8 Ways Not to Screw Up Your Query Letter

angry-computer-guySo I’m hanging out this morning with several professionals in the publishing and writing industries, after almost two weeks of doing the same. We’re all raging against the obvious mistakes people make before sending a query letter to an agent or editor.

For publishers, agents and editors it’s just a part of the job. They’re inundated with unprofessional queries by people who obviously didn’t bother to Google either how to query or even the most basic facts about their publication. The only good news in this situation is the letters do mean they can ignore the query quickly and spend less time in the slush pile on that particular day.

Professional writers, we rail against how that misrepresents us. For every terrible, terrible query letter an agent receives, that agent becomes a little more hardened against queries from good writers who do the proper research. The only good news in this situation is it does mean we stand out against the crowd if the editor gives us a chance to prove ourselves.

Over the course of many conversations in various states of inebriation and sobriety, I found common threads for the nine best ways to avoid screwing this essential task up.

1. Don’t miss basic facts. 

Don’t query a science fiction magazine with a detective story. Don’t email a nonfiction agent with your epic fantasy novel. Don’t get the name wrong in your greeting, or misspell the name of the magazine. Don’t lie and say you’ve loved somebody’s work for 20 years when he started editing last month. Get your facts straight. If you’re not sure of your facts, get sure of your facts. If you can’t find the information, find a way to avoid bringing it up.

2. Keep it simple, stupid.

The average time an agent or editor gives an unsolicited query is under a minute. One agent I talked to burns through 100-120 book queries an hour when buckling down and getting to work. A long, complex description of your work, and process, and emotional state ain’t gonna fly here. Aim for terse sentences in short paragraphs in a letter nobody has to scroll down on to get all the important details.

Rachel: 

3. Remember who’s doing who a favor here. 

Yes, you and your agent or editor are in a symbiotic relationship. Yes, you are peers and equals in most senses. But you’re the one sending somebody else unsolicited sales material. Be polite. Several of the folks I talked with ranted at some length about how frequently the initial queries (and especially follow up communication) read like a missive from a spoiled preteen who wrote Santa a flamer over not getting everything on his Christmas list. Seriously. Be nice. Just. Be. Nice.

4. Spellcheck.

If you think you’re going to impress an agent or editor with your writing skills without proofreading your email, you are wrong. There’s not much more to say about this.

5. Grammar check.

If you think you’re going to impress an agent or editor with your writing skills without proofreading your email, you are wrong. There’s not much more to say about this, either.

6. Follow the damn rules.

Almost every publication or agency has a page on their website telling you exactly how they want to be queries. Almost every publication or agency has a method that’s slightly different from all the other publications and agencies. That’s just life. When you query, read and follow those instructions to the letter. Some places use it as a test to see who’s going to be reasonably easy to work with. Others might let it slide if you miss a trick or two, but why be rude about it? It’s their house. Follow their rules.

7. Understand the process.

Failing to understand the basic process of publication mystifies me. If you want to go flip burgers at McDonald’s, you’ll know the basics of what hamburgers are and how they’re made before walking in. If you want to be a neurosurgeon, you won’t apply for work until you’ve mastered the skill. I was shown some query letters from people who obviously didn’t understand what agents or editors actually do, or how long things take, or what reasonable payment for a book or article even looks like. On one hand, I feel a little bad for folks who make this mistake. Everybody has one or two things where they’re so clueless they don’t realize how clueless they are. But if you want to get published, don’t make this one of those things.

8. Now is not the time to show off.

Even if your work is an avant garde piece of noneuclidean sentence structure held together with multiple, colorful fonts in a truly cohesive whole, never apply that to your query. Do not play with fun tense structures or flowery language. Save that for your book or article. Agents, publishers and editors are exhausted, overworked and undercoffeed. Make your query easy to understand. Always.

QUERY_Op

 

Do you have any embarrassing stories about how you fucked up a query letter? Or a screwed up query letter you received? Share your tales in the comments and tell us all where the bad words touched you.

