My first book or two had already been published before I began to study in any real depth how a query letter should work. I was lucky – a friend’s editor picked up my first two manuscripts, unagented. That still happens occasionally, but in the years that followed those first books, I’ve been paying a lot more attention to what makes a good query.
The query represents a turning point in the way you think about your project. It’s where your work of art becomes a commodity and where your passion morphs into a business. Query-writing is such a valuable process that even if I were to self-publish, I’d take the time to develop a query to myself as the first step in the promotional process.
When I first began writing queries, I followed the usual formula - why I’m writing, what my project is, who I am – and I didn’t put a lot of time or energy into it. With an ever-tightening market, I spend more time now crafting my queries. I treat them like mini-manuscripts, prewriting and drafting and letting them sit and doing multiple revisions. I pay a lot of attention to my audience and to figuring out what my project is really about, and I make sure my unique voice shines in the letter.
These days emerging writers seem to focus most of their attention on the one or two sentence “elevator pitch” and then build their query around it. I find this backwards. Any project, even a lame one, can be reduced to a sentence or two rattled off on the fly. If you take the time to produce a finely-crafted query, you’ll have all the content and confidence you need to pitch your project to any agent you happen to meet in an elevator.
Though it may sound odd, I often draft the book pitching part of my queries in the early stages of my projects, as soon as I feel them beginning to take shape. Even though it will most certainly change, I find it helpful to consider how a project will appear to potential publishers and readers, in the form of back cover copy, which is how I think of the pitch line or lines.
Despite the grumbling you hear (possibly even from me), placing your manuscript is not a crap shoot or a numbers game. It’s about knowing your book through and through and understanding enough about the market to know where it fits, and it’s about the project earning your conviction that it absolutely must reach its readers.
There’s all sorts of query advice floating around, but the best I’ve found is in a slim little volume called The Last Query by Cindy Dyson. I bought this book not so much because I was intent on mastering the query but because I love Cindy and her writing, and I appreciate the way she engages with and gives back to the literary community. As it turns out The Last Query not only offers great advice but is also a fine example of the type of project that lends itself to self-publishing even though the writer has already published traditionally: a viable topic, a knowledgeable author, and a niche market.
Dyson approaches queries from the agent’s perspective. What will make yours stand out among hundreds and thousands that all follow the same formula? We all like to think our projects are entirely unique, when in truth they’re not nearly as special as we imagine. That’s not to say they’re not worthy of publication, only that we must work hard to figure out how to help our target audience – first the agent, then the publisher and then readers - understand that they MUST have this book.
Consider the fears and desires of agents, Dyson suggests. Ask yourself significant questions about your project, things you might not have considered before, like the metaphorical highlights and the soul of the story. Examine yourself as a writer, including what Dyson calls the “sexy hooks” of your life.
In one succinct, powerful page, the good query merges your best writing with target marketing. In the good query, you leap not just with your best foot forward but with both feet from art into business, a move so smoothly executed that no one will be able to distinguish between them.