But hey--we've snagged Wendy Burt Thomas. She has a new book that'll answer it all for us. It's called: The Writers Digest Guide to Query Letters.
(And its not just for novels--it's got info on non-fiction, and short stories, and magazines.)
HANK: Query letters. We all cringe. How make-or-break is a query letter to an aspiring author's career?
WENDY: Breaking into the publishing world is hard enough right now. Unless you have a serious "in" of some kind, you really need a great query letter to impress an agent or acquisitions editor.
HANK: You know, my first query letter, which I loved, got no no no no from every agent I sent it to. It focused on the main character. The second one--which was about exactly the same book--focused on the plot hook. I think I only changed the first paragraph. And everyone said yes. It was the same book! How do you know you've got it right?
WENDY: That's a tough one. There are a few things that will help your chances of landing an agent. First, make sure your book idea is a match for the agencies you're pitching. Research some of the most recent books the agency represented.
Were they action-oriented (e.g. plot-driven) or character-driven? Your query will need to whet the agent's appetite based on his/her taste - and what they think your book will be about. If your book is plot-driven but your query focuses on sketching out the character, they'll likely get the wrong idea.
Second, learn from the feedback you get. Even rejections can be helpful - and get you closer to an acceptance. If all the agents are saying they like the character but not the fact that you set it in the 1980s, you might need to change that in your query - and manuscript. If they all simply say, "no thanks" without any feedback, it's probably a sign that you need to revise your query (and/or manuscript).
Thirdly, if you get a lot of positive responses ("Great concept - just not a fit for our agency") then don't give up. I think my co-author and I queried 30 or 40 agencies before we got an offer of representation on our first book. I see too many authors give up after trying only 10 or 12 agents.
HANK: What's the biggest lesson you've learned as a full-time writer?
WENDY: Seize every opportunity - especially when you first start writing. I remember telling someone about a really high-paying writing gig I got and he said, "Wow. You have the best luck!" I thought, "Luck has nothing to do with it! I've worked hard to get where I am."
Later that week I read this great quote: "Luck is when preparation meets opportunity." It's absolutely true. And writing queries is only about luck in this sense. If you're prepared with a good query and/or manuscript, when the opportunity comes along you'll be successful.
HANK: Okay, who wrote the bad letters? Do tell.
WENDY: I did! And that was such fun. I've read - and written! - so many horrible ones over the years that it was a little too easy to craft them. But misery loves company and we ALL love to read really bad query letters, right?
HANK: But--there are all these rules.One page. Your own voice. Big hook. Your platform. And then the final rule is--be natural. Ahhhhh...what should writers know?
WENDY: I want them to remember that writing is fun. Sometimes new writers get so caught up in the procedures that they lose their original voice in a query. Don't bury your style under formalities and to-the-letter formatting.
HANK: Full disclosure--my query letter is in this book! And it was really fun to see it. (I didn't let Wendy get her hands on the one that tanked.)
Wendy graciously says she'll come chat and answer your questions! So maybe she can give you some guidance.
And Jungle Red is giving away two copies of TWDGTQL to commenters we'll choose at random.
So ask away--and maybe you'll win answers to ALL your questions!
And how does your query letter start? Published authors--we'd love to know! Yet-to-be-published--have you figured that out yet?
(Thanks to Epicurienne for the typewriter photo!)