Category Archives: Editing

How to Write a Query Letter that Makes Agents and Editors Swoon

This is a response to my earlier post called Why Your Query Letter is Making Agents and Editors Cringe. I’m so meta, right?

Writing a query letter is an art, they say. What they really mean is that it’s really gosh-darn hard. It seems that everyone and their sister thinks they can write a query letter, but out in the real world, it fails. Miserably.

That’s what happened to me. I thought writing a query letter was easy. I composed one in a couple hours and unleashed it onto the world. Little did I know, it was crap and yielded no return. It wasn’t until I joined the Absolute Write and participated in their forum that I was able to learn how to write a query letter properly.

Now, I shall bestow my knowledge upon you.

Step One: Write a Manuscript

A given, right? Wrong. I am a big advocate that writers complete their entire manuscript before they attempt to write a query letter. Yes, I know querying seems exciting for you right now. Yes, I know you think you’ve struck gold and you absolutely NEED to tell someone. But you need to finish. And when I say finish, I mean beta-read, edited, spit-shined, and all.

Why? Well, how can you write a clear, concise, pristine query letter if your manuscript is not clear, concise, and pristine. So, get back to writing, grasshopper! Your day in query letter hell will come.

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Step Two: Learn the Anatomy of a Query Letter

A query letter is generally broken into three parts:

  1. The Hook
  2. The Story
  3. The Credentials

This is the basic structure that writers follow. Yes, there are little variations to this structure, but they generally only occur if a specific editor or agent requests said variations (and they will make such requests and other specifications on the submissions page of their website). Otherwise, it’s safest to stick to this model. Remember, you are writing a proposal for your product (ie. your novel), not taking over the world with your revolutionary literary prowess.

Step Three: The Hook

The Hook is just what it seems: it is a small paragraph, normally one to three sentences, that will draw in a reader, hold tight, and make them want to read more. Think of it like the deep, intense voice that begins movie trailers. A lot of writers will use a When-clause, but it’s not always necessary. Here is an example of a When-clause:

“When Harry Potter discovers he is a wizard, he enrols in Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and uncovers a dark magic, one that threatens to take over the wizarding world.”

With that hook alone, it’s easy to identify three things: the main character, the location, and the gist of the plot. In theory, this should be enough to force the reader to read the remainder of the query letter, but don’t forget to make it sound pretty. You’re selling your amazing writing skills, after all.

Step Four: The Story

The Story is, again, just that. It is the plot of your novel, concise and juicy, giving away just enough to entice. It is important not to overwhelm your reader with too many details. That generally means that you should stick to your main character, no more than two supporting characters, and the chief antagonist. Also, it is essential to stick to the MAIN PLOT. Again, the OVERARCHING PLOT. I know you love your subplots, but those do not belong in your query letter. They will overwhelm the reader and crowd your query letter.

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Reading your query letter shouldn’t feel like trying to find a small child in a crowd.

Now, I’m not one for outlines. I very rarely outline a story and when I do, it’s such a loose outline that it’s barely an outline at all. But the query letter is different. You absolutely should consider an outline. Why? Well, let’s try a little experiment. Take your current novel and try to sum it up in 150 words or less. Hard, right? Even if you were able to do it, I bet I didn’t sound beautiful and I bet you left out details that you’re dying to include.

The outline will help with that. To outline, I normally use the Three Question Method. This helps writers to focus their query and be sure not to forget the most important elements of the plot. Each query letter should strive to answer these three questions (taken from the Absolute Write forums):

  1.  What does your protagonist want?
  2.  What does s/he have to do to get it?
  3. What happens if s/he fails to get what she wants? (the stakes)

Once you’ve answered these three questions, you have the bare bones for a query letter. Essentially, you want this paragraph to read like the blurbs on the back of books. You want it to entice and you want to detail the plot, but leave it open-ended.

Step Five: The Credentials

This is the part where you talk about yourself. What other work have you gotten published? What qualifications do you have? Don’t have any of that? That’s really okay, but what inspired you to write this story and what makes YOU the person who should tell it?

Also, the second part of this paragraph should cater to the person you’re sending it to. Why did you choose said agent/editor/publisher as a candidate for your work? This will include some research. Look at other titles your agent/editor/publisher has worked with. Look at their blog, Twitter or Facebook pages. This is the part where you personalize your letter and don’t go skimpy on this part. They will know if you’re lying or if you haven’t done your research.

Lastly, do NOT forget to include the title of your manuscript, the genre and the word count. This is generally done in the first sentence of The Credentials paragraph.

Step Six: Get Feedback

This is perhaps the most important step. Have a writer friend? A beta-reader? A brutally honest friend who likes to read? Have them look it over. Does it entice them? Are they able to understand the main pillars of your plot? If you answer no to these questions, an agent or editor will to. Revise, revise, revise, and if you send it out to prospective literary personnel and get no bites, revise again.

