Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Question of Query Letters

A query letter is meant to inquire whether I'm interested in seeing your manuscript. If there's all or part of your manuscript attached, it's a cover letter and I'm going to skip straight to the text. I'll only backtrack to the letter if I need your contact info or I'm really confused by the manuscript (not a good thing).

I am interested to know more about good query letters. You said recently that you can always tell from the letter whether or not the proposed book is quality stuff. Can you elaborate a bit on this?
I can't always tell it's going to be good. But the bad writers give themselves away pretty readily. Good writers express themselves clearly and are good at speaking to their audience. They vary sentence length and structure, and don't repeat themselves.

There are some simple things you can avoid to help your query letter overall:

  • Don't start with a question that your reader could conceivably answer with a "no." Ever wonder what whales dream about? Not really, no. I'll keep reading, but you've already lost some ground.
  • Don't bother with empty adjectives like 'wonderful' or 'charming' (etc). These are solely judgement-based descriptors, and tell me nothing except that you like your manuscript. (Duh.)
  • Don't try to be cute. Flowers or inkwells or colored paper says amateur. And if you talk down to me, I'm pretty certain that you'll be talking down to your readers.
I sent my MS to a professional editor (I found her on Editors and Preditors, thanks to you) for character and plot analysis. As part of the package, she writes the query letter and summary.I've never written anything other than school work before and got the impression that the steps to publication are 1) write the book 2) edit, edit, edit yourself and when you think it's done, 3) send to a professional editor then 4) incorporate those changes you agree with. Only then are you ready to submit query letters.

Numbers 1, 2, and 4 are correct. Getting someone who has no interest in being especially nice to you to look at your manuscript is a good idea. And if you want to pay someone, ok, though finding a good critique group has this benefit and others.

It sounds like you and some of your commenters, who are obviously in the same business, are saying that you should write your own query letter so that it's in your voice and not your polishing editor's.

This is correct. The editor who wrote a draft of the letter for you may still have done you a favor, though, if she's pointed out for you what the manuscript is about. She may even have drawn out the hook. See what's useful in her letter, and then rewrite it. Try to suit your voice to the manuscript's voice—when publishers write flapcopy, we try to make it a taste of what people will find inside. Do the same in your query letter.

8 comments:

Qual said...

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.

Anonymous said...

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?

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'?" Perhaps it is?

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.

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. Assuming you have targeted a company that publishes your kind of book, you then maximize your chances of turning your ms. into a solicited one and avoiding slush. Am I still in reality so far, or is the truth different? Would you say, then, that the query and cover letters are really very different animals?

Qual said...

Assume you know the submission guidelines, is a query letter still useful? I know from speaking to many would-be's that responses to query letters are very largely bog standard, no individual contacts are offered.

Or should one save everyone's time and jump straight in with a cover letter and first 2/3 chapters?

Anonymous said...

qual, I once queried a huge, big-name publishing house and got a go-ahead, but the reply itself was a form letter and told me to do three things to bypass slush: address it to a particular name that matched my genre (not that the reply was from that person), mark the envelope "requested ms.," and enclose a copy of my original query as proof I had queried first. So I think queries still "work," but I hope EA will weigh in on the questions posed above. EA?

Qual said...

I see; but getting that specific contact can be tricky. How would EA recommend getting that elusive contact name and thus by-pass the dreaded slush pile? Or is it that EA philosophy is that no one is above the slush pile and wait your turn ... having said that, part of marketing yourself is standing on the shoulders of others to get there (in an intelligent, professional sense I mean).

Anonymous said...

Meeting an editor at a conference, or even just attending a conference where that editor speaks, can get you an invite to submit to that person. Of course, you still have to be writing what that person wants. That's probably the best way of getting a contact.

Otherwise, coming up with editor names from industry sources isn't that difficult. But just using those names on your envelopes will not bypass the slush pile. Unless your ms. is solicited or agented, you're in slush. If your ms. is solicited, they will tell you what to do when you send it. You don't want just a contact name; you want to turn your ms. into a solicited one. That's mainly done through conferences or query letters.

Anonymous said...

I have also queried and received directions on how to submit, which was different from going straight to slush. The response was quick, but no contract.

Kidlitjunkie said...

address it to a particular name that matched my genre (not that the reply was from that person), mark the envelope "requested ms.," and enclose a copy of my original query as proof I had queried first.

That last point is especially important. Writing my name on it will make sure it gets to my inbox instead of the general imprint slush pile. Marking the envelope “requested material” will make me open it eagerly. But please please please include a copy of the original query AND my response telling you to send a partial/full as well.

Because there are a lot of sneakybad people in the world who think that if they get my name off the internet and write “requested material” on it, it will get read by me – and it is such a great MS that if it only gets into my hands, I will instantly fall in love with it and shower them with money and publish them.

And yes, I will read it. But I will also throw it out in disgust, no matter how good it is. I don’t want to work with someone who thinks that they are above the system. As EA said, the rules apply to you. Don’t try to trick me – it’ll get your MS in my hands, but it will also make me hate you.

And back to the original point, please include a copy of my request for more of your MS so I can be sure that you are not another sneakybad person trying to rise above the system.