Thursday, March 27, 2014

Query Letters 101

In a recent article by Josh Sanburn for Time Magazine, he described the amount of time most job recruiters spend looking at a resume. Sanburn noted that "TheLadders, an online job-matching service , recruiters spent an average of six seconds reviewing an individual resume. The standard thought was that recruiters spent several minutes on each CV. Nope"  Although Sanburn is discussing resumes the same concept is also applied to the publishing world and query letters.

Agents and editors receive a ton of these letters daily, and amid working on proposals,editing their own authors works, talking to colleagues about projects and so forth, they simply do not have the time to casually sit down and read through full stories over a glass of Merlot. They must rely on those query letters! We know you hate writing these things but if you want to get your foot in the door, you have to make that query letter shine.

If you doubt this information, I would strongly encourage you to attend a conference where the editors and agents do cold reads. If you are a conference coordinator, create a panel discussion that does just this. Have the editors and agents listen to query letters, a synopsis, or even the first chapter and tell you when they decide they have had enough. The odds are, they don't make it through the whole thing and stop within the first paragraph.

For those of you who follow my blog, you know one of my favorite quotes is from the Head and Shoulders commercial, "You never get a second chance to make a first impression." That is so true when it comes to the query letter. Editors and agents want to see you are the person for the job because of your skill in crafting a letter strong enough to get my attention. So, with that in mind, let's talk about the skills Sanburn notes in his article and translate those ideas to the query letter.

In a letter, there essentially needs to be three major points. The Basic information about the book. Something about the story arc. And finally, something about you as a writer. That's it. Nothing more! Remember, we only have that short time to review the project so get to the point.

1. Don’t be Creative
It seems there are a lot of writers who feel that the query letter is a chance to showcase your writing voice and style. This is far from the truth. This is a business letter. In publishing, there are two sides of you as the author. There is obviously the creative side of you that will craft those amazing stories and characters. But there also has to be your public and professional side as you deal with editors, agents, book sellers, the media and your public. For this reason, we don't want you trying anything fancy with the query letter. This is not the time for you to get funny in the query letter, to try and schmooze the editor or agent with witty lines about the business. Just get to the point. The format, as I said earlier, needs to stick to getting across those three basic elements.
2. Put Your Expertise and Skills at the Top
There is a slight variation here from what Sanburn discusses, but the concept is still the same. As he noted you need to put your strength at the top of the query letter. In this case, it happens to be your book. Now I know there are differing opinions on this one, but I am a firm believer of beginning by stating exactly what you are submitting to the editor or agent. This is the Basics of the book - the title, genre and word count. My rationale for that is simple. If I know the context, I can start to shape how I think about your book. In other words if I get this story that sounds like a women's fiction piece but then, when I get to the end, I see that you are really targeting a series romance line, I would have to go back and revisit the whole project. You see, each genre has its own set of parameters to work with. As I look through your project, I need to think of it in that genre.

This is even more important with so many "cross over" books such as the New Adult approach. Is this book a New Adult, a mature YA, a women's fiction piece with a younger girl? Add in other elements such as urban fantasy, paranormal and historical and you end up with a confused editor or agent.

The key to this is stay focused. leave the fluff toward the bottom of the query.

3. Don’t Make it Too Long
This one is obvious. We're talking one page here. Even in an e-query, keep it to roughly one page. I think that far too many authors are so hung up on believing that "if we just see your writing, if we see more, we are likely to sign you quicker." This is far from the truth. This is also that business and professional side we need to see. Can you follow directions? Editors and agents will want that when it comes to dealing with revisions, and this this is a good place to put that skill to the test. Don't paste your synopsis into the query letter. Don't paste the first three chapters into the query letter. Just focus.

The hardest part is the section of the query that focuses on the book. Here is what we need to know.

  • What is the central story arc?
  • Who are the main characters? This means, the heroine, the hero and the bad guy?
  • What is the conflict?
  • How will they get through it?
We don't need to know about the secondary characters. We don't need to hear "Before I get started, let me give you a little back story." Get to the point.

4. Ditch the Photos
This is the OMG! TMI! element we often see in query letters. I do think some people feel the need to "self-disclose everything about their lives and their personality right there in the query letter. Please, save it for you "selfies" on Facebook. Obviously you won't be including photos of yourself, but ditch all of that extra stuff about you. I see so many authors throwing in newspaper clippings about their personal lives, filling the query letter with personal thoughts about the publishing world. All of this goes.

Remember the focus in on this single project you are sending to the editor or agent. Limit it to that!

5. Don’t Focus on Your Personal Achievements
We need to be careful about this one. As I said on this last point, the focus is on the book and the project you are selling to the editor or agent. For this reason, you put that personal stuff about you and your writing to the bottom of the query. With that said, the focus is on you as a writer. We don't want to hear how long you have been reading. We don't want to know about anything outside of your writing career (unless you are doing non-fiction and your career is the platform your expertise comes from). Tell us about your publishing background. Tell us about other projects you have finished or planned. Tell us about contest wins and professional writing recognition.  Don't panic if this is your first book. Take the time to discuss other projects you are now working on.

6. Have it Professionally Made
We have to know you are professional. This means business letter format. This means it is free of typographical errors, spelling errors and formatting errors. In simple terms, if you can't demonstrate a command of the English language here, what will I likely see in that manuscript you want me to read.

There are a ton of books and resources out there to show you how to write a strong business letter or business email. REVIEW THOSE!!!!

I know this is tough, but with the number of writers out there fighting for so few spots on the bookshelf, you have to find a way to get to the top quicker. The first place to start is that query letter! And by the way, the pitch is going to work the same way!

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