Finally, don’t be discouraged. Querying is a long, labouring, and often fruitless process, but all writers go through it. Besides, all it takes is one yes.

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And it’s a simple as that. Good luck!

The 7 (Agonizing) Stages of Self-Editing Your Fiction

A look at common struggles a writer encounters while perfecting their masterpiece. Or trying to, at least.

DISCLAIMER: This is not a how-to. This blog cannot be responsible for work that gets lost in editing oblivion. For a how-to, run a Google search. Or join a writer’s forum. I like this one.

Stage 1: The Post-Drafting High

You’ve just finished your piece. The characters are realistic and complex. The descriptions are captivating. The twist at the end: no one will see it coming. NO ONE. Congratulations! Good job, you. This is what you live for. Now, go out and get a beer. Hell, get two! Dance. Make some questionable life choices.

Enjoy it now, young grasshopper.

Stage 2: The Pre-Edit Low (aka. What the Hell Have I Done?)

So, you’re ready to work. You’ve recovered from that hang-over and you’ve corrected all those questionable life choices, though there may still be some photo evidence on Instagram. Go check.

In any case, the document’s open, your title page looks spectacular, and you’ve spent the last hour and a half deleting extraneous tabs and trailing paragraphs.

Now: let’s do a quick read-through. Let’s look out for continuity errors, major plots holes, and breaks in character building. Maybe you should consider reworking that second paragraph. And the next chapter. And the whole middle part. Hell, this looks worse than you remember, doesn’t it? Who wrote this? Clearly, you didn’t. Your IQ is higher than a chimp’s, yet it seems like the chimp could poop out a better manuscript while sleep deprived, post-spicy burrito.

What have you done? All that planning (or lack thereof) has gotten you nothing. The voice is off, your main character is annoying, and that plot twist? Predictable.

Well, fine. I guess you’re rewriting the whole damn thing.

Stage 3: The Rewrite

After recovering from the emotional damage of discovering the story you’ve been working on for the past millennium is terrible, it’s time to do a rewrite. This can consist of just specific parts of your manuscript or the entire thing, but it largely consists of crying, outbursts to family and friends, and reconsidering your choice to become a writer (whose idea was that?).

But hey, maybe this isn’t so bad. You could take that stock character and give them an epic side story. And that twist? Tweak it a bit, and BAM! One hundred times more unpredictable than before. This is actually kind of fun. This is the reason you became a writer in the first place: to WRITE! But don’t get too ecstatic. Most of the good stuff comes from editing after all, remember? That’s why you’re here.

Stage 4: The Break.

You’ve worked hard, right? Why not take a break? Go for a run. Go read a newspaper. Go clean out those drawers in your bedroom that have been overflowing since spring (read: since two springs ago).

But who am I kidding? You don’t wanna do any of that. You’d rather obsessively refresh your Facebook feed then binge-watch Game of Thrones on Netflix while drowning your sorrows into a litre of cookie dough ice cream and a bottle of coke.

Now, that’s a break. Am I right?

Stage 5: The Deadly Cycle of Procrastination

It’s been a couple days. Your Game of Thrones marathon quickly led to Catching Up with the Kardashians and then cat videos on YouTube. However, you’re experiencing a revival of determination. Or maybe it’s that gnawing feeling of idleness.

Either way, the line-by-line is next and that’s going to take the longest. But maybe you should do some laundry before you get started. And feed the cat. Oh, don’t forget to call Mom. She misses you. Your whole family misses you. How about a barbeque? The weather is warm and your social interaction has been subpar lately. Maybe an evening with a bottle of wine. That would be nice.

Do you see? It won’t end.

Seriously. Editing. Go.

Stage 6: The Copyedit

This is the most tedious part – however, also the quickest. This is the part where you drive yourself crazy about your grammar and cut down on the wordiness. No passive sentences, you say? And saidisms? You mean, you can’t use he articulated and I phonated? And heaven forbid you make up your own character or location names. Your word processing program is going to love pointing those out.

(Psst. Add them to your dictionary. Save yourself the agony.)

Stage 7: The Post-Edit High

You did it! You’ve survived your self-edit with your fingers intact and perhaps a shard of your sanity. Never fear though, what comes next is quite possibly the thing you’re looking forward to the most: MORE EDITING!

“What?” You ask. “I thought I was done.”

Well, think again. If you’ve got an editor or a trusted beta-reader, they’re going to have some useful thoughts. Besides, let’s be real, this is what you live for. There’s nothing that compares to a nice and polished manuscript that’s ready to take on the world. Well, maybe a published manuscript could compare, but you’re on your way there anyway!

Happy editing!

POST-SCRIPT: No chimps were hurt during this editing cycle. Or force-fed burritos.