Tag Archives: query letter

By Your Request: Query Success Stories and Why They Were Successful

Check out my journey to a publishing contract on Aussie Owned and Read!

Aussie Writers

Today I have the first of a couple of posts about successful queries and why they worked, just like you asked! So, since I work in acquisitions, I asked some of the authors I had the privilege of acquiring to send me their stories. Enjoy!

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Michael Cristiano is a Canadian writer. His relentless obsession with fiction began long before he could even spell the words ‘relentless obsession’. He spent most of his childhood getting lost in fantastical masterpieces, learning foreign languages, and attempting to be published by the age of thirteen. Though he’s off by a few years, The Black Oracle is his debut novel and is due for publication in 2015.

Website & Blog: www.michaelcristiano.net

Facebook: www.facebook.com/MichaelCristianoOfficial

Twitter: www.twitter.com/mcristianowrite

I got the idea for The Black Oracle when I was fifteen and I had no idea that writing it would be such a long and all-encompassing process. I had loved…

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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!

Why Your Query Letter is Making Agents and Editors Cringe

Before I landed a publishing deal, believe it or not, I spent a lot of time trying to land a publishing deal. Shocking, right? Well, when I say a lot of time, I mean to say that I spent almost six years tirelessly hammering out query letters and getting either form rejections or no response at all from agents, editors, or publishers.

And the worst part? I didn’t know what I was doing wrong. Were my query letters that bad that it didn’t even warrant a response? It wasn’t until I had actually acquired a publisher for my debut novel, joined a writing forum and critiqued other writers’ letters that I was able to look back and see where I had gone wrong. And trust me, my old letters were awful. Here’s why.

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Unimpressed Agent is unimpressed.

It all Starts with Story

Believe or not, a good query letter starts before it is even written. Hell, a good query letter starts before the novel itself is written. Why? Well, I’m no scientist or anything, but it seems to me that there’s a relation between shitty stories and shitty query letters.

How to avoid this? Write good stories. Easy, right? Maybe not, but I do think it takes some mindfulness on the part of the writer. Write an original story. Don’t follow the trends. Avoid cliches and cliched story-lines. Know your genre. Know your audience. Enlist a beta-reader, a peer, or someone who will give you an honest opinion and then help you burn that shit should it make readers cringe.

Most important of all: read good books. The better read you are, the more equipped you are to know what is good and what is bad — and trust me, you can find a lot of bad without looking very hard. With time, that knowledge gets applied to your own work. It’s called growth, bro.

Vagueness is NOT Your Friend

During my time at previously mentioned writing forum, I have had the pleasure of reading and critiquing quite a few query letters from other aspiring writers. One of the number one things that turns me off of a letter is when the author presents his or her story in a run-around, pseudo-Hollywood manner. Observe:

When Random Randy moves abroad, he must conquer the fears that have hindered him in his love life — and in achieving his dreams. He has been hurt before, but he won’t be again. In a story of love, loss, betrayal and family, Random Randy must learn how to trust again before he loses all sense of control.

Well, Random Randy, that’s all good and fine, but the cringing agent or editor still knows nothing about your story. There’s no substance here and definitely very little plot. Yes, I understand the need to want to tantalize your reader and not give too much of your precious story away, but being vague won’t distinguish you from other writers in the slush pile.

And for God’s sake, endless adjectives do not equate good story.

Hey, You! Focus!

Writing a story is hard. There are often many characters involved, many plots, many themes, and that only grows with your word count. But legit, when you write a query, the agent generally only cares about one of those things: your main character.

Yes, it is tempting to delve into every single plot point, well-developed character, and explored theme, but that doesn’t help you in a query letter. You need focus. You need to be deliberate and singular. In fact, to focus a query letter, I have generally stuck to what I and other writers call the Three Big Questions. They are as follows:

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?

So, leave the other stuff behind. Let your literary gold be a surprise when that intrigued agent decides to read your manuscript.

This is NOT a News Report

This last point is actually a polar opposite of the two previous points I have mentioned. So, you’ve now reworded all the vague language and focused your query, but you find you have something like this:

When Ursula Unlucky loses all her money in a burglary, she and her children must move across the city to the sketchy part of town. There, she gets a job she hates and she discovers her neighbours are mean. Worse, her children are being bullied and even when she meets with their teachers, the school decides it won’t punish the bullies. Ursula then…

You are not on CNN. You don’t need to talk about every development and twist and turn in your plot. This comes across as being dry and boring and frankly, the agent or editor is cringing. The problem with this is that a query shouldn’t read like a synopsis — the synopsis should read like a synopsis. The query should give enough plot to have a focus (see above), but not enough to take away from the intrigue of your query.

Think of it like testing samples at a grocery store. You want to give the agent/editor/publisher a sample of your story and writing style so they’ll decide to come back for more.

Mmmm... Samples.

Mmmm… Samples.

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And for shits and giggles, let’s look at one of my old query letters that I submitted once upon a time. It was for a novel that I no longer wish to publish mostly because it is a hideously cliched story (see reason #1 why agents and editors are cringing). In fact, I believe this is my very first query.

Dear Ms. Agent I Found,

As an avid reader of both fantasy and young adult novels, I was immediately drawn to the XXXX Agency and your work. I admire the optimism and support you give writers both aspiring and with your agency. That said, I would like you to consider my novel [Hideosly Cliched Fantasy Title]. It runs approximately 90,000 words and is an epic fantasy novel aimed at young adults.

Set in a world where different realms mesh in a not-so-perfect harmony, [Main Character] spends his youth gazing out an enormous window in his father’s study awaiting adventure. After an experience outside his hillside home that he is too terrified to remember, he must somehow harness a magic that he holds within.

Meanwhile, a fearsome leader named [Fearsome Name] has summoned an ancient magic that has only survived in the superstitions of crazed mystics. With it, he threatens to grip the entire world in his wretchedness. In a story of fallen kingdoms and multiple realms, [Main Character] must stop the bloodshed as the boy for whom the scripture glows.

A student at the University of Toronto studying language and professional writing, I believe that working with an experienced, caring agent such as yourself is the next step for both my novel and me. I think [My Novel] would go together well with the array of fantasy titles attributed to the agency. Also, I read in an interview that you did that you enjoy young adult fantasy and I hope that my novel can find a comfortable place in your repertoire.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Regards,

Michael Cristiano