One of my fellow DFWWW writers posted that the trailers for 2012 were a model for “the worst query letter ever”. While I’m not one to resort to simple statements of authority, I think I can say here that he’s wrong. 2012’s commercials, for all their lack of detail and big FX, are designed to sell the movie for exactly what it is. A by-the-numbers disaster flick. It’s not meant to be anything else. So the commercials concentrate on what’s important: Melodrama and Disaster. Everything else is secondary. Whether you think you’ll like the movie or not, the trailers are expertly designed.
It got me thinking. So many aspiring writers just don’t seem to “get” query letters. A while ago, I wrote a blog post about it. It ended up getting deleted when my website went through a spot of trouble, but fortunately, I had a backup at the ready. I guess we could classify this a rerun blog, but hey, if you haven’t read it before, it’s new to you. And more importantly, it’s something I think every aspiring writer should take a look at.
So without further ado…
Being a writer is tough. Being an aspiring writer is tougher. It seems like there are a million pitfalls, and you can never be sure if you’re doing the right thing or not. So in search of inspiration for something to post about, I’d like to present a semi-formal feature where I address some common questions. The kind of questions that I hear all the time.
Today, let’s talk about QUERY LETTERS.
Plenty of aspiring writers break into clammy, cold flopsweat about query letters. You’ve put your heart and soul, blood and sweat, into writing your novel. Then you have to figure out how to sell it in a one page letter. It’s like meeting the guy / girl of your dreams and having 30 seconds to convince them that maybe a date is worth a shot. Good luck on that.
Here’s the good news. It’s not nearly as hard as you think. I’m not suggesting that there’s any such thing as a perfect query letter or that after you read this you’ll be getting requests for your manuscript with every letter you send. That just ain’t gonna happen. Rejection is part of an aspiring writer’s life. Even yours truly, gifted and talented as I am, had so many rejections that I can’t even remember them all.
Here’s the first thing, the most important thing, you need to remember about a query. It’s a sales pitch. A tiny, tiny sales pitch, but a pitch nonetheless. All you’re trying to do is get the reader interested in hearing more. It really doesn’t matter how you do it, but there are a couple of solid notions I adhere to.
QUESTIONS: Queries aren’t about answers. They’re about questions. Think about it. You don’t go to a movie or buy a book because you know what’s going to happen. You go because you want to know. Or, if the sales pitch is really good, because you NEED to know.
Many aspiring writers tend to spell out their plot in their query letters. Bad idea. Most stories sound uninspiring when spelled out. It just doesn’t matter how cool your story is. It’ll sound dumb if you describe it in three or four sentences. Or contrived. Or, perhaps worst of all, uninteresting.
A great example available to all writers is found on the back of nearly every paperback book on the shelves of any bookstore. The next time you’re in a bookstore, go ahead and pick a random genre and just start reading the back of books. You’ll discover the perfect query letter format. Colorful, intriguing, and mysterious. They give questions, not answers. They pose complications, not solutions.
Now most query letters should be shorter than what is written on the back of books. But the principle is still the same. Tease and intrigue. Don’t explain. Just pose questions and complications.
UNIMPORTANT DETAILS: Don’t give unimportant information. Don’t open your letter with details about yourself. Even if you were a supermodel, ninja, jewel thief, rocket science, nobody really cares. You’re selling your story, not yourself. The first paragraph should really get right into your story if it can. (Unless you’ve met this person before, in which case a sentence reminding them where they met / heard about you is a good thing to do.)
Don’t give the technical details at front. Don’t tell your word count in the first paragraph. Don’t tell how long it took you to write the book. Don’t say that this is based on your life experience. As my own agent once put it, if you’re writing something about yourself, what do you do when you run out of experiences to write about?
Remember that you’re trying to sell your book. You are expected to be honest, but you aren’t expected to tell them stuff right off the bat things that will discourage them. Word count is a great example. If your book is 10,000 words longer than what the agent / editor wants, they might overlook that if your query letter was sufficiently interesting. But if the first thing you do is tell them your book is too long, they’re likely to put it aside before even getting to your sales pitch.
THREE PARAGRAPHS / HALF A PAGE: The shorter, the better. When in doubt, cut it down. My queries tended to get great results (though rejection followed after), and I kept mine down to three paragraphs / half a page. The first paragraph was usually the tease, less about the story and more about something unique about it. For GIL’S ALL FRIGHT DINER, for example, I listed the more fun and memorable elements of the supernatural: Zombie Cows, Magic 8 Balls, Pig Latin.
The next paragraph gave brief character mentions along with the weird situations they find themselves.
And the final paragraph gave the technical details, page count, genre, etc. Done. Don’t overstay your welcome.
ANOTHER IMPORTANT DON’T: Avoid strong comparisons to established writers. It’s okay to mention a similarity, but it can be dangerous to make too much of it. Sure, everyone’s looking for the next Harry Potter, but everyone is also writing the next Harry Potter. In other words, it doesn’t really distinguish your novel. It just makes it seem like another copycat. And you’re better than that.
Well, look at that. An awfully long entry for an awfully short subject. Just remember. It’s not as hard as you think it is. And a bad query letter is better than no query at all. So don’t get discouraged.
Just get to it.
And remember, I’m rooting for you. Just as long as you don’t sell more books than me, that is.
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,