel, it would be far too telly. But, for purposes of a PBP, it’s showey. Which is to say, it tells the story of the events that happens in the book. It tells the agent who the actor in the story is, what actions take place, and what the stakes are. It doesn’t say anything about personal growth or Luke’s perspective, it sticks him in the middle of a rebellion against something being driven around the galaxy by an evil henchman that kills planets. “The only hope” is cliché as hell, but I might leave it in a revised version anyway, since the name of the book is A New Hope.
Clichés have a habit of hiding in our work, even parsed work like queries. So do words signifying introspection (learns, connects, understands, grows, etc.). If you’re talking about someone’s feelings in a query, you’ve probably screwed up. You need to describe the events in such a way that the feelings are obvious. If a woman I’ve never seen before puts a knife at my throat, I’m scared and confused and probably just shit myself while simultaneously picturing every ex-girlfriend I’ve had since 4th grade and comparing the resemblance to my new acquaintance. Almost all of which can be implied by saying (depending on whether it were a crazy ex from years past) that a woman I’d never seen before put a knife there or a woman I did not, at first, recognize put the knife there. For a query, that’s all you need to say about my thoughts.
If all else fails, make a list of the key events in your narrative arc from the beginning of the novel up to the point outlined in yesterday’s brilliant graphic. Use those events as the template for what you must convey in your query. Then pare the list down to the key events that cause conflict. What you have left is a to-do list for your query. It’s also a to-don’t list. Don’t filter any of those events through feelings or introspection or growth or anything else.
I’ll leave with an attempt at a query blurb (not the whole thing) template.
Here’s my protag. He’s up to his neck in shit, and it’s still rising. He’d better do something about that, or he’s fucked.
Thank you for your time and consideration.
Michael J. McDonagh.