Monday, September 17, 2007

Telling Write From Wrong (Part 5)

How Do I Get A Monopoly On Query Letters?

Photograph copyright: DAVID McMAHON

Here's a great question from that lively blogger Goddess. She asks, ``A lot of publishers (magazines and novels) require a query letter before they'll even look at your stuff. So you have to basically sum up your whole novel or article in that letter, and that's intimidating to me. It's intimidating because I know that if I can't capture the essence of my work in that short letter, I can't pass GO or collect my $200. What info should be included? How should they be written? How long? Any info would be greatly appreciated.’’

So, how do you write a query letter to a publisher?

Righty-o, Goddess, let me put it this way. Imagine if Michelangelo sculpted that magnificent figure of David - and consigned it to an attic. We would never have seen that brilliant piece of work.

Similarly, a great piece of writing has to be given an audience. Don't let the prospect of writing a query letter intimidate you. Picture this scenario instead. Imagine you and I are sitting in a pub and I say to you, ``So what's this feature article/ short story/ novel about?''

You'd put down your beer (or slug it, depending on what time it is) and you'd tell me the gist of it. You'd do it easily, in about four or five sentences. But here’s another handy hint. If you can’t write a really short synopsis, just write whatever comes into your head. After a few hours, look at it again and shorten it. Once you are left with the essence of it and can’t shorten it any further, your job is done. (If you can’t do it, send me the synopsis and I’ll help you shorten it – I’m serious.)

Once this is complete, all you need to do is to email those four or five sentences to the publishers, with your details. They get so much stuff emailed to them that they want to know - in the shortest possible time frame - whether an essay, article, manuscript or series of novels is going to capture the imagination of the reading public.

Here's the truth. You have to capture the imagination of the publisher first. In all honesty, try and keep your email/ query letter short. It shouldn't be longer than one computer screen or a single sheet of A4 paper.

A publisher doesn't really want to know too much about you at this stage. So even if you are a descendant of Blackbeard the pirate or a great-granddaughter of James Barrie, don't bother with that sort of information.

They want to know about the story. Introduce yourself in one of two sentences and then give them a concise synopsis. No publisher is going to let a nugget slip through their hands. If they like what you've sent them, they will reply and ask for more details.

Hopefully you'll pass GO and collect $200 so many times that you will have houses and hotels on every property on the Monopoly board.

For earlier posts in this series, go to So You Feel Like You’ve Hit A Brick Wall?, Don't Drive Yourself Too Hard, Gotta Go With The Flow and Let Me Help You With That Book You're Writing.


Merisi said...

Thank you, David.
I might need your help one day. ;-)

david mcmahon said...

Hi Merisi,

It would be an honour to help.

Keep smiling


Pijush said...

Hi David,

This series is getting more interesting with your diverse thoughts. Keep posting.


david mcmahon said...

Hi Pijush,

Many thanks for your support and your kind words.

Will keep posting as long as there is interest from readers.

Good luck with your Bengali writing - those were great results, by the way. I'm in awe ....

Keep smiling


Anonymous said...

Well, David, I used to have a whole drawer filled with rejection slips for writing, cartooning and illustration. Under it was another drawer filled with ribbons, awards and plaques. And there is no other drawer filled with the check stubs I have from sold works. I never thought to put them or even save them. But therein is the problem all creative people face and we all go through it like a right of passage. Rejection before acceptance. My English teacher, when I was a sophomore in high school, announced in front of the class, "Abraham will never be a writer." I suppose I have more copyrights on published books of all kinds than the average writer and I often wonder if Mrs. Starr said that to simply motivate me.

I admired your message to this person and think it was good advice.

david mcmahon said...

G'day OldManLincoln,

I so need to meet you and spend a couple of days in your company, just soaking up your experience and your wisdom.

I'm sure we would have a great time. I would willingly become your apprentice.

I wonder about people like Mrs Starr - let's just choose to believe that she was an erudite woman who honestly tried to motivate you.

Sir, I salute you for your achievements and your amazing generosity.

Keep smiling


Mushy said...

Here are two questions:

1. I've sent my manuscript around and around and the because of the content I've told it would be best submitted as a screenplay. How do you do that and where should those be submitted?

2. I have a good basic story, but I realize it needs a lot of editing. Are there people that do that, or does a publishing company help with that if they like the story?

*Goddess* said...

Thanks for covering this subject, David. All this time, I thought the query letter had to be about four or five pages long, similar to an outline. Again, I'm really enjoying this series of articles from someone who has experienced it all.

Great picture tie-in, btw!

Skanky Jane said...

Great post, never even heard of a query letter before. I like the way you make things so accessible. When I was a kid I used to carry a notebook with me as I had begun writing my first novel. After a while I quit, thinking that I would write again when I was forty as I figured that, by then, I would have something to say. Well, I'm not sure I have more to say now that I am over the hill but who knows, with your practical assistance maybe I will put something together after all!

SJ xx

And thanks for stopping by again! All the visits you make - they must eat into your time - but boy are they appreciated!

Brian in Oxford said...

Those dice don't match. One has pointed corners, the other's are rounded. Is that your Monopoly set, David? And where's Mediterranean Avenue? :)

lime said...

your willingness to help folks synopsize is great. another fellow i read had me synopsize one of his things for a query letter after i beta read his manuscript. his synopsis was terribly long and he said he couldn't distance himself enough from it to hack the synopsis. he's had me beta read a couple other works too, and each time i have felt really honored that this fellow would trust me with his 'babies.'

Eve said...

A query sounds similar to a project description that I'm doing for a writing grant.

~Fathairybastard~ said...

Great advise. The hardest thing to do is edit yourself and decide what little jewel that you sculpted and agonized over will be ditched or saved.

Kirti said...

Hmm...thanks for demystifying the query letter...I also thought it was a very intimidating thing...