Presenting your writing right: The body of the query letter

Howdy, campers — I’m in a good mood today. A few weeks ago, the fine publishers-to-be of my memoir (A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK, already available for presale on Amazon!) have moved the release of my book forward by almost two months, to earliest February, 2006. Freaked me out a little at first, but actually, I have always found the wait-in-patient-silence part of being a writer significantly harder to take than, say, tight deadlines.

So when the publicity department sent me an author questionnaire the length of the last HARRY POTTER volume, I was kind of psyched. I remain so, even while digging up the addresses of every bookstore I have ever visited in North America, unearthing copies of every piece I have published since I was old enough to vote, and attempting to clear my schedule of every conceivable obligation between now and next February. Fortunately, I had nice writing friends who trained me years ago to keep a writing resume and maintain meticulously-detailed contact lists, so I have most of the information already at my fingertips. Including, incidentally, some comic articles in Dutch; I don’t speak it myself, but apparently my voice translates well into the language of the Low Countries.

I mention all of this not to gloat, but to perform the same office for my loyal readers as kind souls did for me in days of yore: I urge you to start keeping records of every publication (regardless of whether you were paid for it or not), every speaking engagement (ditto — and giving a reading at a writer’s conference or one of the PNWA’s fabulous TWIO events definitely counts), and any experience remotely related to your writing or your subject matter. Get into the habit of adding to it automatically, so that it is never out-of-date. Trust me, you will need this information at the precise psychological moment when you are least likely to have access to your full brainpower: when you are living on caffeine and excitement in the months leading up to your first book’s publication, your memory will probably not be operating at peak efficiency.

Wait — who are you people? And why am I writing this?

It’s also a good idea to get into the habit of maintaining a database of people you will want to contact when the book comes out, as well as anyone who might conceivably be helpful in promoting it. Most of us do some form of this already, so we can readily access the addresses of our kith and kin for holiday cards (or on the outside chance that someday, we will need to crash on Cousin Marvin’s couch in Poughkeepsie). Start with the kith and kin, and just keep adding contact information for every new person you meet. If the idea of an Excel program seems like too much work, establish a box to accept every business card you ever get, as well as the odd scrap of paper bearing the vitals of that fabulous person you met at a writers’ conference. Anyone who might conceivably recognize your name on a dust jacket belongs on this list.

Frankly, ever since I signed my book contract, I have gleaned contact info from anyone who sounds even vaguely interested in the book. Cab drivers. Other passengers on buses. The woman who cuts my hair. It may seem a bit cheesy to include service providers, but hey, if your dentist does not like you well enough to consider buying your book, you may need to go back to charm school. Most people are genuinely intrigued when someone they know, however obliquely, actually manages to get something published — and I assure you, every writer you have ever met will want to know how you pulled it off. You’re gonna want to drop ’em all a postcard, preferably with your book cover printed on it.

It’s only neighborly.

Okay, back to practical matters. Yesterday, I urged you to take a long, hard look at the first paragraph of the query letter you’ve been sending out, to make sure you are projecting the impression that you are an impressively qualified, impeccably professional writer waiting to be discovered (as opposed to the other kind). Today, I want to talk about the body of the letter, the part where you talk about the book itself.

Is everybody comfortable, query letter in hand? Read the entire letter aloud, so it is clear in your mind (and to catch any lapses in logic or grammar), then ask yourself the following questions:

(9) Is my brief summary of the book short and clear? Have I said what the book is about?

Frequently, authors get so carried away with the premise of the book that they forget to mention the theme at all. Or they try to cram the entire synopsis into the query letter. Given that the entire query letter should never be longer than a page, your summary needs to be very short and sweet. Just the facts, ma’am.

Or not the facts, just the premise. You really only have 3-5 sentences here to grab an agent’s interest, so you might well be better off emphasizing how interesting your characters are, rather than trying to outline the plot. Read these two summaries: which would make you ask to see the first fifty pages of the book?

“Murgatroyd, a blind trombonist with a lingering adolescent passion for foosball, has never fallen in love — until he met Myrtle, the baton-wielding conductor with a will of steel. But what chance does he have? Myrtle’s just been dumped by the world’s greatest Sousaphinist; she has vowed never to look at the brass section again. Can Murgatroyd win the heart of his first love, without compromising his reputation as he navigates the take-no-prisoners world of the symphony orchestra?”

