Jul 3, 2009

The Voice of a Query?

This comment came through last night, and since it raises an interesting question and it's really directed to all of us, I though it deserved its own post. Please weigh in your opinions...I know you have them!

Hi, All!

After re-reading the comments here, I have a concern. And please be advised that this is merely a point of curiosity - not a criticism of this or any other query...

But I've just noticed an interesting trend with voice-related comments on this site. Even though I agree that Scott's query has a memorable voice, I find it curious that every time someone says a query has a unique voice (like this one and the "Quest Support" query), it's usually funny or snarky in tone.

So, how can a writer capture the voice of a non-funny novel in a one-page query? Is it even possible?


Rick Daley said...

I think it is possible to capture voice in a non-funny query. I didn't know if it is more difficult, and my gut says it isn't. It's just more apparent.

MonikaS said...

To me, and this is only my opinion, voice is the way that your words flow. The sentence structure, word choice, rhythm - it all points toward how the writer's brain works and how they write - snarky or not!


ejalvey said...

I actually have a hard time capturing my voice in a query. I think it is because I at times have subtle aspects to my voice in my writing that cannot be captured well in the query format.

Scott said...

Since I wrote the query in question . . . I really just wrote the query in terms of how the central character would respond to a situation, i.e., in a snarky manner. I took actual ideas from the book - fairy godmother, drag queens, gayvine - and infused them into the query. Basically, I took the tone/voice of the manuscript and put it into my query.

So, the same thing should work with a non-snarky/humorous work as well. Right?

Trust me on this, my first few queries definitely didn't capture the voice/tone of the manuscript. The version posted here was probably version 10 or 12! Patience and perseverance are the keys to success!


ejalvey said...

That's good to know, Scott. I have taken a break and am working on other projects right now. Trying to get some distance.

It's a frustrating process. I think my novel is really good. I did a lot of editing and tightening before I started querying, but so far have gotten nothing.

I don't know if it's the subject matter, or if I just suck at queries.

Rick Daley said...


Don't forget the current economic climate. This is business, and many companies in diverse industries - not just publishing - are not willing to take on a risk. Unfortunately a new author can be seen that way by both agents and publishers.

Our works have to be in mint condition to be considered, and even then, timing is critical.

The best thing we can do is keep trying. Sad to say it's not just raw talent that leads to success, but perseverance and being in the right place at the right time (i.e. luck). If we stop trying, we are guaranteed not to be in that right place when the time comes...

ElanaJ said...

Well, I happen to think the query should be written in the same tone ("voice") as the novel. So, no, it doesn't have to be funny or snarky. And if you've written an entire novel of "non-funny" then you should be able to use that same tone, that same style of writing, to craft the query. I've seen many, many queries that aren't funny or quippish that land agents just fine. Put all the pieces together, follow the tone of the MS, and you'll be fine.

Laura Martone said...

Wow, thanks, everyone!

When I posed this question yesterday, I had no idea the response it would garner. So, thanks again - this is all very helpful.

Still, I'd like to reiterate that my question was not directed at Scott's query. I just found it interesting that voice is usually mentioned when discussing queries with a humorous tone.

In my case (HOLLOW SOULS), the novel is literary/commercial (caught between genres) - there is a bedtime tale (circa 1949) in the midst of linear, contemporary storytelling in 1970s New Orleans. So, I'm finding it difficult to capture the "voice" in a query. After all, it's not funny - it's reflective, almost magical in places, and, in the end, poignant.

While I'm sure it can be done, I'm finding it hard to do so. I think it's just more obvious to see that a humorous or sarcastic query is capturing the voice of the novel. Well, hopefully it is - I'll bet there's little worse than sending an agent an enticing query with a unique voice, getting a manuscript request, and having the agent discover that the novel has a completely different tone. Seems like false advertising to me (which, of course, I'm trying desperately to avoid). ;-)

GJ said...

Other voices can come through in query letters. Literary, in particular, should come through, as would, say, a gloomy gothic sort of voice. Even thriller/suspense voices should be apparent in their fast pace.

Admittedly, queries are just so short that it's a real challenge to capture both the necessary elements (protagonist, goal, antagonist and escalating struggle) and the voice. One or the other is often short-changed.

It's also possible too that many voices are too muted to shine in such a short letter, and comedy/snark, by its very nature is the very opposite of muted (even when it's dry).

But I really think literary ought to come through. More complicated sentences, more poetic language that still contains the exactly right details to evoke the requisite emotions. If it's not coming through, it may be that the voice hasn't been refined enough yet, rather than an inherent impossibility.

Laura Martone said...

Thanks, GJ. I think you're right - as are the other commenters here - it's possible to capture a "literary" voice in a query. I'm just finding it rather tough... which is why, like EJ, I've decided to step back from the query for a while and revisit the novel itself. Perhaps things will be less nebulous down the road!

But, of course, I still plan to visit the Public Query Slushpile every day and toss in my two cents here and there (FWIW). :-)


Hayley E. Lavik said...

