It was the last hour of the conference. All weekend, writers and agents and editors and industry professionals of all kinds had been networking, learning, teaching, finding polite and impersonal rejection, or feeling gratified that their ideas had merit. And now, all the people who were left had situated themselves in the ballroom for The Gong Show.
DFWCon, a weekend-long writers’ conference put on by the DFW Writers’ Workshop, has a lot of things going for it. Among its excellent features are its exceptionally friendly staff and the generous buffets of free — and yummy — food everywhere you turn. The classes and workshops are often fun and informative. There are agent pitch sessions all weekend, and unlike the Pitch Slam’s 90-second format (kind of like speed dating to find an agent), the consultations at DFWCon are ten minutes long. How awesome is that? But one other thing that helps DFWCon stand out from other conferences I’ve been to is The Query Letter Gong Show.
Now, I don’t profess to be an expert by any means. But I do understand the value of a good query letter if you want to find an agent to represent you and your work. At The Gong Show, conference participants are afforded the opportunity to have their query letters read out loud — anonymously, by an emcee using a cheesy game show announcer voice — and to have them evaluated and critiqued by a large panel of actual agents and editors. How does it work? The emcee starts reading, and as soon as one of the panelists reaches a point where s/he would quit reading the query, s/he sounds one of the several gongs placed around them. Once the query letter gets three gongs, the emcee stops reading the letter, and the panelists critique it. They go through as many letters as they can in an hour.
An anonymous critique of one’s query letter by a large panel of agents is a valuable thing. I’ve been a writer for a long time, and I’ve written in nearly every major genre/form of Creative Writing during my academic and professional careers. I can say with utter candor and confidence that query letters are the most difficult thing I’ve ever attempted to write. Writing a novel is fun. I adore the long form. Encapsulating and highlighting the assets of that entire novel, while showing off one’s writing skills, in two paragraphs — that’s a nightmare. Oh, and no one will ever read your novel if they aren’t impressed by your query letter, so, you know, no pressure. Learning from a bunch of the people your query letter would be going to about what truly does work and what truly does not can be educational and rewarding.
Still, we’re writers, and we have fragile egos. For a couple of weeks before the conference, DFWCon sent out emails to its participants advertising The Gong Show and — to put it mildly — advising us to prepare for trauma. To paraphrase the numerous emails: “Remember, the agents are going to be funny. Don’t submit your letter if you don’t have a thick skin. This is an entertaining hour as well as a useful one.”
They couldn’t have been more right, on all counts.
I loved the idea of The Gong Show, but useful though it may be, I had no intention that weekend of dropping my query letter into the box to be read. However, by Sunday afternoon I’d pitched my novel and gotten enough positive response to it that I was feeling like maybe I didn’t have anything to lose. Truth be told, I was feeling perhaps a little bit euphoric, and after all, The Gong Show was anonymous, right? Plus my friends were encouraging me to just go for it.
So about half an hour before the submission deadline, I took out the printed copy of my query letter, that I’d brought just in case, from my file. I read it over. There were a few things I’d change about it, particularly the second sentence which was actually a bit unwieldy and amateurish, and a couple of word choices here and there, but overall, it was all right. And anyway, I didn’t have access to a printer now to print out a revision. So I scribbled out all my identifying information and dropped the letter into the box.
When the time came for The Gong Show, I sauntered into the ballroom with my friends as casually as I could, but inside, I was nervous and excited. I didn’t want to take a chance on eating a snack lest it go to war with the dragonflies in my stomach. I sipped from my water bottle to soothe my parched mouth and throat and hoped for the best. I wasn’t entirely certain that “the best” didn’t mean that my letter wouldn’t actually get picked to be read.
A few of the agents made clear at the beginning — when the audience was being reminded once more that none of these critiques was personal, etc. — that querying is a significantly different skill from writing a novel. Of course both skills are needed to be successful in the marketplace, but it doesn’t take a lot of thought to recognize the difference between writing a story that’s 100,000 words long and writing an enticing summary of that story that’s about 150 words long. Still, if your query isn’t well written, the agents aren’t going to ask for your manuscript. There’s a strong chance, depending on the agents, that they won’t even read the whole letter.
