Talking Story

query letters

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Once you’ve gotten a query letter past an editor or two and a manuscript to publication, other writers want to know the secret to your success. I was recently asked to give advice to people working on query letters. Based on the query letters we workshopped, it seems that unpublished writers often confuse a query letter with a book synopsis or resume. While I don’t pretend to be an expert on query letters, here are a few things I try to keep in mind.

1)  When seeking representation or publishing the first series of gatekeepers you need to get through are not the target audience for your book. You have to speak their language, which can be quite different from the language, style, and tone you use with your potential reader. I think of it as red vs. white flags. The more white flags you can wave in their faces, the higher your chances of going on. Save the complex critical analysis of your literary themes for author interviews and conference talks. For a query, think of your manuscript in terms of a 30 second movie ad on TV rather than a three minute theatrical trailer.

2)  While editors wax poetic about the craft of writing, the art of storytelling, and the next great American novel, in a query letter they aren’t looking for the next Pulitzer Prize, but a reason to look at the manuscript. Their goal is to sell books at a profit. Speak to the banker, not the muse or awards committee.

3)  Writers generally think the purpose of a query letter is to sell a manuscript; it’s really much more. It’s selling you as an author. It takes at least one and sometimes two or more years from acquisition to print. Publishers want to know if they can work with you through the process. The theory here is that a good editor can always fix a book, but no one can fix a difficult author.

Some points along this vein:

  • Can you follow directions, i.e. give them what they asked for in three paragraphs: hook, micro-synopsis, writer’s bio?
  • Do you know your audience? The idea is that good authors can identify their target audience readily—as well as have the ability to explain why their book will appeal to this reader and not that reader wandering over there in the cookbook section.
  • Is it clear to the editor how your book is similar to and different from other successful titles in your genre? Also, does the editor believe you know this information?
  • How familiar are you with your market? Do you seem to have a grasp of what’s considered publishable in terms of length, style, theme, and hook?
  • Are you marketable? Your query letter gives potential editors a lot of clues about whether you can speak intelligently about writing and books and can build an audience. If an editor is interested, he/she will check out your Facebook, Twitter, and blog posts to get a better feel for you as an author long before they read word one of the manuscript.

Final tip: as an author have some public social media in place before sending out query letters. Your friends-only Facebook account showcasing your debauched college days or public Pinterest boards of kittens and cupcake recipes don’t count. At the very least, start a public fan page on Facebook and create a blog using a free service like WordPress and post a couple of things for editors to find if they look. The time to build a social network platform begins the moment you think, “Hmmm. This is pretty good. Wonder if anyone else would be interested in it?”

I admit, that’s a lot to cover in a one page letter. These are my opinions; what are some of yours? What do you think successful query letters have in common?

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