Six impossible things

Query letters

Query letters are trickier than they ought to be, considering that they are only one page long. The fundamental problem is that everyone who sends out a query letter is desperate, and that includes writers who have long publication track records. Because the reason you’re sending out a query, whether you’re Jane Wannabe or Jane Austen, is that you have an unsold novel that you really, really want to sell (or get representation for).

Desperate people do desperate things. In extreme cases, they get “creative” – they print their murder-mystery query on the back of a photocopy of the game board for “Clue,” or they put colorful little stickers of stars and fireworks everywhere they say something they think is important, or they write their query in LOLCATZ or emoticons. All of these are one-way trips straight to the recycle bin (whether that’s a physical wastebasket or the electronic symbol in the corner of your computer screen).

Less desperate people write query letters that sound like the teaser blurb on the back of a novel: lots of generalities, giving away very little of the plot. “A thrilling fantasy romance with mystery elements that will keep you on the edge of your seat and have you reaching for the tissues” does not actually say anything about the plot, and in fact gives the impression that the author wants to keep as many genre doors open as possible.

Do not do these things. Instead, try applying some of the following principles:

  1. Follow the directions.

If the publisher/agency guidelines say to send your literary and science fiction queries to Joe, your nonfiction and mystery queries to Jane, and your Romance and men’s boxing novel queries to Zoe, do not send your Romance to Jane, your SF novel to Zoe, or your nonfiction to Joe. If the guidelines say they want a letter and one-page outline, send them that. If they say to include the name of your high school math teacher, include it.

Some incredibly huge number of queries and submissions get rejected every day, out of hand, because the writer decided that the rules didn’t apply to them. So even if you are absolutely, positively, certain-sure that your query will work better if you send a two-page letter, or a portion-and-outline, or a picture of your dog instead of the letter the guidelines ask for, don’t. Think of it as a test to see if you can follow directions.

Oh, and if they ask for a query letter, they mean one normal letter-sized page (or the equivalent in email). If they say they don’t look at email, don’t send them one.

  1. Tell the truth.

If you have written a horror novel with a romantic subplot, don’t claim it’s a Romance. If you’ve written a Romance set on Mars in 2218, don’t claim it’s science fiction. Most especially, if you have written a novel in one genre and put in elements that you think are compatible with some other genre that you do not read, don’t query your second genre unless and until you’ve read enough of it to understand it.

Most people who run afoul of this principle don’t know that they’re not telling the truth. They started with the idea of writing a tense thriller focusing on the way Joe rescues the President, and didn’t notice when the focus changed to the President’s daughter and her relationship with her Dad. They picked a bloodthirsty warrior as their main character, worked really hard at doing a truthful, realistic portrayal, and are amazed when 90% of their readers think she’s the villain.

So try to look at your work as if you were coming at it fresh; if you can’t manage that, find somebody who knows nothing about it and get them to read it, then ask basic questions like “Who do you think is the hero? The villain? What genre do you think it is? How would you describe it to somebody else?” If their answers don’t line up with your intentions, go back and look at your story again, and rewrite your query accordingly.

  1. Stick to facts.

“This is a funny, fantastical novel with engaging characters that will truly inspire and enlighten everyone who reads it” provides the editor with the following facts about what you are submitting: You have written a novel; it has some characters. Neither of those things is particularly useful for an editor or agent to know, and everything else in that sentence is your opinion about your book. Likewise, saying that your story is riveting, cool, important, sexy, charming, cozy, or sweet provides no actual facts about your book.

Facts about the book include word count and that it is finished/completed. Facts about the story include the name of the main character(s), the central story problem and its solution, the place and time where the story takes place, and as many of the major turning points as you can fit in what remains of your two paragraphs. Subplots and minor turning points are also facts, but you don’t have room for them.

Comparing your story to the works of other writers, as in “…in the style of Jane Austen” is generally problematic. If you compare your work to well-known or bestselling writers, you look conceited; if you compare your work to writers who have sold less well, the editor may be unfamiliar with them, which is likely to make them feel grumpy. Grumpy editors are not inclined to ask for manuscripts, especially if they think the manuscript will make them feel stupid.

  1. Keep it specific.

The things that make your story unique are the specifics. “A young wife rejects her boring husband and has a series of affairs” could describe any number of books; “Young Madame Bovary, bored with the French countryside and her earnest physician husband, tries to satisfy her longing for the glamor of Paris through a series of increasingly indiscreet affairs, which eventually destroy her” can only be one.

In a query letter, adjectives are often necessary. You only have two paragraphs, and it takes a lot less space to write “The lovely Miss Bennet” than to spend several lines specifically describing Miss Bennet’s willowy figure, wide gray eyes, oval face, high cheekbones, etc. On the other hand, heroines are usually assumed to be lovely, so in a query the writer can ditch the first two words and just write “Miss Bennet.”

This leaves a little extra room for replacing “After a long, dangerous journey to…” with “On the journey, they are attacked by bandits, caught in a landslide, swept away by a flood, and kidnapped by pirates before reaching…”

You need to be specific, but you don’t have to be detailed – in fact, you can’t be, because you only have about 150 words in which to convey the key points in your book. Remember, if you can give a perfectly accurate and complete summary of your entire 100,000 word manuscript in 150 words, you probably have a lot more padding in your book than you want to believe. Also, everyone else is in the same boat.

  1. Make it correct.

Spell check your letter or email. Then proofread it. Then give it to three English-major friends to proofread for grammar, syntax, and punctuation. Fix it and spell check it again. Double-check the facts. Oh, and did you spell your name correctly? How about the agent’s/editor’s name? The typos you miss are always in the worst possible places…

Questions regarding foreign rights, film/tv subrights, and other business matters should be directed to Pat’s agent Ginger Clark, Curtis-Brown, Ltd., 10 Astor Place, 3rd Floor New York, NY 10003,