W3 Wise Words on Writing

W3 is a monthly newsletter for writers on a variety of topics from technique to the psychology of writing. It appears by the 15th of each month. More information is available from www.wisewordsonwriting.com

Monday, May 16, 2005

No 23 Writing Query Letters

Writing query letters is almost as much fun as writing a synopsis, and we all know how horrible synopsis writing is. But here are some of the common questions I've received when talking to new writers about marketing their work whether it is fiction or non fiction.
  • When do I need a query letter?
  • When you want to interest a publisher in your book.
  • When you want to interest an agent in your work.
  • When you want to interest an editor in article, story or to get an assignment not yet written
  • When you submit an unsolicited piece and require a polite cover letter. This is usually for short work not full books.
  • Should I send my query by snail or email?
Many publishers accept submissions by email. In the past we checked with different writer market directories but now most publishers have websites with publishing guidelines. I can not stress strongly enough CHECK GUIDELINES!

How do I know where to send my writing?Research. Don't waste your time to mail science fiction to a mystery publisher. It won't work.

Is it important to send the query to an exact person?
Yes, yes, yes. Look at the website or directories and find the name of the correct person. The website should be up-to-date but the directory might not be. It is worth it to telephone to get the name of the current editor.

Does neatness count?
Yes, yes, yes. Although there are no hard and fast rules, the query should have good margins, a normal typeface, etc. 10 to 11 points, spacing between paragraphs. Neatness is the easiest part. Proof-read several times or if you're as bad at proofing your own work as I am, ask someone you trust.

What kind of letterhead should I use?
Create your own letterhead. Include all the relevant information: name, address, email, telephone number, fax, URL if you have the last two. However, don't use cute drawings.
Use good quality paper. A problem for submitting work internationally is that the US has a standard 8 1/2x11 size of paper and the standard for most of the rest of the world is A4, a slightly bigger sheet. However, an editor, agent or publisher won't say, "Although this is the best query I've ever seen, and the idea is fascinating, I won't use it because the letterhead is the wrong size."

What should I avoid?
Too much blah blah. Make every word count. Don't use meaningless phrases like "Attached please find." If the editor isn't bright enough to see an attachment, you won't want your work published by that person anyway. Also avoid trite phrases such as "in due course" which is different from due north.

What goes in the first paragraph?
You only have one chance to make a good impression. Your first paragraph should work the same way as the lead in a good news story. Make the reader want to go on.

Ex: fiction: Chickpea Lover (not a cookbook) is a 90,000 word novel about a woman who falls in love with a man who dresses as vegetables. Note: The title and the premise I hoped were strong enough to capture the publisher's attention.

Ex: feature article: Although absinthe, the liquorice-tasting drink that drove people mad in the late 1800s was banned in Switzerland in 1905, it is still made illegally in the Jura Mountains. Instead of asking guests if they prefer white or red wine, absinthe moon shiners in the little town of Môtier ask if they want red, white or blue. The blue refers to the blue fairy, another name for absinthe. Note: I didn't take for granted that the editor knew what absinthe was, so I identified it, mentioned it was illegal to titillate and then tried to add some color with words like moon shiners. I also tried to establish my expertise by giving one of absinthe's nicknames.

What should I tell them about myself?
Enough to show you are professional and any related knowledge depending on the market.

For fiction I once used: I am an American writer living and working in Geneva Switzerland and Argelès France. My short stories and poems have been published in six countries and read on BBC radio. My novel CHICKPEA LOVER was published in paperback in 2003 and will be published in paperback in the US in 2004. It will also be published in Germany and Russia this year.

For non-fiction I once used: I am an overseas correspondent for an American trade journal and the author of a novel that has appeared in the US and will appear next year in Germany and Russia. My news articles have been published in the US and the UK. Note: If I have some expertise in the area, I try and do it. While trying to sell an article to a religious magazine I added: For four years I judged the Templeton's Foundation Annual Religious Writing Award. The 3000 CHF ($2500) prize is awarded to the person who has done the most effective job covering religious issues for a major European newspaper. I gave them the Templeton Foundation website.

What if I don't have any credits?

If you have none at all, say nothing. A good idea is to join a professional writing group or say: I have a been writing for X years and am a member of: Otherwise try and find whatever, an article appearing in a magazine, a degree (if related) e.g. A writer sending an article on child development might say: I have been a teacher for 12 years and have worked with over 1000 students. In other words: establish you are serious about your craft and/or knowledgeable about the topic.

