Wednesday, August 20, 2008

#3: My Query Letter Can Eat A Bowl Of Moby-Dicks! I Quit! I Hate Writing!

Okay, the internet appears to be working, my eyes are weirdly crusted shut from too much sleep, I can't drink coffee because of the ungrateful parasite taking up room in my uterus, and I've got Peter Allen blaring from my iPod. This is going to either be awesome, or total failure.

Okay. So, you're getting your manuscript ready for it's long trip to judgment. So far, you've:

  • Figured out where this thing is going
  • Made it somewhat presentable to the person who's getting it.

Sometimes, depending on the publisher, you have to basically ask their permission to send them your manuscript. How do you do that? Different publishers have different submissions rules. They will ask for one or more of the following before asking you to actually ship off your manuscript:
  • A query letter
  • A brief synopsis
  • A detailed synopsis

These words strike fear into the heart of writers. I know this, because I know a lot of writers. Writers dread queries and synopsii almost as much as they dread the question, "So, what's your book about?" I'm sure it's something to do with trying to condense the events of the imaginary world in your head down to an easy to digest, literate sounding answer. After all, how can you look at all of your hard work, the complex themes and characterization that you've agonized over, and pick out just the important bits? They're all important, or else they wouldn't be in there, right?

At this point, I am imagining Herman Melville pitching Moby-Dick to a modern day editor who has just said, "So, tell me about your book." I imagine a panicked look in his suddenly dilated pupils, beads of sweat rolling of his forehead as he struggles valiantly to form a coherent sentence that doesn't start with "Well, you see, there's this whale..."

The query letter is the on-paper equivalent of "Well, you see, there's this whale..." crammed in with "Also, let me tell you a bit about myself." This is one sheet of paper, with a proper letterhead and everything, in which you have to sell not only your book, but yourself as an author. So, you've basically got three paragraphs.

Here's how you do it. Or, at least, here's my way of doing it:

You've got about three paragraphs. In your first paragraph, you need to give them a little introduction about what you're sending, and why you're sending it. Something like this (obviously, not EXACTLY like this... it needs to sound professional while still showing some of your personality):

Dear Editor:
I am contacting you in regards to my novel, MOBY-DICK, a [insert word count here] novel that I feel would be perfectly at home at [insert publishing company or imprint here].

Just a little something to let them know, right off the bat, what you're looking for. You're writing to them to pitch them your novel. Some people think it's tacky and impersonal to start off a letter asking for something right away. To those people, I ask, "have you ever met an editor who wasn't busy, and just had time to read penpal letters all day?" You're not apply for the position of BFF or World's Best Butt Kisser. Just throw it out there and don't waste their time.

And yes, I do advocate capitalizing the title of your manuscript in your letter. It's advertising, and you want them to remember the title, even if it's so they can spell it right on your rejection letter.

In your second paragraph, you're going to tell them something about the book. Yup, this is the dreaded, "Well, you see, there's this whale..." paragraph, where you're going to condense everything down into a few sentences. Here, we take a page from all of those trailers for big budget Hollywood action movies. You know, the ones that begin with, "In a world where," and the narrator with the voice that sounds like if Chuck Norris sounded as bad ass as he really is tells you the plot of the movie in a few sentences? Those are excellent things to study for our purpose here. You don't have to tell them every single thing about the story... they need to know three basic things:
  1. What the important parts of the setting are
  2. Who the protagonist is
  3. What they have to overcome in the plot

Your second paragraph should read something like this:

MOBY-DICK tells the tale of Ishmael, a sailor who has embarked on what at first appears to be a routine whaling voyage. It soon becomes apparent that the captain intends this to be a mission of revenge against the legendary and feared white whale, Moby-Dick. As they sail toward their inevitable confrontation with the beast, Ishmael watches the captain sink further and further into a madness that may destroy them all.

That sounds exciting, doesn't it? Makes you want to run out and buy a copy of Moby-Dick! Or, at least, leaf through one and see what all the fuss is about. And that's what you want this editor to do. You want them to read your very brief summary of your book and go, "Huh, I wonder what happens to that Ishmael guy," long enough to dash off a letter asking you to send the first three chapters and a synopsis.

In your last paragraph, you're going to tell them something about yourself as a writer (like, what other work you have published or what won contests, etc.), and reiterate why you're telling them all of this stuff, like this:

In the past six years, I've had five other novels see publication: Typee, Omoo, Redburn, White-Jacket, and Mardi, but I feel that MOBY-DICK is my greatest achievement thus far. With your permission, I would be glad to send a copy of the manuscript at your earliest convenience.

H. Melville

What has happened in that query letter is, I've stated my (okay, Herman Melville's) intention to pitch my (Melville's) novel, given a small pitch, and asked if it would be okay to send it along. Easy enough, once it's all demystified.

No, they don't need to be longer. No, they don't need to hear about your pet turtles or get to know you as a person. And they sure as shit don't need to know about any other houses that have rejected your manuscript. No, I'm not kidding. There are actually people who will send off query letters with exceedingly negative sections in them. Everything from "I used to belong to a writer's organization, but they didn't understand me and were jealous of my talent" to "I previously sent this manuscript to this other publishing house, and they didn't buy it, so they're obviously short-sighted morons."

Do not do that. That is bad. The only thing you should add is if you had contact with this editor previously. Something along the lines of, "I am contacting you in regards to my novel, MOBY-DICK, which I spoke to you about at RWA Nationals this past July in San Francisco," as your opening line, or "I have previously submitted to you my novel, Typee, which you declined, but at the time you expressed interest in seeing another work in the future, so I would be glad to send the MOBY-DICK manuscript at your earliest convenience," to your last paragraph. The editor might see that and go, "Oh, right, Typee. I remember that. It was good, but we had just purchased another vaguely homoerotic sailing story, and we couldn't fit two in the lineup. Yeah, I'll take a look at that." Just don't go into a woe-is-me tale of "I sent you my last book, but it wasn't good enough. So, I hope this one is. LE SOB!"

I was planning on making today all about synposises/syposes/synopsii, as well, but my brain is fried and I need a nap. Tomorrow, look for exciting Lesson #4: First, This Happens, And Then, Some Other Stuff.

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