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Query Letters

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Apr. 11th, 2007 | 10:34 am

O Mighty Dragons:

Scared as I am to approach you, I’m even more scared to approach those all-powerful beings: Editors and Agents. Yet I find that if I’m to venture into the world of publishing I must master the dreaded Query Letter. Can you help me?

Timid Yet Determined Writer

Ol’ B&G:
Tim, you’ve already done something far scarier than writing a query letter. You’ve woken a Dark Muse from hibernation. For Inspiration’s sake, stop groveling and get to the point!

Yes, mortal, that’s my advice, right there. A query letter is a business letter. Keep it short (no more than a page-two if you must) and professional. Explain why you are contacting this particular agent/editor with this proposal. Pitch your book-what makes it special enough for readers to pick it over dozens of other, similar books on the shelf. Include a bit about yourself, as long as it’s relevant to the query. Thank the agent/editor for taking the time to read your query.

Don’t brag or grovel. You’re not selling your soul, just words on paper. Which makes editors and agents easier to deal with than cranky Dark Muses. Now go forth and query. I have a nightmare to finish.

Dear Dinn.... er Writer,

A query letter is essentially a sales pitch. You have, basically, one page -- less, if you consider the space both addresses (yours and the editor's) the salutation and the sign-off -- to sell your idea, whether it's a novel, a non-fiction book, an article or whatever. You need to pitch the most desirable things you have to offer in that page.

It's like those Girl Scouts who stopped by the Lair last week. They talked about the other cookies, but they mentioned the Thin Mints first. (They were delicious. So were the cookies.) Don't waste time telling the editor about your six cats or you vintage Star Wars Action Figure Collection, or your MBA. The only exception to this rule is if that is what your book or story is about. If for example, you are writing a novel in which cosmic string theory figures prominantly, and you happen to have a doctorate in astrophysics, by all means, mention it!

You basically want to make your letter concise and to the point. Describe your project. Explain why YOU are the best person to write this. What makes you uniquely qualified? In that page (or less) you want to grab the editor's interest, to make her think that she has to have this work, and has to have it from you. On the other claw, there are things you DON'T want to do. Many a newbie has fallen by the wayside by attempting to leave a cliff hanger in the query: "And then Frodo and Sam realize that Gollum is sneaking along behind them..." This will not amuse the editor. It will more likely get your query tossed aside with a "no way."

On the other claw, if you can briefly describe what your book is *about* (this is not the same as a synopsis, which is another Question for another Day) and make it sound interesting, you are well on your way. This dragon only recently learned a new trick; describe the story, sure --but describe the *world*. In fiction, it is most often the writer's unique view of people and the way they interact with their world that attracts editors. That...and good spelling and proper grammar. (And yes, our Grammar Dragon was very proper.)

For non-fiction, naturally, you want to point up your particular skills in that area. This, as we mentioned before, is where your education, cats and Star Wars figures can become important. Just make sure you keep straight which are appropriate to which project.

As you know, different editors/agents like different approaches. Many editors and agents actually have posted on their web-sites what they want in a query letter--make certain you check that before you send anything to them. If they make a specific demand, and you ignore it, that makes you look unprofessional.

Bob's Suggestion: 3 body paragraphs, no more.
1) Name, name of project, genre, and length. (Not everyone wants that last) If you have some qualification that gives you special knowledge in that field, put in a short sentence here. (Ex. You're querying a book about a young camel driver coming of age in Ethiopia…and you've actually trained camels yourself….and lived in Ethiopia.) Mmmm…crispy fire-baked camels…..Sorry, off topic!
2) SHORT summary of project. 2-3 sentences. This is not your synopsis. If the E/A wants to read that, they will ask for it.
3) Short credits. You do not have to list every single bit of flash you've ever sold, and PLEASE do not list something self-published in that section or bits that you've put up on your web-site. If you don't have credits, skip this paragraph.

Finally, thank the editor for his time, and close it off.

Important side rules:
1)This is a business letter...NOT FICTION. Do not make up credits or stretch the truth. E/As talk to each other. They know you didn't actually win the Nebula last year. If you don't have credits, then leave out that paragraph.
2) Do not describe all your other WIPs just in case the E/A wants to buy them all at the same time. You pitch items one at a time.
3) Finally, don't query about an unfinished mss. Don't offer them something with the expectation that you'll finish it in a few months….

Our lovely Guest-in-the-Lair, Charlotte Dillon, has compiled a wonderful web-page listing a horde of on-line and dead tree resources on query letters. (Thanks B&G, for luring her in.) Although Charlotte writes romance, the same rules apply. As she says, "A query or synopsis for a fiction is the same beast no matter the genre."
Visit her excellent site at: Charlotte Dillon's Sample Query Letter Page..

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Comments {1}


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from: melissajm
date: Apr. 11th, 2007 11:39 pm (UTC)

Mmmm, Thin Mints...

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