E-Query Blasts: Yay or Nay?

On various screenwriting message boards, I’ve seen comments about mass e-query services being a waste of money. Well, yeah, if you write a crappy query. But if you come up with a killer pitch, it might be worth a shot. I’ve tried different services such as Scriptblaster, Script Delivery and Script Champion, and gotten script reads from all of them.

The requests mostly came from small boutique agencies/managers and prodcos, but bigger fish also bit on my queries, including DreamWorks Animation and the top people at major companies. I got a manager from one e-query mailing, and optioned two projects through contacts I made via the e-query route… note I said “contacts” I made, because chances are they will not make an offer on your spec. If they like your writing, it can open doors for you though. And in the end, aside from selling, the best you can hope for is making connections with decision-makers who have the ability to get projects into production.

Although my experience pertains to screenwriting, I think it also applies to book writers who are querying publishers or agents. I’ve been reading lit agent Nathan Bransford’s excellent blog for book authors, and took part in one of his query contests to see if what worked for me in getting my script read, would translate to a book query. He invited writers to submit their pitches for completed manuscripts or works in progress, and randomly selected 50. For one week, each day he posted 10 queries and asked his blog readers to choose just five that they would request to read if they were an agent like himself…

The twist was that he included three queries from writers who had actually sold those books, using the same pitches that were among the 50 he posted that week. Over 200 readers “voted” in the challenge. My query, which was adapted from my INUGAMI script pitch, had the second most requests overall… about 40 percent made it one of their five choices. It might have been higher, except I made some book query mistakes that “outed” me as a potential ringer: some readers thought it was odd that I offered to send a pdf copy of my manuscript — common for sending scripts via email, but not for books. I also did not include a word count, which is normal for book queries but unheard of in screenwriting (it’s assumed you know to keep scripts under 120 pages). But a few thought mine could have been one of the three that got publishing deals.

I am serious about adapting that script into a book, so I was pleased when Nathan himself asked me to query him again after I complete the novelized version. I’m copying the book query below, but it’s essentially the same as the screenplay query I had used before. What’s interesting though is my e-query breaks a few of the “rules” you hear so much about… and maybe that’s why it got me a lot of requests.

Instead of opening with a standard logline, I began with a vague tag line: “A dead fortune teller. A skeptical private eye. An ancient Japanese curse. The fear is real, but the terror is all in your mind…”

I think it works because I was going for a noir tone that matched the script, and it’s more of a psychological murder mystery than a supernatural thriller. The title, INUGAMI, is vague too — usually not a good thing, except maybe in a mystery. To me, it sounds a little like “origami,” which suggests something intricate that folds in on itself or unfolds in unexpected ways.

I also got good responses to my e-queries for a family/adventure spec about the mythical little people of Hawaii called MENEHUNES and my big budget action script, STUNT GUYS. In both cases, I emphasized “big” action, big screen visuals, and tried to tie the fantasy aspects into real stuff that’s actually happened — things that I felt made the projects timely and commercial. For instance, in the MENEHUNES pitch I mentioned that scientists had recently discovered bones in an Indonesian cave of a race of people that stood just three-feet tall (the so-called Hobbit people)… could they have been the basis for the Menehune myths? STUNT GUYS was set in Dubai, where there really were plans to build the world’s largest theme park. Major Hollywood studios were supposed to be partners in that project. Unfortunately, the worldwide economic crisis caused a major bust in Dubai real estate, which killed the project and all the buzz about Dubai.

Getting back to the e-query debate, my suggestion is you test your pitch first. Email it to some other writers or friends whose opinions you trust. Ask if it grabbed their attention. Make sure your title or subject line generates interest without being too over-the-top or desperate-sounding. Don’t make claims about how great your work is. Fine tune it, then send it to a handful of targeted agents, producers or publishers… if you get nibbles, it might be worth going wide with an e-query service. Which one to use? Eh, I dunno. A couple will offer free advice on your query. Some will “help” you write it for a fee. But if you can’t write an effective query on your own, it could be your script or project just isn’t ready yet. Boring or confusing queries usually reflect bland or unfocused stories. Good, sharp conflict generally reveals itself in the logline or short pitch because it’s right there on the surface. All the subtext and depth is implied by the protag’s overt goal versus the obstacles in that pithy line or two.

Bottom line: Don’t blindly take advice from anonymous writers on any message board or bloggers like me. My motto is do whatever works for you. If you can afford to “invest” a hundred bucks here or there on a mass e-query mailing, the worst that can happen is no one requests your script… and maybe that should tell you something, which could save you a lot of time and heartache rather than putting more work into a project that isn’t exciting anyone to begin with. On the other hand, you could get replies from people you never would have queried on your own — and that could be the break you’ve been looking for.

Anyhow, for what it’s worth, here’s the INUGAMI pitch I submitted to Nathan Bransford’s “Agent For a Day” contest…

Dear Agent,

A dead fortune teller. A skeptical private eye. An ancient Japanese curse. The fear is real, but the terror is all in your mind…

INUGAMI is a psychological murder mystery that reads like a supernatural thriller. Set in contemporary San Francisco, a Japanese psychic foresees her own brutal death and asks P.I. Greg Padgett for help. But after she tells him the killer is an “inugami” — a person who is possessed by an evil animal spirit — Padgett turns down the case, thinking the old woman is crazy.

That same night, the fortune teller is found mauled to death by a savage beast of unknown origin. Then Padgett receives a cryptic email she sent moments before she was attacked, warning that he will be the inugami’s next victim. So now the P.I. must find a creature he doesn’t believe exists, and stop it before it can fulfill her prophecy.

As Padgett delves deeper into the Japantown subculture, the former undercover narc begins to suspect her drug-addicted son is the real killer. But the P.I. may have addiction problems himself that cloud his judgment, and could be responsible for his mounting paranoia. When the son turns the tables by placing the inugami curse on Padgett, the ultimate question is whether the nonbeliever can resist the power of suggestion.

About myself: I’m a former journalist and columnist for a daily newspaper. My feature screenplays have won or placed in many contests, including the Nicholl Fellowships, which is sponsored by the Academy Foundation (the Oscar folks). Two of my scripts have been optioned by established Hollywood writers/producers, but have not yet been produced.

If you would like to read INUGAMI or sample chapters, I’d be happy to email you a pdf file or snail mail you a hard copy. Thanks for your time and consideration!

Best regards,
Rich Figel

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