Presentation on theme: "Writing a Query Letter Tuesday, March 11 2014 Presentation by Tom Snow NightWriters San Luis Obispo."— Presentation transcript:
Writing a Query Letter Tuesday, March Presentation by Tom Snow NightWriters San Luis Obispo
Part 1 –What’s this Query Letter Stuff? Part 2 – Essential Details to Include Part 3 – Writing Your Tagline Part 4 – Writing Your Mini-Synopsis Addendum – ‘The Four Legged Stool’ The Excercise – ‘Gone With the Wind’
Part 1 –What’s this Query Letter Stuff?
Who Gets Your Query Letter? Make sure you have an appropriate agent for your genre. Target literary agents and use the latest primary references: Jeff Herman’s Guide To... Jeff Herman’s Guide To... 2012 Writer’s Market 2012 Writer’s Market AgentQuery.com AgentQuery.com Publisher's Marketplace Publisher's Marketplace The Association of Author's Representatives The Association of Author's Representatives Preditors and Editors - an industry watch group Preditors and Editors NB: Writer’s Relief: For $150, they will research and select the 25+ best markets for your work.
Formatting Your Queries Format guidelines exist to make it easier for the editors to handle your manuscript in the most convenient and efficient way and will vary greatly. Be sure to follow them! Formatting rules may include things like: Submission by , mail or both, and to where (central) Inclusions - a long or short synopsis, chapter breakdown, 1 st 10 pages, 1 st 50, 1 st chapter, separate Bio, etc. Spacing, use of a certain font, font size, indentations, single-sided, lines between paragraphs, etc. Via what to put in the subject line of (usually ‘Query Letter for ’) All text to be within the body of the – no attachments – no pictures Via Mail: What to include on the outside of your envelope Inclusion of a SASE for easy return of your hardcopy manuscript or excerpt
Making Good First Impressions Bad spelling / grammar / punctuation in a query is a BIG turn-off. Everyone makes a typo now and then, especially when they’re nervous. But if the errors are glaring enough that it’s clear to me that you couldn’t take the time to spellcheck and read over your cover letter, then: you’re not serious enough about writing to be published, or... you just don’t see that those errors are even there, in which case I can predict that your manuscript will be in the same state. That’s a lot of extra work for me.
Professional, courteous greeting There are bonus points for addressing it to the right person. Intro with Essential Information and Tagline (The ‘Elevator Pitch’ – ‘The Hook’) Mini-Synopsis (Blurb) – a paragraph(s) with a longer description of your work (third person - present tense!). Like you want your book cover to read. Bio - A brief paragraph about your published or otherwise relevant credits, if appropriate. Organizations, workshops, classes, conferences, awards, published works Professional closing - polite, with your name and contact information. NB: Always one page to 200 words Ethan Ellenberg Literary Agency February 24, Broadway, #5E New York, NY Dear Mr. Ellenberg, I am submitting for your consideration my newly completed novel of 73,500+ words called ‘The Pope Goes Speed Dating’. It is a contemporary romantic comedy set in Australia that explores how the life of a young woman is turned on its head by her unexpected inheritance of a lifelong endowment and a mansion on Bondi Beach, provided she permanently engages the services of her late grandfather’s English butler. The novel is a humorous, yet poignant, portrayal of how Summer Pennington and her close-knit group of friends are all deeply affected by the arrival of a uniquely talented, witty and principled young English butler, and of how his life is transformed by the close relationship that is forged with his new charge. Whilst the storyline’s primary theme is about the vagaries of love, it unfolds amidst a background of jealousy, betrayal, prejudice, violence, corporate abuse and a dark secret that roils within this mysterious interloper. Have you ever wondered what it would be like to own a slave? How would your closest relationship be affected if you were suddenly granted the power to make all the decisions? This project incorporates my experiences of living in Australia for the past twenty-two years, and features the natural splendor of its landscapes, its unique flora and fauna, the quaint charms and customs of its people and their distinctive language and humor. I believe this book would also lend itself well to a screen adaptation, and would possibly appeal to those who enjoy such offbeat comedies as ‘Bridget Jones’s Diary’, ‘Love Actually’ and ‘As Good as It Gets’. I have recently moved my family back to the US, where I currently serve on the Board of NightWriters as director of their 25 th Annual Golden Quill Awards, participate in various critique groups within the community and write on a full time basis. I am publishing a work of crime fiction soon, with a sequel to follow later this year. Thank you for considering my query. This is a multiple submission to a select handful of agents. I am seeking a literary agent with whom I can enter into a long-term, mutually beneficial relationship, and I hope that you are that person. I look forward to hearing from you at your earliest convenience. Sincerely, Tom L. Snow 219 B Farroll Ave. Arroyo Grande, CA (E) (H) 805 Components of a Query Letter
