How to Write a Query Letter

The purpose of a query letter is to entice the reader, usually an agent but sometimes a publisher, to ask for the full manuscript, which is complete and ready to send at moment’s notice. With your words alone, the idea is to reach right out, grab the reader by the shirt collar, and pull him squarely into your world.

Successful queries come in various forms but they should include these three elements: the hook, the super-condensed version of your project, and your bio.  Short letters are more impressive than rambling ones. Cutesy, clever, stiff, or oddball approaches will not get the desired results. Read your query aloud. If you falter on a word or phrasing, rewrite. I know some writers who read things backwards, sentence by sentence, so that they can really hear the clinkers.

The hook is a concise statement of the work that functions both as summary and lure. So often, the battle is won or lost right here. In a few quick lines, the idea is to capture interest and convey the specifics of what you have to offer, including the name of the work.

A great way to study hooks is to read the taglines on published things. What speaks to you? Can you use this format to fit your purposes? Alternatively, try one of these springboards as a means of launching your pitch:

The place and time approach.

Set in Turkey, 1915 . . .

During the last years of the Ottoman Empire . . .

Taking place in Turkey, the last page turned on six hundred years of sultanate rule  . . .

The question approach.

Turkey, 1915—could there be a worse time and place for a young Armenian girl to come of age and fall in love?

What if you were sixteen, hard in love, and your beloved disappeared? What if, one by one, everyone you loved disappeared? Would you  . . .  ? These are the questions that . . .  must resolve in my novel [TITLE] . . .

The character approach.

Narrated by the dark-haired, lively-eyed, and headstrong  . . .

The “when” approach.

Following a coup that ushered in the age of the Ministers . . .

When the prosperous rug merchant took on the newest weaver, a pauper from the streets, he never dreamed that . . .

While a wider war raged . . .

The “is” approach.

[TITLE] is a love story set . . . and narrated by . .  .

Any of these approaches—and a thousand others—will work. Just keep the writing vivid, clear, and to the point.

The 2nd part of the query letter builds on your hook and is your mini-synopsis. Here’s where you sketch out your story more fully. Just who is this protagonist and how does she get tested? What does she want and what is thwarting this effort? Set up the tension and tone. Give the reader something to care about—a reason to want more. Raise the complex issues, but don’t answer them. The book answers them. The letter is just meant to spark interest so that the agent will request the entire work. Try to keep this section to about 150 words

The 3rd part of your query is the easiest: your bio as a writer. Education is helpful but not decisive, unless you are trying to present yourself as an authority on something. Employment is not relevant unless that job at Dunkin’ Donuts is somehow germane to your pitch. Previous publication credits are very nice.  Writing awards are very nice. And if you don’t have any of these, simply move on.

Finally, close the letter with a word of thanks. Someone is taking time to read for you. State that entire manuscript of x-thousand words is available upon request.

As for what to send with the query, check the agent’s or publisher’s submission guidelines. For fiction, a one- or two-page synopsis and first chapter are typical—usually no more 15 pages combined. Some agents want less. Some only want the query. Most want it all by e-mail.

Check out these critiqued examples of queries. And.  And then, get comfortable. A good query will take some time.

Photo credit: Fred R

How to Find your Niche

Ellen Stewart, more commonly known as Mama of La MaMa, died last week at 91. She was the unofficial godmother to the out-of-work, out-of-luck but irrepressible playwright, not to mention his musician/novelist/poet friends. Anyone could find shelter on her floor, and many, many were on the receiving end of the few crumpled bucks she so often pulled from her pockets and passed along.

“Get me coffee, honey, while you’re at it.”  “It” being the first square meal the recipient likely had in a while, and the request for coffee a way of allowing him to do something for her in return. She was, certainly, a gracious woman. And she gave freely of her time to me, in connection with a book I was writing.

La Mama didn’t wake up one morning and say, “What can I do for theatre? What grand dream can I pursue?” She simply worked in a daily way with what she had—instincts, respect, a talent for needle and thread, and a fearless optimism. She understood that all a struggling playwright needed was a friend. Ellen was good at friendship.

