Friday, April 17, 2009


For those readers of this blog looking for advice on how to write a query letter, you can do no better than to soak in the wisdom you've received this week from my fellow Girls. All of it is apt, spot-on and well worth listening to.

Me? I've never written a query letter that sold me a book. Seriously.

WONDROUS STRANGE was sold sans query. So - really - what the heck do I know about writing a query letter??

Well... I knew enough to write the one that got me an agent, and that was the most important thing. And the most important thing in that query, I know (largely because my agent has told me this), was my voice.

If there is one thing - one salient piece of advice I can add to the discussion - it is this. Your query must must must reflect your voice. Some people will tell you a query letter is a business letter and so it is. But it's also your art in small. You must make it reflect the work it represents - tonally, thematically, presentationally... somehow. It can never be just "here's what my story is about". For example, Maureen's letter oozes her voice - it's full of quirky, irreverent humor with heart. And even though Jillian talks of her query letter being pretty-bare bones, well, you still get a powerful sense of her precise, poetic way with words. Even just a few words.

My feeling about queries is, quite simply, the same way I feel about story. You can have the most intricate, intriguing, finely-wrought plot in the world but unless it's being populated by characters worth getting to know, I'm not going to care. Same thing with querying - you can have a really great premise for a story but unless you let me in on how your going to tell it, I'm not going to care.

Make an agent - or an editor - care. Make your query speak. Give it your voice.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Query Letters: Not My Thing

Unlike the rest of The Novel Girls, I hated writing query letters. In fact, I think I was terrible at it. It’s probably one of the reasons that it took me such a long time to get an agent. My first attempts at a query letter followed all the advice that Tracy and Maureen offered, but somehow I could never manage to get it right. The letter was nearly a page long – too long, I think, to really hold an agent’s interest, because I hardly got any good responses back. Then I read an article about query letters, and it talked about how they should be as short and to-the-point as possible. I think the article was in an old edition of The Novel and Short Story Writer’s Market. There was a short sample letter in there, too, and, still feeling entirely lost at query writing, I decided to copy the format exactly.

I started off with a short one-sentence paragraph that said that I was a fiction writer and that I had recently completed my novel, Even to the Edge (the original title of The September Sisters).

Then I had a short paragraph explaining my credentials – Here I listed that I had an MFA from The University of Arizona and also that I was a writing teacher. I also mentioned a big national fellowship I’d won, and I included a quote from the editor of The Atlantic Monthly. He once called my writing “awfully good” in a rejection letter for a short story I’d sent him. Though I included the quote, I of course, left out the fact that it was from a rejection letter!

Next I had a short, four-sentence description of the book, which read like this: “Even to the Edge is the coming of age story of Abigail Reed. Two months before her thirteenth birthday, her younger sister disappears in the middle of the night. Her mother and father retreat into their own private worlds, and Abigail is forced to face the missing space of her sister and growing up on her own. As her family world begins to fall apart, she strikes up an unlikely relationship with her neighbor's grandson, an eccentric boy, who like Abigail, is floundering in the world.”

And then I ended with another one-sentence paragraph that simply read: “If you are interested, I would be happy to send you the manuscript.”

Short, to the point, not that exciting. Looking at it now, I know I could've done a better job describing the book, but I have to say that with this letter I got A LOT of agent responses. Nearly every agent I sent this query to asked for at least a partial of the manuscript.

And speaking of trying to find an agent – here’s a funny story. A few weeks ago, I got a rejection letter from an agent for The September Sisters – in response to a copy of the manuscript I’d sent out in the summer of 2006 (a few months before I signed with my agent). Talk about a slow response time! I posted the letter on my personal blog and blogged more about it there. But I have to say, it was the first time a rejection ever made me laugh!

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Query Letters: Not So Bad

I woke up this morning thinking it was Wednesday. And in my sleep-haze, was like, "What did I write about yesterday on the Novel Girls?" And then I panicked because I thought I missed writing about one of my favorite topics: Query Letters.

To some writers, that last sentence might be like saying, "I LOVE when my car breaks down!" or "Paying my credit card bill is the BEST!"

But, no. Seriously. I really like writing query letters. To me, there's something so satisfying in seeing my book--the piece I cried, laughed and screamed expletives at--summarized in a few paragraphs. It's like the cake is already baked, and I'm just writing down the recipe.

So let's get into the real meat of a query. Typically, the formula is this:

Dear Agent (Use real name here. And address it Mr./Mrs./Ms. With the fabulous invention that is the internet you can easily find out if someone is a man or woman.)

Opening Paragraph--brief. Can open with a hook or just state the word count/genre/book title. Like, in a sentence and stuff.

Hook Paragraph(s)--get into the real meat of your story. You don't have to give everything away, but make it interesting. Your query is like a commercial for your book. Make someone go, "Oooh! I want to read this!" One thing I found helpful was to look at back cover copy on published books. Your hook should read the same way. Or, just go to Amazon or another online retailer and read the summary copy posted. This section is usually 1-2 paragraphs.

