Monday, June 6, 2011

An Opportunity

hey FFFers - here's an opportunity to send a submission to an agency that is usually closed to unsolicited stuff:

Go to the submissions page and follow the directions. They'll want just a query letter. If this is your first novel, make sure it's completed before submitting anything. Since it just started on June 1st and will be open until August 31st, let's talk about query letters.

What is a query letter? It is a one page letter that introduces your book idea and yourself. Think of it as your 30 second elevator pitch on paper. Here's a basic formula from novelist Marcus Sakey:

After a professional greeting (Mr. or Ms.), begin with a 1 - 2 line paragraph explaining that you are writing them because you know they represent X, and your book is similar.

Then, in 3 - 5 lines, sum up your story. Leave out the tangents, complications, minor characters, and themes. Remember, this is seduction. Focus on drama and stakes.

Here’s mine:
For Danny Carter, retired thief turned respectable businessman, a normal life sharing a Lincoln Park condo with his loving girlfriend seems like the ultimate score–until his former partner comes looking for him. A hardened killer fresh out of Stateville, his partner wants to kidnap the son of Danny’s millionaire boss, and he needs help to pull it off. Doing the job could cost Danny his career, his relationship, and his freedom.

Refusing could cost him his life.

Notice how I used only one name, and how I boiled the story down to its essense? The result is a brief summation that has some sex appeal.

In your next paragraph, spend 1 - 4 lines mentioning awards, previous publications, and nepotistic hookups. By the latter, I mean connections with authors, publishing folks, or the media. Is Stephen King your uncle? Did you work for Oprah? Put it in there. Also, if you have some experience that informed the book, consider including it. Be judicious here: if you’re hawking a mystery novel, by all means mention the fact that you are a police officer. If your character likes to cook and so do you, leave it out.

Finally, end with what in advertising is known as a call to action: “May I send you the finished manuscript?”

(Okay - that's a pretty good basic example. Personally, I always thank the agent for their time before I ask them if I can send the manuscript.)

Marcus goes on to explain an email query:

I recommend you query via email. There are a couple of reasons. First, e-queries are cheaper and faster and better for the environment. Second, you can include a little taste of your novel. Do it like this: “Page one of THE GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL follows. May I send you the finished manuscript?”

Then, after your name and contact info, paste in the first page or so of the novel. Do not attach it, as that will freak people out about viruses. Also, be sure to check your formatting, since email can screw that up, and manually insert line-breaks to double-space.

Finally, make sure that you end on a minor cliffhanger, something interesting.

The idea is simple. The agent has just read your brief and compelling query letter. They’re intrigued. It’s the easiest thing in the world to scroll down and read a little more — and then, because your first page is dynamite (right?), hopefully intrigued upshifts to excited. Simple as that.

Marcus ends up by saying a great query letter is not written in a day. Just like our manuscripts, it needs to be written and rewritten. We should have it critiqued and checked for anything that sticks out, like spelling or vague sentences. And it should reflect your writing style.

If you need some help with your story summation, post it in the comments and we'll help you with it.

Next time, we'll talk about one pages. That's kind of like a query letter, but you can be more artistic with it. If you're planning to attend a writer's conference, you'll want to have a one sheet with you.