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Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Query Me This

I've been doing a lot of research on query letters lately, what works, what doesn't and there's so much information on the web alone on this topic that it seems like a difficult and confusing task. I've come to the conclusion that this is not necessarily so. The thing that makes it so daunting is not the query letter itself but the fact an entire writing career can hinge on whether or not you can actually write one of these things.

Which really shouldn't be that hard. Afterall, if you can write a 100,000 word novel, you should be able to write a couple hundred about the same thing. Right? Sure, if you follow these guidelines:

  1. Do you know what the novel is about? In other words, can you summarize it in a sentence or two? If not, then perhaps you're not ready to write the query letter. Sounds harsh, but it makes sense if you think about it. In other words, if you don't know what it's about in precise terms, how are you going to tell anyone what it's about?
  2. Can you write a good hook? If not, then perhaps you need to rethink how you started your story, forget about the query letter. Take some writing courses, participate in online editing sites such as Darklines, speak with a writing friend you trust, purchase a few books on Amazon or check them out from a library. Learn to write before you send off that query letter.
  3. Discover what the "sizzle" of the story is. Are you able to touch on the important points of the story? Do you know what the important points of the story are? Can you elaborate on this within 2-4 paragraphs without getting either too wordy or too sparse?
  4. What is your professional writing experience is (no one cares if you've written for your high school or college yearbook, nor do they care about what your Mom thought about your piece, or if you got an award that can't be Googled-- by this I mean if you can't find the award on the first page of a Google search, then don't list it {Stoker Award, good. Community Newsletter Award, bad. To give you some examples} ). If you don't have any worth mentioning, don't mention it.
  5. Do you have any unique experience that may be relevant to the novel at hand? For example, if you have 10 kids and the novel is about someone struggling to raise a large family this would be considered relevant experience. On the other hand if there's a minor character who shares your job, don't mention it. Ditto if you don't have any experience related to the novel. That's okay, we're taking fiction here and you don't have to prove that you've done the research until questions start coming up after it's been looked at by an agent or editor.
  6. How long is the novel? First novels should be between 80K-120K words. Any shorter than that and people won't want to pay full price for a book that looks too sparse (don't pad, expand if you need to) and publishers won't want to pay the extra costs involved with an extra thick book. If this is the case, either figure out if you can make two, seperate stand-alone books with what you've got or cut mercilessly until it's within range. Both options are difficult.
  7. Is the novel completed? If you're not previously published in novel format, don't waste your time querying agents and editors, because if they want to see the completed MS, you'll be up spit creek if it's not done. If it is done, let them know, and they'll be pleased.
  8. For snail-mail queries, print this out on 80% cotton bond paper, white (and nothing else but white) paper with a readable font (12-point Roman Times seems to be pretty much industry standard) and one-inch margins all the way around. Enclose nothing but an SASE.
  9. For e-mail queries, I'd suggest going to individual sites if you'd prefer to do this as an attachment. Otherwise, you'd be better off pasting the whole thing into the body of the mail.
  10. Don't forget to let them know how to contact you.

All of the above stuff is absolutely necessary for a query. However, there are some bonus touches that you can add on to make it go over the top.

  1. Did you read a book similar to the one that you have written that was agented/published by that person or company and you went the extra steps to find out who it was? Let 'em know, they'll be glad you did the research. If all you did to find them was to look up their name on the AAR website, take a look at their website (if it's available) to find out which books they have to their credit and mention any that you have read. If you haven't read any, simply letting them know that "according to the guidelines on your site, my book seems like a good fit for what you are looking for" still lets them know you've done your homework.
  2. Have you visualized how you want your book shelved at the stores? Don't fool yourself into thinking you'll get window displays at Barnes and Noble, but if this is just the type of read that would be great for an airline flight, say so. If, on the other hand, it's a more literary piece, perhaps libraries and colleges would be more interested in it. On the other hand, an anthology of horror tales would probably work best if displayed at or near the counters around Halloween.
  3. What else do you have in the works (or unpubbed) that's similar to what you're proposing? No need to go into details, but if you're proposing a horror tale and you're already well into another horror tale, a brief mention that you're doing so will indicate you're in it for the long haul. If, on the other hand, it's only a sketch of an idea that may happen or not, don't mention it. Note: This idea works best for a proposed series, just make sure the first book can stand on its own.

What not to include:

  1. A second page to your query. If your letter is longer than one page, cut, chop, slice and dice until it is.
  2. Difficult to read or fancy fonts. Sure, Edwardian Script may give your novel just that romantic flair that echoes your writing style, but your writing needs to work on its own and fancy fonts as well as 8-point Comic Sans will also be a surefire way to the "Not for us" trashbin.
  3. Any paper that is not white. Believe it or not, pink, gray or blue paper will not make you stand out from a crowd. It will only mark you as an amateur.
  4. Glitter, confetti, or anything else of that nature. See above for why not.
  5. Bribes. The only place a writer should sign a check is on the back. Remember that, and it will keep you from being scammed as well.
  6. Any discussion of payment. This comes after you've made an agreement to work with that specific agent or editor, not in the query letter.

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