Guest Rant: “The Craft of Writing Queries” by Robert Begiebing

Okay, you’ve got the manuscript finished.  Not only completed but polished through a process of “peer review” and numerous re-writes.  The ms. not only sits on your desk; the writing has been burnished and buffed by long labors to the point where the ms. gleams and glows on your desk.  Now what?

First, don’t kid yourself.  Have you really revised this into bulletproof condition?  If so, you may now begin to try to sell the book.  If it’s trade fiction (for a general or large audience) you need an agent.  If it’s literary fiction you need an agent if you are heading to New York, Boston, San Francisco, or Los Angeles looking for a large publishing house.  If it is a rather rarefied or regional literary fiction, or experimental, you may approach acquisition editors directly at small, literary, and university presses who publish fiction.  You want a killer query letter.

The query letter tells the agent/ editor who you are, what you’ve got for her to read, and why it’s worth her time.  The writing must be flawless, concise, energetic, and engaging, the voice and format utterly professional.  If you don’t know how to set up a professional-looking business letter typographically, get help from someone who does.

In your fiction query letter (your calling card) you are “advertising” your “product” and your competence in very limited space to busy people.  Get the person’s name and title; never write a “Dear Agent” or “Dear Editor” letter.  Don’t waste time on what will become clearer in the synopsis.  Your goal is to pique interest to see more.  You need, therefore, a lead, supporting points, biographical information, and a concluding pitch.

Your lead is your hook.  Avoid overly clever or cute hooks, gimmicks, or other contrived openings.  You can be clever and smart and engaging; you sure as hell don’t want to be stuffy or boring.  No bad jokes, clichés, unsubstantiated claims, or dictionary definitions.  Don’t say a thing about how many others you’ve sent the letter to, or anything else that can be interpreted as negative.  What’s the book’s idea or theme or topic?  Open with a sentence that makes a connection to the agent (or editor)—someone referred you, you heard the person speak at a conference, he’s on your MFA or university board, whatever—and state what you have (e.g., “a 70,000 word novel about sex and the city for guys entitled It Man”).

Your supporting material tells what the book is about in a single (second) paragraph and in an interesting way that allows the editor to see its appeal to a particular (genre) or general reading public.  Next, your biographical paragraph sells who you are as a competent writer: your degrees, who you’ve studied with and where, where you’ve published, what you’ve done with your life that might be related to the book topic, whatever makes sense.   Here you are presenting your most important and relevant credentials.

Your pitch is the closing.  Thank the reader for her consideration, refer to any enclosed supporting material (based on agency specific submission guidelines) and SASE for her convenience (unless this is an online submission), and give the last phrases a positive spin along the lines of “looking forward to hearing from you soon.”

All on one page!  Beyond a first or second draft, these queries, like the synopsis, take a lot of time to write and revise.  When you see approval or adoration in the eyes of those you’ve asked to read your tenth draft for help, you are probably getting close.  Sample or model queries, I’ve found, often lead to bloodless imitations, so be careful. Be original.

 See also Selling Your Novel: Creating a Compelling First Impression by Robert Begiebing.

A recipient of the Langum Prize for historical fiction, Robert J. Begiebing is the author of seven books, a play, and over thirty articles and stories.  He is the founding director of the Low-Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction, and Professor of English Emeritus, at Southern NH University.

The 20th anniversary edition of The Strange Death of Mistress Coffin, a novel set in 17th-century New England, is now available in paperback and e-book. Originally published the early 1990s, Mistress Coffin was a Main Selection in The Literary Guild, The Mystery Guild, and Doubleday Book Clubs, and is currently optioned for a film. It is available on Amazon here.

Visit his website at www.begiebing.com.

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16 comments on “Guest Rant: “The Craft of Writing Queries” by Robert Begiebing

  1. Writing Jobs says:

    I enjoyed reading today’s post very much. Have a great day.

