This week I’m starting a new series called Writer’s Clinic, where I’ll share tips for writing, submissions, query letters, and more. Today I’m kicking off the series by talking a little about queries.
Most of us would rather have cavities filled than write query letters. I don’t like writing them much, either. Now that I’m an editor at an indie publisher, I’m on the other side of this fence. I see dozens of queries come through my inbox that immediately turn me off because of the same mistakes. The good news: they’re easy fixes.
Today, I’m sharing my 4 top peeves and some tips to help you polish your query so you capture an editor’s attention—in a way that doesn’t make steam come out of her ears. After all, you put a lot of time into writing that manuscript—now you need to take the time to write a solid query that does it justice. Here’s my top repeat offenders and how you can avoid falling into these categories:
1.The super-casual “Hey, Dude” email that reads like a text message. It’s true. We get these. They have little to no capitalization, fragmented sentences, and no salutation. I’m horrified by these because I used to spend hours poring over examples of queries to get mine just right to send it to a publisher. Queries like this took less time to write than the amount of time it takes to sneeze. I don’t even read the ten pages that are attached to these queries because I figure if you can’t compose an email, you most likely can’t compose a novel. (Note: below is not the worst offender by any means.)
Not a “Dear Lauren” or “Dear Editor” in sight. The solution: do your homework. Jane Friedman and Writer’s Digest have some excellent examples of what to do and not do with a query. The basics: be polite, be professional, be succinct (but give us more info than the above example). You might have found us via Twitter, but your query to us is not a tweet. You are sending the equivalent of a cover letter you’d attach to a resume—not a text message. Also, write your query in first person, just like you’d write a real letter.
2. The query that guarantees we’ll be hooked, even though you totally ignored our submission guidelines (PLUS didn’t bother to note our names).
This one is a no-brainer. At BCP we have very simple guidelines, like 80,000 words, please. (We’re flexible, but unless we are BLOWN AWAY by your MS, we’re not going to help you cut 30K words). I know this writer read our guidelines, because he says outright that he’s submitting an MS well over the word limit. However, our current book list does not indicate this “dark alley” that he speaks of. I was also confused by his idea of “feminism” and his genre of “nonfiction novel.” Also: it goes a long way to note the editors’ names when they are emblazoned on the publisher’s website. If nothing else, go with “Dear Editors.” But you need a professional greeting in order to be taken seriously.
3. The query that has too many errors. We all make mistakes and have typos here and there. We’re human. But when you’ve drafted your query, take the time to double-check for typos, those embarrassing auto-correct mistakes, and font changes that come from cut-and-paste. This may seem minor, but as an editor, I’ll be editing your manuscript for errors. If your query is chock full of them, I’m not excited about reading your entire MS.
4. The query that is waaaaaay too long. We don’t want a detailed plot summary of the entire book, but we WOULD like a 1-page synopsis. A good rule of thumb is to keep your query to 3 paragraphs. In a couple of sentences, tell us about you. In one short paragraph, tell us why we’ll love your book. What’s the theme? The main conflict? Did we ask for something like this on #MSWL? Tell us a couple of books that are similar to yours, but don’t shoot the moon and tell us you’re the next JK Rowling. Tell us about other books you’ve published, awards you’ve won, or other publication credits. We’re getting to know YOU in your letter, too. But the key is to condense things down to a quick snapshot that makes us want to read your sample chapter. Writer’s Digest has a hundred excellent examples, and I have them to thank for teaching me how to write a kick-ass query.
So show us how it’s done, you say. You got it. Here’s a query for a title we accepted for publication later this year. It’s polite, professional, and succinctly captures the heart of the book. The second sentence tells me the genre and lets me know exactly what’s at stake and what the conflict will be. I get a quick summary (very compact with ACTIVE language), plus a few comparisons to other authors to get the marketing side of my brain involved. It’s over our word count, but I’m willing to read on because the synopsis has me intrigued. And it’s evident Robin can paint a picture with words.
Robin closes by telling me about her publishing credits and her experience in an MFA program. An MFA isn’t necessary, but it’s good to know. And for us, publishing credits aren’t a requirement, either. But again, it’s nice to hear about some expertise that informs her writing. (If you’re a park ranger and you’re writing a book about conservation, that’s expertise, too, and we want to know you have that. It’s helpful to hear how authors are inspired to write what they write—and we like to hear when you’ve done your research.) The kicker here was that Robin’s 10 pages she submitted were dynamite. THAT made us eager to read on, even though it was longer than the books we generally publish. (But I’ll save the first ten pages discussion for next time.)
The takeaway here is that your query needs to sing. It needs finesse. You’ve spent countless hours polishing your manuscript, and this email you’re sending has about a sixty seconds to grab an editor’s attention. It needs to prove you have some writerly chops and it needs to present both YOU and your book in the very best light. You can’t be lazy here: you need to make it shine.
Lauren is co-founder and co-editor at Blue Crow Publishing. For submission guidelines and more, visit bluecrowpublishing.com.
Top image courtesy of JESHOOTS via pixabay.com.