The query checklist, part III: the jigsaw puzzle approach to success

I got so excited going through the red flags that often turn up in query letters that I neglected to point out something that those of you doing it for the first time might very much like to know: if you have been reading my blog since, say, mid-June, you probably already have the constituent part of an excellent query letter written, or at least conceived. You just need to put the parts together.

Was that a great collective “Huh?” I just heard out there, or a gigantic sigh of relief?

Honeys, it’s true: if you went through all of the steps I suggested for developing your conference pitch, you can use them to construct a professional-looking query letter. And if you didn’t, check out this nifty new function: if you select the Pitching Tips category on the right-hand side of the page, it will pull up the relevant archived blogs. How cool is THAT? (And okay, I’ll admit it: I stayed up late last night, posting the relevant back blogs, so they would be there for today.)

Cast your mind back to those thrilling days of a few weeks ago, when you watched wide-eyed as my blog walked you through the dark and mysterious waters of your book’s category (blogs of June 29 and 30), identifying your target market (July 1), coming up with several selling points (July 2), inventing a snappy keynote statement (July 3), pulling all of these elements together into the magic first 100 words (July 4), and giving an overview of the central conflict of the book (the elevator speech, July 5 and 6). Then finally, after a long, hot week toiling our way up a very steep learning curve, we pulled it all together with the pitch proper (July 7).

Think about how you constructed your two-minute verbal pitch. First, you began with the magic first hundred words: “Hi, I’m (YOUR NAME), and I write (BOOK CATEGORY). My latest project, (TITLE), is geared toward (TARGET MARKET). See how it grabs you: (KEYNOTE).” Then, with nary a pause for breath, you launched into a brief overview of the book’s primary conflicts or focus, using vivid and memorable imagery. In other words, you would follow the first 100 words with your elevator speech. But to add a little piquant twist, and to make your work come across as memorable, you took fifteen or twenty seconds to tell one scene in vivid, Technicolor-level detail. Then, to tie it all together, you would tell the agent that you are excited about it because of its SELLING POINTS that will appeal to its TARGET MARKET.

Ah, those were the days, weren’t they?

I have a little secret to share with you: the query letter is a written formal pitch. So if you boiled your book down into the formula above (or some other that worked for you) for the conference, I’m here to tell you that you already have a very solid query letter floating around in that pretty little head of yours. And you know what? If you gave that pitch even ONCE successfully, you already have a proof positive that it’s a darned good query letter, one that at least one agent found appealing.

Go ahead; pat yourself on the back for that. I can wait.

Naturally, taking all of these constituent parts and arranging them in a single-page (single-spaced, 1-inch margins; no cheating, please) query letter in Times, Times New Roman, or Courier (hey, you want the typeface to match the manuscript’s, right?) on quite nice, bright white paper is going to take a spot of editing, but I’m confident that you have it in you. Here is a structure that I have found effective:

Header (for those of us who don’t have preprinted letterhead easily available), centered: your name, your address, your phone number, your e-mail address. This information should sound very familiar indeed: it’s the contact information on your title page.

The date is a nice touch, then the agent’s name and address. “Dear Ms. Specific Agent,” please, not “To Whom It May Concern” or “Dear Sir/Madam.” If you are unsure whether that cryptic first name in the agency listing refers to a man or a woman, call the agency and ask.

Then comes your first paragraph. As I have been discussing how you should open over the last few days, I suspect you already have that cold. But if you need a jump start, it might conceivably run something like this: “I enjoyed hearing you speak at the recent PNWA conference/Since you so ably represented Anne Boleyn’s recent book, THAT DARNED HENRY,” or some other appropriately flattering but dignified identifying remark, “and since you are seeking (insert specific preference expressed at conference here), I believe you will be interested in my (BOOK CATEGORY), (TITLE), geared toward (TARGET MARKET).”

Sounding a little like your first hundred words, isn’t it? And you were comfortable with that, right? So you should breeze through what’s coming next:

Second paragraph: ELEVATOR SPEECH. If you have room, you can include a sentence or two describing that nifty, vivid image you used in your verbal speech here. Remember, specifics are almost always more memorable than generalities, so do make your image as crisp as possible in your query reader’s mind.

Paragraph Three (or Four, if the elevator speech looks better split in two): some permutation of: “I am excited about this project, because of its SELLING POINTS that will appeal to its TARGET MARKET.” This is the proper place to include previous publications or awards, if any — but hey, you knew that, didn’t you, because those were featured prominently on your list SELLING POINTS?

The next paragraph can be all business, something along the lines of: “Thank you for taking the time to consider my project. I am seeking an agent with whom to build a long-term working relationship, and I would be delighted to send you all or part of the manuscript for your perusal. I am enclosing a SASE, for your convenience, and I look forward to hearing from you soon.”

There, now, that wasn’t so bad, was it? If you can manage to fit all of that onto a single page, and can affix your John Hancock to it, you will have yourself a mighty fine query letter. Hooray!

Of course, there are many, many other ways you can structure this information, but I can tell you from experience that this format works awfully darned well. But please, those of you veterans of the querying wars out there: if you have formats and clever techniques that have worked for you, please post a comment and share them!

Isn’t it nice when you can reach into your writer’s tool bag and find there everything you need for the task at hand? Let me know how the querying works out for you, and keep up the good work!

One Reply to “The query checklist, part III: the jigsaw puzzle approach to success”

  1. Sorry to hear of the delay of your memoir’s distribution. I hope the problems can be worked out. It must be so frustrating. I look forward to reading your blog in the evening after a hard day’s work and before I sit down to write. Thanks for keeping us motivated and informed.

    evelyn j. cloud

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