Snappy, isn’t it? The characters come off as quirkily interesting, and the basic conflicts are immediately apparent. Contrast this with the more common type of summary:

BATON OF MY HEART is a love story that follows Murgatroyd, who was blinded at age six by a wayward electrical wire. As a child, Murgatroyd hated and feared electricity, which causes him to avoid playing conventional sports: football fields are always brightly lit. This light metaphor continues into his adult life, where he performs in symphony halls with lights trained on him all the time. Life isn’t easy for Murgatroyd. Eventually, he gets a job with a new symphony, where he doesn’t know anybody; he’s always been shy. He makes friends in the woodwind section, but the people who play next to him remain aloof. A mysterious woman is hired to conduct the symphony. Murgatroyd is intrigued by her, because…”

Hold it a minute: We’re all the way through a lengthy paragraph, and we still don’t know what the essential conflict is!

(10) Is my summary in the present tense?

This is one of those industry weirdnesses: one-paragraph summaries, like pitches, are always in the present tense. Even if you are describing events that happened before the fall of the Roman Empire. Go figure.

(11) Does it emphasize the points that will make the book appeal to my target audience?

If you find being direct about it (“PIGSKIN SERANADE is designed to appeal to the romantic football-lover in all of us”) a trifle gauche — and actually, even if you don’t — it should be readily apparent to anyone who reads your summary what elements of the book are most likely to draw readers.

The easiest way to do this is to make sure that the tone of summary echoes the tone of the book. If you have written a comedy, you’d better make sure there’s at least one line in the summary that elicits a chuckle. If you have written a steamy romance, you’d better make sure there’s some sex in the summary. And so forth.

(12) Wait — have I given any indication here who my target audience is?

Most query letters include no reference whatsoever to the target audience, as though it were in poor taste to suggest to an agent that somebody somewhere might conceivably wish to purchase the book being pitched. But think about it: if an agent is going to spend only about thirty seconds on any given query letter before deciding whether to reject it out of hand, is there really time for the agent to think, “Hmm, who will buy this book?”


(13) Have I mentioned the genre?

Like it or not, you do need to use some of your precious query letter space to state outright what KIND of a book it is: you’d be surprised at how few query letters actually mention whether the work being pitched is fiction or nonfiction. This is a business run on categories: pick one.

A lot of writers think they can fudge genres by listing several: comic romance, spiritual how-to, women’s thriller. Logically, these hybrids may make sense, but they look wishy-washy to professional eyes. An agent will have to tell any editor what genre your book falls into: it is really helpful if you are clear about it upfront.

The one exception: Literary/Mainstream Fiction. This one is okay, because no one is really sure where precisely the dividing line between the two categories lies, and occasionally, very literary works have huge mainstream appeal.

If you find all of this confusing, hold your horses until next week. In a future posting, I shall list all of the accepted publishing categories, and discuss the differences between them.

(14) Have I avoided using clichés?

I think this one speaks for itself, doesn’t it?

(15) Have I listed my credentials well? Do I sound as though I am a competent professional, regardless of my educational level or awards won?

If you have any background that aided you in writing this book, you need to make sure you mention it in your query letter. Period.

Truthfully, unless you are writing a book that requires very specific expertise, most of your credentials will not actually be relevant to your book. But do say where you went to school, if you did, and any awards you have won, if you have. If you are a member of a regularly-meeting writers’ group, mention that: anything that makes you sound like a serious professional is appropriate to include. Even your certificate in woodworking.

(16) Have I made any of the standard mistakes? Do I refer to “fiction novel” (a very common pet peeve among agents; in point of fact, all novels are fiction), or waffle about the genre? Is my query longer than a single page — or, if it isn’t, have I resorted to margin-fudging or an ultra-small typeface to make it so?

(17) Does my query letter read as though I have a personality?

This question surprises writers who have done their homework, the ones who have studied guides and attended workshops on how to craft the perfect query letter. The fact is, though, those guidelines are widely enough known now that a textbook-perfect letter can come across as, well, unimaginative. In a situation where you are pitching your imagination and perceptiveness, this is not good.

You need to make sure that you are not presenting a man without a face: your query letter needs to sound like you at your best. You need to sound professional, of course, but if you’re a funny person, the query should reflect that. If you are a person with quirky tastes, the query should reflect that, too. And, of course, if you spent your twenties and early thirties as an international spy and man of intrigue, that had better come across in your query.

There is no 100% foolproof formula, my friends, whatever the guides tell you. But if you avoid the classic mistakes, your chances of coming across as an interesting, complex person who has written a book worth reading goes up a thousandfold.

Tomorrow, on to the synopsis! In the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *