Long ago, in a cinema not too far, far away, I saw the first trailer for Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. To this day I remember the collective gasp in the theater as the Lucasfilm logo flickered onto the screen. Oh, that familiar, haunting music. Oh, the ravishing images. Spring 1999 couldn’t come fast enough.
I attended the motion picture event of the decade the day after its opening, late at night, with a pumped, overflowing crowd all hoping for the same thing: magic. We clapped and hollered at the start of the movie, as the lovely crawl scrolled into infinity. Alas, the applause at the end was scarce and half-hearted.
The query letter for Heart of Blade is like that trailer, full of enticing promises of a rollicking good tale that would make you forget for a few hours that the fridge is breeding new life forms and the grass in the backyard is taller than the kids. Every agent who received only the query letter asked for a partial.
Heart of Blade itself, unfortunately, is more like The Phantom Menace. There is a really good story in there somewhere, but it got lost in the telling. In hindsight, my manuscript opened six chapters from the real beginning, didn’t go anywhere deep enough with the characterization, and for all its dangling of geopolitical intrigue, was less than breathtaking in scope.
The query letter for Schemes of Love, on the other hand, was written with an entirely different mindset. The failure of five manuscripts in seven years finally beat into me the lessons I’d been too arrogant to learn earlier. Begin in the thick of things. Excise everything unnecessary. Put your characters in situations that rip them apart. And rip them apart some more. You know, those fundamental rules of good writing that I barely paid attention to anymore because everyone and her critique partner were always yammering on about them.
By the time I decided to find presentation for Schemes of Love, I knew I had a really good story. I didn’t need to compose the Wonder Query. I just needed to not mess up. And let the manuscript take care of the rest, which it did, ably.
The moral of the tale—tales always have morals, right?—is that a query letter doesn’t have to shock and awe, though that certainly won’t hurt. Aim for clarity and competence. And remember to back it up with a mind-blowing work, in which every scene has been worked and reworked at least as many times as the query. Trust me, it hurts a lot worse to have requested partial rejected, because then you can’t just say, “Dang, guess I needed a better query letter.”
Next Tuesday, The Great Divide, yeah that one, between writers who have publishing contracts and writers who don’t, yet.
To answer your questions, Heart of Blade took 16 months to write, Schemes of Love 10 months. I’m currently a grad student. And about Bridget Jones’s age.