How to Write a Killer Query Letter

If you want to break into the writing business, your job isn’t over when you finish your final draft. You have to keep going and write a killer query letter. This document essentially introduces your work to an editor, so the better your query letter is, the more likely it is that the editor will take a gander at the manuscript you’ve sent.

Your first job with the query letter is to make sure you’ve listed the contact information for the editor/publishing house. Always address the letter to a specific person rather than using “To Whom It May Concern” or “Editor” unless you are specifically instructed to do so in the submission guidelines. If you don’t know to whom you should address the letter, email or call the publishing house and ask. Next, include your contact information–you want the editor to be able to contact you quickly and easily if they get interested in your work. Also include subject and date lines so the editor knows right away what the purpose of the letter is and how long ago you wrote it.

The first paragraph of your query letter introduces your manuscript. It includes a “hook” or engaging line that catches the editor’s attention. Don’t shortchange the time you spend writing the hook–if you can’t catch the editor’s eye here in the first few lines, he might not keep reading. Be creative and to the point.

The second paragraph goes into a little more detail about the manuscript, summarizing some of the main plot points (think dust jacket here). Include a specific word count. Explain to the editor how the manuscript fits his publication needs and tell why it is different from the competition. This shows you’ve done some basic research into the publishing house and have an idea of why your work could sell compared to other manuscripts in the same genre.

The third paragraph of a query letter details some of your publication experience, if you have it. This gives you some credibility, which helps the editor decide whether you’re prepared for the publication process and whether the public would accept or believe what you wrote. If you don’t have any publication credits, then focus on your education or other experience that has made you an expert in writing the manuscript. For example, if you want to write a book on anatomy, you might mention you are an M.D. or have taught anatomy for x years.

The last paragraph of your query letter brings attention to the enclosures you’re sending (i.e., the manuscript, your writing resume). At the end of the paragraph, invite the editor to contact you if he is interested in your work, and reference your contact information. End with a professional closing statement such as “Sincerely” or “Thanking you in advance.”

Once you print your letter, be sure to proofread it. The letter is the first experience an editor has with you, and he won’t take you as seriously if your first correspondence already contains errors. Have a friend or family member read it over, too–you might miss something, as people have a tendency to skim over document text.

After you know your letter is perfect, get your enclosures together, sign the letter, and get it all in the mail. Now all you have to do is wait for a response!

Creativity Versus Salability

Disney has produced some truly wonderful material over its decades of operation. Even so, after hearing and watching film after film, I can’t help but notice that Disney tends not to move away from general plots. For example, in the Hunchback of Notre Dame, Quasimodo dreams about leaving the confines of his church and being free to do bigger and better things. In Aladdin, Aladdin dreams about leaving behind the thief’s life for bigger and better things. In Hercules, Hercules asserts that, even though everyone else has quit or failed before, he will “go the distance”, become a hero and….you guessed it, go on to bigger and better things.

Now, I’m not knocking Disney alone here. A lack of truly new content is a problem just about everywhere writing appears–even reality TV is crafted around roughly the same ideas.

Why?

An easy answer is just that we aren’t very creative anymore, or that we’re just plain lazy. I don’t think this is the entire story, though. I think it very well could be linked more to money. When a producer is putting down millions of dollars to create a script or film, for instance, he wants to reduce his risks on the investment. One way of doing that is falling back on something that has proven itself before.

Any number of plots or characters might stimulate particular emotional responses in an audience. But as writers, we have to find the balance between what is new and what has been branded as salable. That is no easy feat.

The Editor’s Role

Editors have a bad rap. In the writing world, they’re often the stinky cheese in the refrigerator of fairness and creativity. But why?

During the editing process, it’s the editor’s job to tweak content in multiple ways. He first checks that everything is relevant to the topic and that the flow of the content makes sense. Then he starts making cuts or additions, trying to improve the amount of information or make the content more real to the reader. The final step is to check that everything is okay in terms of grammar, spelling and formatting. These steps often drastically improve a draft.

The trouble is, a writer takes writing personally. He gets attached to his creations, viewing them as little children who grow, develop and finally make their way into the world. When an editor starts fiddling with the content, the writer’s initial reaction is to wince rather than give thanks. It’s as if the editor is telling him he’s been a bad parent, as if all his careful effort still created one penny short of a dollar.

So the writer does what is natural. He shifts blame from himself to the editor, because it is only then that he can keep his self-developed illusion about his own mastery of his craft. The editor becomes the villain, and in the worst case scenario, the writer can’t help but argue with the editorial decisions as a means of defending his own ego.

The reality is, editors aren’t out for blood. They don’t purposely look for things to pick apart, and they certainly don’t like arguing with the writers with whom they work. They’d give their left kidney for a pool of clients who truly realized how much they want the writers to succeed.

So what does this mean for a writer? It means that, to really get good, collaborative effort going, to hone a text to the finest it can ever be, there has to be at least a little emotional distance from the writing so the editor doesn’t become the enemy. It is this distance that keeps the writer’s mind open to new possibilities, that lets him rationalize about what to do next and what writing path ultimately is best.

 

Has Facebook Created a World of Writers?

I’ll admit it. I’m a Facebook junkie. I usually have the site up and running in my browser as I’m working, and I check it pretty regularly on breaks. Although I don’t pay too much heed to the seemingly endless rope of changes Facebook initiates, I do pay attention to my friends’ statuses on the news feed.

Facebook is clearly social networking royalty, with even businesses having their own accounts. But from the content of the statuses I read every day, I see Facebook as much more than a social networking tool. It’s a daily, written journal through which people talk about their thoughts. Their hurts. Their dreams, frustrations and accomplishments.

Facebook has the potential to improve writing, although it can’t necessarily guarantee a particular level of improvement. For example, status messages are limited to a particular number of characters, so the site encourages users to get to the point and write succinctly. Real time chat pushes users to respond in a timely way, all the while getting users to consider the immediate connotations their words might have in the absence of body and vocal expressions. Even creating picture captions can develop writing skills, because users have to think critically about whether their captions accurately get the meaning and feeling of the picture across. Some people even correct their own grammar and spelling in posted status messages and comments to show they understand their mistakes.

I don’t expect or want Facebook to become a substitute for a good grammar or writing course, but the site is an example of how the right technology and ideas can promote massive amounts of writing in a platform. Coupled with such amazing social power, these types of sites have the potential not only to promote the writing world, but to change that world altogether.