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Writing Query Letters
That Sell

by D. J. Herda

You know, I have written a lot of query letters in my day.  More, most likely, than most people.  That's because I never have a single project, or even two, going at any given time.  I have 10 or 15 or 20 or more.  And I don't start projects for the fun of writing.  I start projets for the fun of selling. And that means writing lots and lots of query letters.

I've been fortunate enough throughout the course of my career to have experienced life from both sides of the desk.  While working as a freelance writer, I also toiled away as a book editor, a magazine editor (by far the toughest of the editorial positions), a newspaper editor, and a photo editor.  I never really set out to be an editor; it just sort of "happened."  I'm glad now that it did.

I say that because, by working on the receiving end of a query letter, I learned firsthand (and quite quickly) what worked and what didn't.  Until I began receiving queries from other freelance writers, I could only guess (hope, pray, petition) what an editor would find appealing. Afterwards, I found out for sure, up-close and personal.

Over the years, my knowledge of how to construct a query letter has landed me more than 80 book contracts and several hundred thousand article, short story, and column sales.  So I'm pretty sure I'm not just blowing smoke up my own hiney here.  I've got my thumb on the beast.  While I may not have tamed it exactly, at least I've mellowed it down a bit. 

Now, I'm going to share with you my knowledge of what a query letter should be--that is, one that's going to have the best shot at landing you a publishing contract.

Understand that no two editors look for the same thing in a query letter, so when you put together your proposal, you're going to want it to be the most efficient and effective use of an editor's time and attention span possible without losing sight of the fact that your goal is to sell the story.

Here's an example of how you should be approaching prospective publishers, although it would work equally well with agents, since, in order to succeed, you're going to have to convince the recipient that you have the talent to deliver a marketable (i.e., moneymaking) manuscript:

Dear Mr. X [research the editor's name on the Internet--never address to Dear Editor or Dear Sir]:

Abe Rakeoff is 47, short, and angrier than hell.  His mother loves him to death. And that's the problem.

MY MOTHER DEARLY is the 62,000-word story of how one mother babies her son to death--hers!  Buying him out of an embezzlement scam at the bank, covering up his timesheet padding at work, and excusing his business ventures with drug czar Jake the Badass Snake Malone, she does everything right...and wrong.  She has taught him well.  Too well.  And Abe, in turn, has learned how to buy himself out of trouble, from penny-ante thievery all the way up to murder!

I'm a full-time freelance writer with six books and twenty-seven magazine and newspaper article sales to my credit.  I have been writing book-length fiction for more than 14 years.  A Creative Writing Workshop graduate from Chicago Community College, I'm ready for Prime-Time Publishing, and I'd love to have you accompany me on my journey.

Can I send you an outline and three sample chapters?  Or the complete manuscript?  I'm betting my future that you won't be disappointed.


Carl Withersbottom

Broken down, this query consists of two paragraphs summarizing the plot, a third graf explaining who you are, and the last graf defining the "pitch" or offer.  Anything more, and it's overkill.  You're likely never to get taken seriously, and you may not even hear back from the editor, who is swamped with proposals from hundreds of writers just like you, all looking to strike gold.

On the other hand, if you send out anything less, you're cheating yourself out of the possibility of a sale.

Two grafs story, one graf bio, one graf pitch.  That's it.  A three-pronged approach to a life-long puzzle. 

Story.  Bio.  Pitch. 

Try it.  See if I'm not steering you right.  I can guarantee you that, if you target your query appropriately (sending a murder mystery query to editors who buy murder mysteries, romance query to editors who buy romances, etc.), you'll enjoy anywhere from a fifty-to-seventy-percent batting average. 

And when's the last time you came across odds like those and didn't emerge a winner?


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