General Writing, Queries, Reviews and Analysis

Better Queries Through Olivia Atwater’s Better Blurbs

December isn’t the time to query a novel, so I am finding an outlet for my impatience by tweaking my query. By coincidence, yesterday I came across Olivia Atwater’s Better Blurb Writing for Authors, and immediately downloaded it. I’m glad I did, because it vastly improved my query letter.

Atwater’s book is a short read. Although she is mostly talking about blurbs on the back of a book, almost all that she says is valid for query letters, too. She begins with a point so obvious that many writers overlook it: a query letter is a marketing tool, and should be written accordingly. Atwater suggests that you begin by creating a list of features of your book that would encourage readers to take a closer look, including the genre and the comps – what she calls a one-click list, meaning what will make an online reader click for a closer look. From the one click list, you should then write an opening paragraph for your query that includes at least three items on the list, and a hook. Follow the opening with the pitch itself, telling the high points of the story and mentioning as many other items as possible on the list, if possible, giving a sense of the tone of the book. Only then should you descend into the comps, the length, and other materials, ending with one last pitch. Atwater gives much more detail, but that the gist.

As soon as I started reading, I started seeing the flaws in my query. To start with, I hadn’t figured out my selling points. Actually, I had overlooked the selling points altogether, giving a mediocre query:

Talson Ravenpiper’s ancestors were heroes, but he is doomed to become a clerk. Overnight, tht changes as he becomes his mother’s heir and the keeper of the family tradition – to say nothing of unwillingly betrothed, accused of murder, and on the run from his sister and her pet monster. Worse, in his struggle to survive, his only ally is a hereditary enemy. Before long, he is questioning not only everything he believes, but whether the family tradition should be preserved at all. And what if enemies become lovers?

Not the worst query I’ve seen floating around the internet, but not a good one, either.
Following Atwood’s advice, I started my revision with my list of selling points:

  • heroic fantasy
  • mis-matched lovers
  • pursuit
  • post-colonialism
  • the nature of heroes and heroism
  • comps: Merciful Crow, Realm of Ash

Technically, Margaret Owen’s Merciful Crow is Young Adult, and Atwater suggests never to comp a genre other than your own, but I would argue that Merciful Crow is a cross-over book, and popular with adults as well. At any rate, it is better than Patricia Finney’s Robert Carey mysteries, which were an influence, but less likely to work in a pitch for a heroic fantasy like mine.

Armed with my list, I wrote:

Not long ago, Talson Ravenpiper’s greatest worry was how to live up to his family’s heroic reputation. That was before he met Kosky of the GreaseMakers and her sarcastic tongue.

Talson learned early to honor the deeds of his ancestors and to shun its traditional enemies the hill-clans. But that was before his sister Skulae framed him for murder and started hunting him with her pet monster. Now, Kosky, a woman of the hill-clans, is the only person he can depend on. Yet amid their struggle to survive, Kosky forces Talson question everything he once believed – even whom he should love.

If this is heroism, it does not feel like it. And unless he finds answers to his questions, the best that his family stands for could be swept away by war.

The improvements are many. My query now has a hook: Talson’s life has changed, and with luck readers will want to know how. The names, and the obvious importance of heroism signal that the book is a heroic fantasy, and the mis-matched lover trope is introduced, as well as both main characters, instead of just the one mentioned in the original draft. Also, mention of Kosky’s “sarcastic tongue” provides just a hint of the occasional flippancy in the book. Just mentioning her “sarcasm” wouldn’t have quite the same effect.

The next paragraphs develops the list points first, with luck giving just enough additional detail that readers want to learn more. For example, they suggest that the novel is not just a heroic fantasy, but one that explores the idea of the hero, and make the mis-matched lover theme explicit. In addition, they add the pursuit theme. Perhaps most important of all, Talson’s dilemmas are no longer played out in his head, but among Talson and two other characters. Now, the stakes are clearer; the first draft query might summarize a philosophical study of heroism.

My last two paragraphs needed only the change in comps that I mentioned. Otherwise, they were more or less in keeping with Atwater’s suggestions. However, for anyone who might be interested in the whole query, here they are:

The Bone Ransom is a 102,000 word adult fantasy with series potential about a young man and woman thrown into the great events of their times and learning to overcome their cultural divide. Like Margaret Owen’s Merciful Crow, it is a story of pursuit and mis-matched lovers, but with a post-colonial background like Tash Suris’s Realm of Ash.

A recovering academic, I have written two books on open source software and a third on fantasy writer Fritz Leiber, as well as over 2200 articles on open source computing. Although my family is English-Canadian, I am a long-time supporter of emerging First Nations artists, and I offer a scholarship at the Freda Diesing School of Northwest Carving. Sitting in the workshops of First Nations teachers and students at the school has been a major influence on The Bone Ransom’s characters and settings, although I write strictly from an outsider’s point of view.

Besides my choice of blurbs, the only way in which I did not follow her advice was to end with an action item, such as “Buy this book!” While I believe in looking your best, an blatant hard sell is distasteful to me, and seems unnecessary. After all, a query is all about offering something for sale, and everybody knows that. Still, I was glad to compare my efforts to a more expert opinion, and perhaps I will reconsider my position later on. As Atwater says, a blurb should be revisited from time to time after you’ve got a satisfactory one.
Meanwhile, I can’t wait to try my fortune with my new blurb.

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