Craft Tuesday: The query letter, part one

A query letter is, very simply, the way you sell yourself to an editor or agent.  It’s your first contact and the first impression you’ll make  so it has to be good! 

Someone once told me that a query letter should be different for an editor and for an agent.  I don’t know why.  Yes, some small things–such as list of writers editors work with vs. list agents represent–will change but with both of them, you’re writing a pitch.   You are selling yourself, your talent, you voice, your vision and your book.

For both editors and agents, RESEARCH is the most important part and that starts before you write that query letter.  That is the first and probably most important point of this series of blogs.  Very simply, if your proposal lands on the desk of the wrong person, it will not sell.   It may not sell if it lands on the desk of an editor who buys the line you write, but it certainly won’t sell if you send an inspy to Blaze.   Editors have told me that a huge percentage of proposals and/or queries they receive are not in the type of fiction they publish.  Why waste your time and theirs?  Do you really want another rejection?

Because I did my research,  for the three years before I sold,  every editor I queried requested either a partial or complete.   Editors want to find new authors.  If you send a competent query to the RIGHT editor, he/she will ask from more.  Repeat that sentence several times until you believe it. 

With agents it’s harder to get a request.  They know the areas they represent so well, they know exactly what will appeal to the editors they often work with they may reject a marvelous manuscript because they know Susie Editor at Wonderful Books isn’t looking for an amnesia story now.  Also, the agent may represent several authors in the genre you write and cannot take on another without having her clients compete for slots.  The word is that it’s harder to get an agent than to sell to a publishing company.   I believe it.

So, first, know your market.  But how?  I write women’s fiction.  I learned about writing in Romance Writers of America (RWA).  For those reasons, what I write will have to do with the women’s fiction/romance market.   It is applicable to anyone writing a query letter in any market, but you’ll have to alter it to reflect your field.

One of the first stops would be a guide to the market.   You can buy this (check reviews first) or find it in the reference department of the library. 

On the RWA members’ website, there is a full list of RWA-approved editors and another of approved agents.   Cynthia Myers sends out emails about the market for free.  Lots of places to look.   Goggle publishing market.   You’ll find a bunch–make sure you can trust them.  Predators and Editors is also a great place to start research.

Ask other writers, especially published writers.  We know most of the larger publishing companies and can tell you in a second if you’re targeting the right place or give you information about an  editor.  If you know someone represented by or working with an  agents or editor you’re interested, asked many questions.  When I asked a friend about an agent I wanted to sign with, my friend said people often find her brusque.   I could not work with someone intimidating.  Some writers want unvarnished honesty.  I don’t handle that well.   I need honesty covered in layers of bubble wrap. 

About ten years ago, I got a letter from an agent who wanted to represent me.  At first, I was dancing, then I had some questions.  She’d received only a partial from an unpublished writer and wanted to represent me?  Seemed odd.  And don’t agents call when they want to sign a client?  So I went to an RWA site and asked anyone who knew about this agent to get in touch with me.  What I heard was enough for me to turn this down.  Another time, I loved chatting with the agent.  She was even discussing movie deals–wow!  Still I went on line and discovered only the previous day she’d been dropped from the list of approved agents due to a violation of RWA standards.  With a third, I knew how much trouble a friend had had with an agent, but I thought she was a top agent and signed with her.  After all, I’m a lovely person and we’ll get along fine.  No, we didn’t.  As with my friend, she never submitted anything and never gave me any feedback.  I fired her after nearly two years and lost that much of my career.  Ask questions and listen to answers.  Don’t give up part of your career with a bad agent or one that doesn’t fit.

Second, go to a conference and network.  Meet professionals and writers.   At a conference, I once sat next to a writer who’d just started her first book .  As we chatted I asked, “What line are you targeting?”  She didn’t know.  I asked other questions such as how many words, then asked, “How many sex scenes?”  She look at me as if I were a pervert.  “Does that make any difference?”  Yes, it does.   Some lines expect a hot book with at least two fully consummated scenes.  The lines I write for do not want sex scenes.  So, again, you need to know this. 

I strongly suggest you check the credentials of publishing companies and agents.  So many new companies are springing up it’s hard to know if all are legitimate.   With the disaster at Dorchester, even what had been considered reputable companies took the money and ran.   The first company I sold to (not that I ever got any money), went bankrupt.  I was lucky to get my rights back only weeks before they went under.  I would have   lost that book forever, wound up an asset with a bankrupt company.    

Next Craft Tuesday:    Practical tips about writing the letter!   (July 3)


4 thoughts on “Craft Tuesday: The query letter, part one

    1. My feeling is if you can’t have a cute cat (he was attempting to catch an editor) what is the use of having a blog. Thanks for dropping in!

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