Query Letters: Do Them Right!
|Reprinted with permission from Lori Foster)
Every writer everywhere has had to write a query letter. They're the first introduction to an editor, your first sell. Knowing how to compose a query letter in order to make the best possible impression can sometimes be tricky. And that was my motivation for writing this article. But I have to admit to being surprised. When I decided to do this, I thought I'd hunt through the many different newsletters I have from various RWA chapters gathered over the past year. But I found not a single bit of advice on writing queries. No wonder they're such a mystery. I decided to go straight to the main source: editors themselves. The problem I found is that many different editors prefer many different type query letters. There are similarities of course, as far as format and restriction on length, but the content of the query can vary.
Susan Sheppard, editor for Harlequin, Temptation, suggests, "Address your letter to the right person (preferably someone who's still alive and working.) "Do your homework first -- know where your book fits in terms of tone, length, story line, etc. then make sure these elements are included in your query. For example: 'Title' is a rollicking romp of 50,000 words that I have targeted toward Love & Laughter. "Do try to come up with a catchy title that reflects the story. Keep the tone of your letter professional, but not stiff. Allow your unique writing style to shine through. "Do not write a full synopsis. Describe the key elements of your story in twenty-five words or less, focussing on your 'hook,' which means you have to know what your 'hook' is. If you can't get that across, you aren't ready to submit your manuscript. "State whether or not the manuscript is finished. Briefly describe your writing history and affiliations in the writing community. If you have experience that directly relates to the subject of your book (you're a nurse and your story is set in a hospital) then say so. Do not, however, get into details of your personal life (your Aunt Martha thinks you're a wonderful writer.) Keep it to one page if possible." Susan is my editor, (and she's fabulous) but I have to admit I've never come up with a catchy title in my life. She forgives me. My point is that these are things to strive for, not something that will automatically cause your manuscript to be rejected. If the title isn't perfect, or you go slightly over one page on your query, don't panic. It won't hit the garbage can just because you make a simple mistake. What all the editors are stating in this article are suggestions and preferences. They're a guide to help you write the best possible query letter for your story.
Joy Abella, editor for Loveswept, admits that every editor has her own likes and dislikes concerning query letters. "For me, a good query letter should be well written, relatively short (one page, preferably) and to the point. If we've met recently, remind me of that. Then tell me about your story in a paragraph or two. Don't go overboard and if you're enclosing a synopsis, don't repeat the synopsis verbatim in the letter. Tell me if you're published, what, and by who. I don't really need to know about your personal life, but if you want to add it, that's fine. It's hit or miss on these queries, if something catches my eye, I'll ask to see it. If something about the story strikes a chord, I'll ask to see it. Don't made the dreadful mistake of addressing the letter to one editor and put the wrong house on it -- it's tacky and it shows that you're not on top of things, plus, you can bet that I won't be asking to see anything from you; I probably won't make it past the salutation. SASE's are always needed, it doesn't prevent me from asking for something, but it's a little annoying. There's no magical formula to writing a query letter, but if you write a succinct letter, have an interesting story, and have that shining quality we're looking for, you'll get a favorable response from us." I should mention that the format used in queries is the address of the person you're submitting to in the upper left hand corner, two spaces below the date. Two or more spaces down is the content of your letter, followed at the bottom, below your signed name, with your typed name, address, and phone number. As to the content of your letter: Each of the editors so far as asked that you sum your story up in a clear, concise way. Malle Vallik, editor for Love & Laughter, says, "Why don't you just write the high concept pitch? The reason is because of time. I don't have time to read too much. Hit the high points. Be succinct." I asked Malle to explain a "high concept" pitch for anyone unfamiliar with it. She said it's a Hollywood term for using 25 words or less to pitch a story. High concept pitches are big on imagination with a strong marketing hook. She gave me some pretty terrific examples using movies. Lethal Weapon is high concept. A suicidal cop is paired with an officer only days away from retirement and they have to work together to get the bad guys. Right away, you can picture all kinds of problems just waiting to happen. Pretty Woman is another. A cold, but successful businessman hires an emotionally nurturing hooker for a week. We can see his downfall right off the bat, but also all the inherent conflicts.
