Welcome, everyone, to the Frugal Writers Conference. What a great idea. Thank you for asking me to participate. I know we're all going to benefit greatly from sharing our knowledge with each other.
So first, a little background on why I'm such an expert on query letters. When I first started out, I was so green, I had no idea how to get an agent. I didn't even know enough to send out more than one query at a time.
So I picked one likely looking agent from the RWA list who handled the kind of romance I was writing and sent her a letter, 3 chapters and a synopsis which is what she'd written she would look at. I mailed the package on Friday and on Monday I had a call on my answering machine from her, offering representation. Talk about lucky!!
So I got away with not having to worry any further about a query letter for quite a while. By the time I'd sold a couple of books and was looking for a new agent, I suddenly found I knew nothing on the subject and thus my quest for the perfect query letter began. Even being pubished is no guarantee that anyone will want to read your latest manuscript. You need a great letter with a great hook. Being a former reference librarian, I know how to research and I researched the subject with everything I had. I learned a lot and I used my own letters as guinea pigs, seeing which ones got the best response and which ones landed like the proverbial lead balloon.
So, onward and upwards to the query letter.
Although many of us dread writing a synopsis with all our hearts we have also come to feel the same way about the poor, innocent little query letter. I've finally come up with a formula which has worked well for me and often nets me an 80% or better response rate from the agents and editors I query. In fact, I'm looking for an agent right now and I sent out my first batch of 10 letters. I got 8 requests to see the manuscript (including two who called the first week by phone), one returned letter because of a change of address, and one agent who handwrote me a note saying she wasn't taking on any new clients at this time.
So what's the secret of this success? Well, that's what I want to cover in this workshop.
First of all, a query letter is intended to do only one thing -- get an editor or agent to request your chapters or manuscript. Nothing more, nothing less. You're just trying to spark their interest. This is not all that difficult to do when it comes right down to it. But there are some tricks and some important pointers to keep in mind.
I recently went to a conference where an editor actually read aloud query letters from the attendees. It was a revelation to hear how an editor thinks about these things and yet I'm happy to report she confirmed everything I've long suspected about query letters. I'll be using the insights I gleaned from her as well as my own during this presentation so you know it's coming right from the horse's mouth.
The mistakes so many people made are easily fixed with a little common sense and care. Why not grab every advantage you can when it comes to getting yourself in front of an editor or agent?
So, what should you include in a query letter? What's the basic formula? It's easy and simple. First of all, you need a paragraph stating why you're contacting the editor or agent, i.e. I am seeking represenation for my novel, Love's Truest Heart, a 100,000 word contemporary romance. Or -- I believe my contemporary romance novel, Love's Truest Heart would be suitable for your _____ line of romances. This is also where you can include the fact that you met the editor or agent at a conference.
In your second paragraph, you tell the editor or agent what your story's about. Much more on this later.
The third paragraph can give your qualifications if any to write the novel, but only if they're relevant, and your publishing history, if any. Then you thank the editor for her/his time and sign off.
See what I mean. No big deal. Simple and to the point. Imagine that your letter is like a laser beam, cutting through the noise and distraction of a busy editor's day to offer her exactly what she's looking for -- a writer who obviously knows her stuff and therefore is more likely to have a saleable manuscript up her sleeve.
So let's start with the first strategy of a good query letter.
Strategy # 1 -- Be Brief
You have to remember that editors and agents are busy, busy people. Anything you can do to make their job easier and more streamlined is a Good Thing. A query letter should be ONE page. And even that one page shouldn't look as if you tired to cram in the kitchen sink.
I was appalled at some of the query letters I saw at this conference -- and these were RWA members who are certainly more savvy than the average writer out there. One person managed to get it all on one page, but the font was so miniscule you needed a magnifying glass to read it. The margins were narrow and the paragraphs dense and intimidating. As the editor read through this magnus opus, I found myself glazing over. I couldn't even say what the story was about since I was practically comatose by the time she got through the first paragraph.
This person was trying to sneak in a synopsis in her query letter.
The editor doesn't want to know all the hairy details of your plot and conflict in the query letter. Your chapters and the synopsis will provide that. You're only trying to pique her interest. Hint at great things to come. Whet her appetite. Sometimes by saying too much, you actually end up shooting yourself in the foot.
So keep it brief.
In the next lecture I will go into detail on how to present the premise of your story to its best advantage and other useful strategies.
Here goes part two:
Hello again from Marilyn and welcome to Lecture 2 on Query Letters.
So now you know about the three (short) paragraphs of a query letter and that you should be brief. The big question remains -- how do you present the premise for an entire 55, 75, or 100,000 word novel in a query letter and do it so effectively that the editor or agent can't wait to get her hands on your deathless prose?
Easy. You employ STRATEGY #2 -- USE A HOT PREMISE
Let me begin by saying that if you haven't read Alicia Rasley's The Promise of the Hot Premise, get thee to her website and do so immediately. (www.sff.net/people/Alicia) This has been my bible of hot premise writing since I first came across it several years back. Alicia will walk you through coming up with a hot premise for even the quietest romance.
