Ask Daphne! How do you query literary fiction?

February 18th, 2010 • Kate

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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8 Responses to “Ask Daphne! How do you query literary fiction?”

  1. T.S. Says:

    Kate, I love your answer that you should want to care about the characters, even if not a lot happens to them. I think I would also want to know about the underlying themes of the story (I've never read Criss Cross but hope, wishing and destiny come to mind). Even if there is minimal action, the character must go on a journey, even if it is inside of themselves. What kind of journey do they go on, physically, spiritually or mentally and why do I want to be along for that ride with them.

  2. BJ Muntain Says:

    As Ms. Janet Reid once taught me, the main part of the query is not what happens. The real meat of the query is: what decision does the protagonist have to make, and what are the consequences?

    If you ask me, that doesn't say anything about action. In the above book – which I haven't read, I'm afraid – I'm sure the character must make a decision. Is her decision to change her life? What does she gain if she does? Independence? What could she lose? Her relationship with her mother or her friends?

    From the copy you've given above, it seems she changes – she grows up. What decision leads her to that final outcome?

    I don't see any great action here, but I do see a compelling story.

  3. Stephanie Says:

    This was great to read! I'm still working on the final touches of my manuscript, and I haven't started my queries. Okay, if I'm being honest, I'm procrastinating it! I'll admit, it is intimidating to me. My story isn't action packed and my characters are ordinary people. But they're people you can't help loving.

    And that's my speed bump. How do I get someone interested in my simple story?

    And you've answered it for me. Tell you why you would to love my characters! Who knew it could be that simple!!!


  4. Amy Says:

    Thank you Daphne! I'm sorry I didn't even think of looking this up online to find a blurb, but I'm still glad I asked the question because you gave a great answer. A lot of these character-driven YA/MG books are about growing up. It doesn't seem very original anymore, but I guess that's where the original characters come in. One thing about this book that I loved was that the characters seemed real. And you're right, that showed in the query. Thanks again!

  5. e.lee Says:

    I haven't queried Literary Fiction yet but thanks for posting this. it is very useful

  6. Stina Says:

    Thanks, Amy, for asking Kate this question. A friend of mine has also written a YA literary novel. Like you, she’s stuck with writing the query. Thanks to you and Daphne, maybe now it’ll be a little easier for her to write.

  7. Donna Gambale Says:

    I only recently realized that my novel was, in fact, a literary novel. The writing style is more commercial, but it's definitely character-driven. I've been fighting with my query for months, and that's what finally made me realize that I'd been approaching it from the wrong angle. Currently I'm on a revision that's (hopefully) working. Thanks for such a relevant post, since I'm sure many other writers have this problem!

  8. Emma Says:

    Fantastic question. I have one that is similar.

    How do you write a query when you have two narrators?

    I've been really curious about this. Thank you!