5 Essential Query Letter Strategies 1. Show, don’t tell. This creative writing workshop maxim also applies to your query letter. Sure, a query letter mini-synopsis requires lots of telling and summary, but when possible, add in concrete details. Instead of, “After hearing her dog died, Lara was sad.” Try “After hearing her dog died, Lara bought herself a pint of ice cream and headed to the dog park.” 2. The specific always trumps the general. Rather than saying “Defeated once again, Robert went home.” Try “Defeated again, Robert skulked back to his basement apartment.” Or, rather than saying your character wore magical shoes, say she wore ruby slippers (or steam-punk style hovercraft Keds). 3. Set the mood. Mood is a key ingredient that we see missing from many query letters. Sure, you can tell a story, but are you using language to evoke a certain mood—and all the emotions that go with that mood? Investigate your own choice of adjectives and adverbs and see if they’re doing a good job of evoking the right tone. Think of the difference between sad and forlorn. Between ebullient and glad. What mood are you evoking with your word choices? 4. Use your setting. Before you launch into your story, consider taking a moment to illuminate your story’s setting. Why? Fiction is all about the five senses, and when you offer a little bit of strong, compelling description, you give your reading something concrete to latch on to (and become immersed in) right away. 5. Focus on high stakes. Now that you’ve got the tools to hook your reader with emotion, it’s time to focus on the story itself. Think of your protagonist. What’s the worst thing that will happen if he/she doesn’t succeed? That’s what’s going to make your reader feel an emotional investment in your character. You don’t want to give away your ending in your query letter (save that for your long synopsis), but you do want to hint that it will be meaningful and full of momentum.
Your Top 9 Questions Answered 1.Can you query multiple literary agents at the same agency? Generally, no. A rejection from one literary agent means a rejection from the entire agency. 2. Can you re-query an agent after he/she rejects you? Yes, but with a 50/50 chance. Some agents consider this a no-no, but why not improve your chances? 3.Do you need to query a conservative agent for a conservative book - a liberal agent for a liberal book? In general, yes. Look for agents who have taken on books similar to yours. 4.Should you mention your age in a query? No. Some bias exists because agents are looking for career authors. If you are older, try to write multiple books before submitting, no mention of age.
Your Top 9 Questions Answered (Cont’d) 5.Can you query an agent for a short story collection? 95% of agents do not accept them because they just don’t sell. 6. When should you query? When is your project ready? There is no definite answer, but give your work to beta readers for feedback. 7. Should you mention that your work is copyrighted and/or has had book editing? No. All work is protected, once written down, and should already be edited. 8. How should you start your query? Begin with a paragraph from the book? Not recommended. Not in main character’s voice either (too gimmicky). Recommend laying out Essential Details in one easy opening sentence. 9.Should you mention that the query is a simultaneous submission? Check each agent’s guidelines, but it’s usually optional. If you say it’s exclusive, they understand no other eyes are on the material — but if you say nothing, they will assume multiple agents must be considering it.
Part 2 – Essential Details to Include
Essential Details Michelle Plested, renowned literary agent says, “The first things I look for in a query letter are: Title Word count Genre Name and contact information Before you present what your story is about, I want to know how many words I’m getting and what genre to expect. I don’t want to have to wade through multiple chapters — or even multiple paragraphs — to first discover if the manuscript is even going to be a fit. Don’t bother trying to tell me why it’s a good fit. You don’t need to. Show me the word count and the genre, tell me what it’s about, and I’ll be able to tell for myself.” I also don’t want to have to dig for your name and address. Sometimes things get forwarded and, for whatever reason, the original ‘sent by’ address in the header doesn’t make it along for the ride. Put it in the body of the mail, just to be safe.”
Query Letter Template Dear [Agent name], I chose to submit to you because of your wonderful taste in [genre], and because you [personalized tidbit about agent]. [Tagline]. [protagonist name] is a [description of protagonist] living in [setting]. But when [complicating incident], [protagonist name] must [protagonist's quest] and [verb] [villain] in order to [protagonist's goal]. [title] is a [word count] work of [genre]. I am the author of [author's credits (optional)], and [other relevant credits]. Thank you for your time, and I look forward to hearing from you soon. Best wishes, [your name] Essential Details Moved
Part 3 – Writing Your Tagline
Writing Your Tagline Maximize Your Main Conflict (Remember, ONE SENTENCE and aim for third person - present tense!) What’s The Main Conflict of Your Work? 1. Identify the main character and what he or she has to lose (Focus the story through the lens of their POV for maximum emotional impact). 2. What does the main character risk externally? (house, life, job, spouse, etc.) 3. What does the main character risk internally? (her heart, friendship, mother’s respect, children’s admiration, etc.) Also known as the ‘Hook’ or the ‘Elevator Pitch’
Sample Taglines From: Bridges of Madison County When Robert Kincaid drives through the heat and dust of an Iowa summer and turns into Francesca Johnson’s farm lane looking for directions, the world-class photographer and the Iowa farm wife are joined in an experience that will haunt them forever. From: The Da Vinci Code A murder in the silent after-hour halls of the Louvre museum reveals a sinister plot to uncover a secret that has been protected by a clandestine society since the days of Christ. Complete at 69,000 words, ‘Sure Sign of Crazy’ tells the story of one pivotal summer during Sarah’s life as she struggles to come-of-age in the shadow of her mother’s illness and her father’s secrecy. Lynn was nine the first time she killed to defend the pond. Seven years later, violence is her native tongue in a time when an ounce of fresh water is worth more than gold and firewood equals life during bitter rural winters. Death wanders the countryside in many forms: thirst, cholera, coyotes, and the guns of strangers. Fifteen-year-old Jesse Fisher can’t pass a test, pilot a space shuttle, or make it through a day without tripping over his own feet.
