How To Write A Query Letter, In Three Steps

This is the article that several of your How-To websites didn’t want….

So, you’ve written a book. Congratulations. Welcome now to the harder process — getting published. I mean, that was the point of you spending nights and weekends staring bleary-eyed into the screen until your eyes bled and your mind was day old pudding, right?

I’m assuming that you’re going to pursue the more traditional route of publication, the route you’ve probably heard the most about, or the route maybe you assumed was your only option. Yes there are other options, and I’ll talk about them in later posts. But for our purposes, let’s say you’ve decided to go the ‘legacy’ route and you want an agent and a big-house publisher.

You’re going to write a query letter in three steps, and if you’ve done it right, the query letter you produce will be shorter than this article, and that’s mostly because I’m long-winded and enjoy hearing myself narrate instructions.

For this query letter, you’re going to need the following things:

  1. A word processor document
  2. Notes about your manuscript including the title, the word count and a general sense of plot and theme. (I like to put these on a note card)
  3. The address of a specific person/agent/editor/publisher to whom you’re sending this letter (Make sure you spell everything correctly)


Once you collect all those things, we start with Step 1.

Step 1: Understand The Ground Rules
A query letter is essentially your manuscript’s pickup line, looking to interest the reader into taking the manuscript home and getting comfortable/intimate/freaky with it. And to avoid the ignominy of bad pickup lines, there are rules to follow before you start flirting:

A. You have AT MOST 250 words (including your name and contact info) to put on this page and get someone to read the manuscript. The people who are reading this have a lot more than just your query to read, and they cannot afford (nor do they want) to have their time wasted because you took three pages to say what can be said in a paragraph. (I suppose the exception is made for ‘How To’ articles)
B. This is NOT a desperate endeavor. Desperation is palpable, and it does not encourage people to read the manuscript. Don’t beg. Don’t dawdle. Desperation is death. This is your novel, this is your baby, love it, be proud of it, and talk it up.
C. You’re going to do this more than once. Nobody gets it right the first time. The words you put down on paper can always be fine-tuned, you can always send it to another (and possibly more receptive) audience.
D. It gets easier the more you do it. A lot of resources want to scare you about queries, demonizing them and making the process one of scarcity and limitation rather than of creative endeavor. I promise you, it’s supposed to be fun. This should feel like showing off the baby pictures, talking about your new puppy and praising your significant other. Learn to love this process.


Armed with these ground rules, let’s talk about the act of writing.

Step Two: Start Where The Action Is
Tell me about the movie you just saw. Tell me about your favorite episode of your favorite television show. How did you do it? Did you tell me about what color the sky was and how the camera moved over the scenery before it zoomed in on the hero? No, you didn’t, if you wanted me to stick around and listen. You started with the action of characters.

On a technical point, I’m talking about verbs here. Yes, you can say Moby Dick is about the pursuit of a whale, but if you really want to seize me and hold my attention, tell me that it’s Ishmael’s recounting of Ahab pursuing the whale that will ultimately be his undoing. Find your verbs, find the actions that the characters do to make the plot and story move forward. Verbs are king of the query.

Yes, that action paints enough of a picture. Also, with 250 words, it’s the actions that you describe that I will dive into the manuscript to enjoy.

This is the part where I tell you to start writing. Keep your word count in mind, remember your verbs and get me interested.

But wait, how will you end this? Endings matter too, you just can’t trail off when you run out of words. Within those 250 words, save the last fifteen to twenty or so for a wrap-up.

Step Three: End Assuming You’ll Be Spoken To
Repeat after me: I do not fear rejection, rejection shows me I’m on the right path. Chant this daily. Tattoo it on your children and pets. Do whatever you need to do to staple this philosophy to your soul.

That last paragraph should include the title of the manuscript (in all caps), the word count (because, yes, there is such a thing as too long for a particular genre or audience), and any information you want to impart to the reader about how to reach you. Notice here that I didn’t say to tell the reader about how you’re new at this or how you really liked two other books you just read. Stay on target, talk about your work and make sure the reader knows how to contact you.

That’s it. Three steps. Not to freak you out or anything, but anything else is just further complication. It helps to know your book, it helps to know your genre, but there aren’t any great and magic bells and whistles. Just write. A lot.

Good luck, and happy writing.

4 Editing/Writing Mistakes You Might Be Making & Their Solutions

Tomorrow night I’m speaking about 10 Editing/Writing mistakes you’re probably making and how to fix them. Seats are still available, if you’re interested.

I originally had a list of twenty, but had to pare it down to ten for the sake of time. Here now are four that got lost in the shuffle but that are no less important or critical. I present them to you here in the same format I’ll be discussing them.

Mistake #1 – You think the sentences have to be fancy in order to prove that you’re smart or capable or good enough.
  • Fancy sentences, while they demonstrate that you’ve paid attention to instructors or grammar, don’t necessarily prove that you’re smart.
  • Side note: You’re always capable
  • Side note #2: You’re always way more than good enough.