    Writers Wanted – Writing Jobs Available

  2. Kelly Gamble says:

    “First, don’t kid yourself. Have you really revised this into bulletproof condition?” I’m sure I had at least 20 people read my query/offer suggestions/comments before sending it out. Wouldn’t it be nice to get feedback from the agents on the queries themselves?

    • Derek Flynn says:

      It would indeed, Kelly. There a few blogs out there written by agents that give their view on getting submissions. I may do a post on them at some stage.

      • Thank you, Derek, for having me as your guest. I’m enjoying the responses and am impressed by the originality of your site. I’m not only a writer but a frustrated musician, who gave up the fantasy of a career in music long ago for two reasons: I didn’t have the real talent necessary to make a go of it and writing became my creative outlet, instead. I admire anyone who can cover both arts successfully. More power to you.

      • Derek Flynn says:

        I was happy to, Bob, it was a great post. I know so many writers who stress writing those query letters. And thanks so much for the kind words about the blog. Much appreciated!

  3. Great blog, Bob. Thank you for the sage advice.

  4. What if you don\’t have any ’supporting information’? I have degrees, but they are hardly relevant (accounting/law). I’ve not published anything, at least partly from lack of trying – though I’ve been writing for 20 years, I only got serious about getting published in 2011 (although I was serious about writing better for some years before that). I have 2 shorts I’m trying to publish now, and a novel I want to start querying. I write high/epic fantasy, so I’m pretty sure I haven’t done anything with my life that relates to that (unless I forgot that part of my life where I did a stint as an assassin LOL).

    • Derek Flynn says:

      You’d be an AWESOME assassin, Ciara! :-)

    • The best way forward, Ciara, is to keep writing and sending stuff out, get some short clips (even local newspapers or mags) to reference in a query, and go to writers’ events where agents and editors talk publishing what they represent (then you can refer to them personally in your query), and simply get going 100% on the apprenticeship we all endure (that includes sending out what you write and getting feedback). Also, join or create a writers’ group where you can get manuscript feedback, but first read Joni Cole’s “Toxic Feedback” to know how to avoid dysfunction in such groups. The big thing most would-be writers hate to admit is that we all suffer through this struggle–a multi-year process for most mortals, with many ups and downs. Too many talented people give up on publishing their work too soon. They can’t stand the rejection and the sheer, self-critical hard labor. Why not just enjoy your smart phone or your wine cellar instead?!

      But one thing is sure: you’ll never publish whatever remains sitting on your desk or in your drawer.

      • I go to what conferences I can, but being in Australia, there’s a limited pool of agents here, and the reality is I am going to be querying overseas agents.

        I’ve been a member of a writer’s group since 2007, and it’s been a most valuable experience. For whatever reason, we’ve never had any dysfunction – I’m not sure if that’s attributable to thi snippet on our website:

        ” Writing can be a lonely, frustrating business. At any moment most people engaged in it aren’t getting anywhere much in terms of recognition or financial reward. For this reason, writers’ groups have been set up to provide people with the support and encouragement they need to believe in their own abilities and keep writing.

        Infinitas is not one of those groups. In our meetings the purpose of criticism is not to build someone up (I love it! You are so amazingly talented!). Nor is it to tear them down (I tried it as toilet paper but it was too full of shit already.)

        The idea is, rather, to make the writing in particular and the author in general better than they were before you spoke.”.

        We’re pretty honest about our purpose.

        I’ve been doing the self-critical revision thing for years – it no longer bothers me.

  5. TimGreatont says:

    Thanks for posting Bob’s latest submission gems, Derek.

    Once again, Bob, excellent information that could easily be applied to many facets of our industry. Specific, well-written, energetic writing should be a mantra we all follow. The number of your fans continues to grow, and I count myself solidly among them :-)

  6. “So be careful. Be original.”

    That’s probably my favorite part; that’s the way to stand out without standing out, the right way.

  7. It might be interesting to hear from folks who have stories of sending query packages out and the responses.

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