This Business of Writing

Posts Tagged ‘query letter’

THE Secret to the Slush Pile

In General Information, How-to's, The Craft of Writing, Working with Agents on March 19, 2010 at 7:14 pm

by C. Patrick Schulze

To listen to a podcast of this article, click HERE.

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We all know the best way to an agent’s heart is through a well-crafted query. The problem of course, is how to see that query past their hands and into their heart. However, did you know even if you’ve written the world’s best query, there’s a chance it might not be placed on an agent’s desk at all? Would you like to know why? It’s because the agents are not the first to review it.

I listened to a panel of agents a while back and they revealed a secret about queries. That is subalterns read your query first. Only if it passes their inexpert eye does it move into the agent’s inbox. So the first issue we as authors face with our book or novel, is it must pass muster with an inexperienced person. Now, I’m not knocking agent’s assistants, for we all have to start somewhere, but I have to rely upon an unproven stranger’s abilities to advance my writing career? This is not the most comforting thought, if you ask me.

So, how does your fraught-with-angst query get out of the infamous slush pile? That same agent’s panel I mentioned above gave me that answer too. All three agents agreed ninety percent of all queries are, and I quote, “crap.” Imagine! Nine out of ten queries are not even acceptable, let alone worthy. As severe as that sounds, I see it as an advantage.

Think of it this way. One hundred people apply for an important position at a company. Ninety of the applicants arrive in jeans and t-shirts, while ten of them are dressed in business suits. Which ones will move past the admin? The lesson here? Wear nice pants. Well, that too, but the real message is to learn the craft of writing. And the craft of writing includes the knowledge of how to formulate an effective query.

Now, armed with these two pieces of information, can you tell me what an agent’s assistant looks for? Here’s a hint, it’s not the next Great American Novel. The agent simply teaches them to spot a well-crafted query and to pass it along. With this information, the answer on how to avoid the slush pile, like so many answers in life, is simple. Write an effective query. How many times have we heard that one before?

I’ll bet we are all intelligent enough to craft a query letter, so I’ll assume everyone who reads this blog post will get theirs into the agent’s inbox. Now, comes the real problem. Once your query lands on an agent’s desk the process is, as you might suspect, subjective. And there ain’t nothing you can do about subjective. So, learn the craft of writing, pen an excellent query letter, be persistent and have faith.

The formula for an effective query is clean and simple and can be found all over the Internet. But in case you’d like an assist, here are some people and their article that tell you how to, and how not to write a query.

Rachelle Gardner

Nathan Bransford

Kathleen Ortiz

YA Highway

Chuck Sambuchino.

Until we meet again, I wish you only best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze
Author of the emerging novel, “Born to be Brothers.”


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The Single Most Important Secret to Landing an Agent

In General Information, Working with Agents on January 8, 2010 at 9:44 am

Yesterday in my blog I promised another article about how to find an agent for your novel. As I slaved over the research for today’s post, I searched for those perfect suggestions to include when a thought struck me. The information aspiring authors need is overabundant on the Internet. Multitudinous tomes are rife with just such instructions. With this understanding, I asked what knowledge could I possibly impart that might be new or unique? I slipped away for a cup of coffee but a single thought kept coming back to me, one I heard at a writers’ conference not too long ago.

While attending the James River Writers’ Conference, (@jamesRVRwriters on Twitter), a panel of accomplished agents sat perched behind a wide, draped table in the center of the stage to the front of an auditorium. The subject of the talk was what agents look for when writers send in query letters. I had parked myself in the second or third row, which is where you get the most information at any seminar by the way, and with ballpoint in hand waited to pen the copious notes the speakers would soon convey to launch my writer’s career toward the heavens.

I sat, writing implement poised and waited for that blaze of information to spark my livelihood and make my name a household word within the literary world. The speakers spoke, as speakers do, and I sat pen still poised, and waited for that flash of inspiration so critical to my plans. After about thirty minutes, I still sat, pen now drooping, and started wondering why I’d bothered with this seminar at all. I wasn’t hearing anything I didn’t already know.

Then at last! A note I could smear across the blank page before me! All three speakers attested to the accuracy of this information and with great fervor, I scribbled two numbers and a symbol appeared on the legal pad in my lap.

And that was all.

