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The Dizzyingly Dreadful Query Letter: A Survival Guide

Vintage Mail 009

The query letter can be one of the most frightfully awful things a writer has to face. You’ve just spent months (or years, or decades, or, if you’re James Patterson, a couple of weeks) pouring your blood, sweat and tears into finishing this manuscript, ironing out every comma and period, pestering your spouse (friend, sibling, colleague, complete stranger) to read faster, but to simultaneously make sure they catch every spelling mistake and factual inconsistency… the last thing you want to do is boil down those 500 pages of perfected prose into a four or five paragraph pitch.

But you have to.

As a friend once said to me (in one of my more ridiculous, ‘my-life-is-a-mess’ moments), “No one is going to hunt you down in our front room and say: ‘You know that great idea you have for a book in your head? Well I want to buy it.'” And, as much as I loathed him at the time for saying it, he was absolutely correct. It. Will. Never. Happen.

So how to you go about advertising that fabulous idea in your head? Why don’t we just slap a stamp on our finished manuscript and send it out to every publisher we can find contact information for? You wrote it yourself, right? Of course, it’s fantastic! They’ll be hooked from the first page for sure…

But, I’ll let you in on a little secret, we publishers are busy people and we don’t have time to read every book that crosses our desk, just like you don’t have time to read every book on the shelf at the bookstore. How do you pick the books you choose to read? My guess is you make your decision based on 4 main criteria:

  1. Genre
  2. Word of mouth/ the bestseller lists
  3. The cover
  4. The blurb on the back of the book

The query letter is kind of like the back of the book for us. It tells us everything we need to know about the proposed book and we’re able to read it in 2 minutes or less (and that’s if we’re reading slow). What your writerly job is, is to engage us enough with your ‘book blurb’ (aka pitch) that we want to turn the page to read the first pages of your first chapter and hopefully more.

But how do we complete this near Sisyphean task that is crafting the successful query letter? What can we do to make our letter stand out in a pile of 300 other that (on the surface) look (and should look) essentially the same? While I’m no expert, I’ve written and read enough of them (not to mention articles on how to write them), to at least provide some pointers.

We’ll start with query letter layout:

  1.  The first thing to know when writing query letters is to FOLLOW PUBLISHER’S INSTRUCTIONS. If their website asks you to submit a query and first chapter in ten foot high Braille, do it or don’t bother submitting to that publishing house. They post instructions so that writers will follow them.  It shows you are an effective researcher and that you know how to read, comprehend and follow instructions.
  2. When laying out your letter, type your name and contact information in the upper right hand corner, the publisher’s/agent’s name and contact information in the upper left hand corner.
  3. You should address your publisher or agent by name. Never ‘To Whom It May Concern’; always ‘Dear Miss/Ms/Mrs/Mr Publisher’s-Last-Name’. Do your research, know to whom you are writing and what their literary preferences are. (Dear…) should occur a couple lines below the publisher’s contact information, justified to the left margin with the right margin left ragged.
  4.  Your letter should never be longer than one page, single spaced. Ever.
  5. As with your manuscript, use a 12 pt, serif font in black for your text.
  6. Print on white paper.

Now that you know what your query letter should look like, let’s work on how it should sound:

  1. After you’ve greeted your potential future editor/agent you need to get straight into the meat of the subject. No lallygagging. Start pitching.
  2. Start with a hook. It should be one line and it should tell you why you should want to read this story. It’s the ad campaign you see on a blockbuster movie poster. Look at any movie poster, you’ll get the idea pretty quick. It has to be snappy, catchy, quirky and original. A question can also be a very effective hook.
  3. Next comes your pitch. What is a pitch? It’s about a 350 word, ultra-short story that introduces the key characters, elaborates on the set-up, offers a few further complications on the central conflict, then gives an indication of how it wraps up. We’re not looking for a summary of your story. We’re looking for a pitch. We don’t want to know every detail of what happens along the way, we want to be drawn in, we want you to sucker us into giving you more of our time and reading the sample pages that follow your query. Follow your ABCDEs (Action, Backstory, Development, Climax, End) when writing your ultra-short story and you can’t go too far wrong.
  4. Your pitch should reflect your book. Make sure the voice you use in your query is the same voice that imbues your book with its brilliance. What is voice? The most excellent Query Guru – Query Shark – tells us that ‘Voice isn’t who’s speaking. Voice is how you say things: the words you choose, the order, the cadence the rhythm.’  Your writerly voice is uniquely your own. We need to hear YOU.
  5. The best queries come from authors who truly understand the scope, structure, voice and audience of their book and who can articulate it in a concise manner. After you have pitched your story tell us where your book fits in the market and it’s approximate word count.
  6. Follow this with a brief paragraph that details your writing credentials. (Keep it short and sweet and if you have several writing credentials only include the top of the list).
  7. Thank the publisher/agent for their time and indicate you are looking forward to hearing from them at their earliest convenience and close your letter with ‘Sincerely’ or ‘Kindest regards’ or your preferred letter closer and leave space to sign your name below before typing your name. Don’t forget to sign your name (as this writer once did: I wanted to jump in the mailbox after it the second I realised what I’d done.)

Above all, always remember to remain professional. The more professional you appear, the more likely you are to succeed in finding a publisher or agent. Under no circumstances should a copyright symbol appear anywhere in your query or manuscript. Publishers and agents know the rights to the work belong to you. That happens automatically the second you write them down. This blog post is technically copyrighted but you don’t see a silly little c with a circle around it anywhere, do you? That’s because the work belongs to me, it is mine, I am the progenitor and, as such, I am permitted to license the rights to this article as I see fit. If you do not own the rights to the piece you are pitching to a publisher, you shouldn’t be pitching it to us. We’re not in the business of stealing ideas, nor are we horrible people, but we do expect the authors that we take on to be able to follow instructions.

In a nut shell, with a query letter, we want to see four things.

  1.  What your story is about (and please, we’re begging you, tell it in a compelling way).
  2. What your credentials are to write this book (if you have any) if not, don’t mention it.
  3. How we can get a hold of you if we like your idea.
  4. Professionalism!

That’s it, that’s all folks. As always, if you have any questions, you know where to find us.

Best regards,

River Ram Press

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