Every once in a while, people ask me for advice1 (about writing, almost no one asks me for any other sorts of advice) and I try to answer, but when I do, I always feel a bit like a fraud. I feel, actually, like someone who filled in the numbers on a lottery form and then won the lottery and am now sitting back and saying, "Well, first of all, you MUST use a #2 HB pencil. Then fill -- NOT QUITE -- all the way to the edge. Use your left hand."
It's all sort of a crapshoot, except it isn't really. If you've written a good, sellable book, it will probably find a home, maybe in spite of your query letter, but certainly not solely BECAUSE of it. What happens if you write an absolutely, knock you on your ass, brilliant, wonderful query letter -- THE QUERY LETTER THAT DEFINES ALL FUTURE QUERY LETTERS FOR GENERATIONS OF WRITERS -- and your novel itself is a bit crap?
It's not going to sell.
I watch people (not in a creepy, stalker-ish way, but metaphorically) laboring over these things and I really want to ask if they spent as long on the middle-section of their novel.2
That said, YES, I can tell you how to write a query letter, or at least how I've written my query letters, although I didn't use a timer, it just struck me as a good tool. You know, for YOU.
HOW TO WRITE A PERFECTLY DECENT QUERY LETTER IN 10 EASY STEPS.
1. Remind yourself that apart from the agent/editor you are sending it to, no one is going to see this thing. Ever.3 Therefore, you do not need to spend twelve weeks of your life obsessing over it and perfecting it. That time should be spent on your BOOK. In fact, get up. Go over to the microwave and set the timer part for sixty minutes. Do not think or obsess over this letter for longer than that sixty minutes. I can almost guarantee at this point that you are over-thinking it and nothing wrecks a query letter more thoroughly than an over-think.
2. OK, now we're going to write this thing. Ready?
3. Write the words Dear [ ]. In between those square brackets, put the name of the person you are writing to and spell it correctly. Not their first name -- you do not know this person -- but Ms. ____ or Mr._____. You can't go wrong by being TOO respectful, but you can, in fact, go wrong by being not respectful enough. (Don't actually put in the square brackets. Those were just for show.)
4. You know what your book is about, right? Write it down. In ten sentences or less. Preferably less. Do not use the following: adverbs; adjectives; strange stilted language that you think sounds formal but really looks like it was poorly translated from Olde English. Use your natural voice. If you have to think what your natural voice IS then you might need to take another look at that novel before you send it out.
5. Re-read what you just wrote and delete half of it and rewrite the rest in a way that is makes it sound less like you're talking with your jaw wired shut using a fake English accent. Then re-read THAT and make sure that you remembered to actually describe the exciting action of the book and not just a vague character description and setting. It IS actually OK to give away the ending in this section because you are selling your entire book to an agent/editor, not trying to surprise them. And for the love of God, do not use rhetorical questions because whoever is on the receiving end of your letter will see those rhetorical questions and be forced to repeatedly punch themselves in the eye. This is why so many agents and editors wear sunglasses. TRUE FACT.4
7. Check the time. This should probably have taken no more than half an hour. If it did, you are probably in grave danger of over-thinking. You don't want to do that. I'm only half-serious about the timing of this, by the way. But that half is GRAVELY SERIOUS and DOES NOT WANT TO BE MESSED WITH. The other half is thinking that spending more than an hour wouldn't kill you now, would it?
8. Write a paragraph that talks about who you are. In this paragraph, do NOT list the things you are NOT. As in, do not say, "I have never written a book before." "I am completely unpublished." "I do not know what I am doing." Go back through this paragraph when you are done and cross out all the sentences in which you used "NOT" or words that begin with "UN". (I just told you not to write those and you decided to do it anyway. Think about what this says about YOU. I'm pretty sure it says, "I like to ask for advice and then ignore it." Which is OK. I do that, too. This attitude is not helping your query letter sing, however.) This should all be short and clean. I don't want to give away the ending, but the key to this whole exercise is SHORT and CLEAN.
9. If the book is somehow made unique by your you-ness, add a bit that describes why. "I am uniquely qualified to write this book because _____." If you do not have a uniqueness paragraph, don't try to conjure one up because it will just be weird and awkward. Now add another bit about how/why you are submitting to this agent/publisher, particularly if you have met him/her and want to jog his/her memory. Be careful here. You do not want to write, "My mom's friend's hairdresser's sister once babysat your kids!" or "When we were in highschool, I totally barfed on your purse at Jocko's grad party!" That's just embarrassing for everyone.5
10. Close with a paragraph that looks exactly like this, but with information germane to your book, not this made up one: "I AM THE SALAMI is a first person, middle-grade mystery, complete at 32,100 words. The first ten pages of the novel are attached as per your guidelines. I can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at 250-123-4567." Then add a "Yours sincerely,". Then your name. (Spell it right.) (In fact, spell EVERYTHING in your letter correctly. Yes, spelling DOES count.)
And you are DONE.
Easy, right? It just needs to be clean and simple and to be selling a good book, the good book that you've already written. It needs to NOT be overthought, overwrought, and overdone.
And that, my pretty peeps, is my advice to you. But remember what they say about advice:
Actually, never mind, I can't think of a good advice quote. But here is an advice SONG from which I stole the title of this blog post, which is even better.
1 I know, right? WHAT ARE THEY THINKING?
2 Most people kill themselves to polish the beginning and end of their novel, which leaves the middle sagging like an old mattress. Surprise! This actually matters MORE than your query letter.
3 Unless it ends up on SlushPileHell or the like. Which it won't, if you follow my advice.
4 TOTAL LIE.
5 I have written enough BAD query letters to know that this is so. If, after you hit send, you cringe inwardly and think, Why did I say THAT? It's probably time to change your name, move to a new state/country, and resubmit after you've also changed your entire novel into a new one in a different genre with different characters and a bright, new, different title.
6 If your e-mail address ends with aol.com, get a new one. If your e-mail address contains in it anywhere the number 69 or two (or more) x's in a row, get a new one and also ask yourself, WHAT WAS I THINKING? Then give yourself a sharp poke in the sensitive part of your foot with a blunt instrument.7 If your e-mail address does not actually contain your NAME, get a one that does. That's not even just advice. That's an ORDER.
7 Do not actually hurt your foot.