Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Query Letter Basics

I hear a lot of writers complain about query letters. These letters are hard! Why are we writing these because the editors and agents say they don't read the things? What do I put in the letter? What do I leave out? How long? How short? The list goes on and on.

Despite all of the complaints, writers need to understand that the query letter is still a necessary item in the role of publishing. This is your first impression you are making with that potential editor or agent. This is your chance to sell yourself!

I always remind authors that query letters are no different than cover letters you would include with your resumes. These letters highlight the things that make you a perfect fit for that editor or agent. These letters give us an insight into your story and sell us on the project. Yes, we know your writing will still have to do that, but it is that premise that gets us excited about the project.

Unfortunately, too many authors really miss the mark when it comes to query letters. I see so many that have me already deciding the story is not something I will want to read. Authors do everything from filling the letter with fluff, to telling me their story really isn't that good. We see authors tell us that they have already tried numerous other approaches and now they are coming to us (wow, make us feel good!). Some tell us nothing and some blatantly tell us lies (or should we call these "alternate facts). 

However, there are a few things that can make that letter much more profitable. Consider the following: 
  • Concrete and Specific - This is really a big one in query letters. Since you are limited by the amount of space you have to provide all of the information, you have to be crystal clear for the editor or agent who is seeing this for the first time. We need those specifics about the characters, the plot, the conflict and their motivations. We need the specifics on the genre and so forth. A good example of this last one would be authors who try to put their novel into multiple genres in the hopes that A) it will appeal to everyone; and B) at least one of those genres might stick with the editor or agent - "I am pitching a 90,000 word women's fiction, inspirational romantic suspense with paranormal elements." If we struggle to grasp where you are going to with this project, consider it a reject. 
  • Concise - This element, like the first one deals with the amount of space you have. Query letters, synopsis writing, pitches - these all deal with word economy. Again, remember we aren't spending a lot of time on your query so you have to get to the point, Eliminate the fluff, eliminate all of those secondary characters that aren't really part of the central story arc. Don't drag it out!
  • Familiar, not obscure - I see this a lot from authors who, I believe, are trying to impress us with their literary knowledge and background. While editors and agents read a lot and are familiar with a lot of different texts out there, making references to bizarre titles and authors, or ideas that only a few would understand isn't going to help you.
  • Precise and clear - Word economy, word economy, word economy. Make sure all of your words mean exactly what you intend them to mean. Make sure you are very clear what your genre is and where it fits. Make sure you are crystal clear about all of your biographical information. Don't try to hide the fact that you haven't been published for over 30 years, and try to make it sound like you are a current author. 
  • Constructive - This one is really an issue of your personal voice. Don't come across as negative. Don't downplay your work. Don't try to make excuses. Stick to the point and SHOW the editors and agents you are ready to play the publishing game.
  • Appropriately formal - This is a business people. This means your letter needs to reflect that same professional tone you want to be remembered for. You are not sending "a txt to ur BFF" and you certainly are not here to self-disclose all of your personal problems, hang-ups and baggage. 
In simple terms, think of what you are "communicating" to that editor or agent.

And one final note. If your writing chapter is interested in a workshop on writing query letters and synopsis writing, please email me at the agency and we can set things up for you. I have taught these workshops in the past and people really walked away with some great products to send to those editors and agents.

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