Ask Daphne! How do you query literary fiction?

redribbonI’m working on scheduling all my posts for next week, but before I jump too far ahead, let’s answer a question today, shall we? Amy writes:

I’ve read dozens of posts and articles from different agents and writers about how to write a query letter, but there’s one thing I’m still curious about. It seems querying is easier if you have an exciting, titillating premise. But what about literary fiction where the journey is an inward one? What if you don’t have that high-concept hook? What makes you as an agent ask to see more of this kind of book? For example, I was reading Criss Cross the other day and as much as I loved the characters, there was no external action. I wondered how the author went about querying this book. I checked for jacket copy, but there was none — just reviews saying how awesome a book it was. If you see the word “literary” in the book’s description in a query, are you more forgiving of the pitch? And how do you go about pitching a book like this to a publisher?

Amy, I took a gander at Criss Cross on the IndieBound website, and the blurb for the mass market paperback reads as follows:

She wished something would happen.

Something good. To her. Checking her wish for loopholes, she found one. Hoping it wasn’t too late, she thought the word soon.

Meanwhile, in another part of town, he felt as if the world was opening. Life was rearranging itself; bulging in places, fraying in spots. He felt himself changing, too, but into what?

So much can happen in a summer.

Now, if I look at the hardcover blurb — because even if there’s nothing on the back of the book, or on the flaps, somewhere, an editor worked her ass off to write catalogue copy, so it DOES exist. So, the hardcover copy:

Debbie is wishing something would happen. Something good. To her. Soon. In the meantime, Debbie loses a necklace and finds a necklace (and boy does the necklace have a story to tell), she goes jeans shopping with her mother (an accomplishment in diplomacy), she learns to drive shift in a truck (illegally), she saves a life (directly connected to being able to drive, thus proving something), she takes a bus ride to another town (in order to understand what it feels like to be from “elsewhere”), she meets a boy (who truly is from “elsewhere”), but mostly she hangs out with her friends: Patty, Hector, Lenny, and Phil. Their paths cross. Their stories crisscross. And in Lynne Rae Perkins’s remarkable book, a girl and her wish grow up. Illustrated throughout with black–and–white pictures, comics, and photographs by the author.

Both do give the impression of SOMETHING happening, and even while it may seem trivial (taking a bus ride, finding a necklace), there is action to describe.

So that’s something you can do in your query letter, at least. What I wouldn’t do is spout review-worthy phrases about “lyrical writing”, “luminous prose”, or other such meaningless drivel. It may be TRUE, but what does it MEAN?

The best thing you can do when there’s not a obvious hook to hang the query on is to clearly express the quality of the writing in the sample, and tell me why I want to care about the characters, when not a lot happens to them.

Does that help? Readers, how would you, or how HAVE you, queried for literary fiction?

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