Writing a Query That Rocks
The most intimidating thing I’ve ever had to write was a proposal. I’ve never met a writer who wasn’t at least a little put off by the prospect of querying an editor. But there’s no getting around them if we want our work to dazzle and awe the world. I’d like to think that writing a decent proposal got my foot in the door at Xcite Books with my novels, The Initiation of Ms Holly, The Pet Shop, and a paranormal erotic romance that will be out in February 2012. I’ve probably written a gazillion queries by now, and I’ve gotten over the fear of writing them by establishing a template. I took ideas from several different books on writing queries, then mixed and matched till I came up with a method that works for me.
THE QUERY LETTER
The letter is the writer’s introduction to the editor, sort of a written handshake. I keep it simple and short. There are very few reasons a query letter, even one for a 150K novel, should be longer than one page. The editor reading it is already awash in a sea of query letters. A long query letter is a lot more likely to get a form rejection without ever having been read than a query that’s short and to the point.
Below is the template of the basic query letter I use for both novels and short stories. By using this template, I don’t have to think about the letter. I can concentrate all my creative energy on a pitch that will sell my novel.
Jane Q Writer
(writing as J Q Hotpages)
111 Wannawrite Lane
Surrey SE6 9XY
Dear Ms Wordswoman,
I always make sure to address the editor by name. That’s the first clue to them that I’ve done my research, and I shouldn’t be querying if I haven’t.
For your consideration please find attached/enclosed my 75,000 word novel, SEXY BOOK.
Editors always need to know word count, and I need to make sure my word count matches their requirement.
The blurb, or the written pitch for the novel, is the real body of the letter.
The blurb is what will get the editor’s attention. It’s the most important part of the letter. It will make the difference as to whether the editor will read my synopsis and my three chapters or send me a form rejection without ever reading beyond my letter.
List previous publications in an easy-to-read format with links.
Previous publications will help get the editor’s attention, but only if I have a blurb that has done its job.
Thank you for considering SEXY BOOK. I look forward to hearing from you soon.
Jane Q Writer
In my letter, I showcase a blurb that I hope will rock the publisher’s world. The rest of the letter is just background information he or she will return to if my blurb has done its job.
I’ve always made the blurb a condensed version of my synopsis. It’s the main body of my query letter.
My blurbs usually, consist of a SET-UP, a HOOK and a RESOLUTION. I’ve used the blurb for my novel, The Pet Shop, to demonstrate.
SET-UP: In appreciation for a job well done, STELLA JAMES’s boss sends her a pet – a human pet. The mischievous TINO comes straight from THE PET SHOP complete with a collar, a leash, and an erection.
HOOK: Stella soon discovers the pleasure of keeping Pets, especially this one, is extremely addicting. Obsessed with Tino and with the reclusive philanthropist, VINCENT EVANSTON, who looks like Tino, but couldn’t be more different, Stella is drawn into the secret world of The Pet Shop.
RESOLUTION: As her animal lust awakens, Stella must walk the thin line that separates the business of pleasure from the more dangerous business of the heart or suffer the consequences.
Unless specified otherwise in the submission guidelines, I always limit my synopsis to one page, again taking into consideration that the editor has stacks of queries to look at. Also, I find that if I can get my synopsis down to one page, it tends to be much clearer than a longer synopsis because I’ve refined it down to its essence.
When I’m writing a synopsis, I always try to use broad strokes first.
Here’s how The Initiation of Ms Holly might look in broad strokes:
A woman has sex with a stranger on a train. She can’t be with him unless she is initiated into the exclusive club he belongs to, but the sexy head of the club doesn’t want her to be a member so she plots against her. The woman has to overcome the plots and pass the initiation if she wants to be with the man.
Once I have the broad stroke synopsis, then I get specific. I try to use words that paint pictures, words the elicit emotions, words that raise the pulse. The more specific my synopsis, the more my synopsis elicits a response, the more likely it is to grab the editor’s attention.
When I’m writing my novel, long before I send out the query, I already have a synopsis written, and I refine it as I write the novel. I find that it’s much easier than trying to put together a synopsis after the fact. Also periodic checking of the synopsis while writing the novel helps me maintain a clear picture of the developing plot. The synopsis is always an expanded version of my blurb, so there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. In creating a synopsis, I expand the blurb, add the bits I wish I’d had room for in the blurb, and the bits I think will draw the editor further into my plot.
Here is the final blurb of The Initiation of Ms Holly from my proposal:
Journalist, Rita Holly, never dreamed that sizzling sex with the mysterious Edward in the pitch black of a malfunctioning train would lead to a blindfolded, champagne-drenched tango, a bare-bottomed spanking by a butch waitress, and an offer of initiation into the exclusive mysteries of The Mount. The Initiation of Ms Holly is a tongue in cheek (and other places) retelling of Psyche and Eros complete with cell phones, riding crops, and f*ck-me shoes.
FIRST THREE CHAPTERS:
As I already mentioned, editors are buried under stacks and stacks of queries. It’s my job to make sure my query stands out. And when the editor looks beyond my blurb and my synopsis to the sample chapters, it’s my goal to make sure she won’t be able to resist every single word I’ve written, and when she’s done, she’ll be desperate for more.
I always compare the interaction of an editor with my sample chapters to me picking a book in the airport before a long flight. I have all the books in bookstore at the departures lounge to choose from. If the blurb on the back doesn’t hook me, I’ll pick another book. If the blurb interests me enough for a look inside, but the first paragraph doesn’t hook me, I’ll pick another book. If the first page doesn’t hook me, I’ll pick another book. The process is similar for editors. Every single paragraph has to drive the editor to read the next, and the next to the end, and then beyond. That’s the goal.
Finally, I can’t count the number of times I thought I had everything ready to send out only to discover that I hadn’t read the submission requirements close enough. Maybe I formatted my manuscript wrong, or maybe I failed to notice that an editor doesn’t take attachments, or that an editor also requires a chapter by chapter synopsis, or the last chapter as well as the first three. I now read submission requirements, reread them, then read them again. Why let something as silly as not following the directions disqualify my manuscript? I follow the guidelines, obsessively. Compulsively. Just to be sure.
We all know, as writers, there’s no substitute for a story that rocks, but it won’t matter how good the story is if those world-rocking manuscripts never get through the proper channels and into the right hands. My template works for me. Hopefully it’ll give you some ideas that will work for you too. And once you’ve perfected your own template, you won’t have to think about it or stress about it. Once it’s perfected you can concentrate on the best part of all — writing that novel that rocks.