Goal Setting 101

Business Writing CoachIn my career as a business writing coach and a coach about the business of writing, I’ve come across some interesting statistics about setting goals:

  • 78% of Americans wish they were more productive
  • People who set goals are 13% more productive than those who don’t
  • People who write down their goals are 1000% as productive as those who don’t

And perhaps most interesting…

  • Only 4% of Americans explicitly define and write down their goals. 

Short version? Setting goals is important. Writing them down is even more important. Writing them down in a way that helps you meet them is even more important than that. Here are three key rules to doing just that.

Have Perspective

Dave Kovar, a mentor and hero of mine, once told me that most people set their short-term goals to large and their long-term goals too small.

In the short term, we fall into a cycle of excitement. When we set goals, we’re excited and motivated. We feel full of energy and we’re usually in a space where we have a little extra time (otherwise we wouldn’t be taking time to examine our goals, we’d be working on other projects). The end result is overcommitting on our short-term goals. We promise ourselves we’ll write ten new books in three months, lose 10 pounds a week, build a whole second story onto the house, and other impossible tasks.

The result of promising ourselves the impossible is failing to keep those promises. We only write two books, only lose 1 pound a week, only buy the lumber for the home improvement project. Because the realities of our time, attention, and energy mean our excited and inspired goals were unrealistic.

After a couple of repetitions, we become discouraged about our ability to meet goals at all.  After all, we failed to accomplish the goals we set. That leads to the second half of this problem.

In the long term, we lose sight of the power of doing small things every day over time. Remember: if you write a page a day, you’ll have a complete novel in one year. Another mentor of mine, Tom Callos, has made me do 55,000 pushups and run 1,000 miles per year for a total of three years. That’s possible because I don’t try to do it all in the first month. I spread the load out over an entire year, making the task manageable.

You can still write ten books, lose 50 pounds, build a whole new wing on your house. You just have to make realistic space for it in your timeline.

When you set goals for your writing, keep both of these common mistakes in mind and review your plan to make sure you avoid them. With my business writing coaching clients, it’s part of the process.

Use SMART Goalsetting

smart goal setting for business writing coach You’ll find different definitions of the SMART acronym for goal-setting, but this is my favorite for the small businesses that most writing operations are.

SMART goals are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-Bound.

This rule helps you to form and express your goals in a way that makes them more likely to actually turn them into reality.

 

  • Specific goals clearly define what success looks like using unambiguous language and exact detail. If you can’t attach a number to it somewhere, your goal probably isn’t specific enough.
  • Measurable goals attach definitions, and metrics whenever possible, to make it clear when progress is being made. If you can’t track your progress on a spreadsheet, it isn’t sufficiently measurable.
  • Achievable goals are possible to complete with the time and resources available. This pings back to the issue I mentioned above. If you find you’re stressing out about getting it done week after week, you might want to retool and make it more achievable.
  • Relevant goals are checked to make sure that the success condition actually brings you closer to your definition of success. They’re also relevant to your emotional motivation. If the end result doesn’t get you excited, it’s likely not relevant enough.
  • Time-Bound goals set a finish date, with large goals setting benchmarks for defined points of partial completion. If you lack a deadline, your goal is not time-bound.

Bad Example: “Be more active on social media”

Good Example: “Post ten times each week on Google+ for the next three months.”

One point about how the good example is achievable. Note how it says “post ten times each week” instead of “post twice every day.” The reason for that is you’re going to have a bad day at least once in the next quarter. If you promise yourself you’ll post every day, you have failed in your goal when that bad day happens and you don’t post. Promising ten posts a week means you can double up your posts the day after something goes wrong.

Outsource Accountability

You can set all the goals in the world, but if you don’t actually do the work on them you won’t achieve anything. A (very) few of us are put-together enough to actually hold ourselves accountable to our progress toward goals every day.

I’m not one of those people. If you’re not, what I recommend is finding out outside source to hold you accountable in the grind. A few I’ve tried, or heard worked for others:

  • Find peer to meet with once a week, and to harass and be harassed by daily via text or social media. If you run a small business, find another small business owner. If you’re a stay-at-home parent working on a novel, find a buddy in a similar situation.
  • A few apps exist that are basically role-playing games that give you experience and items for completing your daily goals. Assuming you don’t lie to the program, these are surprisingly motivating for many people.
  • Create — or join — a Facebook group where people share and hold one another accountable to their goals. I have one right here, and you’re welcome to join us. You can also just post your goals on your general feed and use the pressure of potential embarrassment to push you forward.
  • You can also hire a coach to keep you moving toward your goals. It’s more expensive than these other options, but can also be well worth the investment.

