One question I am often asked is what are you looking for in query? My answer, almost always, is this: professionalism.
What do I mean by that?
Gosh I’m so glad you asked because I could go on about this all day! LOL.
Let’s start with the salutation. Yep, it starts there.
So you’ve reviewed the publisher’s website and you know what to submit and to whom. How do you start your letter? Well the name of the person is Jane Doe, so let's start with
Insert loud buzzer sound here.
Are you sure you want to start with Dear Jane? Does Jane know you? Have you met Jane? Are you acquainted well enough to be on a first name basis with Jane?? If you cannot answer any of those questions with a resounding “Yes!” then don’t do it.
I’ve polled fellow editors and found them split fifty fifty on whether or not this bothers them. Some of us find the over familiarity off putting and unprofessional, some don’t even think twice about it. Since you have no idea of knowing which category Jane falls into, I’d start with a more formal greeting. You can say Dear Ms. Doe, or even Dear Editor. But I would not recommend starting with Dear Jane. (And I cannot believe I have to say this, but don't start with Dear Sir. I still see that one sometimes. It's way too outdated.)
Next. What does the editor need to know at this point? Well you want to pitch a story to her, right? So let’s start by talking about that.
Some important things to mention up front: whether or not the story is complete. This is more important than you might think. Finishing a story is an accomplishment and tells me you are not just a hobbyist. A lot of people start books; a professional author finishes them.
Next: what is the word count? If the publisher’s website says they accept books up to 85k and you submit one that is 140k, it is not going to end the way you want. They will either tell you it needs to be cut down to their word count requirements, or they will simply flat out reject you.
But Nic, if the editor loves my story, won’t they tell me where to cut?
Let me set the record straight on this one. That’s a common misconception. I wish I had that kind of time. But publishing houses are swamped these days. As more and more go under due to the economy or the world of self-publishing, the more authors who don’t want to self pub come to our doorsteps. But in my 35+ years in the world of publishing I have never seen an editor do that for an unpublished author. Let me put it this way: I would never ask someone who isn’t contracted to do edits. And I can’t contract a story that’s longer than the maximum word count allowed by my publisher. See how that works? So there is only one way for that scenario to end, I’m afraid. (If you are truly committed to your story, the only real option for outside help would be to hire an independent editor to evaluate the story and offer you some suggestions.)
When we get to the “how to” section of this writing series, we will talk about knowing when and where to cut.
Next. The genre. If you don’t know it, am I supposed to guess? It’s a cozy mystery, or it’s a sweet young adult romance, or it’s a romantic suspense. I may know based on what you are telling me, but I need to know that you know.
So now we have the opening lines of our query letter. What is it, is it complete and how long is it?
I’ll start with what’s familiar to me.
There, that wasn’t so hard, was it?
Next tell me as little about your story. Again, I’ll work with one of my own since that’s easier.
Arden O’Hara has faked her own kidnapping to test her fiancé’s affections. Does he love her, or her father’s money? What she doesn’t realize is her plan has gone horribly wrong and she has actually been kidnapped.
Raz Colt is the bounty hunter hired by her father to find her. For the amount of money being offered, he’ll walk through hell itself if that’s what it takes. Only Raz is expecting a little girl, not a full-grown woman.
Okay that’s enough to get my attention. It hints at the conflict gives me an idea of what the story is about and a taste of the author's voice.
Next you may want to mention any professional affiliations. If you belong to any writing groups, now is the time to mention them. This tells me you are serious and since some of these organizations actually focus on professionalism, it tells me you are a step above many of the other authors waiting in my inbox. Are you already published? If so, with whom? Even if you are self-published, it still tells me you know how to finish what you start, so don’t feel you can’t mention that.
If you don’t have any of those to mention, that’s okay, it’s not a deal breaker. Mentioning that you saw on the publisher’s website that they are looking for –insert genre here-- is helpful, too, or if you met them at a conference, remind them. That tells me you actually know who you are submitting to and did your research.
A little bio about yourself never hurts, but I don’t mean how long you’ve been married, and how many grandkids/dogs/cats you have. A query is an inquiry after all, not an invitation to tell your life story. So just share the stuff that’s relevant to your writing self. After all, this is a business, not a dating website (I know that sounds harsh but imagine wading through dozens of these on a daily basis). So anything included should be related to your story—if you are a western author and have worked with horses all your life; a Civil War author and you are a reenactor; a medical professional and your main character is a doctor. And definitely, if you did hands on research on your story topic, mention it here.
Otherwise it’s perfectly appropriate to just cut to the chase and say the synopsis and first X number of pages (if the publisher requests those, some find it helpful to expedite the review process, others don’t require it) are below.
I’ll do a brief recap. This is what an editor wants to know at this point in the process:
· What is the genre?
· What is the length?
· Is it complete?
· What is your experience as an author (aka do you know what you are doing?)
· Can you write? This is where the synopsis comes in and in some cases those sample pages.
This is another area where it’s very important to give the publisher exactly what they asked for, no more, no less and no different.
We will cover that next week with some dos and don’ts.