Well, a good portion of the way through the hour, my letter did indeed come up. As soon as I heard the first sentence, I froze what I hoped was a neutral, mildly entertained smile onto my face and hoped I might suddenly develop the ability to bluff. Of course, my good friend Sarah (who has read my novel because she’s also one of my beta readers) was sitting next to me and gave me a subtle grin and raise of the eyebrows.
Here’s the opening of my letter (as it was written before The Gong Show):
“Mellora is inside the Forest of Diamonds. From the ankle-deep snow to the icy branches that stab toward her like glittering knives, from the ravening echoes of strange beasts to the eerie half-lit sky, none of this was supposed to be real.”
This may seem ironic, but when I wrote my query letter, my primary concern was with economy: word economy, versatile turn-of-phrase. I felt like every sentence had more than one job to do because I was so limited in space. So I crammed as many interesting images and as much tone as I could into that second sentence, and look what I ended up with.
What I’d foolishly forgotten was that having lots of interesting images and tone wouldn’t make my writing look good if I didn’t have a clear understanding of when less is more. In my concern with economy, I’d forgotten that economy also means knowing when to judiciously eliminate.
On that second sentence — the one I would have revised had I considered participating before I came to the conference — I got gonged.
Gonged ugly. With a snort and a grunt from one of the agents and a corroborating bleeccchh and a gong from the guy next to him. Yeah, I thought, that sentence deserves that. But that was only two gongs, so the emcee kept reading, and incredibly, got through almost the whole letter before the last gong. When the critique started, the first gonger said, “There were fifty adjectives in the first ten words!” Some of the other agents agreed that sentence was problematic and not very good.
But then there were agents who said they thought the story was interesting. One said she remembered the story line from a pitch she’d heard the day before and still wanted to read the manuscript. She graciously used my letter as an example of a query not living up the story itself. And one of the agents on the panel, whom I hadn’t pitched to before, ended up requesting it as well. Overall, their critiques were helpful. Funny, yes, at my query letter’s expense, but ultimately beneficial. So my euphoria continued.
I also revised my query letter immediately, specifically attacking that second sentence. I chose the most interesting images from the million or so I originally had in there and just went with those. How did I determine the ones that (hopefully) were most interesting? Mostly, I used logic.
So let’s break this down. Here are the images in that sentence:
- ankle-deep snow
- icy branches stabbing
- glittering knives
- ravening echoes of strange beasts
- eerie half-lit sky
I like “icy branches stabbing” because “stabbing” is an active verb that contributes a feeling of threat. But if the branches in the forest are icy, can’t we assume there’s probably snow on the ground? And does it matter how deep it is? Maybe it would if the snow were knee-deep, but ankle-deep is nothing to write an agent about. And while “glittering knives” is kind of a cool juxtaposition, “knives” is already implied by “stabbing,” and the first sentence, which contains the phrase “Forest of Diamonds,” implies “glittering.”
Now, I’m quite attached to the “ravening echoes of strange beasts.” All those words carry a sinister connotation, and I’m good with that. It encapsulates the setting of the Forest of Diamonds nicely. But “eerie half-lit sky”? Well, as much as I hate to admit it, that detail is fairly pedestrian in comparison and just doesn’t do anything good for the sentence, which — by the time we get to that phrase — is so long it’s already been gonged anyway.
Thanks to editing, that yucky opening became this instead:
“Mellora is inside the Forest of Diamonds. From the icy branches that stab toward her to the ravening echoes of strange beasts, none of this was supposed to be real.”
Do I still convey the ominous and mysterious tone? I think so. Have I slimmed down the sentence to one that could be read aloud without the reader having to take a drink of water before getting through it? Yes.
About two dozen letters were read that day at The Gong Show. Only one was read all the way to the end.
And it was a good letter, written by Seth Skorkowsky. In fact, at least one agent requested his manuscript on the spot based on his query letter. And that’s another great thing about The Gong Show. You have the potential to make a connection, which is a good portion of what going to writers’ conferences is all about.
I had an excellent time at DFWCon this spring and am already registered for next year’s. If you’re there, too, come find me and say hello. I’ll be the one hanging out with a large group of friends and colleagues, soaking up the networking bliss and eagerly awaiting the next Gong Show.
Want to read more about the DFWCon Gong Show experience? Also check out Jodi Thompson’s blog post about it here.