What are your experiences with, advice about, best successes, and cautionary tales about goalsetting?

 

 

On Cooters and Snowflakes

The last time I got political on my blog, I talked about how Vanilla Ice ruined it for everybody. That was in response to conversations over Facebook way.

With the recent tragedies and the general further entrenchment of political partisanship, I wanted to come to everybody with an important request:

Please stop being so mean to one another.

No. For serious. Knock that shit off. It’s bad for you. It’s bad for our country. It’s bad for the world. Hell, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that it’s bad for kids who like not dying during an otherwise normal school day.

There’s a lot of good in the US of A. And there’s a lot of bad. We can waste time arguing about how much bad we have as opposed to other nations of the world, and we can waste time pointing fingers at people and things over which we have no control. Or we can roll up our sleeves and get to work on fixing it.

And to do that, we need to stop othering people who disagree with us a little. To do that, we need to talk about cooters and snowflakes.

The Great American Bell Curve

You know bell curves, right? They’re diagrams of statistical probability that look like a bell — thusly:

Writing advice

The idea here is that most of the results of a study will fall in those middle two sections around the center (within one standard deviation). As you go further out, the number of people/objects/results drops sharply. The bell curve doesn’t map exactly to every set of results every time, but it shows up a lot. It’s about as common as the golden ratio, and about as important in statistics as the ratio is in art and biology.

And Thus it Is With Politics

In the good ol’ US of A (and in other countries, I imagine) political opinions fall on a bell curve, too:

In the middle, more than 70% of us fall just a little to the left or right of center. We agree on most things and want the same results. We differ a bit on how to achieve those results, and different things make us a little uncomfortable, but by and large we can have dinner together without anybody getting angry at anybody else.

On the far ends — out past three standard deviations — we have extremists. These are the people shooting cops because they’re mad about their treatment of minorities, and the people running over protesters. They’re blowing up abortion clinics and spiking trees. We all agree those people are dangerous and wrong, and that law enforcement should deal with them directly. Even the ones where we can kind of empathize with why they’re doing the stuff we can’t allow them to do.

The technical term for the grouping between two and three standard deviations is assholes. Here you have your MRA activists, your anarchists.  The Westboro Baptist Church and Earth First!ers. Nazis. That woman at the office who’s gotten three people fired for telling jokes that weren’t actually offensive. That conservative who calls people cucks on the internet, and that liberal who cries “mansplaining” when she’s actually just wrong. They’re not violent. You can’t actually just slap them, no matter how much you want to. But lordy, do you want to slap the ones on the opposite side of the center from you…and you want the ones on your side to please stop helping because they embarrass us all.

Which Brings Us to the Cooters and the Snowflakes

Out between one and two standard deviations from the center, we encounter interesting territory. I’m using slightly derogatory terms for each, but you’ll notice they’re also terms each side has sort of adopted as badges of honor, too. That’s both beautiful and part of the problem.

On the right, you have your cooters. They’re not just conservative. They’re reactionary in their conservatism. They voted for Trump and aren’t regretting it. They’re deeply concerned about gay marriage ruining relationships, and whether or not that one dude in the men’s room actually has a penis. They share memes on FB that start with “Liberal Logic…” A lot of them are just racist enough to not get certain things, but still realize racism is wrong enough to get really annoyed when you call them out.

On the left, you have your snowflakes. They’re not just liberal. They’re reactionary in their liberalism. A lot of them voted for Bernie even in the national election, and they all think you’re a sexist if you didn’t vote for Hillary. They find nothing ironic in demanding free speech while simultaneously telling you to shut up because your opinions hurt their feelings. They share memes on FB that set up straw man conservative arguments just so they can feel smarter than people they don’t understand. A lot of them are just self-righteous enough to advocate violence against people they disagree with, but still realize violence is wrong enough to get really annoyed when you call them out.

