A Query Letter is like a Woman’s Skirt

I remember my dad always saying, “I’d rather be lucky than good.” Well, if I had my ‘drathers’ I would agree with dad. But I only write in fantasyland; I have to live in the real world. In the real world, I’ve never been very lucky. How then did I get published? I’m a complete unknown, without an agent, without a shred of education in the field of creative writing, and without scratch of it in my professional background!

Well, if I’ve never been lucky, to quote Julie Andrews, I must have done something good. I think it’s my query letters. Not to brag (and anyway, it was years ago) but, when I had written my first two novels and began looking for an agent in earnest, I was instructed to send out fifty queries every week until I found an agent–and to be prepared for the long haul. This was at a time before the age of internet, so we’re talking typed letters with manuscript portions in envelopes with stamps, and SASE’s included. I couldn’t afford to do that! I sent out five. I received three offers of representation, and two were among the biggest literary firms in the country. I suppose it could have been the three chapters I included, as instructed. But I really think it had more to do with my query letter. All three agents who offered to sign me had commented on it.

Wind and skirts

Years later (two years ago), when I gave those manuscripts their first-ever serious edit, I had the internet with which to search for publishers who accepted direct submissions–I found that most of the biggest publishing houses did. I chose one, a Christian publishing house, and on a Friday afternoon, I submitted my query with a complete manuscript, as per their website. On Monday morning, I received an email from Tate Publishing, stating a contract had been sent overnight, via FedEx. And then, just last month, after my publicist asked me to seek out radio interviews before my next book comes out, I sent a query and a short essay to a radio show that interviews authors (they primarily interview non-fiction “experts,” but it doesn’t hurt to ask). The following day, I received a “cc” email generated by the show’s host to his assistant, telling her to book me in January.

That’s three for three. And remember, I’m not lucky. Maybe it’s not my awesome query letters that got me noticed among the thousands of other submissions. But what if it was? I do believe we published authors have a certain responsibility to share with other future-authors, any tips, tricks or secrets that helped us get here. Our profession should not be ripping future authors with our pens and laptops, or keeping our trade secrets close to the vest. We should be more like an ‘old boys’ network, with new authors helping to promote their veteran mentors up the ladder of literary success, and with the veterans then reaching down and pulling the FNG’s (freaking new guys) up behind them. I’m saying that our efforts would be better served encouraging the public to read more, than to thwart the hopes of our future competition.

In that spirit of mentorship, here’s my share: If there is a tip, trick or secret to getting a quality manuscript published, it probably lies with the dreaded query letter. But there isn’t actually any trick to it, and it doesn’t have to be something you dread. It’s more about a realization; we writers are creative’s, but query letters are mostly craft.  There is a difference between the two which is why, I think, the damned things freak us out so much. I stumbled upon this revelation pretty early on, I began crafting my very first query letter accordingly, and I’ve hit pay-dirt with each one. I can’t guarantee my query technique, or crafting, is something you’ll want to mimic, and I won’t promise my tips will garner you a publishing contract. What I can do is boil-down my query successes to three pretty simple rules for writing one. I thought I’d run these up the literary flagpole, so to speak…but you don’t have to salute.

1) Include a kitschy attention-grabber right off the git-go, so there is less chance of being ignored. I found the movie producer who wanted to buy, “Bodie,” by taping a nickel to the top of the query letter. It made the envelope significantly heavier than the rest, which first got his attention. When he opened it, he saw the nickel taped to the page, and the opening line: “I know, I know… if you had a nickel for every author who promises their manuscript is a blockbuster…” Another time, I included a package of microwave popcorn in the envelope with my letter, which started out, “Corny, I know, but I’m desperate.”  Say what you want, but it worked. I used to work in an office environment. I remember well that 3:00 hour when I was dragging-butt and my brain was foggy from composing and typing letters all day. If I had spent the day reading through hundreds of boring, predictable query letters, then suddenly opened one with Orville’s Butter Flavor microwave popcorn inside, it surely would have gotten my attention–and then it would have gotten eaten, of course. My point is that using a hook is akin to the shopkeeper’s creed about foot traffic–if she can just get the shopper through the door, she’s half-way to a sale. Well, if I can get a publisher to open my envelope and read the first line of my query, I am half-way home. Now, to close the deal;

2) Inject enough humor throughout. Producers, agents and publishers have manuscripts in their offices stacked higher than their desks, in many cases. Give them some pay-off for taking the time to glance passed that first “kitschy” line of your query letter. If you’re not funny, try shocking. Or find a funny or outrageous friend and ask for their help. Because if you want your book looked at, you will need to set it apart from the rest–and you’ll have 10 seconds or less to do it; and because you only have 10 seconds or less,

3) Keep it short (This is key): Think of your query letter as a woman’s skirt. Make sure it is long enough to cover the subject, but short enough to keep it interesting–in no case should it be longer than a single page. You should understand that publishers, agents and producers don’t really read those letters, they scan them. And if, in a short 10-second scan, something you wrote makes them go, “ha!” out loud, congratulations, you just avoided the slush pile.

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