Tuesday, February 28, 2012

By request - Query and Summary Letters

Dee Solberg asked about query letters and summary letters, in terms of their construction and how to navigate the apparently bizarre demands from one publisher to the next.

A word first about those demands - they've never struck me as bizarre. Just like going from one store in the mall to another has never bothered me about where they put the registers or whether or not they wear name tags. Every place is different, and entitled to make up their own methods for accomplishing the same end goal - which in this case is getting your work published.

Now, a tangent: Do you know why those needs are so different? Mostly for two reasons - First, to see if you follow directions (you'd be shocked by the number of people who don't) and second to see if following directions discourages you from going forward. Publishing on the whole, is a test of endurance, (writing is the test of skill) and there are many stages of hurry-up-and-wait as well as stages of I-cannot-believe-I-have-to-rewrite-this that turn publishing into a very intense pursuit. I would also like to point out that you (the author to-be-published) should avoid taking this time to start developing the philosophy that you're competing with other writers. This is not about scarcity or about some game of book-musical-chairs. There are PLENTY of chairs and the music NEVER stops playing.

So what's step one? Where do I begin?

Step one is something that doesn't go down easily, but if you commit to it, life gets exponentially better. Step one is 'make sure the project is complete'. I know, some people reading this are going to grab this magazine or that website over there and point to examples that say flat-out you can query a partially completed 'thing'. Yes, you can. You possess the ability to package pages together and get it sent to a destination. That is an option.

But doing that, moving ahead to acquire all the bells and whistles of publishing (the elements often thought to bring legitimacy: an agent, a publisher, a partridge in a fruit bush) without finishing your work puts you on someone else's schedule. And that new schedule likely is unaware that your children may have sick days, school plays and sports practices. Or that your spouse might decide to rewire the house and leave you powerless on a Saturday afternoon. Or that you have two jobs and a mortgage and the phone bill and the credit card and you want a vacation and what about the grocery shopping.....etc etc.

By finishing your work ON your schedule, you make their schedule INFINITELY easier, no matter who the "their" is.  Take the extra time (which shouldn't be a problem if you've disciplined yourself to a good writing schedule, right?) to make the project the best it can be before it leaves you, and everything thereafter is much simpler.

Okay, I did that, but what's up with queries?

I do a lot of workshops about queries. Here are the basics.


  • Start where the action of the story is. I don't mean action like where the first emotion is felt or where the first verb is, I mean start telling me the story at the good parts. The parts that are going to make me want to hear more about it. Practice this - summarize your favorite movie. Now out loud, talk about it. Those scenes and facts you're saying? Those are the things that show where the action/meat of the story is. 
  • Find out how many words the whole thing has. Put that number and the title (which you'll put in ALL CAPS) in one of the last two or three sentences at the bottom of the page. 
  • You have between 200 and 300 words (I aim for around 225-240 max) to seduce the person into reading the manuscript. That's the job of a query - to entice the reader to go to the manuscript. Not give away the story. Not bore people to tears. Just excite the person into wanting more information.
  • Do not give away the ending. If you tell the whole arc of the story, there's no reason to read the manuscript. Remember, you're supposed to be seductive. Telling the reader how this is going to end is not seductive. 
  • This query is about your story NOT you. I'm now beating a dead horse, but the query letter is not the place to list all your great publishing or personal successes. (The document for that is called a resume) The query letter is about this story, and its merits, not the struggle you went through to put it together. I'm sure it's a very harrowing tale, but it's completely irrelevant to the quality of the story or a reader's interest in making the jump from query to manuscript. 
That's the basic template. You get those pieces set in your query, whatever other demands come down the road at you are cake. 

And what about story summaries? 
That's a different animal. Here you want to treat the page like a candy bar or a cake - and that having one piece (the summary) makes you want to have other pieces later. Like ten seconds later. Or at midnight. Or for breakfast the next morning. 

You still start where the action is, you still need to know how long the whole manuscript is, but now you have about DOUBLE THE WORD COUNT (400 to 600, I like a cap of 550) to demonstrate in tiny version what happens in the big version. 

Think about movie trailers. That's a small piece of a larger cake. You now get to do that by writing. Look at your outlines, your notecards, your bullet points. Identify the big action beats, the funny beats, whatever beats make you proud of your creation, and find a way to string them together. The magic here lies in how you make use of the words and ideas available to you. 

And in non-fiction?

For the love all that you hold dear, DO NOT drown the document in headings. Not everything needs to be broken out and explained. Do you know how that comes across? Like the sniffly desperate kid in your class who used to eat paste and who just had to keep yapping and explaining. (In my elementary school, his name was Chas or Charlie or Chuck or something)

Likewise don't go the other way and have two or three headings and then big blocks of text underneath them. That looks more like you just don't know what you're doing and you're desperate. 

Instead, try this. 5 headings.

  1. About the book (the length, the genre, etc)
  2. The Characters
  3. The Plot
  4. The Author (that's you!)
  5. How You Plan To Market This
If you're writing a book that lacks characters or plot (hi cookbook authors!), then change into "Reasons For This Book" and "Recipes". The point is that you don't need a TON of headings. You just need organization. Critical here are items 1, 4, and 5. Especially 5. 

Why is 5 important? Because the more you know about how you're going to get that book into other people's hands, the easier that will happen and the better it will be for everyone involved. If that means you need to educate yourself on how to market or publicize, do it (Here's a starting point, come ask me questions! Email or Twitter). Also, the heady days of disposable income are for the moment gone. So take the initiative and make something happen with your work. 

Any other advice? 

Yes. Two things.

I. There's no one road to this goal of yours. Even if you and I do the same research about the same topic and go to the same people to ask the same questions and query the same book, we're going to get different results. There is no one way to get published. There is no "right" way, there is no "wrong" way. One way is NOT better than another. What matters here is the answer to the binary question - Published? Yes/No. Having said that though, remember that publishing is NOT legitimacy. Getting published does not make you a better person or a superior one or smarter or kinder or more loved or anything like that. It's just something you did, like yesterday when I did laundry. There are lots of ways to accomplish it. 

II. There comes a point where you have to stop asking for help and start doing it. Lots of people and books and websites offer great advice. And you can spend many many days/weeks/months/years searching through them all - but NONE of them have the one magic bullet answer for you. It's the sum total of what they say, what you choose to take with you and choose to leave behind that shapes you. 

Yes it's great to ask for help. But there is such a thing as asking for help about a thing IN PLACE of doing that actual thing. This industry, this craft, this art, is PACKED with people who bloat the lanes and passages with poor habits, wrong intentions, poor writing and unhelpful attitudes and advice. This industry is thick with people who aren't going to ever get past the "talk about writing" phase. 

What separates the successful from the unsuccessful is yes, in part talent. But also the fact that the successful actually wrote. And got edited. And re-wrote. And published. And repeated this whole process. 

If you're doing this to be successful, that's the path.
If you're doing this to prove other people wrong, you're going to be disappointed.
If you're doing this to prove your own self-worth, you're going to be SUPER disappointed.
If you're doing this to be rich, you're going to be doing this a long time.
If you're doing this to be more famous than other people, you're going to be disappointed AND doing this for a long time

Dee, I hope this answers your question somewhat.

Happy writing