Monday, October 24, 2011

How To Write A Query Letter, In Three Steps

This is the article that several of your How-To websites didn't want....

So, you’ve written a book. Congratulations. Welcome now to the harder process -- getting published. I mean, that was the point of you spending nights and weekends staring bleary-eyed into the screen until your eyes bled and your mind was day old pudding, right?

I’m assuming that you’re going to pursue the more traditional route of publication, the route you’ve probably heard the most about, or the route maybe you assumed was your only option. Yes there are other options, and I'll talk about them in later posts. But for our purposes, let’s say you’ve decided to go the ‘legacy’ route and you want an agent and a big-house publisher.

You’re going to write a query letter in three steps, and if you’ve done it right, the query letter you produce will be shorter than this article, and that’s mostly because I’m long-winded and enjoy hearing myself narrate instructions.

For this query letter, you’re going to need the following things:

  1. A word processor document
  2. Notes about your manuscript including the title, the word count and a general sense of plot and theme. (I like to put these on a note card)
  3. The address of a specific person/agent/editor/publisher to whom you’re sending this letter (Make sure you spell everything correctly)

Once you collect all those things, we start with Step 1.

Step 1: Understand The Ground Rules
A query letter is essentially your manuscript’s pickup line, looking to interest the reader into taking the manuscript home and getting comfortable/intimate/freaky with it. And to avoid the ignominy of bad pickup lines, there are rules to follow before you start flirting:
A. You have AT MOST 250 words (including your name and contact info) to put on this page and get someone to read the manuscript. The people who are reading this have a lot more than just your query to read, and they cannot afford (nor do they want) to have their time wasted because you took three pages to say what can be said in a paragraph. (I suppose the exception is made for ‘How To’ articles)
B. This is NOT a desperate endeavor. Desperation is palpable, and it does not encourage people to read the manuscript. Don’t beg. Don’t dawdle. Desperation is death. This is your novel, this is your baby, love it, be proud of it, and talk it up.
C. You’re going to do this more than once. Nobody gets it right the first time. The words you put down on paper can always be fine-tuned, you can always send it to another (and possibly more receptive) audience.
D. It gets easier the more you do it. A lot of resources want to scare you about queries, demonizing them and making the process one of scarcity and limitation rather than of creative endeavor. I promise you, it’s supposed to be fun. This should feel like showing off the baby pictures, talking about your new puppy and praising your significant other. Learn to love this process.

Armed with these ground rules, let’s talk about the act of writing.

Step Two: Start Where The Action Is
Tell me about the movie you just saw. Tell me about your favorite episode of your favorite television show. How did you do it? Did you tell me about what color the sky was and how the camera moved over the scenery before it zoomed in on the hero? No, you didn’t, if you wanted me to stick around and listen. You started with the action of characters.

On a technical point, I’m talking about verbs here. Yes, you can say Moby Dick is about the pursuit of a whale, but if you really want to seize me and hold my attention, tell me that it’s Ishmael’s recounting of Ahab pursuing the whale that will ultimately be his undoing. Find your verbs, find the actions that the characters do to make the plot and story move forward. Verbs are king of the query.

Yes, that action paints enough of a picture. Also, with 250 words, it’s the actions that you describe that I will dive into the manuscript to enjoy.

This is the part where I tell you to start writing. Keep your word count in mind, remember your verbs and get me interested.

But wait, how will you end this? Endings matter too, you just can’t trail off when you run out of words. Within those 250 words, save the last fifteen to twenty or so for a wrap-up.

Step Three: End Assuming You’ll Be Spoken To
Repeat after me: I do not fear rejection, rejection shows me I’m on the right path. Chant this daily. Tattoo it on your children and pets. Do whatever you need to do to staple this philosophy to your soul.

That last paragraph should include the title of the manuscript (in all caps), the word count (because, yes, there is such a thing as too long for a particular genre or audience), and any information you want to impart to the reader about how to reach you. Notice here that I didn’t say to tell the reader about how you’re new at this or how you really liked two other books you just read. Stay on target, talk about your work and make sure the reader knows how to contact you.

That’s it. Three steps. Not to freak you out or anything, but anything else is just further complication. It helps to know your book, it helps to know your genre, but there aren’t any great and magic bells and whistles. Just write. A lot.

Good luck, and happy writing.