Example Taglines from Galleycat Max Meyers can't make the grade. He can't get the girl. And he can't be the jock. The only thing going for him is his father's status as hotshot politician. But when Max finds his house engulfed in flames and his dad with a bullet hole in his head, the ruling of suicide sucks worse than the Calc exam he failed last week. Violet Brantford is marrying the man of her dreams—only he doesn’t know it. A woman who cannot trust. A man who will not love. A passion richer than the dark of midnight. Why do some children grow up evil? That is the timeless question addressed in ‘The Copycat Killer’. Zoe Lauterborn is the corporate Ice Queen, and nothing will stand in her way. Phillip Kingdom is fascinated with her. Her achievements, her looks … he wants her—but she won't let anyone get in her way. Sure of an upcoming promotion, she gets drunk at happy hour, giving him an idea—‘The Bet’.
Part 4 – Writing Your Mini-Synopsis
1.Set the Mood (locale, take an excerpt and describe it, dive into action, etc. – no long wind-up). 2.Identify the key conflicts in concrete terms. (Like the Tagline, show us what your character stands to lose through his/her eyes, and you’ll have great emotional impact). 3.Show advancing, specific action (but not too much). Once the main conflict has been identified, tell us one or two major things that stand in the character’s way of success. 4.Lead the reader up to the climactic moment (the darkest moment for the MC when everything is nearly lost). Don’t give away the ending. Instead, bring the climactic elements into clear focus, then keep us guessing. Writing Your Mini-Synopsis (Blurb) Like you want your book cover to read (Remember, always in third person - present tense!)
Writing a Killer Mini-Synopsis Characters. A good blurb will only introduce one Main Character in an intimate way. Your book may have more than one, but there’s rarely enough room to introduce them. Pick the character who is most sympathetic and focus there. Let any other ones be introduced via the experience (and perspective) of your one MC—always keeping the focus on that MC. That way, the reader can develop a bond with (and root for) your character. Main Character Focus on specific conflict. Rather than talk about how your main character wishes to “get right with her family,” go into detail about specific obstacles and her efforts to achieve her goal. Skip the thematic descriptions. Some blurbs are so burdened with theme descriptions that there seems to be no story. Toss out vague sentences like “This book is about peace and love.” Or “This story will warm your heart as the main character learns to stand on her own and make the best of things. She sees how important family is and tries hard to reconnect with those from her past.” Both of these are too fluffy to have any bite. If your theme is strong, you shouldn’t have to point it out. It will already be there, inherent in the story itself. Appeal to the human element. Be sure that your story appeals to universal human emotions and desires—elements that everyone can relate to. Show what specifically your characters want, then go for the kill. Ask the reader (in not so many words), “Don’t you want to find out if she will make it in showbiz/save her family from danger/repair her relationship with her aunt? Length. A blurb should be no more than one or two paragraphs. You want to focus on the story highlights, not the details. Flashiness. A blurb is not the best place to show off your billion-dollar vocabulary or your ability to construct sentences the length of football fields. Keep it simple for ease of reading. Agents will be skimming your letter to start with, so make it easy for them. If your story looks promising, they’ll give your letter a more thorough read. Subplots. A blurb should focus on the main plot of your book. Although you (rightly) love your subplots, your blurb must be short. Use the two paragraphs you have to drive the main focus of your story home, and leave out the extra. Endings. A blurb should NOT necessarily tell the ending of your story. Think of your book blurb as a sales pitch: the idea is to make literary agents so eager to know what happens to the characters that they simply must request the complete manuscript to find out what happens. Precision. Because a blurb can’t go into detail, you’ve got to find precise, gripping language to convey your plot. Choose strong words over weak ones. Pick exact verbs instead of spineless ones like “seem” or “being.” Also, go for language and phrasing that reflect the tone and style of your book.