I think we can all agree that these folks aren’t exactly a crisis, but they are really, really obnoxious. And they can be dangerous.

How Cooters and Snowflakes Are Killing Children

Here’s the thing about cooters and snowflakes. They aren’t assholes, and they sure aren’t extremists, so we tend to let them slide. Besides, they’re on our team so we should support them, right?

Right?

Nope. But then again sort of.

If you are conservative, the trouble with cooters is that they share some of your common values — they just take it a little too far. And research shows that if you spend enough time listening to them, they’ll start dragging you into cooter territory with them. The same goes for snowflakes if you’re a liberal. Spend enough time with them and you’ll start taking your Rage Against the Machine lyrics a little too seriously, too.

But wait! That’s not all!

If you’re liberal, the trouble with cooters is they’re so loud and irritating that they start making you think all those centrists just a bit to the right of you are all cooters, too. Their loud, insistent inanities color your opinion of all conservatives and all conservative ideas. At the same time the snowflakes are gradually pulling you into their camp, the cooters are pushing you there with every “Make America Great Again,” every #AllLivesMatter, every confederate license plate, every quote from Jordan Peterson or Amiri King.

If you’re conservative, those snowflakes are whining and condescending their way right toward making you a cooter for life. Their entitled bullshit colors every left-of-center opinion you read, makes you dismissive  of all liberals and liberal ideas. While the cooters are tempting you toward the dark side, the snowflakes are driving you further right with every smug hashtag, every snide Trump bash, every poorly researched meme, every quote from Jesse Jackson or Al Franken.

In short, they make us forget that nearly three-quarters of us more or less agree on how we want to live, how we want our nation to work, and how people should treat other people.

Okay. So What Do We Do About It?

Well, really, you should do whatever you want to do. It’s a free country. But if you agree with my basic thesis:

  • Most of us agree on most things, most of the times
  • The extremists and assholes on both ends are a problem
  • We spend too much time paying attention to the loudest and most irritating on both sides

Then here’s what some experts suggest we all do. It’s a two-part plan.

Part One: read with compassion and openness the cooters (if you’re liberal) and the snowflakes (if you’re conservative). Ask questions. Find not just what they’re thinking, but why they’re thinking it. Most times, you’ll find a core of agreement in principle — it’s just the application where you have trouble. This not only helps you stay close to center, it can influence them and bring them closer to productive conversation.

Part Two: police the hell out of your side. If you’re conservative, stop being so nice to the cooters. Call them out. Fact-check their memes. Force them to defend their more backward notions. If you’re liberal, stop tolerating the snowflakes. Point out their hypocrisies and their arrogance.  Remind them that lack of compassion is no solution to lack of compassion in others.

In my opinion, the biggest problem with the United States is that the table for open, meaningful, and productive debate is getting emptier by the month. People are leaving it in favor of little sitting rooms where they gossip amongst each other about how terrible the people over in that other room are.

If there’s nobody at the table, we will never find a solution for school shootings, nor for health care, nor for fair but sustainable immigration, nor for the environment, the income gap, the vestiges of racism and sexism. We will never solve anything, because nobody’s there to create solutions.

It’s not the extremists and the assholes who are keeping us away. It’s the cooters and the snowflakes. So let’s stop putting up with them.

Who’s with me?

On Sex and Violence

Sex and violence.

These are a few of my favorite things.

In movies. In books. In life (though my violence is consensual these days, limited to martial arts sparring and competition).

Sex and violence are core parts of the human experience, two of the things that drive us the hardest because of how evolution and survival work. On one hand, we have the drive to make more of us. On the other, we have the drive to defend what’s ours and who we love (or to make more things ours, though society frowns on that).

They seem so different. One is a way for two (or more) people to express fondness, love, affection, attraction, or simple naked lust. The other is a way for two (or more) people to express derision, contempt, hatred, anger, or simple naked aggression.

But they’re not different.

Both come from basic drives that have been with us since before homo sapiens was a thing. Both are intensely physical and emotional acts. Both carry with them real risk of pain — physical, mental and/or emotional.

What’s more, both are tests.

As our species was growing up, life was full of tests: opportunities to see how strong, how fast, how smart, how empathic, how (fill in the blank) we were. If we passed the test, we lived. If we failed, we died — or at least we missed an opportunity to make surviving the next test easier.

