Writing Tip #11 – THE QUERY: Fiction’s “Foot in the Door”

So in the last few posts I have mentioned some things that I said I would go into detail on later.  One of those things I mentioned is the “query letter”.  Today I want to give you some tips on this very important part of getting published.

I do want to make a distinction first.  The QUERY is for FICTION.  There is a set of expectations for the query and standards are a must when writing and submitting the query.  But again the QUERY is for fiction.  If you are planning to try and publish a NONFICTION you will be writing a PROPOSAL which is different (and honestly I do not know a whole lot about) I will explain the difference at the end of this post and also give you the name of a book you can get on the subject of proposals if you want.  So onto today’s topic.

THE QUERY: Fiction’s “foot in the door”

Assuming you have finished your manuscript. It’s been edited and rewrites are “done” and it’s formatted for submission (I will get around to the standard format requirements I promise) and you are about to burst with joy for your accomplishment, the query letter is your next step. (Assuming you are not going to spend money on attending conferences that is, which yes I recommend you do but I am bias on them).

A query letters ONLY purpose is to get your actual writing in front of someone who can eventually get you published.  But when something has such a narrow purpose it must be done perfectly.

First: Do your research. If you are going for an agent (recommended) then see which ones are in YOUR area. Just because their address is not in NY, NY doesn’t mean they cannot be effective for you. Being able to have face to face with an agent is an ADVANTAGE. Know what that agent acquires and who they currently represent before querying them. Same for the HOUSE you might query… know who in that publishing house will acquire your genre and if they are currently doing so and for what “book lines” and for the house find out for how long that “line” will be acquiring for.
Now the letter: Assuming you know who you are querying, your letter is your foot in the door. It is going to tell the agent/editor who you are, what you write, how professional you are, and if you could be worth the expense of a print run (what is your “voice”). You must take this into serious consideration because from the moment your letter lands on the desk of an agent or editor you are being judged.

If your letter arrives in a pink envelope and has little doodles all over it forget it its going in the round file and you likely will not even get a form letter rejection.  If it arrives on the desk of someone who only represents horror and you have written a Christian Family story it’s going in the round file.  If it arrives with marks from the mailroom showings it’s been passed over several desks… yeah round file.  Make sure you have properly addressed the letter, that it has enough postage affixed and that your return address is clearly printed out.  When the letter is opened make sure it has been professionally folded (usually the bottom folded up to the inside center and the top then folded back to the outside center so when it is pulled out it shows the address to the recipient). Try if you can to format your letter so that your “HOOK” is also showing in that first fold.

You MUST HOOK the agent. The best advice I can give you is explain your entire manuscript in 25 words or less. YEAH I said 25 words or less. This is your “pitch” this is what makes an agent go “Wow, tell me more”.  This is going to be why the agent/editor unfolds the letter to read more.  This is your one shot and it needs to be perfect so practice.  This is the same 25 words or less you would use if you happened to get stuck in an elevator with the agent/editor of your dreams at a conference but they would only be there for two floors.  Quick, Sharp, Catchy!

Example: Lord and Lady Cantor have the perfect marriage because they live on different continents. But it’s time to end the perfection.

Now tell me that won’t make you want to know more. After that it’s just a matter of being succinct.
Introduce your novel.

Example: Perfect Love is a 100k word historical novel set in both Britain and America. Etc. (do this in 1 paragraph no more than 60 to 100 words)

Introduce yourself. I am an unpublished writer who has a BA in history. Etc (do this is 40 words or less) then tell them why you selected to query them.

Example; I am querying you because of your relationship with X publishing house and your history of success with X author(s). My style is much like theirs. (Do this in 40 -50 words)

If querying a house state which line you are interested in writing for, you may not fit that line but you might be directed into the hands of someone handling a line you would fit. Sign and give a solid as in can be reached 24/7 contact info. That is the best advice I can give you, other then submit your query letter for critique. It won’t hurt.

As I have mentioned your query is going to give the agent/editor a general over all view of you and your ability.  It is very difficult to write a great query, to nail the hook, to give your qualifications and to make them know you understand that publishing is a business they take seriously.  Solid query letters tell the agent you are serious about writing as a profession.  Even if you manuscript has some weaknesses a query will alert an agent to your actual ability and give you a chance.

After that it will be either a form letter stating a polite but crushing NO THANK YOU or a request for a synopses and chapters. And you had best have both ready because if you get a request and it takes you a month to reply you will get a no thank you. If you do get a request make sure you send a pre-paid return envelope because you will not get your work back without it if you get a no thank you. But with it you will get it back AND it’s highly likely it will come back with notes and edits which might tell you a great deal about why you got a NO.

DO NOT; whatever you do DO NOT NOT NOT send a “form letter” query. I can absolutely promise you that you will burn every bridge in the publishing world if you do. Agents and editors talk to each other all the time and they share queries and proposals with each other. They even share them with other writers learning the do’s and don’ts. Also do not get fancy. Plain white standard paper with 1 inch margins and basic fonts or if the queries are requested by email… same thing only in text. Full words no texting shorts.

Now if you are writing nonfiction you will be submitting a proposal.  And while all the rules above apply as far as professionalism, and purpose a proposal has a little more room for artist conveyance.  In a proposal you will be submitting chapter outlines rather than saying what the book is about as a whole.  You should still keep each chapter outline to a minimum of words and try to keep your proposal to no more than two pages.

I recommend to those who are writing nonfiction, a book written a few years back I even recommend this to those writing fiction because it is just that good.

Your Novel Proposal From Creation to Contract by Blythe Camenson and Marshall J Cook.
The first part of this book is a little out of date as it was written before e-publishing and as happens in publishing houses change around their structure.  But if you skip to chapter 3 and go from there you will find a great deal of helpful information.  Some of course I have already written about, but a blog is not as detailed as a full chapter.

Now, get started on that query and next time we can talk about a synopes.

Till then WRITE ON!!