Monday, September 14, 2009

How to write a query letter that gets noticed

Last week our guest host Lisa Lickel talked with us about the nuts and bolts of submitting to editors...the part of the business most writers dread more than tax season.

Before an editor ever sees the beautiful prose you've penned, they will read your query letter. I once saw a query letter from an aspiring writer which basically read; To whom it may concern, here's my stuff. Hope you'll publish it.

If you submit a query letter like that, you've just branded yourself as a rank amateur and it isn't likely they will read one sentence of your beautiful submission. Lisa can explain what you should and should not do better than me, so I'll give her the floor.

Welcome back, Lisa, and welcome back, readers, to Part II of The Nuts and Bolts of Submission.

What should you spend the most time and effort on? Your first impression, of course, which will be the first thing the prospective editor sees. That will most likely be the greeting of your query. The best thing you can do for yourself is to get the name right. Don’t laugh. It happens. All the time. If you were a busy editor, how far would you read if five hundred random people sent you letters begging for the chance to fill one slot in your schedule? How would you start to sort that out? Think about it. Ditch spell-check after the first pass and read everything out loud, including the punctuation. And then have someone else look at it, too.

Remember: everyone has an opinion about what works and what doesn’t. Listen to a lot of people, read a lot of information and then do what you think is the best to showcase your efforts and make the publisher say “yes! I want to work with this.” You have thirty seconds to make a positive impression. Go!

Rule number one and foremost: Do what you’re asked to do.

Double check the requirements. Are you submitting electronically? Does the editor want an attachment or a message in the body of the e-mail? Is there a form from the website to use? Do they want queries by mail? Check the dates. Many companies offer only certain windows of opportunity during the year. Make sure you read all of the guidelines found on the website, the preferred method of checking the most current information. Unfortunately, many companies do not accept unsolicited queries. It won’t get you anywhere to try and send one, anyway. Some editors keep files that last a long time. I recently learned that one such editor could recall at a click the last material sent to him by my agent a couple of years earlier. Do not annoy them.

Query/query letters

Query, of course, means to ask. The publisher wants you to ask them if your project is a good fit for them. This is your first impression. You might be asked to submit a simple query of a paragraph or so on line, or you might be asked to submit a query letter. These letters almost exclusively are limited to one page. If you have a paragraph to make your case, use succinct language to outline your project in a couple of sentences; one sentence about why it fits the publication and one or two sentences about why you’re writing this particular item. This is good practice for any time someone asks you what your book is about, anyway, so you might as well see what you can do.

A whole page query letter will seem like a feast after trying the paragraph query. The whole page, of course, includes the industry standard format of header, body of letter, signature. Don’t make it look too crowded. “Industry standard” asks you to use a font like Times New Roman, 12 point and one-inch margins. No odd type face. Black lettering. White paper. Cheaters will be caught. Bleary-eyed editors can tell ¾-inch margins or 10 or 11 point font in an instant. Some care. Don’t give them any excuse to toss your letter unread. This format holds whether you submit electronically or through the mail. A letter is a letter. One page is one page, no matter how much room you think you have in the body of an e-mail.

Header: You name and address
Name of Publication
Name and address of enquiring party – and make the effort to use a name, unless specifically directed to enquire of the particular department
Body of letter: probably about three paragraphs. In general, how to make your case would include the above information, just expanded. I usually use up a sentence thanking the editor for looking at this query.

Do include:

-Nature of your project, including the final word count (Now here’s where I have to say to beginning writers – please don’t submit stuff before you have it finished. It’s jut a bad idea. And yes, I have experience with this.). Pretend you’re looking him or her in the eye, and they’ve just asked you what your (book) is about. Answer in three-four sentences. Pitch one project at a time, even if you have a drawerful of finished manuscripts burning a hole in your roof.

-Who you are and your reason for tackling this project. The range for this paragraph is enormous. Just sticking with the facts is always best.

Do not make any statements about what you think the scope of your project will be – that’s their vision. Do not bring up the fact that your writing group or your brother who works in marketing for the local newspaper thinks your work is the cat’s meow. Do not compare your work to the big guns – although….some editors will tell you they like to know if you think you write like Jodi Picoult or Ted Dekker…it’s a tough call. You could probably be safe by sticking with genre instead of name dropping. Are you in any national organizations? Professional organizations? What’s your day job and does it have anything to do with your potential audience. This paragraph will mostly be a personality test and a potential marketing platform. Portray the best and most real “you” there is. If you’re a shy flower, ask someone else to describe your strengths and use some of those concrete descriptions. Again, you have three to five sentences. Bullet points take up room, but can be useful. Make them count.

Your third paragraph will probably be house-keeping stuff, like letting the editor know that you know who they are. Some general sentence about a recent release or article that affected you can sometimes be helpful if it’s not too smarmy. A little repeated thanks. Let them know when you can be reached. Let them know you’re a hard worker and willing to do what it takes to be successful without sounding like you’re mealy, begging or groveling or… well, you know. Probably not a good time to mention that drawerful of rejections. Be professional, be courteous. Courteous professionals do not sully the discussion by bringing up money or contracts. They don’t even ask questions.

A good story at a good time will usually get a look. If your query is denied, don’t burn bridges. No follow-ups, no arguing or you-hurt-my-feelings or you-could-not-possibly-have-read-or-understand-me e-mails. Jerry Jenkins, in his thick-skinned critique workshops, says with the proposal you don’t get to argue your case face-to-face, so make the most of your words and presentation to the editor.

Reasons for rejection: It might not have been a good day for the editor. The company might have accepted something just like yours. You had a couple of typos. Your message went astray. The story (gasp) could use work. The publishing schedule is really full.

Keep trying. Keep growing and learning. Most people have stories about how many rejections they got before their work was accepted. Even Mark Twain and Charles Dickens started out self publishing. Not that you should, but really, getting a few dozen denials is character-building. You can always roll your eyes at anyone who had it too easy.

Okay? Clear as mud?



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