Our intelligence and technology have insulated us from tests. Most of what we do in a day is just a matter between different gradients of pretty all right.

We no longer have to strive.

But with sex and violence, we’re back in that test. In both cases, we put our best foot forward. We use skills and attributes we’ve developed over years and we see what happens next. With violence, walking away means we passed the test. With sex, I don’t need to go into detail.

Either way, we do our utmost, what happens next happens, and we succeed or fail in real and unmitigated terms.

I believe strongly that’s why sex and violence are such powerful forces in our fiction. They dominate the news, the movies, our literature, our mythology. They dominate our history.

And Yet…

There’s a whole lot of bad sex and violence in our fiction.

Here I don’t mean sex and violence happening for the wrong reasons on-screen. That’s a whole different puddle of fluids, related but not core to the problem.

I mean sex and violence executed poorly. And that’s what I want to talk about with everybody today.

Bad Sex

Writing Sex and Violence WellBad sex is like the worst porn. It’s all about tab A inserted into slot B, along with all kinds of overreactions to the tabbing and the slotting.  It’s mechanical. In actual porn, it’s totally meaningless. In sex scenes within a legitimate manuscript, it’s a few uncomfortable pages that don’t fulfill any narrative function.

Actually, come to think of it, that’s true of bad sex in real life. A meaningless one-night stand can be entertaining, but unless it has a real place in the narrative of your life, it’s not as good as something that matters fundamentally to you.

The Worst Violence

Bad violence is much the same. It’s described in terms of what each combatant does, in an almost clinical and detached way. It exists for its own sake, even though at least one of the characters involved could have avoided the whole things by exercising an ounce of good sense.

I blame tabletop roleplaying for the blow-by-blow description problem. A lot of writers got their narrative starts playing D&D and similar games (myself among them). The structure of combat in those games is a blow-by-blow series of turns, and not all writers have graduated out of that framework.

As for the violence divorced of sense and context, it’s just like the sex. Because our society (and the audience) glorifies violence, it gets put in where it doesn’t need to be, or expanded into 20 minutes on-screen when 5 would have done it.

The Good Stuff

We’ve all seen porn and combat porn — movies and books where the sex and fight scenes are long, drawn out, luxurious, and without meaningful context. Those are pretty experiences sometimes, but they’re never the experience you get when sex and violence are executed well.

Thing is, when we write sex and violence, we need to focus less on the physical goings on and instead focus on what makes that particular act of sex or violence meaningful.

It’s not the shagging or the smacking that’s important here. It’s the emotional impact and consequences of both. Those things should be absolutely clear during the f-word you’re describing (whichever word beginning with f that applies).

For Example

Remember in Terminator when Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese get together in that hotel room? Remember how it was slightly too long to comfortably watch with your parents? But remember how it was touching because we’d seen it coming, and it came after Kyle confessing he’d loved her from the future for much of his life? And how it gave us the twist ending that made the movie so good?

That’s good sex. It wasn’t particularly graphic or acrobatic or interesting (the sex itself), but the context and consequences were real, and immediate, and important.

You don’t even need to have sex to make a sex or love scene have power and importance. In my YA book Wrestling Demons, the protagonist and his girlfriend have a make-out session in her car, parked outside an apartment they both know is empty. Sex doesn’t even happen, but the kissing (around a painful broken nose) and the potential is there. And the context and consequences are (I think) plain on the page.

And that makes it far more interesting than watching a housewife shag a pizza boy, or reading about James Bond’s latest conquest.

There’s Nothing Wrong With Enjoying Porn

Whether that’s actual sex porn, or the kind of fight porn you see in the some genres of martial arts and action movies. I love The Raid and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon for instance. And you have your favorites, too.

But when we’re writing, we should aim for more than a graphic depiction of physical acts between two human beings.

We should aim for scenes of action (either kind, or both at once), with power, importance, consequences, and context. Because that’s what makes sex and violence great.

Query Letters Made Easy

Be a working freelance writer for a decade, and you end up writing a lot of query letters. Do a lot of anything, and you get pretty good at doing them.

