Sunday, March 24, 2013

Lesson Ten: The Perfect Query Letter

Welcome back to The Weekend Blogger.

Let's contemplate the query letter. There is only one thing that is more important to an author trying to break into the publishing business, and that's the quality of the novel. But before the novel can have an effect, the query letter has to interest an agent enough that he/she will ask for part or all of that novel for review.

That makes the query letter a high-stakes game. In a way, it's the author pushing in all of his/her chips. The problem is that some agents get hundreds of query letters a day, all delivered into what is charmingly called the slush pile. That query of mine has to stand out among all those other queries or else it will be treated like slush in your driveway. The agent will sweep it into a pile and never think about it again. End of a chance to be published, at least with that agent as the guide for that project.

The perfect query letter has to have one trait: It has to lead to publication. All the nice verbiage in the world doesn't measure up if it doesn't lead to publication. That's a very stark assessment, but we are talking about a business here. Agents can talk about a loving for good writing, but the business requires that writing must sell. That query letter must persuade the agent, who then must have an editor at a publishing house in mind who would absolutely LOVE this project.

The advice you hear most from agents is that you must make the first part of the query read like the blurb on the back cover of a novel. I think I reached that point with my current query. If I was a guy waiting to get on an airplane, and I wanted to snag a thriller at the little bookstore on the concourse, I would pick up my novel based on this query. It gives a nice capsule of my main character, and sets up the conflict. I end that first part with a line that is more a tease than a revelation.

The second part of the query is succinct: The (insert title here, IN ALL CAPS) is a complete (insert genre here) of (insert word count here).

The third part is a brief personal biography. Tell the agent what you do in your day job, especially if that job lends credence to your writing skills. (If you do nails at Trixi's House of Bling, forget that information.) Tell the agent what separates you from the rest of the slush pile hopefuls. Tell the agent about your previous publishing history (that's a big seller), or writing contests you have won, or give a list of writing conferences you have attended. I include my participation in Pikes Peak Writers Conference events (a well-respected conference, for good reason), and that I am attending Donald Maass' week-long writing workshop later this year. I want that last part to give evidence to something at the center of my soul: I want to be a full-time published author, and I make strides to make that happen.

Here's a big tip: RESEARCH each agent to whom you are directing a query. Some have special parameters they want in a query that deviate from the standard format. Some want information on other writers with a style similar to yours. (I list John Hart and Lee Child, not to curry favor but because that is an accurate assessment.) Some want information on your ideas on how to properly market your novel. Some want the word "query" included in the title line. Others want "new submission." Learn what an agent wants, and tailor the query to best fit those needs.

See how easy that is? In order of performance, write a great novel, research each agent, write a boffo query letter, craft that query to fit that agent's needs, send off your query. Of course, there is the reality that you will only reach the slush pile, and your query will get a few seconds of time. If you strike a chord with an agent, you move closer to the Promised Land. If you don't, you join the crowded ranks of Slush Pile Rejects.

I have to be honest here. I can regard myself as a good guide on the perfect query letter only if I get published. Otherwise I am like a Catholic priest giving advice about a good marriage. I might have all the information, but I don't have the experience. Experience means knowledge, and knowledge means success. Or at least that's how I think it works.

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