Monday, March 26, 2007

Query 101

The Truth: I nearly failed Freshman English. I can't spell worth a damn and I still don't know what a participle is. I run into my grade school Language Arts teachers and when I tell them I'm a writer they laugh and assume I'm joking. Originally, I was destined for business. In high school, I was the DECA state champion and I went to Michigan State University with plans to obtain a marketing degree. Even though I soon realized my passion for creative writing and transferred to Columbia College, my business mind has never left. I may die without spellcheck and I may consult The Elements of Style on a regular basis, but when it comes to query letters, it's all about the marketing.

There are all types of query letters with all sorts of structures and formats, but there are a few universal truths when querying an agent or editor.

1) Do your homework. Visit the agent or editor's site and see what authors and genres they represent. Yes, this takes time, but in the end, it's worth it. When you write your query, be sure to show the person that you have done your homework. Tell them why your book would be a good fit.

2) Grab from the get-go. If you've ever been to an agent or editor's office, you have seen the piles. They have stacks and stacks of query letters to go through, all of which get read but only a few make it to the next step. It's important to make your letter stand out, primarily in your pitch. You only have a paragraph to say what your book is about, so you better make it good. Test out your pitch at writer's conferences, with your critique group, with your mom, whoever. See if it grabs your attention. If even you mother's eyes glaze over, it won't grab an agent's attention.

3) Show that you're serious. Before they even get to your manuscript, an agent or editor wants to know that you're a serious writer, not just someone who spewed off 80,000 words one weekend. Any publishing credits and awards received should be included in your query (usually after the pitch paragraph). If you have a BA or MFA in creative writing, all the better, especially if the MFA is from Iowa. None of the above? Put down that you've attended writer's conferences and/or seminars where you have networked. You're not just selling your manuscript, you're selling yourself.

4) No mistakes. Read it twenty times if you have to, but you're query letter should be free of misspellings and grammatical errors. It's not just a query, it's a demonstration of your writing abilities. If you make two mistakes in a one-page query, how many mistakes will be in your manuscript?

5) SASE. Always, ALWAYS, include a self-addressed stamped envelope with your submission. Without it, even a kick-ass query will be tossed aside.

Little things: Some of this is personal preference, so take it or leave it.
  • I don't like questions in the query letter. I have read many queries that end on, "May I send you the first three chapters?" It doesn't sit well. I'd go with, "I look forward to sending you the complete manuscript." It's confident and shows that your novel is ready to be submitted.
  • Always include what you have enclosed along with the query letter. If for some reason your SASE or pages get misplaced, the agent or editor will know that you included them in your submission.
  • If you have a blog or website, include it with your contact info, under your e-mail address or in your heading. My homepage has numerous short stories posted along with my resume, so people can look at it before responding. I landed two freelance gigs sending nothing but a pitch. The editor said she was sold after looking at my webpage. Going back to point #3, blogs and webpages show your seriousness.
  • Name dropping is not a crime...if it's done tactfully. Agents and editors will find you more appealing if you have a network of writers that would provide blurbs when your novel comes out. If one of those writers is represented by the agent you're querying, all the better. Here is a sample from one of my agent queries:

I received my B.A. in fiction writing from Columbia College Chicago, where I studied under great authors such as Patricia Rosemoor and Joe Meno. My uncle, Lee Child, has also been a great mentor to me. Each of these authors has agreed to provide blurbs for my novel.

For me, the book Agents, Editors, and You has been very helpful, as well as Hallie Ephron's Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel. Writing a good query takes practice, but hopefully, if you follow these suggestions, it won't be long before an agent or editor asks for pages.


Ronni Rhodes said...

Your knowledge of business shines in this post, my dear.

Lee said...

Some of us are serious,only not about selling ourselves