Friday, November 4, 2011

Writing the Dreaded Query Letter

Just seeing the words 'Query Letter' give me an involuntary shudder. Admittedly, I hate them. How is it possible to take several hundred pages and sum them up succinctly, flavor them with the voice and tone of your story, and put them into one to two paragraphs to relay the entire essence of your book? And further, how do you pitch yourself as an author worth taking seriously when you do not have a long list of writing credits?

The truth is, I don't have the answer. I struggle with it myself. The best place to start is by reading other query letters. Very often, agents will offer up ones from their published clients that show what worked for them and why they were hooked. What do theirs have that yours don't?

One of the biggest mistakes that can be found in a query is that it is too wordy. I speak from personal experience. Back when I started querying my novel, before it was truly ready to be queried, I might add, my query was nothing short of an epic. Too much detail, too many character names - in short, it was utterly craptastic. That summer, I attended an amazing online writing conference called WriteOnCon, and they offered up a Query contest which was to be judged by agent Joanna Volpe of Nancy Coffey Literary. You can imagine how thrilled and excited I was that she chose mine as the first one to break down. (You can read her comments here.) Although it was unnerving to put myself out there like that and have all my newbie mistakes on display, Joanna gave me an incredible gift - she actually told me what I was doing wrong (and peppered it with what I was doing right, thankfully.) For must of us, we send our query out and when we get no response, we either tweak it or continue to send another round. I actually had new direction now, and from the comments, other writers were helped by it too because they had made similar mistakes. If you have the opportunity to enter your query in a contest, or get feedback from other writers on it, do so, preferably before you submit it to half of New York City. After making these changes, interest in my book jumped.

Shortly after, I befriended YA author Eileen Cook online, and in our banter, she was kind enough to offer to take a look at it for me and sent further comments and revisions my way, helping me turn it into the query it is today. Ever since that further change, the interest spiked again. It underscored the truth that a great, tight query is everything. You have an agent's attention for approximately 45 seconds or less. If you can't hook them and get that idea across, they are on to the next one. They literally get hundreds every week, so yours must stand out.

As for pitching yourself as a writer with limited credits, look into your history and see what parlays as experience. For me, I had a history in motion picture development as a reader, as well as writing Outreach materials for a PBS station in Seattle, specifically for a popular children's television show. I'd graduated from the Screenwriting program at UCLA extension, and of course, maintain this writing blog. Not as effective were the countless hours of my childhood spent in front of a typewriter fancying myself the next Judy Blume, or the meeting I got to have with the Editor-in-Chief of Putnam Publishing when I was thirteen based on a submission, or the interest I'd had from the Disney Channel in a script I'd written when I was a teenager. Nothing ever happened with those things, so they aren't useful, except to me to reassure myself that this has always been in my blood and been my passion for as long as I can remember. You don't need to spell out "I've never been published." Saying "This is my first novel" can be enough. But don't overdo it. Less is more.

For some great tips on query letter writing, check out YA author Elana Johnson's blog entry, and even better, her free eBook "From The Query To The Call." For an excellent list of 10 query no-no's, check out this link. has a great how-to list that gives you great structure and tips. Another great resource is The Writer's Digest Guide to Query Letters. A quick Google search will bring up countless more.

What are some great tips you use to make your query stand out? Good luck, and may the force be with you.


Kristen Evey said...

Thank you for this! Definitely not at this point yet, but I will be, and it's nice to have reminders. Once again, great post!

Meredith Glickman said...

Hi Robin, Love that picture. Great post with lots of helpful information!

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