Literary Corner Cafe

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Writing Tips - How NOT to Write a Query Letter


The following aren’t from query letters that I’ve received, but are from query letters received from an agent who is a very good friend of mine and with whom I often work. They are used in this entry with her very gracious permission.

One has to wonder what in the world these would be authors were thinking when they wrote these letters to my friend. Unfortunately, this type of letter, believe it not, is all too commonly received by both agents and publishers.

So, the following excerpts below are definitely not anything you should include in a query letter:

This action/adventure novel is about a dark military program which takes a top navy seal and replaces the lower part of his brain with parts cloned from the DNA of a tiger!

The author didn’t even capitalize “Navy Seal.” This leads us to some very strange thoughts about the story, indeed.

A man angry at his company which has robbed him of his retirement funds makes neckties that constrict on their own. He seeks his revenge on the whole society by a series of murders where the ties do the choking for him. Such is the plot of Haunted Neckties.

Yes, this is verbatim, from a query letter actually received by Jodi (friend).

This riveting and bittersweet story deals with loneliness, love, betrayal, sexual desire, child abuse, suicide, sexual identity, fear of insanity, eating disorders, sexual assault, molestation, delusional behavior, multiple personality and murder. The manuscript will frighten, amuse, disturb you but still leave you with a good feeling.

Apparently, this writer decided to cover all the bases, which isn’t really a good idea. Your work needs to be focused.

This is at once a gay love story, a plea for handicapped liberation and a sanguine tale of greed, murder and revenge. My pen name is necessary because the narrative’s explicit depictions of incontinence management and gay sex could arouse the interest of the culture police.

Words fail me on this one.

Jodi says would be writers really shoot themselves in the foot when writing queries for mysteries, suspense, and thrillers. Instead of coming up with fresh ideas, says Jodi, they bury agents and publishers in advertising words. I agree. These, she says, are examples of queries she hopes you never write:

Corporate espionage. Now. A field office with ex-agents, remnants of the Cold War who span the globe from San Francisco to the former USSR. A race against the clock by Emily who must discover the true inner self stripped from her by unknown forces.

A young Madison Avenue’s aberrant lust for obscene personal wealth. A seasonal corporate entrepreneur who revels in a twisted code of ethics. A bizarre entourage of greedy Wall Street parasites. A caring, loving family swept along for the ride.

A fat and happy United States, unaware a conspiracy spawned in the aftermath of Watergate is about to achieve its goal as public servants subservient to a secret Council placed in powerful positions plot the assassination of the president-elect.

Former PI Jimmy Gates wants to sail off into the sunset but his ex-wife, drag queens, nanotechnology 20 years ahead of current science, a mad scientist and love conspires to keep him tied to the dock.

Then, there’s the desperate writer who tries for our sympathy. He or she may win our sympathy, but with letters like these, there’s nothing we can do to help him or her become a published writer.

I know there are rules for query letters like this and I apologize right here and now for not following them. My original plan was to write a full five chapters of perfect coherence but that plan went out the window about two hours ago when I threw up my hands after hours of editing and realized there’s nothing more I can do. I’m at the end of some sort of rope here. There’s a voice in the words I am enclosing and I hope you can find it.

Would you like to read a good novel? I hope so because I’ve written one. I’d like to send it to you, no strings attached, all of it or part of it or as much or as little of it as you like, with more than none of it, in any case, and I enclose a SASE so you can indicate your preference, though I’m afraid your preference will be for none of it but what the hell, I have to make the effort, don’t I, and what do you have to lose except a little time and effort and really, reading it is no effort and you never really know, do you?

The one thing that stands out more than any other in the two letters above, other than desperation, is the fact that the author failed to state what his/her book was about. A query letter filled with generalities is doomed from the very start. From the first word.

It's next to impossible to sell a ms. from a writer with no publishing credits. If you're one, you're going to have to write a query letter that not only follows all the rules, but really shines.

I always advise writers to write some superlative short stories and get them published before attempting a novel. Or, if the short story is something they simply can't master (and it is more difficult than the novel), it's wise to try a small publishing house, one that deals with very specialized material. For example, John F. Blair Publishing deals only with material set in South Carolina. You won't make much money dealing with very small houses, maybe less that $1000, and you'll have to do most of your publicity at your own expense, but you will be a published author.

Good luck, and please avoid the examples above in your query letters.

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