Laura, you say your MS has a bedtime story woven into the storytelling? Depending on how prevalent that is, I think personally I'd love to see a query like that. I love anything with an oral, folktale sort of tone and I think it could spin an interesting framework for the linear plot.

As MonikaS said, it's all about the structure, rhythm, etc. It's just that a more serious or solemn voice can sometimes simply come across as 'professional', and might sound like a straight query rather than something with voice. Choosing a casual, slang, formal, or academic form of the same word can say a lot about who's 'speaking' the query, as can the structure.

This may not be exactly what you have in mind for a non-funny voice, but check out Sherry Thomas's query over at Pub Rants. The voice creates a real sense of the sensual quality of the manuscript, the animosity between the characters, and Kristin pauses at one part to indicate the flow and rhythm of the sentences, and how that promises what's to come in the book.

Suzan Harden said...

Throwing my $0.02 in - I write several versions of the query, then pick and refine the one closest to the tone of the ms.

Don't be afraid to experiment. There's not perfect way to write a query. You just want to capture the spirit of your book in a fresh, interesting way.

Also, third parties help provide some objective opinions. (Like the lovely folks that contribute here.)

Laura Martone said...

Hi, Hayley. Thanks for the encouragement re: my query - and thanks, too, for the Pub Rants link. Although my book is not the same genre, I see what you mean about the flow and structure. Sherry's voice comes through - and without humor. Very helpful!

And, Susan, thanks for the hint about experimenting. I have, in fact, written three different versions of my query - but I never really play with tone... I should give it a try. And I agree that Rick's site is terrific - I've received some wonderfully supportive advice here. I'm glad he's created such a helpful, encouraging place for us writers. :-)


Horserider said...

To me, your writing 'voice' is your own. You'd want your query to have the same voice was your novel. If you're writing a serious murder mystery, why would you want your query to be funny?

Laura Martone said...

Oh, I agree, Horserider. My only point is that I find it easier to write a query with a humorous or thrilleresque voice than to distill a serious literary novel into a query that doesn't simply sound "professional"... but I'm working on it!

hope101 said...

IMO, this is where comparing a literary work to music is useful.

There are songs out there that I will listen to until I'm old and gray without ever knowing the lyrics, because something about the melody captures me. (In fact knowing the lyrics, if they're pedestrian, can actually ruin my experience.)

There are songs where I can't stand the singer's voice, but the words linger in my mind for days. Heck, I have an entire collection of tracks I love simply because of three or four haunting notes...

The trick is to knowing what your own strength is, and then play it up to the max. If you have a more neutral, literary voice but a great concept, then push the idea; if your strength is characterization, then let me know what shoe-wear one character favors; if it's plot, then wow me with the pyrotechnics. If it's a gift for humor, rock on!

I don't think there are many books that have voice, concept, characterization and plot all nailed perfectly. Cough *mine*cough.

But what I do think is that a good query letter conveys an emotional experience somehow. If that's lacking, IMO, that's where the query fails.

Bane of Anubis said...

Jumpin' into the pond a bit late, but I believe voice is easier to write in snarkier/lighter pieces (but by no means easy) b/c flippancy is much more readily understood (it's like a bright neon yellow color to the eyes, whereas other voices tend to be subtle shades of green in that damn wide literary ocean)...

I agree sideways w/ Elana that the query should, ideally, have the same style (IMO, tone & style are cousins, but not always friends) as the book.

Some agents (e.g., Janet Reid) want more voice in their queries, but frequently, these agents tend to take on more snarkylistic books, IMO.

Other agents will judge the material for voice more than the query. Obviously, having voice in both is ideal, but if you're sacrificing sanity b/c you can't make the voice shine in your query, I don't think it's the end of the world...

If you take a look at some example queries that have gotten people sold, many of them have very little voice -- it ends up being what's in the book.

Long way of saying that I think I voice in a query is somewhat overrated.

Bane of Anubis said...

Hey queriers, I thought it might be a good idea to see some original queries by people for 2 reasons:

1.) to give heart to those of us in the throes of query depression.

2.) to laugh/poke fun at ourselves.

For those who don't have an AW account, you'll need one, I believe. For those who do, the link is:


I posted one of my original queries on there -- I'm nowhere near perfect yet, but definitely a lot further along than I was :)

ejalvey said...

Everyone's comments on here have really been encouraging for me. I am buried by rejection letters (well, mostly emails) but things like this help redirect me and keep my positive.

Rick said something to me the other day that helps--it is perseverence, in the end, in such a business.

Meanwhile, I am writing, which is always good.

I'm glad you posted the question, Laura. It provided a great forum.

Laura Martone said...

You're quite welcome, EJ. Who knew that one little question would spark such an informative discussion? I appreciate everyone's thoughts on the subject of "voice" - it's helped me during the current edit of my novel... and I'm sure it will help when I return to the query again. So, thanks! :-)

hope101 said...

When it comes to chatting about writing, I think you're pretty much guaranteed audience participation. :)