Mastering the Essential Query Letter for Writers

Outlier's The Story of SuccessI finally read the book Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell. As I devoured the first few chapters, I thought about my quest as a professional writer. And my impatience in the early days. I wrote about it on my personal blog back in 2009.

But reading Gladwell’s research, I realized that even in 2009, I was well on my way to achieving my goals. I simply needed to take every necessary step.

According to studies cited in Outliers, it takes an average of 10,000 hours to master anything. I figure it took approximately five years of incessant practice, posts, and projects for me to near the 10,000 hour mark. Although I haven’t mastered the art, I’m certainly much better than I was six years ago.

And one of the most critical areas of improvement comes in my creation of query letters. Let’s face it, if you can’t write a strong query, you won’t arrest the attention of any agent, editor, or publisher. Early on, I spent a lot of time studying and honing the elements of this crucial piece.

1. Research

Writer's Digest Query Letter

Image Credit with Permission Writer’s Digest
http://www.writersdigestshop.com

  • Who specifically should you address your inquiry to? Name. Title.
  • Where should you send your query? Do they accept email only? Content as an attachment, or in the body of your email? Are they snail mail lovers? Do you have the correct address?
  • What are they looking for? Does your topic or slant match their needs? Have you formatted your submission according to their guidelines?
  • When are they accepting submissions, and do they have themes tied to calendars?
  • Why did you chose them? Did you read something that made you think you would connect? Are you familiar with their needs and believe your work can support them in their mission? If possible, find a common bond or at least prove you’ve studied what’s important to them.
  • How do they want queries packaged? Some prefer a simple one page letter, clearly stating your concept as it fits within their guidelines. If interested, they’ll ask for a proposal or manuscript later. Others request a proposal or manuscript at the same time you send the letter. Make sure you know what the person you are querying prefers.

2. Hook

No matter how well you’ve written your article or book content, without something to snatch the reader out of their doldrums on the average of the first seven seconds, your work will go no further. Ask that stirring question to make them think. Make a bold statement that flies in the face of an old cliché. Provide a heart-wrenching statistic, forcing them out of the skin of self. Make their belly shake with laughter.

3.  Double Check

Writer's DigestOnce you’ve written what you believe is a strong query letter, I suggest you run it through the Writer’s Digest Do’s and Don’ts of Writing a Query Letter. This brief but powerful list will show you how to write a query letter in the most effective way possible. Also have someone who knows something about professional writing read it.

A family member, or even a high school English teacher, are not going to provide the insights you need when it comes to publishing in the real world. As long as it’s a short, one-time read, many professional writers are willing to do this for someone else who’s starting out. We remember those days. Just respect their time, and if one writer can’t help, try someone else.

10,000 hours sounds like forever when you are starting out as a writer. But with patient and consistent practice, this important landmark will arrive faster than you think. Start small. Master the query letter first. Then one day, you’ll have the honor of mentoring someone else.

How many hours would you estimate you’ve invested in writing so far?

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Takeaways fom the Writer’s Digest Convention West 2013

I just attended my first writers convention, which turned out to be among the most interesting and informative experiences of my life. Never before have I received so many insights into the craft of writing. The Writer’s Digest Conference West in Los Angeles took place at the end of September. During that time, I was able to meet people I never would have otherwise, such as journalists who have been working in the writing field for ages. There was so much great information it was hard to capture it all, but here are a few points that that definitely resonated:

1) Writing, editing and marketing are totally different competencies, so bucket them, don’t batch them. In a discussion led by Ivory Madison, CEO of redroom.com writers community, writers were advised to keep those activities separate, as they engage different parts of the brain. I’ve been trying out the Red Room Method and can see a positive difference in my writing. It staves off the frustration of trying to do everything at once, and only producing one paragraph an hour. She suggested not to combine the three buckets of writing, editing and marketing. In this way, you end up not only being nice to yourself, but also more efficient as well. Writing is about your relationship with yourself. Marketing is an expression of everybody else. Take one book, make it as great as you can, and then worry about marketing. Don’t wear multiple hats at the same time.