I’ve also had a lot of people ask me how to write one. I’ve put the info in one of my books, done entire classes on the topic, and sent countless friends and acquaintances an email detailing my Best Ever Query Letter.

This query letter isn’t perfect, but it’s worked for me over the years. My lovely and talented literary agent wife has fine-tuned it based on her experience and that of her colleagues. My buddy David Paul Williams, another pro writer expert in querying, put it in his book as an example of how to do it right.

So here, for chrishannukwanzalsticeyule for you all, is the concept and template for a pretty darn good query letter.

Three Paragraphs, Plus One

The first thing to remember about query letters is editors, agents, and publishers are really, really, really tired of reading query letters. Anything long or hard to read will be greeted with deep suspicion, or deleted without any meaningful attention.

Make it short. Make it tight. Three paragraphs, plus one.

The second thing to remember about query letters is nobody cares about your book or article. Nobody. Not me. Not your friends. Not your mom. A few people care about you, but that’s not the same thing. You know who else doesn’t care about your book? Everyone you query.

So we lead with talking about something they do care about: themselves. Details on that in a minute.

Our three paragraphs are:

  1. You people are awesome
  2. I have this awesome idea
  3. I am also awesome.

Got that? Good.

Paragraph One: You People are Awesome

Remember how I said the person reading your query doesn’t care about your book, article, story, whatever? It’s a sad truth of the industry. They might even be mildly hostile toward your work on account of being so sick of reading queries.

That’s why we open with a paragraph describing why the publication or agency you’re querying is simply awesome. Talk about things they’ve published that you read and loved (especially if they dovetail with your project). Talk about what’s happened in the news, or something recent they’ve done. Make a personal connection if you have things in common with the person who’ll be reading the email.

For example:

I’ve been reading DRAFT magazine since I first saw it at a brew supply shop in 2011. I especially love your how-to articles, but my favorite was your coverage of the beer culture at Astoria’s Fisher Poet’s Gathering in your February 2016 issue. 

Another Example:

The Leonidas Agency represents several of my favorite authors, including Dave Robicheaux, Matthew Scudder, and Andrew Wiggin. As all three have inspired and influenced my own work, I would be honored for you to consider my humble efforts for representation. 

Note that these paragraphs are each two sentences long. Two. You might be able to get away with three, or four if you write short sentences. This paragraph has two purposes.

  1. Get the reader’s attention by talking about them, which is something they care about more than they care about you.
  2. Demonstrate that you’ve had the courtesy to research them, instead of just spamming your query out to everybody with an email address.

That second point is super important. You’re asking for free labor (in the form of reading your query) and potentially buying your work. Never do that in any industry without first learning a bit about who you’re asking the favor of.

Once you’ve written it, reread for every word that doesn’t serve both of those purposes. Delete them where you find them.

Paragraph Two: I Have This Awesome Idea

Now that you’ve finished the foreplay, it’s time to get on to the action. In this (super-brief) paragraph, you tell them about the work you want to see published.

This is not where you give a long synopsis or loving treatment of your manuscript. Give just enough information to inspire curiosity and enable an informed decision. If they want to know more, they will ask.

Example:

I already have a press pass for the Central Valley Brew Festival next month. I would love to cover the event for DRAFT magazine, specifically interviewing brewmasters about the challenges, tools, and tricks for handling/brewing/serving beer in an outdoor venue. 

Another Example:

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is a 70,000-word, comedic adult adventure novel starring Max Farkas and Luis Grant. The two ne’er-do-wells are called in by a cop who used to harass them, to help solve the murder of a prostitute all three cared about. This explosive mixture of humor and violence has been described as Tarantino directs The Hangover.

See how both give enough information for the reader to make a decision, but don’t waste their time? That’s what you’re aiming for in the second paragraph. Cut everything extraneous ruthlessly.

Sometimes for article queries, I’ll include a bullet-point list of the structure I imagine I will use. This breaks up the email and pulls the eyes to the most important part. It’s fine if you do that, but only if you’re doing it for clarity and convenience. Not as a sneaky way of making the paragraph longer.

Paragraph Three: I Am Also Awesome

The purpose of this third paragraph is to convince your target that you are highly qualified to execute the idea you sold them in paragraph two. In the best possible situation, you will set yourself up as uniquely qualified.