The Solution: Ask yourself this question – What (type of) sentence serves the focus (of the sentence)? Every sentence talks about something, and I don’t only mean the grammatically correct subject of the sentence. I’m talking about the ‘point’ of the string of words.

Is your sentence describing the chair a character sits in? Is your sentence expanding on what your character is saying? Finding out what the sentence is doing, and who/what it’s doing it to can help you hone the sentence to make it more reflect the sound, feel, and style that you’re looking for.

Likewise, sentences said by people have a unique sound. My spoken sentence structure is different than my written structure, and both of which are different than how you sound or how you write. Understanding this difference, and being able to express it within the manuscript, allows you to individuate your characters and breathe into them a vitality and distinct depth making them feel more real. Your hard-boiled detective in 1940s Los Angeles speaks in a completely different manner than your Victorian schoolteacher in Darbyshire and she’s entirely different from the young girl from the future.

Exposition should sound and read (and feel) different and separate from your dialogue. And characters should sound distinct and different from each other. Fancy sentences have their place in a writer’s toolbox, but you don’t have to trot them out just to prove yourself — if they help the story, use them.

Mistake #2 – Mid-Manuscript Sag
  • You had an intense opening, and you know you’ve got a ferocious close, but the middle of the story hangs worse than old lady boobs. 
  • You’ve tried your best to avoid this by shoe-horning in some action, but it’s obvious that this is the section you’ve tacked on because it doesn’t have any bearing on what happens later.
  • You’ve decided that mid-manuscript sag is unavoidable, and everyone gets it. 
  • Note: That’s silly. It’s a treatable condition, and you’ll be happier when it’s fixed.

The Solution: Remember that Act 2 is the middle steps of your staircase.  It’s the middle of the night.  I’m on my first floor, and I want to go upstairs to the bedroom, here’s what I do (you know, in case you want to hide in the bushes and watch):

  1. Open the door to upstairs
  2. Step onto the first step
  3. Curse the darkness
  4. Flick on the light switch
  5. Go up the stairs
  6. Pause a second to make sure that nothing creepy and evil is following me (seriously, it’s a scary staircase)
  7. Reach the top of the stairs
  8. Go to bed.

If I was going to divide that into three acts (or sections), I’d do this:

Act 1 – Steps 1-4
Act 2 – Steps 5-6
Act 3 – Steps 7-8

The first four steps gave information as to what the problem was, and began the effort of solving the problem. The last two steps show the problem being solved and what happens after the solution.

But none of that would be possible without the middle steps. How can we get to Act 3 without Act 2?

We can’t. But, you ask, how do I make those middle steps not suck?

Why do you assume they have to suck? Likewise, why do you assume you have to speed up the middle to get to the end?

True, Act 2 is different for every kind of manuscript. Non-fiction people have to use it to develop established points. Mystery writers use it for investigation and suspect growth. Scriptwriters use it to introduce villains, sub-plots and peril. Cookbook authors use it for developing main courses.

No matter how it gets used, Act 2 must build upon Act 1 and lead up to and into Act 3. I’m not going to reach the bedroom without climbing those stairs. With each step, up goes the protagonist (me), up goes the tension (will he climb the stairs?), up goes the expectation (he’s almost to the top of the stairs!) and up goes the sense of success (look how far he’s gone!).

Act 2 sag is defeated by knowing the goal, what’s at stake, what gets lost or gained and by making sure you care about the guy going up the stairs. Or the girl who’s a secret assassin. Or the teenage shape-shifting psychic.

Mistake #3 – Suffocating The Characters
  • Characters are not only the pawns on the chessboard of your story
  • You’re not so much “controlling” them as “exploring” them

I have to deviate a little first to explain what I’m talking about. Hang on, this will all make sense shortly.
When we’re sitting down at our desks, and either facing the blank page or screen, and maybe we’ve even got a stack of notes sprawled all around us, we are powerful. We create worlds and people and problems and we open the vaults of our imaginations and go wild.

And other times, we tell a story that is pretty straightforward, and we sit down only to express it, not embellish or evolve it.

Our characters are living creatures. They exist in three dimensions in our minds. They are not nebulous constructs that represent vague concepts – hopefully, you’ve done more to flesh them out and give them personality and potential. (I say hopefully because this needs to happen more often. For help doing this, we should talk.)

When we sit down to let these characters loose, yes we want to tell the story we had in mind (Yes, the cheerleader robot will destroy all of mankind), but is that all we want?

The Solution – Relax your stranglehold on the characters and the world, and see what else you can create. You are not limited, constrained or held back, unless You choose to be. The act of writing, the true art and craft of it comes in seeing where your imagination takes you AS you write, so that while you may intend to start building a scene where the girl tells the boy she loves him, it may, if you let it, also be the scene where the girl reveals she’s never been kissed, and oh by the way, she’s got a twin sister who sleeps in the closet.

I had a teacher (who I’m pretty sure is long gone, I mean he was in his nineties when I was a teenager) who used to tell me “You give your characters air, but you have to show them how to breathe, NOT ‘let’ them breathe.