End Paragraph--This is where you put any credentials, if you have them. Contest wins, other works published, etc. It's OK if you don't have any credentials. I certainly didn't. Trust me, creds aren't going to make or break your query.

And that's it! Now, there are two important things to keep in mind. The first is to write your query in the voice of your book. If your book is funny, your query shouldn't read like toaster oven instructions. The second is to follow the submission guidelines. Agents get so many queries a day, they're LOOKING for a reason (any reason at all) to say "No." Don't let an oversight like not pasting the first 10 pages of the book or whatever be the reason!

I'm someone who learns best by example, so I thought it would be fun if I posted the query that landed my agent. She's used it in a few query workshops at conferences. Here it is in all its 2007 Fabulousness, complete with original title:

Was It Planned?, 80,000 words and commercial women’s fiction, examines what happens when an unplanned pregnancy uproots a newly-married couple and their very obese, drag-queen cat.

When twenty-seven-year-old event planner and famous blogger/Internet Rockstar Clare Finnegan married her long-term boyfriend Jake, she didn’t mind moving out of the city. After all, a suburban existence didn’t necessarily equal domesticity, book club parties and a subscription to Martha Stewart Living. But, after a boozy weekend in Vegas, Clare discovers she’s pregnant and is thrown into a world where her paycheck goes directly to daycare and eating lunchmeat is equivalent to smoking crack.

During her transition from beer bottles to baby bottles, Clare juggles her two feuding best friends: Julie, an overweight nurse with trailer park roots who thinks she’s a cast member of Sex and the City and Reese, an affluent, stay-at-home mom who is quickly discovering why suburban women are the fastest growing category of drug users. Not to mention her teenage sister, whose reaction to the pregnancy is, “Your life is, like, over now. Have fun buying high-waisted Mom Jeans.”

Despite her initial shock, Clare welcomes the new changes but still ponders questions such as: “What the hell is a Diaper Genie?”; “What if I accidentally leave the baby somewhere inappropriate, like a Victoria’s Secret dressing room?”; “Why do most maternity clothes look like they were molested by a Bedazzler?”; and “How can I possibly have a child when all of my furniture is made of cardboard and from IKEA?”

Was It Planned? is my first novel. I’m twenty-seven and reside in Chicago with my husband. Ironically enough, shortly after completing this novel, I became pregnant and my first child is due this August.

Thank you for your time.

Good luck and may the Querying Force be with you!

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Anatomy of a Query Letter

Wow, I almost forgot I had to post today! With family visiting over the weekend, I hadn't even fully realized it was Monday. But with this week's subject being one of my favorites, I'm glad I remembered it was my day!

Query letters, for those not in the know, are what writers use to hopefully gain the attention of an agent or an editor. I'm only going to talk about fiction query letters in this post, because I've never written a query for a non-fiction book or proposal. So, with that in mind, think of a query letter as an advertisement for yourself, but more importantly, for your novel.

Query letters should be short (no more than one page in length), to the point, but still give the reader a clue about your voice, the story itself, and some other basic information. While there are lots of different thoughts on how to create a query letter, I'm going to share the way I've always written them. That doesn't mean my way is the right way, but it is what I'm familiar with. :)

First impressions matter! Your first contact with a literary agent or editor will likely be your query letter. The letter should be single spaced, double spaced between paragraphs, in standard business letter format, one inch margins, and a readable 12 point font. Here’s what your query letter should contain:

1. Put your snail mail address, email address, and phone number(s) at the top of the page, followed by the date, and then the agent/editor’s name and address. If you are unsure of gender, skip the “Mr.” or “Miss / Mrs. / Ms.” and simply write “Dear FirstName Last Name.”

2. The first paragraph should include why you are querying this particular agent/editor, the title of your novel, the approximate word count, and the genre of your manuscript.

3. The second paragraph should be your hook, which is a one sentence generalization of your novel. Think high concept.

4. The third paragraph should expand on your hook, giving a little more information about conflict, motivation, characters, and the purpose of the story. If necessary, you can use two paragraphs to do this, but it shouldn’t be any longer.

5. The fourth paragraph should be a short bio, including prior publishing history (if any), contest finals/wins (if any), if you’re a member of any writing organizations, and any other pertinent information. Think short and sweet!

6. The last paragraph is your concluding paragraph. State that you can send the partial or the full upon request. If you’re including a synopsis or sample pages with your query letter (only do this if the submission guidelines stipulate so), mention this here as well. If you’re enclosing a SASE, this can also be here.

7. Close the letter with “Sincerely,” your typed name, and then your signature.

If you're emailing your query letter, then obviously, you won't be including a SASE, and you shouldn't attach pages or the synopsis unless the agent or editor states that attachements are okay. Instead, just copy and paste them into the body of the email.

Other than that, that's it! Again, the most important thing to remember is to follow the submission guidelines for who you're submitting to. Beyond that, just keep it simple!