Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Drama, the Danger, the Heartache... of Queries

I have another question about query letters. As a picture book writer, it drives me crazy when I have to submit a query for a manuscript that's well under 500 words (and I have a few in the 150-250 word range.) It seems like a tremendous waste of time for both the editor and the writer. In those cases, do you think it's appropriate, in addition to the query, to include the full manuscript, stating that I'm sending it in case they choose to look at it? Or do you think that makes it appear I'm ignoring their submission guidelines?

I doubt that what you suggest would irritate anyone enough to have an adverse effect on your submission. Just don't send the manuscript instead of a query, if a query is what the publisher is asking for.

I know the hoops of submission guidelines seem pointless sometimes. But here's what you're proving: you know there are rules, and you believe they apply to you.
People who have no idea that there are rules, or honestly can't think why the rules should have anything to do with them, are a bad bet for editors. We have to commit to a relationship with you when we offer you a contract, and that relationship involves responsibilities on both sides. If you are the slush equivalent of a third grader with a nose ring, we're going to skip the giving- you- the- benefit- of- the- doubt- before- sending- you- to- the- principal part and just expel you now.
I'm a little surprised to hear you jump straight to the text when I've heard from umpteen sources how important the letter is as part of the submission. If it's just a query letter with no submission attached, I presume the editor won't say, 'hey, good query letter. I must keep an eye out for this author in the upcoming slush.' Given that publishing houses and agents tend to post their guidelines on their websites, does a lone query letter really achieve anything these days? Whereas a letter plus submission lands on your desk, are you not seeking a hook - or at least hoping for a hook in the letter? In the end it's all about the writing. Yes, but the hook is a sales tool and the writer in today's market must be able to market themselves and their work consummately.

The letter is important. I've watched other people reject a submission based only on the cover letter. This doesn't seem fair to me, and I've seen enough cover letters with fluff for content to have decided that I'm not going to bother with them. But other editors pay very close attention to the cover letter.

It doesn't matter whether you send a complete manuscript that's fantastic in some way—much less a query letter—nobody's going to start watching the slush for you until you're published, and maybe not even then.

The publishers (and agents) who accept query letters read them. Yes, they can achieve things.

If I were one of the people who read the letters attached to submissions, yes, I'd be looking for a hook—and any reasons not to flip to the submission (bad grammar, confusing phrasing, repetition, the occasional anti-hook, etc).

It's only going to help you if you know what your hook is. But it's still possible to get published if you're an unpleasant, reclusive hick who's never had a haircut, keeps spare food in his beard, and whose sole awareness of hook is the fishing hook he still has embedded in his greenish non-typing thumb. What matters is whether the manuscript has one.
If even a partial is enclosed with the query, it's a cover letter? Then in the phrase "query with outline and sample chapters," query is a misnomer?

Well, technically 'query' just implies there's a question, so publishers can interpret what that question is as they like. In this case, I would assume the question is, "do you want the giant pile of paper that my entire manuscript would make?"
I once spoke at a conference (I'm a writer) and the editors on the panel kept saying "Don't sweat the cover letter" (they didn't, however, say not to sweat a query). I was tempted to take them aside and ask, "Is this code for 'we don't read the things'?"

Yes. Most editors care more about your ability to speak to children than your ability to speak to them. And that's as it should be. But there are some editors who, in slush mode, are as curmudgeonly as you'll ever see them. So a little care with the cover letter is a good idea, but life's too short to spend hours on it.
I can understand going straight to the ms. pages if enclosed. You want to be able to judge whether the story is engaging and clear enough to stand on its own, and explanatory stuff in the letter may skew that. After all, the reader, except for a jacket blurb, isn't going to get such help.
Yay! You get it. I love you.
But the 1-pg. query is terrifically important, right? You need your hook, you need your short summation of what the book is about, and it should be not only beautifully written but its tone should match that of the ms.

Ok, now you're overreacting. You should spend a bit more time crafting a query than a cover letter, but try not to build it up into something that causes you stress. Unless you happen to write well under stress.

Tomorrow, some of the agent questions.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for answering our questions, EA! :)

Qual said...

Ditto!

Elizabeth Fama said...

You can't just dangle the phrase "anti-hook" out there without giving some fun examples!

Qual said...

Hey, that's a good point. Anti-hooks!

Editorial Anonymous said...

By anti-hook I meant those awful, awful ideas that boggle the mind when put into a book for children. There are piles of them in my archives.