Q is for Query Letter

Hello, and welcome to the April A-Z Blogging Challenge! Over the first 26 days of April, we will explore aspects of writing and marketing books – authors, feel free to weigh in, and readers, feel free to observe and ask questions!



Wait wait wait, self-published authors come baaaaaack!

Excellent, thank  you. I know, some of you want nothing to do with querying agents and some of you are on the fence, and that’s okay. None of you actually have to query agents. Today, we’re just learning about query letters, because they have a surprising amount to teach us. We’re going to talk about query letters, and how the best time to write them (before not sending them?) may be as you’re just starting into your manuscript.

First ask yourself: what is a query letter? In a query letter, you detail who you are and why the agent should care (less useful if you’re not previously published, but very useful if you’re in non-fiction and need to show credentials), and what your book is about and why the agent should care. You have a few-sentence pitch that covers your story’s theme, maybe one or two events, its intended audience, and why it’s exciting. That’s a lot to pack in. It’s difficult.

A query letter is a way to sell yourself and your book to an agent.

Or, breaking it down further:

A query letter is a way to sell yourself and your book.

Okay, so … a traditionally published author (almost always) begins with a query letter, and if successful, that agent then expends her energy to sell the book to a publisher, who then expends their collective energy to edit it, print it, and (oh, right) put a multimillion dollar marketing machine behind it.But if a traditionally published author fails at knowing how to query, they don’t so much become a traditionally published author as an unpublished author, so why do the self-published authors care?

Because if a self-published author fails at knowing how to query (which is to say, make a short and snappy summary of their book), this is the first of many marketing failures. Because you’ll need that summary when you upload anyway. Because marketing takes a lot of time, and the last thing you want is to take a lot of time on marketing that doesn’t work. And while all of those are important reasons to know how to query, the most important one is, if you spend several hours working on a short, snappy pitch for your book and you can’t do it, you may have a focus problem with your book. And while traditionally published authors have this hurdle waiting for them from day one, self-published authors may not even realize there’s a problem until they’re staring at the upload page on their platform of choice.

See, now you know why I said you might want to try writing it at the start.

So, some things to consider for the story you’re writing at present…

  • Can you sum up the tone of the story in one word or phrase? (Light-hearted, whimsical, unflinching)
  • Can you tie the protagonist’s struggle into a larger issue? It could be something like slavery or prejudice, but it might simply be the universal desire for a meaningful human connection. Whatever it is, name it.
  • Do you know your protagonist’s inner issues?
  • Can you name the events of the story that propel the protagonist towards resolution of both internal and external issues?
  • What’s exciting, gripping, and/or new about the story?

Notice what this list does not identify: the end, and the high-level plot specifics. It can be modified fairly easily as your story shifts (because I don’t think I have ever talked to anyone whose novel stayed exactly as plotted), but what it will do is keep your story essentials clear to  you now, while you write. It will keep them clear to your potential readers later, when you upload, and it will keep them clear to your readers as they read and look for a sequel.

Take a few minutes. Try to write a query letter. If it was a breeze, well, take a few minutes of well-deserved happiness and bask in the knowledge that you’re doing great. If you’re at  a complete loss, the good news is that you now have a handy road-map for what may not be clear in your story. Hone in on where you got stuck (and maybe read yesterday’s post, too!). Clarify. Review what you have so far. Some things may thunk into place, and then you get to bask in that knowledge I mentioned at the start of the paragraph.

Good luck!

P.S. I’m not good at it, either. It makes me tear my hair out, too. Hang in there!

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