To query or not to query, that is the query

By on February 15th, 2010
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My latest blog entry has been a bit delayed because I’m still waiting on the final illustrations for my book. But finally! I’ll be receiving the last two pencil drawings tonight, providing feedback, and then getting the inked version later this week. I’ll have all the images I need to add to the book so I can finally share it with a small number of readers/writers to get feedback.

In the meantime, I’ve been working on my query letter. For those who don’t know, a query letter is the preferred method of approaching publishers. It’s intended to be a single page cover letter that serves to introduce your book. It follows a basic structure. Deviate from the format at your peril … publishers and literary agents have little time for shenanigans. Any mailing that tries too hard will likely head straight for the recycling cabana.

The anatomy of a query letter:
Introduction
Synopsis
Biography and closing

That’s it. Deceptively simple. Yet quite difficult in its own way.

The introduction should include a few key elements. It absolutely should include the title, page count, and genre. Even if your genre is ambiguous, you should at least classify it as “literary,” or “literary fantasy,” “alien romance police procedural,” “cook-book horror novel,” whatever you can do to help the editor or agent understand what type of book it is. Beyond that, there are a couple other elements you might consider:

Comparisons to other existing books or authors (as long as you’re careful not to come across as too presumptuous: “My novel, Dumby Spanks the Monk, combines the poetic artistry of Baudelaire with the wit of Oscar Wilde.”)

Discussion of the period or setting. Showing your knowledge of the milieux will help give you cred.

Description of a key theme. This is a more sophisticated approach and shows your book may not be mediocre.

A dramatic leap into the story. This is a risky choice. Bold, but it must be done right or it will flop.

Awards received and significant author credentials such as previously published works.

The synopsis is probably the hardest part. You need to boil your story down to roughly two or three short paragraphs. If you think your synopsis is too long, it is. If your book features a main character, then let the evolution of that character drive the synopsis more than a plot blow-by-blow.

Biography and closing is where you provide relevant information about your writing experience and any details that help qualify you for writing your book. For example, if you were once tortured by an accupuncturist, then it might be appropriate to mention that if your book is set in a political convention.

The last thing I’ll note is that as much as you should get outside feedback on your novel, you should get outside feedback on your query letter. I took a $70 webinar from Writer’s Digest here, which was a nice overview of the query letter structure, and the editor personally critiqued every single query letter submitted. She emailed me a pdf with comments and editorial suggestions. It was primarily helpful to me for the synopsis portion where it’s easy to describe too much. You need to get to the heart of the story in the synopsis.

And that is the heart of the query.


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