Ellen Stewart, who launched more careers than can be counted, started with a few folding chairs in an unheated, unappealing basement space. She also had, it should be mentioned, an endless supply of really red, dime store lipstick, which made her especially hard to ignore. You couldn’t not feel good around Ellen. She liked you. It didn’t matter that she didn’t know you. She thought you should be heard. That was her gift.

Why do people come to you? What is it you do that others value? If you’re not sure what you’re good at, or why you’re special, look here.

Photo credit: Papermag.com

How to Write a Synopsis

A synopsis is a brief summary of your story.  It’s usually meant for an agent, editor, or publisher, and the idea is to capture your reader’s attention while laying out the main thrust of the story.

A synopsis should be a page or two, no more, and sketch out the storyline—central elements only—and introduce the key charactersIt should be written as if the story is viewed from on high instead of in the trenches where you actually wrote it. It’s the big picture that you want, never mind all that exquisite detail that you worked so hard to achieve. And it is always, no exceptions, written in omniscient present tense.

The synopsis opens with a line or few lines that function both as hook and pitch. Ideally, you establish interest and put the story across in 25 words or less. I wrote one recently where my opening was 68 words, but I justified it on the grounds that it set the scene, time and place, identified the main character, and set up the conflict—and so, I feel I got pretty good bang for my 68 words.

Once you’ve got your opener, the next paragraphs flesh it out. The central challenge in writing the synopsis is what to put in and what to leave out. The central conflict, the hero’s motives, the tension that drives the story and keeps the reader on the edge of his seat—these are the things to highlight. Minor plots points, supporting characters, and too much color, too much description, can drag it down—death.

It should flow effortlessly like a silk scarf through the hand. No hitches, no deviations.

Think of it as a movie trailer, sketched out on paper. Trailers never tell you why you’ll like the movie. They simply set a tone of suspense and intimacy. They characterize at once what kind of story we’re talking about, bait the hook, flash the main character, and feature the important, exciting parts, which make us gasp and say, “Wow. I need to see that!” And then they’re gone: short enough to leave you wanting more.

Finally, when it comes to your closing paragraphs, some say that the rules of practice require that a synopsis must tell the entire story—start to finish—but I’ve been known to break with this. While it is important to convey that you certainly know the ending of your book, that you’ve got it all worked out and fully written, it is also okay to withhold the very last of the information, so as not to be a spoiler.

Are you depriving your reader of information that he will need to know to assess your project?  Yes, but—if you’ve done your job well, that reader will be back. He will have been drawn into the tale, a strong impression made, and will want to read the book to learn the rest.

Photo credit: movie maker – Chris Greene, sxc; film – Alexandre Saes

What a Writer Can Learn from Martha

If I’m at the gym, working out, I appreciate a distraction.

I am especially pleased when Martha shows up on the screen. I have a personal interest in Martha, as she was once a client of the law firm where I practiced. She was not Martha then. She was Andy Stewart’s wife. Andy wanted to start a publishing firm. Martha had only just quit the stockbroker business and sat in on the meetings. Andy talked. Martha didn’t. Like Princess Di, like Jackie O, she kept her head titled at a modest, downward angle, a polite smile on her silent lips.

Andy built his publishing house, and it was a good one. His launch parties, filled with publishing icons nibbling on Martha’s canapes, gave genesis to her first book, a smash hit. Through the years, I’ve watched her go from books, to television, to merchandise, to prison stripes, and back again. And now, there she is, cutting out paper decorations and icing cupcakes.

I turn off the sound and watch her work. I turn on the sound and listen to her voice.

Like all well-branded, celebrity chefs, she gives us viewers what we want:  a recipe, and the confidence that, with Martha’s help, we can frost cupcakes with the best of them.

We writers try to provide something similar for our readers—diversion, entertainment, encouragement, information, authority . . . .

But there’s still more that we can learn from Martha.

All characters have full and complicated lives. As writers, it’s our job to understand what’s behind the Mona Lisa smile of a character who might, in a scene we’ve created, sit demurely in a room, adding nothing to the conversation. What secret dreams, what luck, what curse, what past, what future? This is where the richness lies—the difference between a cardboard figure and flesh and blood—whether we use it in an overt fashion in our work, or not.

The most important lesson we can learn from Martha is that there are no bit players. Every one of them has a story—if you know it, it will show.

Photo credits: Martha Stewart by David Shankbone; Mona Lisa by artelista.com