Disclaimer: Day 28 (and Day 29) of FiYoShiMo cover query letters for a more traditional publishing route, and I’m taking a few lines up top today to state that there’s no one single best use-this-without-fail query template. Believe me, if I had one, I’d give it away for a dollar to every writer I meet. So what I’m talking about here are some boundaries and ideas of what works, and I’m leaving the particulars up to you. Let’s do this.
A query letter (or just ‘query’ since the letter part had to do with things being mailed by hand) is a document that describes and entices a reader (often a reader with the power to advance or retard publication) to read the manuscript. That’s it. It’s not a contract. It’s not a dissertation. It’s not an email pleading for someone with business cards and an office to please-oh-please-oh-please-spare-a-few-moments-for-me-that-I-might-feel-good-about-the-things-I-did-every-morning-I-dragged-my-insufficiently-caffeinated-self-to-the-laptop-at-some-ungodly-hour-before-making-my-kids-breakfast-and-then-started-the-usual-rigors-of-life-in-modern-pants-wearing-society.
I don’t think there’s a large enough font available to me right now that I can use to express that query letters are neither mystical nor scary. They’re no scarier than blog posts or holiday cards, but since so many people balk at writing those, I guess queries are supposed to be scary.
But they’re …. well, they’re not. Not if you make every effort to stop telling yourself they’re some super critical make-or-break thing that you have to win Olympic gold at else you’ve wasted your time and life. You haven’t. Please let that seep into your brain.
Let’s talk Olympic athletes. Presumably you could say the medal winners are the three best people on the planet to perform this task, whatever it is. The person who didn’t win a medal, they’re still the FOURTH BEST PERSON ON THE PLANET AT DOING A THING. Since there are 7.3 billion humans on the planet, this 4th-place athlete is better than 7,299,999,997 people at doing whatever the hell they just tried to do. How is that not good enough?
Contrast that with one additional thought – Olympic medals are finite, publishing isn’t. My apologies to the people who still perpetuate the idea that you have be, I don’t know, an old straight white man, in order to write a particular genre, or that you must have attended some institution and read this or that author, but that’s such a crock of hot applesauce and horsefeathers.
Given the right tools, targeting the right audience, anyone can get published. Whether or not they should be published is a different question, one dependent on critique or the amount of energy spent on the efforts, but the process of getting published still has the same core steps.
Note: I’m talking about traditional routes of publishing here. I’m not talking about self-publishing, which has different avenues, and often replace query letters with things like summaries and managing your own publishing details like ISBNs, file formats, and editing.
If you do want to self-publish, go for it. There are loads of great services out there, just do your due diligence and understand that you’re going to be managing different things than just writing a manuscript. Self-publishing turns you into a creative publishing outlet, so the non-writing parts come into play, and they are important to understand. I don’t advocate one publishing model over the other, they’re all tools in the toolbox, and I think some manuscripts lend themselves better to one route than another. When in doubt, ask!
The first big element of a query letter is its length. And just like those kids in high school used to say, size does matter. Get everything (including your name and contact info) onto ONE SIDE OF ONE PAGE. Do not exceed 450 words at the absolute maximum. You can do a lot in 450 words, but consider that your hardest of limits.
Because of this size boundary, a query letter needs to make the story warrant being read, it needs to introduce the author, and it needs to give some concrete details about the MS, all before the bottom of the page. Let’s break that down.
Make the Story Want To Be Read
If you had to decide whether or not an MS gets turned into a book, would you want that MS to be explained to you in the most boring and dull way possible? Have you ever been on the phone with someone and they’re telling you a story about seeing a mutual friend, but somehow they’ve elected to start this story about how they met up with Nancy eleven hours earlier when they were getting a latte after spin class?
Start the query with some action. Make the person want to go straight from query to manuscript because of how your word choice and development of ideas (remember, you’ve got less than 450 words to do this in, so make decisions and be impactful) interests them. Telling the story of a juggler-turned-senator? Don’t spend your precious query-words getting that latte after spin class, go straight for an action beat. (Unless that latte is the action beat because the latte is secretly laced with nanites that your antagonist is using to mind control everyone at the coffee shop)
A query letter is not a plot summary. It doesn’t need end on some open-ended bullshit question like an episode of the 1966 Batman TV show (who gives a shit how Batman is going to escape from the giant cake made of quicksand), but it does need to tell the reader enough to make them want to get into the MS so they can find out how the story blooms. Start the snowball rolling downhill, give an idea of the projected path, then let the reader take it from there.
Introduce the Author
The bulk of your query is going to be focused on what’s going on in the story’s plot. But you do need to spend some time talking about yourself. Now maybe that’s just a few words saying that you were a finalist for an award, or if it’s your first book. Your info should be somewhere on this piece of paper (I like either at the end, in a small chunk of text, or the upper right corner). Info should include your name, email address and one other way to reach you. Like this:
Email AT Email Address dot whatever
A website (preferably) or some means of finding you on text-based social media like Twitter or Google+. No, don’t send your Instagram, no don’t do your Facebook author page with the 2 likes from your parents and spouse
Yes, you need to include some way to correspond with you. The actual you, not the pen name you’re using so that the people in your basket weaving club don’t shun you because you write stories about fish politics. No, they’re not going to sign you up for Weird Shit Of The Month clubs, this is a professional presentation of who you are. Don’t assume you’re communicating to a jerk and you won’t get treated like one in response.
Remember though, that correspondence is a two-way street. Yes, they may tweet at you, but they can also read your tweets. Like those six you did when you chugged that entire bottle of wine and tried to livetweet making a grilled cheese at 3 in the morning after the booty call didn’t pan out. This is also why I don’t say to include your Facebook page, because let’s say you have a whole lot of photos of you hanging out in a sea of red cups and bongs (as the kids say, getting turnt), you might be sending the wrong professional message. You don’t need to be a crusty stiff with a broom handle taped to your spine, but this is important. Do all you can to give your MS the best avenue to success. You deserve that.
I tell clients to include this stuff at the end of query, in its own paragraph. You’ll want to include:
The title of the MS (put it in ALL CAPS)
A word count (not an approximate one, a specific one)
A mention of the MS’s genre (don’t invent your own)
A polite statement thanking the reader for the time (NOT THEIR ATTENTION, NOT THEIR PROMPT ATTENTION)
Tomorrow, for part 2, we’ll look at a sample query and some word choice issues that arise in it.
See you then. Happy writing.