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Don’t Hate the Query Letter: Master It

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photo by Kreg Steppe

There is nothing in the world that makes my critique group members groan louder than when someone brings in a query letter. It seems everyone hates query letters. Me? I’m the weirdo who gets excited.

Before you leave because I’m obviously insane, let me explain.

I didn’t always love query letters. I used to dread them like any self-respecting writer. But if you’re seeking traditional publication (and actually, self-publishing too, but we’ll get to that), they’re a necessary evil. There are very few ways to land an agent without first mastering the art of the query letter. So that’s what I set out to do, slowly but surely, by torturing my critique group with all of my drafts and versions and projects until one day, one time, something just sort of… clicked.

[Note: Query letters generally consist of several parts: an introductory greeting, a 1-2 paragraph pitch or summary, an informational paragraph that includes word count, genre, market potential and/or comparison titles, a bio paragraph, and a closing. For the purpose of this blog, I’m referring only to that 1-2 paragraph pitch – the “meat” of your query letter – as the query.]

To prove that I don’t have some sort of supernatural innate query skillz, let me share this with you: the query for my first novel got 0 requests. The query for my second got 2 requests for partials. Ouch, right?

With the query for my third novel I brought in a draft and my crit group said it was a hot mess. I started over. I brought it in another time before I had the base that was worth line-editing and polishing up. That query letter got me 7 requests for the full manuscript. Ah-ha. I was onto something. (Unfortunately, the manuscript wasn’t nearly as ready as the query, but that’s a blog for another day.)

So when it came time to query my fourth novel, I was merciless. I took in four or five entirely different versions to my critique group. They wanted to throttle me, but they were honest, and that’s what you need in order to learn what works. When I landed on the right version, that was my click. I got it. I felt it. There’s a rhythm and a style to that type of summary that once you have, you have. (The best way to find this is to write lots of them. The next best way is to read the back jackets of books similar to yours and see how/why the good ones work.) I polished it up and got 15 requests for the full, which resulted in 3 offers of representation. And here’s the really sneaky part: that query letter became the pitch letter my agent and I used to go on sub, too, which also resulted in multiple requests.

Oh, and, self-pubbers? Here’s an unpleasant little tidbit. You need the query too; you just call it “back-cover copy.” I suspect that there isn’t a novelist in existence who gets to avoid the dreaded 2-paragraph book pitch. At its core, it’s your query letter, your pitch letter, and the back of your book. So rather than pitching a fit (puns!), seeing if you can slide by without it, or settling for a less than stellar pitch, why not bite the bullet and master the art of crafting your query?

Maybe your sparkling personality can land you an agent in-person. Maybe your rock star agent writes your pitch letters for you. And maybe you’ll hire an editor to write your back-cover copy. If that were me, I would still value the query, and here’s why: I use it for several other things. I use it before I write books. I use it to analyze flaws in written books. I use it to brainstorm new book ideas. Once you stop thinking of the query letter as something invented to make you miserable, you can start implementing it as an incredibly useful tool. Let’s unpack that. Reason by reason, here’s the value I see in mastering the query.

1) Interest agents in reading your manuscript.

The obvious and classic reason: you want an agent! Well guess what? So do thousands of other writers. The only way to convince a busy agent swamped with submissions to read your manuscript is to make it sound absolutely irresistible. The only way to do that is to make your query letter fantastic, not just “fine.”

2) Sell your manuscript to editors.

Whether you’re giving your agent a draft to work from or submitting directly to editors, the “pitch letter” is pretty much exactly the same as the “query letter.” As above, it must be stellar to make your submission stand out, interest the editor, and beg their time. No matter how good your actual book is, they won’t read it if your pitch letter is lame.

3) Entice readers to buy your book.

There’s a trend here: you must convince. Everyone is busy. Agents, editors, and even readers. If they’re in a bookstore, even a reading fanatic is walking away with a very small percentage of what’s available – even more so from an online vendor. So your back-cover pitch can’t just be fine or accurate or even good. It has to be great!

4) Find the plot for your next manuscript.

Okay, now we’re to the fun ones. If you’ve written at least half a dozen successful queries, it becomes easier. You still need critique and polish, of course, but once you’ve “got it,” it becomes a natural thing. That’s when it becomes a useful thing. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a concept for a new book – and just a concept. What if…? Okay, great. What if? Then what? Who? When? How? Why?

Plug it into your query. Write it like it’s ready to sell! Filling out an entire novel can be pretty intimidating, while filling out a brief pitch is an hour’s work or less. Once you’ve mastered the must-haves of a pitch (who, what they want, what’s in the way, what’s at stake, why it’s unique and interesting…), you’ve actually also mastered the must-haves of a book. Rather than thinking in terms of 200 pages worth of conflict and interest, think of 2 paragraph’s worth of hook. If you base your manuscript off a killer pitch, you’re probably going to be in pretty good shape.

5) Diagnose manuscript flaws.

Likewise, if you find yourself stuck in drafting hell, stop and write the query. Struggling? Chances are that’s because your book is missing some of the key things you need to craft a strong pitch. If you can’t narrow down the focus enough to make a cohesive summary, your plot is probably all over the place. Where’s the drive? If there’s not enough standing in your character’s way to make the book sound exciting, the book probably isn’t exciting. If you have no idea how to end your book, it might be because you didn’t set up a clear desire or premise at the onset. See what I mean? If you already have the art of the query down, it can show you what’s missing in the larger work. In reverse, it becomes distillation.

This is also why I write the query first: it saves me legwork up front. I’ve been in the position of finishing a manuscript, sitting down to write the query letter, and realizing that what I want to say happens isn’t exactly what does happen. Now I save myself a lot of diagnostic heartache by writing the query first and using it to guide my manuscript.

6) Come up with new manuscript ideas.

And last but certainly not least, it’s a fantastic exercise to sit down and draft a handful of queries for books you haven’t written – and even books that you might never write! Just follow a lark and see how it could shape into enticement for a book. In fact, this is how I’ve come up with a couple of my novel ideas. It’s also how I’ve chosen which idea to write next. Which pitch sounds more cohesive, more exciting, more sellable? That’s probably going to be the stronger book, too. I would encourage any writer to try this, no matter your stage or level. It’s great for brainstorming, but it’s also great practice in your quest to master the query.

There you have it, my twisted, totally hateable, but unfortunately true case for mastering the query letter rather than burning it alive. It really isn’t as bad as it sounds. Like all intimidating things, the sooner you dig in and do the work, the sooner you’ll become adept at it and find yourself reaping the rewards.

So have you written queries/pitch letters/back-cover copy? Do you love it or loathe it? And if you’ve got it down, how long did it take you to get the hang of it?

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About Annie Neugebauer [2]

Annie Neugebauer (@AnnieNeugebauer) is a novelist, short story author, and award-winning poet with work appearing in over fifty venues, including Apex, Black Static, and Fireside. She’s an active member of the Horror Writers Association and webmaster for the Poetry Society of Texas. In addition to Writer Unboxed, she’s also a columnist for LItReactor. She’s represented by Alec Shane of Writers House. When Annie’s not frightening strangers with her writing, she’s most likely frightening her husband and their two cats, Buttons and Snaps.