5 Common Mini- Synopsis Mistakes 1. Not giving away the ending. There may be no greater mark of the amateur novelist than a writer who turns in a synopsis to a literary agent or editor with a “cliffhanger ending.” The POINT of a synopsis is that the agent/editor can know with accuracy what he/she is buying or agreeing to represent. If your ending is truly great, then hiding it won’t make it better. Your synopsis should always provide the full scope of your story, beginning to end. 2. Lazy writing. You know all those rules about writing fiction? About using the five senses for evocative prose, about showing instead of telling, about establishing character, etc.? All those rules apply to synopsis writing. Many writers “quit” by the time they write a synopsis, thinking that their novel’s manuscript pages will be good enough to entice a literary agent or editor. But a new writer should strive to be the complete package—and that means writing a synopsis that engages, compels, and brings the story to life.using the five senses for evocative prose 3. Not offering clear transitions. Yes, we know that A is followed by B. But…why? Let’s say a dying woman leaves her estate to the wrong son. The other son, who believes he should have inherited everything, leaves the country. What’s missing here? You got it: The cause part of “cause and effect.” Unless you’re writing a mystery (in which case it helps to deliberately draw attention to unsolved questions), always explain. 4. Not showing a clear plot arc. Sometimes, writers will mention what seems like an important plot point (hero resents father who misses game; child can’t find her dog), but then, the issue never appears to resolve. If you pick up the thread of one plot element or subplot, your synopsis should show that your novel offers a conclusion. Also, be sure that the pacing of your main conflict has lots of forward momentum and shape, particularly if you’re working in a traditional genre.main conflict 5. Choosing the wrong verb tense. A synopsis should be written in present tense. There are almost no exceptions to this rule for novels. Some writers choose past tense. Or worse: They vacillate between verb tenses. Start on the right foot with present-tense verbs.verb tense Other Common Synopsis Mistakes For Novel Writers: Switching POV, Bad, overcomplicated formatting, Focusing on too many subplots, Introducing too many minor characters and their names, Going on too long (limit your synopsis to three pages MAX, if you’re querying for the first time)
‘The Wizard of Oz’ Mini-Synopsis Example For example, in the movie version of The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy is the main character. So in your synopsis the story should unfold through Dorothy’s perspective. Focus on her and focus all the action through her. main character Once you’ve identified your main character, ask yourself:main character What does the character risk externally (her house, his life, her job, his favorite T-shirt?)? –Her life. There’s a witch after her. What does the character risk internally (her heart, his friendship, her mother’s respect, his children’s admiration)? –If she doesn’t get back to Kansas, she’ll never see her family again. And she’s only just realized how important they are to her. These are the two main points of conflict to focus on in your query letter that should be filtered through your main character’s point of view.
Addendum – ‘The Four Legged Stool’
1.Core Idea (The “Headlines”) – Big, simple. How fast can you sum up the very core of your concept? The secret of the “Four U’s”. Unique, Useful, Urgent and Ultra-Specific 2. The Big Promise (The “Hook”) – Incentive for the reader to read on. Answer this: What’s in it for the reader? 3.Credibility – Give readers a reason to trust you. Can this writer do the job? 4.The Powerful Call to Action – A dynamic close to the sale. Implore the agent to act, give him a good reason and your contact details. The Four-Legged Stool in Advertising 2. The Big Promise 4. The Power Call to Action 1. Core Idea 3. Credibility
Stool Sample The Hook - (Unique, Useful, Urgent and Ultra-Specific) Let's imagine you've just been to France. During your trip, you toured the wine region. You're back home and you want to write an article for a travel magazine about the many fine local French champagnes. Example 1: "I would like to write an article for you about the many champagnes in the wine regions of France...“ Example 2: "On rue de la Verrerie in Paris, you'll find a wine shop that sells one of France's best and rarest champagnes - for just $23 a bottle.“ Example 2 is (a) more unique and starts right in the middle of the action—always a momentum building technique and (b) more useful to the average tourist going to France who wants to be informed. Example 2 implies urgency—a $23 bottle of rare champagne isn't going to lasts—newsworthy and urgent.
Stool Sample (Cont’d) Now let’s add: "I'd like to write an article for your magazine that tells the fascinating story of Frances many local champagnes. For instance, only three shops in Paris sell 'La Rose de Jeane.' And only 3,000 bottles are produced each year. And this is just one of many unknown but excellent bargains in the local market...“ In short, it adds to the Urgency, and Ultra-Specific details sell. … Not all details, mind you. Like a painter's canvas, if you try to put in TOO many details... you just get a mess. But if you've got details that are relevant... by all means, put them in. Give a statistic. Describe a taste or a smell. Dab it with color. Name an interview source. Do anything you can to make your reader feel like he's right there, inside the image you hope to present. NB. This is a key secret to professional-level work: Knowing your goal before you begin.
Let’s use ‘Gone With the Wind’ as an example. EXCERCISE TIME