So You Wanna Be A Writer—Part 7 by Adam Rocke
Besides the material you’re trying (hoping!) to publish or sell, a query letter is the most important document you will ever write. If that sounds like I’m being overly dramatic, consider the intended purpose of the query letter—to introduce your work (and yourself!) to an agent or publisher. Remember the old adage: You never get a second chance at a first impression.
Unless you’re already a known entity to the literary community as a whole, or to the specific agent/publisher you’re reaching out to, that query letter will be the very first snippet of writing you’ll be judged on. And trust me when I tell you, in the insanely competitive arena of so-called “professional writing” (writing as a career, or with the intent to publish your work and ultimately get paid), everything you write and submit gets judged. Not only that—agents and publishers have memories like elephants. If you send them something that’s poorly written, considering these professionals receive hundreds of queries every week—in some cases, hundreds every day—your substandard effort will leave a lasting impression, and not a good one. Future query letters will likely find their way to the trash bin, in all probability without even being opened.
But before you start to hyperventilate or break out in stress-induced hives, know that writing a great query letter isn’t like searching for the Holy Grail. Sure, it take a bit of practice to perfect, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s more common sense than anything.
Rule #1 for a Great Query: Keep It Short
Think elevator pitch. And I’m not talking skyscraper elevator, I’m talking two floors max. A brief (and I stress, BRIEF) overview of your project, and a brief overview of your literary achievements (if any). Don’t start explaining the acts, or character arcs, or how great your friends told you the material is. None of that. If you can’t explain your project in a short paragraph (ideally a few sentences), something’s wrong. You can get into a more detailed synopsis if and when they request the material. For right now, just give ‘em the bullet points.
Ditto for your bio. No need to slather them with immodesty. If you’ve got a notable literary achievement, mention it. If you’ve got many, just say “previous published titles include” and list a couple. Want to include an Amazon link, go for it. Just don’t overdo it. Don’t be “that” writer. Make them WANT to learn more about you. “Less is more” isn’t just a novelty saying.
Rule #2: One Project Per Query
Far too often, writers make the mistake of pitching multiple projects in a single query. A query isn’t an “in-the-room” pitch session where a potential buyer will shoot down one idea and ask you what else you’ve got. No, every query is an all-or-nothing, all your eggs in one basket inquiry. If it’s not for them, oh well. It is what it is. But don’t ever include phrasing along the lines of “…and if you don’t like that, I have another project you might like. This one…” Yeesh!
Rule #3: Do Your Research
While query letters are definitely a numbers game, where casting as wide a net as possible is in your best interest, sending queries willy-nilly to anyone and everyone is a fool’s errand. Why query an agent about your Middle Grade novel when they specialize in nonfiction projects? Ditto for publishers who specialize in science fiction thrillers when you’re shopping a coming-of-age love story.
These days, you can learn just about anything courtesy of the Internet. That’s especially true when it comes to an agent’s or publisher’s wants. If your deductive skills aren’t Holmes-ian, reverse the process. Research books and authors who are comparable to your material. See where they’ve been published, and who has rep’d their deals.
Also, don’t send your query to everyone on your list in a single wave. Try submitting to the first ten or twenty percent of the names/places and see what, if any, responses you receive. Perhaps your query will require a bit of tweaking. Or maybe you’ll receive a few positive responses from your first batch; having the opportunity to choose between a couple potential reps or publishing deals is a dream scenario, but it can quickly become a nightmare if you have to say ‘no’ to more than a few. Remember, nobody likes rejection—not writers, and especially not agents and publishers.
Rule #4: Don’t Follow Up a Non-Response
Some writers have a different approach to this scenario, but for my money, if an agent or publisher wanted more information on your project, they’d let you know. To send another email—or worse, make a call—asking if they had a chance to consider your project (or just read your email) is a sign of desperation.
Desperate writers don’t make deals. Remember, as competitive and cutthroat as the industry is, both agents and publishers desperately WANT to find the next great project. They want homerun deals. They want bestsellers. But the honest truth of the business is that those projects are few and far between.
Rule #5: Know When to Say When
Please don’t misunderstand or misinterpret what I’m trying to convey here. I’m not suggesting you stop believing in yourself or your material, nor am I saying you should give up on your dream of selling a script, or securing a publishing deal.
What I am saying is that, for the project you’re shopping at that particular moment, if it keeps getting rejected (for whatever reason), you need to step back for a moment, take your natural bias out of the equation, and give the project a long, hard look.
Clearly, something isn’t connecting with the audience (agents and buyers) you’re trying to reach. Maybe it’s as simple as your query letter being vague or unexciting. Or maybe the market is currently flooded with similar titles or projects. Or, I hate to say it, but maybe it’s a bigger issue—that particular project just isn’t all you thought it was cracked up to be. The rejections don’t mean that you, as a writer, have failed—only that that project isn’t ringing the bell, and your time would be better served focusing on new material.
The literary game is truly a roller-coaster. Those that are willing to take the ride are guaranteed to experience every twist and turn, every high and low, until the ride ends. Scary? Yup. Exhilarating? Indeed. But there’s a reason why the roller-coaster usually has the longest line in the park!
Until next time, happy writing!