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Writing: Query Letters

A query letter is different from a cover letter. A cover letter covers the poem, story, article that you’re submitting at that time. A query letter is sent before the piece is submitted and is most common for book publishers and many nonfiction magazines. In either case you’re asking the publisher, or an agent if they would be interested in seeing your work.

Because it’s cost prohibitive to send full book manuscripts to every publisher under the sun (and there are many) it is best to ask them first if they’re even publishing the stuff you write. For editors it is also time prohibitive. Some publishing houses get a hundred manuscripts a day and they will know in the first chapter, and in many cases the first page or paragraph, whether they want to buy the book.

Publishers have different rules as to what they’ll accept. Some will not look at an ungented manuscript, meaning you’re going to be sending your query letter to an agent who will then contact the publisher should that agent decide to take you on. Some publishers will say send a query first and others will ask for a query letter with synopsis, or the first three chapters. Of course if each of your chapters is a hundred pages long you’ll want to limit the pages. I’d say that no more than 50 and probably more around 30 is average.

Editors are a temperamental lot, and should you get through the first tasks you don’t want them irritated at you. Which means, don’t send them weird stuff, and under weird is the following: colored paper, odd or hard to read fonts (standard is Courier, Times New Roman, or similar), pictures and other memorabilia of your life, stapled or bound manuscripts, toys, CDs, candy or other bribes).

And of course most of all you want to be clear and concise in your query letter. You absolutely do not want to tell an editor what they will think or feel. “You will find this an extremely exciting story which you will love.” You can’t possibly know what an editor will like or feel and telling them so also indicates that your writing might follow suit in telling the reader what the character is feeling as opposed to showing. (There are instances where telling works but it means knowing how to write first.)

So your letter should say something like:

Dear Tom Jones,

I have written a mystery novel about Angel McCracken, a detective too much a party animal for her own good. Cabana Boy in the Trunk is 110,000 words and the first of five books. Book two is completed and I’m currently working on the third novel.

I have been published in X, Y, Z… After three years working at Club Med, the behind the scenes lifestyle has added a steamy layer to the mysteries that I place in various resorts.

Now I’m no expert on query letters and I recommend everyone go and look at a few different ones. Readers Digest has good pointers and I believe a book on writing query letters. If a publisher asks for an outline or a synopsis with the query letter, then that is where you outline the story. If not, you put it into the query letter but make it briefer.

The first paragraph should say why you’re writing: you have a book or books, it fits into X genre, runs at this many words and who the protagonist is. Mentioning that there are other books, whether written or just plotted also helps because publishers always like to sell a series. Subsequent paragraphs will describe the basic gist of the plot. A summary paragraph on your credentials also lets the editor know your background. If it’s nonfiction, say a book on physics, mentioning that you work at NASA or are a physicist is important. Saying you’re a mother of two is not unless it’s pertinent to the book. However, it is good to put a personal note about who you are, and if you can relate it to the topic of your book, all the better.

In all, a query letter should be one page, and no more than two max, but one is preferred. Like an ad, you want to draw the reader into it and have them say, “Yes, that sounds interesting. Send me more.” Professional is the best way to go, and suit the tone of your letter to the type of publisher you’re talking to. And again, never ever tell an agent or an editor what they will feel or think about the manuscript.You can say, “I hope you will find this a tension grabbing and entertain reading. I look forward to hearing from you.”

And most of all, research query letters because you don’t want to have your story rejected on the basis of a letter.


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Writing: Advice on Getting Published

A little while ago someone asked me:

 I am here desirous to find a faithful publisher for my book…. What useful counsel can you give to me.

I’m not sure what is meant by faithful publisher but finding a publisher is a mixture of you wanting them and them wanting you. There are literally thousands of publishers. There are some that publish all types and genres and others that specialize. So the first thing to do is figure out if your book is a how-to, a biography, history, fantasy, romance, literary, sports, spiritual, etc.

Once you know who your reading audience is, you can then research publishers. Writer’s Digestputs out a series of books on markets. They’re specific, such as, literary markets, short story markets, romance markets, etc. These books give good information on how to write a query letter, which is the first step to what to include in your submission package. Some publishers only want a query letter. Others want a letter, a synopsis and the first three chapters. Some only want agented submissions, which means you must go through the process of querying agents first. It’s best to read up on what the publisher wants first. They received hundreds of manuscripts and someone who hasn’t bothered to research the market and sends something in the wrong format or way is likely to piss off an editor and have their manuscript tossed.

Writer’s Digest also lists publishers and markets, giving short descriptions, addresses and editor names. It’s good to read up on the advice and then to start submitting. It’s important to make sure you submit your manuscripts in the proper format, which in most cases is double spaced text, no extra space between paragraphs, regular font and size, no right justification, word count, page numbering and name. There is enough information out there that tells you what to send and what not to.

Outlines by chapter, or synopses also are often required so make sure they’re laid out well and contain what is the main action/point of each chapter. Taking courses or workshopping manuscripts as well as outlines is not a bad idea. And of course, making sure your manuscript is polished and free of as many grammatical and spelling errors as possible does improve your chances.

Besides researching the right publisher for your manuscript, it’s not a bad idea to check the legitimacy and publishing record of a publisher. Find out what they’ve published and do internet searches both on the publisher name and the book titles they’ve put out. There are vanity presses that charge you to put everything together. Your chances of making a profit are small. There are print on demand publishers that will work out a deal for self-publishing but depending on how they’re set up, you will need to figure out how to advertise and distribute your book. Unless you know what you’re doing, you could have some very expensive doorstops and going with established well known publishers with marketing departments and established distribution is worth it’s weight in gold.

I once edited a book for a friend who was writing a guide on places to walk your dog. He did his own layout and found a printer. Then he found a local book rep who would market it to the bookstores and see to distribution through a local book distributor. That worked well but the book was locally focused. In most cases you’re going to want national distribution if you hope to make any money or sell your book.

Then all you have to do is keep submitting your book to publishers until they bite. Sometimes they’ll ask to see a few chapters, and then they may ask to see a full manuscript. This process can take months. Expect the average of three months before seeing a reply to even a query. It’s best to send out query letters to many publishers at once. Persevere. Like writing it takes work to get published and some is just the persistence of sending out your manuscript until you hit the right publisher at the right time.


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