Dear Reader, what follows below is not for the faint of heart. It contains harsh truths, startling truths about the publishing industry, and may result in tremors or palpitations. If you are in ill health, I beg you to sit down, for my Conscience could not survive the Horror of being responsible for your death...
Welcome to the post about query letters! I'm writing to you not from my cozy little office in NJ, but from the opposite coast in sunny San Diego. I've been here since Friday afternoon, attending the SDSU Writers Conference, and generally having a great time, despite jet lag. I've heard twenty different authors describe their novels to me in formal pitch sessions (twenty authors x ten minutes each = 200 minutes of pitches), and had quite a few more pitch me spontaneously as I moved throughout the weekend. Without exception, everyone has been extremely kind and polite, and I've thoroughly enjoyed talking to people. I got the chance to network with many of my West Coast colleagues, I was on an agent panel, I got to hear Jack Graves speak (fascinating man!), and oh yeah, I ran a workshop on query letters. Me, critiquing and babbling about query letters for 50 minutes straight... what could be better? =)
Why sharing it all with you, of course!
Although I can't recreate the actual experience of sitting in a room and listening to me spout knowledge out of my head, I can at least attempt to pass along some of the pointers about query letters that I shared with the writers that attended my workshop. What follows below are some basic rules and pieces of advice that I think all writers should take to heart when it's time to sit down and get their query-writing on.
- Be professional. A query letter is a business letter, plain and simple. It should be no longer than one page, properly formatted a la business letter guidelines, and be succinct and to the point. You should always remember to properly address the agent who you're querying; I don't care if you say "Dear Jenny" or "Dear Ms. Rappaport" to me, but there are many agents who like to be given the professional courtesy of their last names. Please make sure that you know who you're sending the letter to as well: I am not "Mr. Rappaport" nor am I "Dear Sir/Madam" nor am I "Dear Acquisition Editors". Show me that you've done actual research into who I am, where I work, and what I represent; trust me, you'll start off by making a good impression.
- Space is at a premium. So, remember the little point above, about how the query letter shouldn't be longer than one page? I really mean it. That means you've got to be able to cram quite a bit of information into one page, and do it effectively. How does one do this, you ask? Simply by removing anything that's extraneous information. For example, I don't need to know that you've been writing since the age of five and that publishing a novel is your dearest dream. I'm damn well assuming that you want to get your novel published, or you wouldn't be sending me the query letter in the first place. I also don't need to know who's read your novel and loved it, unless the person who's read the novel and loved it is Stephen King. I couldn't care less that your dry-cleaner, your kids' babysitter, your mother, your aunt, your second-cousin-twice-removed, and your pet igunana all think it's a great book--their opinions have no impact on mine, since they have no status within the publishing world. Are we starting to see the types of information that aren't necessary for a query letter?
- Have a hook. There's been so much talk lately, over on Miss Snark, and other publishing sites about hooks. What is one, why do you need one, etc. I'm not going to rehash any of that here. The key things to remember are that you want to tell me who the main character in the novel is, what's their conflict, and why I should care about it. You also want it to be somewhat catchy and short (remember rule #2). So let's do an example, right now... let's say that you're writing a query letter for a book that tells the fairy tale, Cinderella (we'll use the Disney version for ease of recognition). Now here's what you could give me as a bad hook.... CINDERELLA is about a girl who has lots of problems. She has to live in an attic and no one ever, ever loves her. Her best friends are talking mice, which I've created because they have a high cuteness factor. Cinderella, the main character, has to solve lots of hard things along the way, before she can live happily ever after. That's not going to convince me that I want to read the book. Now let's do a better hook for it... CINDERELLA has a hard life: her parents are dead and she's forced to act as a servant for her evil stepmother and stepsisters. Her only friends are the talking mice that share her attic, and frankly, she's stuck in a rut. But when Prince Charming, the gorgeous heir-to-the-kingdom, decides to conduct a national search for a bride, it turns out that even a nobody like Cinderella might have a chance. With the help of a surprise fairy godmother, it's up to Cinderella to pull off a daring disguise, and convince even herself that a servant can be fit to be a Prince's bride. Do you see the difference?
- Themes are extraneous information too. As you can see from the sample "good hook" that I provided above, I haven't mentioned anything about the themes present in Cinderella. I've hinted at them, by subtly mentioning her insecurity and doubt in herself, but I haven't stated them outright. I haven't gone on and on about her quest for love will make her a better person, or about how her good nature will eventually triumph over her evil stepsisters. All of that shouldn't be present in the query letter at all. I couldn't give a rat's ass about what themes your novel is exploring; I want to know the story you're telling and why it's interesting. Now granted, my viewpoint is one of an agent who almost exclusively represents genre fiction, so there may be a time and a place for themes in query letters, when dealing with literary fiction. But I honestly don't think they belong in one, and that if you must tell the agent what grand things you are exploring, at least leave it for the synopsis.
- Writing credits can be both good and bad. Expanding even more on the extraneous info theme that I've got going (see, a theme!), let's handle the subject of whether or not to list writing credits in a query letter. If you have no writing credits, don't tell me that. A writing credit is something that has been published in a professional format. It is not your blog; it is not your local critique group; and it is not anything that is self-published. Remember these things because if you do list these as writing credits, it's going to make you come off seeming like someone who has no idea about the business that they're trying to break into. Now you ask, I've written a romance novel, but I have no romance writing credits... but I do have some nonfiction stuff.... will it matter if I list that? The answer is that you should list them, but in a subtle way. Say, for example, "Although I have no fiction credits, I have done extensive work in journalism, particularly as the crime reporter for the Asbury Park Press for the last ten years." This lets me know that, yes, you are a newbie when it comes to fiction, but that you're obviously capable of stringing two sentences together in a coherent matter, since someone has seen fit to pay you to write already.
- Leave out the bacon. Finally, this is the rule that I love the most. Let me explain. I had an e-query come my way, a few months ago, for a novel of some sort. In his query, the gentleman explained that he had once eaten 87 pieces of bacon in one sitting (you know who you are). This information had ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to do with his novel. If it was an attempt of some kind to be cute, it failed utterly. I looked at the query letter, decided the guy must be a weirdo of some kind, and decided to pass on it. I didn't want to work with someone who felt that he must boast about eating large quantities of greasy pork in one sitting, not to mention that the rest of his query letter was pretty poorly worded as well. Don't attempt to be cute or over-flattering when you're writing a query letter. Be honest and tell the truth; if you think there's a piece of information that I should know about you, then tell me so, but for god's sake, please make sure that it's relevant to the book you've written. By way of example, if you've written a science fiction novel about intelligent gorillas, and you have a Ph.D. in Biological Anthropology, then by all means tell me that. But if you've written an epic fantasy, I don't need to know that you've unicycled across the United States.
I'd like to also add that I'm back in my cozy office in NJ now, but that I really enjoyed working with the people who attended my workshop. We had only fifty minutes to work with, and only ended up getting about seven or eight query letters critiqued during it. I happened to have a free hour after the workshop, and since there were so many writers left that wanted to have some help with their queries, we decided to spontaneously extend it. Through the corridors of the hotel we marched, with myself at the head, and all the writers following behind; I felt like the mama duck in MAKE WAY FOR DUCKLINGS. =) We managed to commandeer the couches in the hotel lobby and then we sat there, continuing our workshop as we pleased, for the next hour. It was a pleasure to help everyone, and I enjoyed the fact that we were able to continue the workshop. Thank you all for making my time at the conference so nice. =)