A Query Letter Begins With Research
by Judy Spring
All serious authors face crafting a query letter at some point in their career, and many come to it with dread and apprehension. Most stress and agonize about summarizing their manuscript succinctly so that it invites a publisher to continue on, reading the first few chapters once the letter is complete. It’s nerve-wracking! We are constantly told, “Be yourself, but in a standard way that sticks out.”
It is possible that these conflicting messages meshed together are what cause confusion and anxiety when contemplating query letters. The goal of this article is to alleviate that stress by offering some resources and tips about crafting what could be the most important letter of your career.
The first step: research. Everywhere you look, that’s the first suggestion you will find. Nichole Canniff, the Chief Operation Officer here at Spectacle Publishing Media Group, LLC has offered this tidbit of her experience:
“One thing I cannot stand is when a query letter comes in that isn’t complete per our directions on the website. I might make an exception for a manuscript that is really good; however, when a publisher asks for the first three chapters, a bio, chapter summary and a synopsis—send them all per their instructions. If you do not know what they require, find out. It is unprofessional to submit a query that is incomplete. Most publishers will reject the query right away.”
In other words, make sure to read submission guidelines for the publisher before sending in your query. This can be easily accomplished by doing a search on the Internet with the keywords of the company name followed by ‘submission guidelines.’ For your convenience, here is the link to SPMG’s submissions page: http://www.spectaclepmg.com/submissions/.
(We are currently not processing any queries until November 3rd, which gives you just enough time to really polish your manuscript and query letter!)
Next, make sure to read different ways to approach writing query letters so you can present your genre, your voice, and your story in the best light it deserves while still following the specific guidelines. Canniff warns, “There are a lot of examples of good query letters on the Internet: the format, what to include in the letter itself, etc. Research it, but at the same time, make sure you are putting your own spin to the letter. If you submit a cookie-cutter query letter that all authors are submitting to publishers, you will be no more impressionable than another author.” Websites and blogs all over the Internet warn of this mistake, and a querying author would be very wise to heed the warning. It is possible to find a balance between the standard requirements and your own unique voice and approach.
Your story matter counts, and special attention should be paid to the synopsis and chapter summaries portion of a query letter. The website at http://queryshark.blogspot.com/ was offered up as a resource to peruse on query letters, suggested by one of our editorial interns and backed up by our Editor-in-Chief, Angi Gray. It’s definitely worthwhile and interesting to take a look at this site and spend time digesting the content. It will aid you in understanding your story, and how best to include the main characters, theme, plot, and goal in a concise way that mirrors the tone of your manuscript.
Canniff stresses the importance of originality in story subjects: “One thing I am always looking for is a unique storyline. For example, a romance manuscript needs to be more than just boy meets girl, they fall in love, he does something stupid, and they break up, but end up having a Happily Ever After anyway. This type of book is a dime a dozen.” If your story passes the cliché test, figure out how to present it in such a way that it naturally draws an audience, urging the query reader on to the first few chapters of your creation. Really know your audience and if possible, word your letter in such a way that it allows the Acquisition Officer to see your manuscript from your audience’s eyes.
Edit your query letter, and then find someone to edit it again for you. Mistakes in the query point to even more mistakes in the actual manuscript—this is a standard rule that also comes up over and over again. “Proofread, spell check, proofread, spell check! Everyone makes mistakes when writing. You type ‘went,’ but you meant ‘want’ and if you would like to have your manuscript accepted, proofread and at the very least spell check. I don’t know how many times I get an email and my spell check is catching an error. If I can find it, so can you!”
Canniff says it clearly, and you can hear a bit of irritation through her words. Errors are a problem, one that can be remedied by taking time to look your query over, and then over again. Additionally, having a new set of eyes read through it will always turn up things you just couldn’t see yourself. Even our proofreaders have proofreaders, and that is their job. Mistakes happen. Fix them before they sink you.
Here are two great resources to get your research started. The first article is geared toward agent queries, but it offers some good, quick advice that you can fill in with the rest of your research: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/09/query-letter-_n_2434095.html.
The second website expands on the first, giving some examples to strengthen the structure and presentation of your query. It can be found here: http://www.agentquery.com/writer_hq.aspx. This article is also geared toward agent queries, but is still a great source to help you clean up your query to a publisher. There are so many different approaches to set forth your novel description, and this site helps to understand the necessity of finding your ‘hook’ and using that to push the rest of your letter forward. Remember though, a synopsis is not a logline, and should not be presented as such. Loglines are for scripts, not for novel queries.
The following includes a few tips gathered from websites and co-workers:
-Be ready to rewrite
-Do your research
-Know the publisher’s needs
-Keep your biography related to your writing
DO make sure to state your genre and target audience in the query letter, and also briefly mention a book or two similar in style to your own.
DO mention any author’s platform you may be building in your biography section.
-Query multiple projects with one letter
-Send a query without doing research
-Assume you don’t need an editor
DON’T forget to check a publisher’s guidelines to make sure you are submitting your query to their standards. (This cannot be said enough—it really is the simplest, and usually most overlooked, part of submitting a successful query.)
DON’T overstep the bounds of politeness in the process of communicating with the publisher after you receive your response.
Nichole Canniff has provided an example query to begin an outline for you:
Four basic components of a good query letter:
1) Opening lines,
3) Author bio, and
Example Layout of Query Letter
Dear Acquisitions Editor,
[Your opening lines should be straight to the point without being flashy.]
I am writing to seek an opportunity for my completed manuscript, an 80,000+ word New Adult Romance novel called Assumptions.
[Your synopsis should describe the plot of your story. This should be one to two paragraphs and focus on all the main points of the story. This lets the editor know what the story is about, where it takes places and an introduction to the main characters.]
[This is where you want to tell the editor about yourself. Do you have publishing credits? Do you have experience and/or education in writing? Have you attended any writing conferences or workshops? Talk about them here. Just starting out as a writer? Discuss it here. What made you start writing? Why do you now want to become an author?]
My writing credits include two completed manuscripts and several other outlined stories. As a graduate with a MFA in Creative Writing from Full Sail University, I currently work as a freelance writer and volunteer as an editor for an online writing website. In July 2013, I started a Goodreads private group dedicated to becoming creative partners with a small group of romance writers. Although I have not always been a writer, I know I found my passion because I cannot see myself doing anything other than this.
[It is important to remember to thank the editor for taking the time to review your query. It is also important to note the documents you are submitting with the query. Make sure you are submit all of the required documents as many publisher will not read the query at all if it is incomplete.]
Thank you for your time and consideration. As per your submission guidelines, I have attached my first three chapters of my novel as well as the story outline summary. Upon your request, I would be happy to send you the full manuscript.
All in all, take your time to do it right, and your query letter will help your story shine through so that it has the best possible chance of getting picked up. Use the sites and tips given here to start your research, but make sure to look for more bits and piece. You never know where you will find just the right advice to help you sell your book to a publisher. Remember for queries, “Be yourself, but in a standard way that sticks out.” Happy Writing!