The key to writing a hot premise is that you describe the situation. Many writers have real trouble with this and try to include lots of plot. You can give a hint of the plot in a query letter, but you mostly want to lay out the scintillating premise of your story. The best examples come from the TV guide (although I have to say some of them could use some major punching up for the purposes of a dynamite query letter). For example:
A VOLCANOLOGIST AND HIS NEW LOVE FLEE A DEADLY ERUPTION IN THE PACIFIC NORTHWEST (DANTE'S PEAK)
A YOUNG WRITER MEETS A COURTESAN IN 1890'S FRANCE (MOULIN ROUGE)
You can also do your premise in the form of a question:
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN A WITNESS PROTECTION PROGRAM AGENT IS FORCED TO HIDE A WOMAN WHO KNOWS ABOUT DEFENSE FIELD TRAITORS PLANNING TO SELL A SUPERWEAPON? (ERASER)
As you can see, these don't tell you how these stories end, they only give you the setup or situation. They're akin to the log lines which advertise a movie. And they only include the time and place when absolutely necessary for making sense of the story.
When coming up with a premise, it's always a good idea to use romance archetypes and/or keywords whenever you can: marriage of convenience, brides, babies, cowboys, kidnapped, rogues, outlaws, etc. I think you get the picture.
In a hot premise, you don't use character names. At this early stage of the game, the only one who cares about this kind of detailed information is you, the author. Instead come up with a compelling description such as rogue cop, and then add an adjective to describe the character such as cynical rogue cop. Do this for both your hero and heroine who are the only two characters you should be dealing with except perhaps for your villain and the odd traitorous brother or controlling monarch who happens to set the plot in motion. Already an editor or agent is sitting up in their chair at this streamlined approach to what your manuscript is offering.
So, here's an example of a hot premise.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN A BATTLE WEARY NOBLEMAN RETURNS HOME FROM THE THIRTY YEARS' WAR TO FIND HIS FATHER MURDERED, HIS HOME INCINERATED, AND HIS BELOVED CHILDHOOD SWEETHEART HELD HOSTAGE IN THE TOWER OF LONDON?
Can you see how the conflict is built right in without going on and on with mind-numbing details? Since this is in the form of a question, you might even start off your query letter with this and then go on to say something like: "This is what the hero in my historical romance, The King's Hostage, is forced to face his first day home.
I hope this gives you at least a start on how to handle your story's premise. You want to make it as exciting as you can (use lots of active verbs and buzzwords) in a few key sentences.
STRATEGY #3 -- NO IRRELEVANT DETAILS
An editor is interested in your story. She's also interested in ways you might be qualified to write it such as the fact that you're a doctor and your tale is set in a hospital. Otherwise, skip the details of how you took such and such writing class or belong to umpteen writing groups, or wrote an article for some obscure technical magazine, etc. It's just filler at this point. Your premise and the professionalism of your letter should say it all. Editors and agents also have little interest in hearing where you came up with your idea or how you tried to include lots of conflict. You're a writer, that's your job.
STRATEGY #4 -- SEND YOUR QUERIES OUT IN BATCHES
Don't be like me and pin all your hopes on one poor lonely little query letter. Send out at least 5 or 10 queries at a time. Too many more and it can get tricky to handle, especially if you get a good response or an agent wants a two-week exclusive.
STRATEGY #5 -- NO WEIRD FONTS OR STATIONERY
This is pretty self-explanatory. You don't want to be known as the author who sent out a query letter on hot pink letterhead with little penguins frolicking around the edges. And make the font large enough to be easily read by tired, overworked eyes. After all, this is a business letter, even if it concerns your creative endeavors.
STRATEGY #6 -- MAKE SURE YOU USE THE EDITOR'S CORRECT NAME AND TITLE
There's nothing worse than having your name misspelled or being demoted to assistant editor when you're really the senior editor. Do your homework. Call the publisher if you have to and get it right.
An addendum to this is to make sure the house you're sending to publishes the kind of fiction you're sending there. This goes double for the editor you're querying. If you have an agent, this becomes a moot point, but of course you must also ascertain the same information about the agents you query.
STRATEGY #7 -- COMPARING YOURSELF TO OTHER WRITERS
This is usually a no no. Editors don't want another Nora Roberts -- they already have one. They do want someone who will be as successful as Nora -- but in their own, unique style. Also when you compare yourself to another writer, it can unintentionally set the editor against you. If you insist you're the next Jayne Ann Krentz, they just might say, "oh yeah, prove it".
If you want to provide clues about your intended audience by implying that your work will appeal to readers who like Linda Howard, for example, make sure that Linda is still writing for that particular house. This happened to the editor I heard speak -- she got a query that referred to an author who had just left her house for a better deal at another house. Her reaction was to tell the poor letter writer to take herself and the book she was querying about to the other house as well.
The bottom line is to think like a business person when you write a query letter. If you're in doubt about something, leave it out. Less is always more.
I hope this has been helpful.