Using no more than four sentences, describe your experience with the topic and your writing credentials. Be quick and snappy. Do not list your whole CV: just the highlights will do fine. Use numbers if you have them.

Example:

As a local beer writer, I have personal contacts and friendships with many of the brewers in attendance. You can find my beer work in The Portland Growler, Northwest Travel, and online at cheapflights.com. I have over 3,000 journalistic credits to my name on other topics as well, including a feature article in Conde Nast Traveller.

Another Example:

Other Max and Luie adventures have sold over 5,000 copies in novella form, and have a mailing list of 12,000 subscribers. I’ve been traditionally published with Not a Pipe in the YA genre, and have five self-published books on Amazon bestseller lists. I also do freelance journalism and ghostwriting to help support my fiction habit. 

One error I see a lot here is authors waffling about how awesome they are. I get it. You don’t want to come off as cocky, and you don’t want to stretch the truth. Those are good impulses, but ignore them here. If your publication history includes one chapbook and your blog, it’s cool to say “I have professional print credit plus multiple online gigs to my name.”

Don’t lie. Never lie. But give enough information to inspire interest without volunteering things that mitigate your awesomeness.

The Plus One Paragraph: Goin’ Fishing

This paragraph has made me more than $10,000 over the course of my career. It’s not frequently recommended, which helps your query stand out. It works like this.

After the letter. After your closing. Add a PS that lists briefly something else you might want to work on with the reader.

Example:

PS: If that specific idea doesn’t fit DRAFT’s needs for covering the Festival, I’d be happy to chat with you about what might fit. DRAFT obviously needs to at least give the gig a nod, and I’ll be on site. 

Another Example:

PS: If you find you like my voice, but WTF isn’t a perfect fit, I’m putting the finishing touches on a romantic comedy set on a cruise ship during a diamond heist. Please don’t hesitate to ping me if that sounds like it’s more your speed. 

Connective Tissue

You will naturally also include an opening, a contact line, and a polite closing. That puts everything together with an appropriate bow.

  • For the opening get the name right. Don’t cheat and just use a generic opening, either. This goes to what I said earlier about having the courtesy to do a little research.
  • The contact line is one sentence after the third paragraph that says “if you want more, contact me thusly.”
  • Don’t overthink the closing. Say thank you. Hit Enter twice. Write your name.

Okay. Ready to see all of that in action?

Putting it All Together

Here’s one final example for you, with all the pieces and parts in a row. Check it for the things I said earlier, and if you want use it later as a template for your own query letters.

Dear John Q. Agent,

Running With the Devil inspired me so much when it came out five years ago that I took up ultramarathoning. I rapidly became addicted. As you represent John Daniels, I wanted to query you first about my own memoir on the topic.

The 7 Up Challenge is a 75,000 word memoir of my experiences training for and participating in the highest-altitude ultramarathons on each continent in the world. It’s part sports story, part travel memoir, and part fitness guide, all wrapped in the humor and strangeness of the international adventure sport community. Advance readers have described it as a cross between Into Thin Air and The Oatmeal’s series on distance running. 

Since you work with John, you probably already know several ultramarathoners, but it’s possible I’m the only one you’ve met who wrote scripts for National Geographic Television. My experience as a documentary writer makes me one of the best possible people to tackle this project, and my contacts in entertainment will help us promote the work once you find its perfect publishing home. 

Please don’t hesitate to contact me to move forward, or if you have any questions. Use the email address here, or call me at 503-334-9058. 

Thank you,

Jason Brick

PS: If you like the idea of working together, but 7-Up isn’t quite your pint of beer, I have a collection of travel dining essays on my to-do list. It collates blog posts I’ve made while travelling to run, some of which have gathered 10,000 unique total hits. 

And There You Have It

Put your information in that format and send it out. I can’t guarantee instant (or any) success. My rate on those is about 5%. But I can guarantee it will get your query more attention and better returns than many other formats out there.

Most importantly, having a template fights one cause of procrastination. You don’t have an excuse for not submitting your manuscript any longer.

You’re welcome. Now, get to work.