Welcome back! For the rest of this year we invite you to return here, specifically on the fourth Thursday of each month for the newest installment of Sue Harrison’s teaching: Writing The Third Dimension. You can read and learn from all the fabulous segments from 2013-2015 by clicking on the page title WRITING THE THIRD DIMENSION, found under Writers’ Helps & Workshops on my drop-down menu. Please feel free to ask questions and leave comments for Sue. Now for the topic for month thirty-two:
“Writing the Third Dimension” – part 32: Let Me Tell You About My Book…
The subtitle for this post is “The Query as a Sales Tool,” so I’ll begin the boring way – with a definition. A query is a business letter, sent to an editor, agent or publishing house, as a sales tool to generate interest in possible publication or representation of a writing project.
That’s it. The query is a sales tool, and you – the writer – are trying to sell your novel, just like Walmart sells dog sweaters and J.C. Penney sells shirts.
Years ago, my husband and I attended a company Christmas party. I knew very few people there, and I’m not great at small talk. I was standing alone when a woman came up and started a conversation. After a few minutes, she asked me what I did. I mentioned that I was writing a novel.
Her reply went something like this: “Hmmm. Well. I guess I’d better go look for my husband.” And off she went.
I was puzzled by her reaction, but now, years later, I understand. Hearing about other people’s books can be a trying and even boring experience, and thus we have a gem of knowledge to guide novelists both in casual conversation and in query letters. Be quick about it!
During my writing life, I have written some of the most terrible query letters out there, so I’m not going to sit here, all high and mighty, and only tell you how to write one. I’m going to tell you how NOT to write a query letter.
1. Do NOT scribble a casual note.
DO write a polite business letter. If you’ve never written a business letter before, you can find templates online that will give you the needed parameters.
2. Do NOT start your letter with “To whom it may concern:”
DO begin with a salutation that is personalized with the agent’s or editor’s name.
3. Do NOT begin with ‘I have written a novel.” Of course you have. That is exactly why you sent the query letter, and the agent or editor knows that.
DO begin your letter with your strongest sales tool. The first point of your query letter should be to “hook” or entice the agent or editor to read the rest of the letter. Your hook should be precise and quick, one or two sentences. The hook might be the presentation of the protagonist of your novel. It might be the location or the plot. It might be something unusual that you have experienced or accomplished which relates to the reason you wrote the novel. It might be that you have met the agent/editor at a conference or in an elevator, and he or she expressed interest in your work.
4. Do NOT write multiple paragraphs describing your plot and characters.
DO write one paragraph about the book in which you give a brief overview of the main character (or two), his or her problem, and the setting or time period.
5. Do NOT criticize another author’s work.
DO cite two or three other published novels that are similar to yours, and then mention what will make your novel stand out to readers of those novels and that genre.
6. Do NOT resort to hyperbole. One way to turn off any agent or editor is to guarantee sales in the millions or the advent of an instant New York Times Bestseller.
DO give facts. “More than 2,000,000 people in North America enjoy the hobby of knitting.” (Which may be potential readers for your novel about a group of knitters!)
7. Do NOT assume the agent or editor knows who you are, even if you are famous.
DO write a concise biography. This isn’t a resume. No need to go on and on about your education or job history unless that information is connected to your novel. If you have writing credits, mention that. If not, mention anything pertaining to writing – a writers’ group, a critique group, a writers’ workshop you’ve attended. Read the brief writer bios on the backs or jackets of published novels to get an idea of what will work for you. However, be aware that the bios on books are written in third person. For your query letter, your bio should be written in first person. (As in, “I make my living as a fisherman in the Bering Sea.”)
8. Do NOT forget contact details.
DO include your street address, email address, and phone number on your query letter. I usually include those details in two places, at the heading of the letter (even if it is an email) and under my name at the bottom of the letter.
9. Do NOT write one-size-fits-all queries.
DO enough research to know something about the agent or editor you are contacting. For example, for an agent who is a dog-lover, you might mention in your bio, “I am the proud owner of a very spoiled schnauzer.” The personal touch reminds the agent or the editor that you are a real person, with joys and hopes and goals.
10. Do NOT be over-effusive as you end your letter.
Do be polite. I often end a query by writing, “May I send you sample pages and a synopsis? I look forward to hearing from you.” After that, it’s simply, “Sincerely,”
11. Do NOT wait overly long for an answer. If you haven’t heard from an agent in a couple months, you can assume your query was rejected.
DO send multiple queries. The very good news for writers today is that the acceptable practice is to write and send multiple queries. Keep a notebook about where and when you sent queries, and if you received an answer. Be sure to follow the guidelines for each agent/editor/publishing house. That can make all the difference between acceptance and rejection.
12. Do NOT write a multi-page query. Although this post is quite lengthy, please remember that query letters should not be.
Do keep your letter to one page if possible, and that page should be well-edited. No typos, no spelling errors, no grammatical mistakes. Use a normal font that is easy to read. No fancy stuff, even if your novel is set in Victorian England. If the agent or editor/publishing house requests a hardcopy query, use white or cream good quality paper. Again, nothing fancy.
Good luck, and remember, rejection is part of the game. Many great novels have never reached their audience because the novelist gave up after a few rejections. A rejection letter with comments is almost as good as a request for sample pages. Agents are extremely busy, and any comment or suggestion means your query intrigued them even if they rejected it.
Next month we’ll address self-publishing — Pros and Cons. Meanwhile, Strength to your pen!
*Writing the Third Dimension, copyright, 2010 Sue Harrison*
Bestselling author, Sue Harrison, has written two bestselling Alaska trilogies: The Ivory Carver Trilogy and The Storyteller Trilogy – all of which went digital in May 2013. She also wrote a middle readers’ book SISU. Prior to the publication of her novels, Harrison was employed at Lake Superior State University as a writer and acting director of the Public Relations Department and as an adjunct instructor in creative writing and advanced creative writing. For more information, click here. To inquire about booking Sue for workshops or speaking engagements this year, click here.
Thanks for joining us! Please feel free to leave your questions and comments. We invite you to come back October 22, 2015, for part 33.
Great tips on what not to do when writing a query letter. It is very similar to writing a cover letter accompanying your resume when applying for a job. Now what should we say at a party?
Thank you, Darlene. I still think it’s worthwhile to say, “I write books!” It’s actually kind of rare to write books. And those who don’t want to hear about it, well they can go find their spouse! Hahaha!!!
This is a very good post. I now know several things I did wrong with my queries! 🙂