The same can apply to your working title, used in a query letter. Malle gave me the title (I'm sorry, I don't remember the author) of Boots and Booties. Tells us right off that babies, and most likely cowboys, are involved in the plot. Susan Sheppard says, "Find the essence of the story, what elements or element will most appeal to the reader." You have to know your hook. Margaret O'Neil Marbury, an editor with Harlequin Historicals, wants a more personal query letter. She suggests when submitting to her that you include a very brief synopsis of the story with the query, up to 2 or 3 pages. She feels it cuts back on the time between responses and gives her an opportunity to better judge if she might be interested. She also suggests you put a personal touch in the letter. Let your voice come through. List any accomplishments or affiliations, your writing history, (how many books you've completed, even if they haven't sold yet) but don't make it gimmicky. Stay professional. "You have to adequately tell the story. It's not back cover copy, where you want to keep the reader guessing." Not many editors want to be bombarded with unsolicited manuscripts, but Margaret did suggest that if a new writer included a partial with her synopsis and query, she would probably read it if it seemed appropriate to the line. "It's a time saver for new writers. If I like what I see, then we don't have a 3 or 4 month wait in-between time while I let her know I like it and request more material." Margaret did say she can't buy partials from unpublished authors, but having the partial in hand will give her a better idea of whether or not the story is working and going in the right direction.
Mary Theresa Hussey, an editor with Silhouette, says, "Be professional. Demonstrate your knowledge of the publishing house by targeting a line/imprint/program and showing word count. Display the juicy bits of the story in a paragraph or less -- but don't leave coy or dangling references! Try to keep it to one page. Tell the relevant material about your past as it reflects on writing or the subject of this story. If this specific story has won awards mention the best one or two -- more would make it seem as though little else is done but entering contests. If you have other writing credits-- articles, books, contests -- attach a separate sheet listing those credits. If you've met the editor, clue her in on when and where. And if you're resubmitting something, don't forget to go over some of the these details again! Editors don't always save query/cover letters or publishing credits so another reminder can be a blessing. "And again, Be Professional!" In brief summary, all the editors want you to: Be Brief. Know your hook and tell in a paragraph or two, preferably less. Be Professional. The fact that everyone in your critique group loves the story isn't relevant. The fact that it's won awards is. Do Your Homework. Know your targeted market, and show that with word count, tone and plot. Don't send historicals to Harlequin Temptation, don't throw a joke into a melodrama and send it Love & Laughter. Don't send a 50,000 word book to Intimate Moments. I have to say in closing how helpful all the editors were to me. I received emails, letters and phone conversations from them. I write articles monthly, usually involving one or more editor in my projects because I know writers like to get their information directly from the ones who know best. I've always found editors to be gracious, giving and patient with my many questions. Knowing how difficult it is to get a first sale, and sometimes a second one, I'd like to close this article on a high note. So I'm going to use a quote that's become a favorite of mine, taken from an article interview I did earlier with Huntley Fitzpatrick, an editor with Harlequin American. Huntley said, "I really admire writers and I open my mail with a lot of interest. I know it seems as though all editors do is reject, but I so much want to find great stories!" So send the great stories in! The editors are waiting.About Lori Foster
Lori Foster lives in Ohio with her husband of 20 years, Allen, and their three sons. She started writing when her sons were still in diapers. Her first book was written in long hand, the next nine on a typewriter. Lori vowed not to buy a computer until she sold her first book. She now owns a computer and has many novels to her credit. She writes romances for Harlequins Temptation series and is very good at it! A frenetic person by nature, Lori is always moving, always busy. Her husband swears she's obsessive, but since he knew that before the wedding, it's not a criticism. She writes amazingly well with distractions -- laundry, little league, the telephone . . . She loves her characters as much as she loves to laugh. Lori loves hearing from readers and promises to answer any and all email messages. Feel free to send her a message at: LoriFoster@poboxes.com! or write to her at: Lori Foster P.O. Box 854 Ross, OH 45061
Visit Lori's Personal Page http://www.eclectics.com/lorif