WDCW132) Read your work aloud. You will find a great deal of errors that you might not have otherwise by reading aloud. When you do write, be authentic. Your readers want to be able to get to know you and trust you. Find great people to make your book as good as it can be. Don’t jump the gun just because you want to get it out there. Make your book easy to find and as accessible as possible.

3) Growing scope of the literary agents. Gordon Warnock, Founding Partner of Foreward Literary, has a vision of literary agents taking on a similar role as the agents of actors and songwriters. The future literary agents, he thinks, will manage the author’s entire career. The job scope would become more like an umbrella for their representation overall. This would include creative directing over the author’s website, branding, image, et al.

And above all else – write an outstanding book.

The History of E-Publishing, Pt. 1

Hand holding an e-bookE-publishing and e-books are hot now, but there was a time when some of us wondered if they would ever catch on.

I know.

I was e-published before e-publishing was cool.

In 1997, I finished my first novel, a 35,000 word YA novel titled Friendly Revenge. I had decided to write for the young adult market because in my youthful naïveté I felt that it would be the easiest market to break into.

Silly me.

Friendly Revenge received excellent feedback and many glowing rejection letters, informing me that the YA houses were stocked up three years in advance. So after it finished making the rounds of the Christian houses, I consigned Friendly Revenge to my closet and began to work on another novel.

But one afternoon, when I was reading Writer’s Digest, I noticed a fascinating sidebar. It said something like: “Savvy authors are checking out e-publishers.” The sidebar went on to list about five royalty-paying e-publishers. I was a little skeptical. After all, weren’t these guys just the electronic equivalent of vanity publishers? Didn’t they mostly sell junk? And even if I allowed someone to put my stuff on the Internet, what was to prevent people from stealing it?

On the other hand, my manuscript wasn’t doing any good sitting in my closet.

I decided to check out the e-publishers, and I was surprised at what I found.

Two stood out to me. One was a site called Online Originals. It was based in Europe and sold mostly literary fiction. Online Originals held their authors to very high standards, and it showed. One of their books had even been nominated for a Booker Prize (a British literary award comparable to the Pulitzer).

Another site had the unusual name, Hard Shell Word Factory and, yes, their logo was a turtle. This site sold mostly genre fiction, and it seemed a better fit for the suspense/thriller novel I had written. And besides, Hard Shell sold their books as 3 ¼ inch floppy disks; Online Originals did downloads only.

I was willing to e-publish, but I still wanted some kind of physical product.

And so I submitted Friendly Revenge to Hard Shell Word Factory.

It went through a manuscript review process, just as I would have expected with a conventional publisher. And after it was accepted, they assigned an editor to me to help me improve my story.

I even received royalties—sort of.

Whenever royalty time came around, my wife and I would wonder if we’d receive enough for a cup of coffee and a bagel, or if it would just be enough for coffee.

The checks were rarely enough to even buy coffee.

But it didn’t matter.

I was published by a real, royalty-paying publisher.

Of course, I couldn’t do book signings; I did disc signings.

There was only one problem. Who was actually going to bother to sit down at a desktop computer to read a novel? Laptops weren’t all that common back then, and tablets, iPhones, Kindles, and Nooks hadn’t been invented.

If there wasn’t a way people could read e-books, this bold new concept might never get off the ground. In 1998, it looked like the problem was solved. Someone introduced a dedicated e-book reader to the marketplace.

But it wasn’t the Kindle. It was the Rocket E-Book.

E-authors were thrilled, believing now that our books would start flying off the “shelves.”

It didn’t quite work out that way, but that story’s for next month, when I tell you the gripping tale of The Rise and Fall of the Rocket E-Book.

Photo Credit:
“Holding E-book Reader in Hands,” © Tombaky | Dreamstime.com

Do you have any early e-book stories that you would like to share?