And this quote absolutely bothered me for YEARS because I couldn’t see his point. I have to show them, not let them. Of course I let them. I made them.

This is what he was talking about — the act of creation does not automatically grant total authority. Your characters don’t exist solely for the plot of this manuscript. Yes, they might exist for the duration of this manuscript, but while they’re alive, they can live and breathe and live within the boundaries you create.

You create those boundaries with decisions, not limitations. (John’s Writing Principle #1 – Writing is the act of making decisions.) If you build a strong enough world, and inhabit it with capable creations, and provide them a context in which to operate, you’ve done enough. You can stand back, let your imagination kick in, and see how the characters mingle and evolve across the manuscript.

Mistake #4 – Suffocating the Plot
  • The manuscript is MORE than your plot
  • The plot is NOT your reason to live, not should it entirely be that way for the characters

Plots are, by definition, the conflict and problem(s) faced by the character(s) in the story. Sometimes, it’s argued that plots are the reason for the story. Sometimes it’s argued that plots are the reason for characters. Sometimes I argue a lot.

Just like suffocating your characters, so too can you choke the plot like it owes you money. (And it very well may…)

But plots are more structured, and they shouldn’t have room to evolve, right?
Wrong.

Plots evolve just the way characters do. Maybe not to the same degree, but at least by the same dynamic.

Think of this:

John’s Lesson #3 About Plots — Plots grow, ebb and flow, in response to the growth and evolution of the characters that face them.

The Solution – When making sure the plot is resolvable, and is a good test and crucible for the characters, make sure the plot is appropriate for them.

While Superman may sympathize with the crying orphan, do we really need to have the tale set around rescuing a puppy for the boy? While it’s a nice element in the story, is that the bulk of the story?

Test your plot regularly and be willing to expand it. The clearer you know your characters, the clearer you’ll know how they’ll handle the plot.

I hope this helps you, and I hope you have an excellent time writing. I look forward to seeing some of you (tomorrow) Monday night. Write on.

The Value of Editing, Part 2

Good afternoon everyone.

Today I’m continuing with Part 2 of The Value of Editing. Part 1 is found here.

I should start out that what I’m about to describe is by no means common, that while lots of people provide the services I’m to describe, there is no one singular method or name for things. Everyone does things a little differently, and I want it made clear that it’s entirely okay. What follows is my method, my thinking and an explanation of how I work. Should you consult other people, you may find different experiences. I say all this to help you make the best informed decision possible.

We start today with a few assumptions, for the point of explanation.

We assume:

  1. That you’ve got either a manuscript that you have or plan to finish.
  2. That you’ve made a plan, commitment or promise to yourself to get the manuscript started. 

And that would lead you to me. Maybe you’ve emailed me, maybe you’ve checked out my Rates & Services page and we’ve talked, or maybe you’ve found me on some social media and a conversation has been started.

Here you are writer, and you’re wondering what the next step is.

The next step is that you retain me, and after payment gets all handled, we get to work. From that moment forward, the value of editing starts to become clear.

As Angeli Pidcock pointed out in “First Encounters of the Editorial Kind“, the process is INTENSE. It usually starts with a series of conversations, assessing and diagnosing problems as well as the general start-state of the manuscript. From there, the process starts in sections (chapters, acts, etc) and the manuscript gets opened up, and rebuilt.

Whether the simple line edit or the more thorough substantive edit, the manuscript gets put through some rigorous examination. Ultimately, the goal is whatever the writer wants out of the relationship – I do not insist or demand that everyone set the same goal, I want instead people to benefit from the experience – I want their work to be better when we’re done working it over.

So here now is valuable item number one – Know what you want as an end result. Do you want to see your book on store shelves? Do you want to just get it out in certain people’s hands? Do you want to just get it off your hard drive and available for anyone to read?

When the manuscript changes, and yes, it’s going to change, either by my suggestions and advice or by your own hand, that’s a good thing. First drafts are called ‘first’ because they begin a series. Yes, the digital explosion has allowed first drafts, error-laden and thick with confusing clutter, to go straight to your readers, and that may be the path that many people take to publication legitimacy, but I cannot stress enough that if you want readers to stick with you for more than one reading, you need editing.

Editing is NOT a speedy process. Yes, the process can be expedited but as with any rush job, you’re going to incur additional expense. Bigger pieces, pieces that need more revising, repair and correction as well pieces with more ambition (you want to turn your manuscript into a several webisodes with puppets, for example) take time. Here comes valuable item number 2 – This is an investment, not just of your work and financial expense, but also of time.

Your work gets made better. Sometimes that means things have to change. I would love to be able to say there’s an exact percentage that must be changed or kept in order to craft a publishable manuscript, but I do not know of any number like that to exist. Evolution is not a static process.

If you’re looking to evolve your work, if you’re looking to get your manuscript to ‘the next level’ (a nebulous phrase, but I like it), then we should talk. I’ll be waiting.