Do I include writing samples?
Although it depends on the guidelines, if you have a good sample it wouldn't hurt to send it along when looking for free lance work. One way to build a small portfolio is to have articles printed in small papers. If you have a small local paper try and work with the editor to get published.
For fiction it depends if the guidelines ask for sample chapters.

What about an SASE?
This is becoming more and more a thing of the last century. A stamped self-addressed envelope is required for your manuscript to be returned. However, in this time of cheap printing and high postage costs it might be more economical not to include an SASE and say, "Please notify me of your decision by email at Imasuccess@yahoo.com I also like to keep everything positive and saying things like "If you don't want my manuscript…" reminds me of the Girl Scout who knocked at my door and said, "You don't want to buy any cookies do you?"

How long should a query letter be?
No more than three paragraphs: a powerful opening, a paragraph about yourself and a closing. Short letters are less intimidating to read. If the opening is powerful enough, the person will probably scan the rest of the material. An editor once said he spent 30-second on a query and if it didn't catch his attention it was binned.

How should I end a query letter?
Successful sales people (when we trying to get our work published we are sales people) ask for the order. Writers need to be a little more subtle. I've had the best success with "I look forward to your response and thank you for your consideration" which is both polite and almost asking for something.

How long should I wait before I follow up?
I would say six weeks to two months so you don't look too pushy. Editors are busy people. They may not remember anyway.

Note: I find people outside the US much more polite and tend to send rejection letters or if interested get back to you immediately. Americans often don't respond at all. When I got the offer for CHICKPEA I needed an agent because I am NOT a detail person and have no idea of contracts. I emailed 35 New York agents and said "I have a firm offer for a book contract for my novel. I need an agent to negotiate it." Not one came back to me. Years later I am still shaking my head that anyone would refuse business that was handed to them.

Is a cover letter different?
Unsolicited: The opening paragraph should mention the title, what it is and the word count. The second paragraph should be about you. The third should be a polite close. In that way they are the same. The cover letter is polite although the manuscript should speak for itself.

Solicited: Always mark the envelope and the top of the cover letter "REQUESTED MATERIAL" to make sure it isn't added to the slush pile.

TIP: Mark all the pages in the manuscript in the footer with your name and the number of pages. Nelson 1 of 5. Editors' desks are usually messy and things can get lost. This is NOT necessary with email submissions.

Although there is no 11th Commandment referring to query letters the guidelines above are just that. The best query letter is the one that works. Here are two books that might help:

QUERY LETTERS THAT WORKED! Real Queries That Landed $2K+ Writing Assignments hhttp://www.booklocker.com/books/1409.html
How to Write Attention Grabbing Query & Cover Letters by John Wood


Here's the query letter that sold several agents on Luck and ultimately led to a two-book contract with Bantam.
  • Specific person
  • Agency
  • Address
  • Address
  • Dear (Agent/Editor's Name):

I am seeking representation for my fantasy adventure novel, Luck In The Shadows, complete at 170,000 words. I am enclosing a synopsis and a sample chapter. The sequel, Stalking Darkness, is nearing completion and another free-standing book featuring the same characters is in outline form.

I love thieves and spies - those sneaky people who live by intuition, skill, and inside knowledge. In fantasy, however, they are often portrayed as dark, ruthless characters or relegated to second string roles, a la Falstaff, as useful or amusing foils for more conventional heroic types. Luck in the Shadows gives the rogues center stage.

Seregil is an experienced spy for hire with a murky past and noble connections; Alec is the talented but unworldly boy he rescues and takes on as apprentice. "I admit I've cut a purse or two in my time," Seregil tells Alec soon after they meet, "and some of what I do could be called stealing, depending on who you ask. But try to imagine the challenge of overcoming incredible obstacles to accomplish a noble purpose.

Think of traveling to lands where legends walk the streets in daylight and even the color of the sea is like nothing you've ever seen! I ask you again, would you be plain Alec of Kerry all your life, or would you see what lies beyond?" Alec goes, of course, and quickly plunges into danger, intrigue, and adventure as their relationship deepens into friendship. The interaction between these two forms the core of this character-driven series.

I've been writing professionally for ten years and am currently a freelance journalist. My articles appear regularly in the Bangor Daily News, Preview! Magazine, and Maine In Print. I've covered everything from software to psychics; my interview credits include Stephen King, Anne Rice, and William Kotzwinkle.

Thank you for your consideration of this proposal. I look forward to hearing from you soon.
Sincerely,Lynn Flewellinghttp://www.sfwa.org/writing/query.htm

Write a query letter for the last novel you just read and enjoyed, but substitute yourself as the
author. Write a query for an article you read in a magazine, but substitute yourself as the author


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