When the fifty minute seminar concluded, the audience clapped, the speakers smiled and people filtered out of the auditorium and into the halls. I sat, waiting for the crowd to thin, and considered the single note I had written on that otherwise blank sheet of paper. That’s it. That was all I got out of the seminar. Two numbers and a symbol.

Now, don’t get me wrong. The speakers did their job well, the audience was more than appreciative of the panelists’ time and as the writers herded out, the hubbub sounded enthusiastic and engaging. Nice seminar. Even to me, the time had been well spent. I was quite pleased with my one note that read, “90%.”

That number represented the number of authors who, when querying an agent, fail to follow even the most basic instructions required of their query.

Ninety percent of those who query don’t write a professional letter. Ninety percent don’t include a phone number for the agent to request a partial. Ninety percent don’t start with the story. Ninety percent don’t send in the first fifty pages when requested. Ninety percent talk down to the agent, etc, etc, etc. The secret of this story is found in a sage bit of advice my father offered so often in his life.

“If all else fails, follow directions.”

In the case with authors, you’ll have a better chance of publication than nine out of ten authors by listening to my father. Smart guy and good odds, I’d say.

Until we speak again, I wish you only best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze

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The Query Letter Made Simple

In General Information, The Craft of Writing, Working with Agents on October 28, 2009 at 9:06 am

I read a tweet the other day that say something like, if you’re overly worried about your query, you’re probably over thinking the thing. (I’m paraphrasing as I’m too lazy busy to hunt down the quote. Despite the rewording, it struck me how we authors need to rethink the query and make that proverbial molehill out of the mountain.

Take a deep breath and you’ll be just fine. Trust me. I was a doctor in my dreams once.

Regardless the potential of this frightening piece of paper, a query is nothing more than a short story.

To start, we’ll identify the components of a query letter is.

  1. It’s a business letter. (This is important.)
  2. It’s your novel made into a short story of two to three paragraphs.
  3. It’s a listing of your writer’s credentials, whatever they may or may not be.

Present these three parts in the order shown. Doesn’t sound so bad, now does it?

Have you ever written a business letter? If so, item one is under your belt. If you’ve not, it’s an easy task to master. Formatting is really about it. If you’re unsure, look it up on the Internet. You’ll conquer that skill in a single sitting. (Don’t forget to include all your contact information.)

The short story is not as tough as you imagine. You wrote the book, now make a short story out of it and you’re done. Focus here on the major conflicts in your story and how your primary characters respond to that conflict.  After your salutation, get right to the story. Here’s an example of what I mean by that.

Dear Ms. Agent,

Sam was an exceptional student at John Q. Public High School until Max came into his life.

See how that works? No embellishments, no howdy-dos, none of that. Get to the story right away.

In these two or three paragraphs, simply tell the agent who your, (no more than three), major characters are and the high points of their conflict. They don’t need descriptions of these people, just names and the plot points. Tell how your protagonist and your antagonist fought it out, as it were. Get to the meat of this issue and ignore, for now, all the side steps to the story. Here is your example.

Sam was an exceptional student at John Q. Public High School until Max came into his life. One night, Max convinced Sam to use a fake ID to get into the local pub. The boys got drunk and, with Sam a bystander, Max killed a drifter.

After Sam helped Max dispose of the body, Sam had second thoughts and wanted to report the incident to the police. Max was furious about the idea and tried a number of times to kill Sam.

Sam survived Max’s attempts and in the process, killed Max. Sam then got a job as an assassin’s assistant and, after time, morphs into a world renowned assassin.

There you go. The major characters and the chief conflict points are discussed in three short paragraphs. (I know they’re not well written but, hey, this is an example) This short story should be in the range of two hundred fifty words.

The method I use to craft this short story is easy. After completing at least a first draft of my manuscript, I condense each chapter into a single sentence such as “Boy meets girl.” I string them together to create my query short story. I then edit this short story as I do any manuscript. This process takes me a few hours, maybe half a day.

Don’t forget, these resulting paragraphs must be as well written as your manuscript. However, that shouldn’t be too difficult as you’re a writer, and that’s what writers do. Right?

Finally, the last paragraph lists your writer’s accomplishments in paragraph form. Don’t have any? Not to worry. Agents don’t really care if you’re an aspiring author. They just want to know you’re good at your chosen craft.

In my next posting, I’ll discuss how agents look at your query to make their decisions in asking for partials.

Until then, my all your books be best-sellers.

Patrick