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The Essential Elements of a Query Letter

Anyone attempting to get traditionally published eventually has to write the dreaded Query Letter.  It is essentially a one-page pitch letter to an agent or editor, introducing your story and yourself.  The query letter is the source of fear, angst, procrastination, and much hair pulling and head banging.  But it doesn’t need to be.

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Here are the essentials you need in a query letter.  I’ll go into more detail down below.

The Address

The Salutation

The Story Teaser

Manuscript information

Your credits

Something about the Agent/editor (if you know it)

Inclusions

Closing

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The Address

Do you need to write the whole business address on an e-mail?  I believe you do, for two reasons:  It is the correct way to write business correspondence, and it shows the agent or editor I’ve done my homework. The basic format is to write your name, address, phone, and e-mail at the top, usually as a centered header.  Then double space and write the date.  Double-space again and write the name of the agent and their title, the agency, and the address.  Lisa Collier Cool’s book, pictured below, is a great reference to show how this should be done.

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The Salutation

When I first started writing, writers snail-mailed everything to editors and agents.  We hoped that by the time our letters or partials, or full manuscripts were read, that editor or agent was still there.  Now we do most things by e-mail and we can easily look up the targeted agent or editor online.  In many cases they have a link to their e-mail.  A good source for this is WritersMarket.com.

It is vitally important that query letters are addressed to a specific agent or editor.  Never, ever, address a letter “To Whom It May Concern.”  “Dear Sir or Madam” or “Dear Agent/Editor” is just as bad.  Always address a query letter to a specific person:  “Dear Mr./Ms. Johnson” (depending on whether the agent is male or female).  If there is a question of gender, address it with the full name; “Dear Leslie Johnson.”

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The Story Teaser

This is the first paragraph of the query letter.  Here is where writers get stuck.  How do we boil a 60,000+ word novel down to one paragraph?  But this one single paragraph shows the agent we know what the story is all about and why they want to read the manuscript.  Make sure you name your main character and the situation in which they find themselves.  Keep the writing tight and end with a teaser.

An example might be: “When Anne Massengale receives the old brass key in the mail, it is exactly what she needs.  Out of work and about to be evicted, this is a chance to start over where no one knows her.  The key leads to a tiny cottage in the village of Ripley Cove, on the edge of the Pacific Ocean – and a body on her beach.  A second body follows two days later, along with a strange letter.  Police Chief, Sam Taggart, looks at Anne as his prime suspect.  Desperate to clear her name and stay alive, Anne pits herself against a killer who will stop at nothing to see her dead.”

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Manuscript Information

 Here I list whether the novel is complete (it should be) and the word length.  I add the setting and, if there is a historical setting, list the date.  Lastly, I’ll describe the audience of the book, and anything that will lure a reader into picking up my novel.  Using the example above, I’d say:

Ripley Cove is complete and runs 90,000 words.  Set on the Oregon Coast, this novel is written for anyone who enjoys a slightly dark, edgy story with plenty of secrets, a cunning killer, and determined sleuths.”

Writer’s Credits

What constitutes a writing credit?  Any other traditionally published novels, magazine or newspaper articles.  If you’ve self-published a novel with a large number of sales, mention that.  You needn’t mention every sale, but do add the most recent and any significant sales.  If you write a very successful blog with a large following, mention that, but don’t mention every blog post you’ve published.

Here’s my paragraph:  “I have been a freelance writer for over 30 years.  My articles have been published in Among Worlds, Power for Living, Bread for God’s Children, Woman’s Touch, At Ease, Fellowship Today, Confident Living, Northwest Family Living, North Whidbey News Times, and South Whidbey Record, among others.  As well, I am the author of a published historical novel, If I Perish.”

We all have to start somewhere – even Stephen King and Nora Roberts were beginners once – so having no credits is not a deal breaker.  Simply don’t add anything to this paragraph.

About the Agent

An Agent or Editor’s site or blog will often have a bit of information on them.  I happened to read about one agent’s new puppy and mentioned that in my query.  This was helpful to establish a rapport between us.  She asked for the novel, and while she ultimately turned the manuscript down, we had a friendly correspondence.

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Inclusions

Read the agent or editor’s guidelines carefully and do exactly what the guidelines say.  Some agents don’t want inclusions; if so, leave this paragraph out.  If the agent only wants the first ten pages, tell the agent here that you have included the first ten pages in the body of the e-mail (very few accept attachments).  Then polish those ten pages till they shine and paste them into the e-mail.  Don’t add an extra page unless page 10 ends abruptly.  You can usually get away with an extra paragraph or two, but no more than that.  I’ve found the usual is the first 1-3 chapters.  State what you are including in the letter and if it is a simultaneous submission.  If you are sending by snail-mail, remember to add a Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope (SASE) for return of the manuscript.  My paragraph goes something like this:

“With this query I have included the synopsis and the first two chapters for your consideration.  I will be happy to send the full manuscript, if you’d like more.  This is a simultaneous submission.”

Closing

I always thank the agent or editor for their time and consideration of my submission.  This seems like a no-brainer, but it’s surprising how often this is missed. I let them know I am looking forward to hearing from them.  Again, it’s a small bit of politeness and it never hurts to be polite.  I make sure to end the letter in a positive way, with either Sincerely, or Best Regards.

If I am sending by e-mail, I always put my e-mail under my name.  If I’m sending by snail-mail, I will put a header at the top of the page with my name, address, phone, and e-mail

This is the way I do my closing:

“Thank you for your time and consideration of this submission.  I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Sincerely,

 

Deborah Turner

(e-mail address)”

I love to hear (and learn) from my readers.  Have you written a recent successful query letter?  Feel free to share your tips with me.

 

Be Your Character, Part 1

This being November, it is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), in which we writers try to write 50,000 words of a novel.  We hope it makes some sort of sense when we’re finished with it.  But often we get into the middle and the story just sort of peters out.  Loud are the laments: “My story isn’t going anywhere  and my stupid character is just sitting there not doing anything.”

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One of the main problems writers have is getting to know the characters in the first place.  It’s not good enough to say, “I’ll get to know them as the book progresses.”  We only have 50,000-100,000 words for the entire book.  That’s not very much time to develop a character we don’t know.  Most of the time if all you know about a character is that he has brown hair, amber eyes, a square jaw, a roguish grin, and you think he likes to eat sushi, you’ll be surprised when he crosses to street to eat spicy noodle soup at a leaning shop in the run-down market selling black-spotted bananas and nearly bald tires.  You stop and go, “Where did that come from?  You’re supposed to like sushi.  I planned for you to like sushi.”

“Yeah, well, that’s because you know nothing about me.”

Wonderful.  Now what?

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Become your character.  Put yourself in his skin.  If this sounds more than a little ick, take a deep breath (or two or three if you need it).  There’s a good reason to do this, or I wouldn’t suggest it.  The only way to truly understand your character is to become him.

I asked my daughter, who also writes, what she feels when she becomes one of her characters.  She said it’s uncomfortable – for both her and the character.  This makes sense; everyone has personal space – even our characters – and no one likes being invaded.  The act of becoming a character, of putting on his skin, is a bit akin to being possessed.  Who we are in our normal everyday lives has to step back and go along for the ride with the character.  At this point we become documentarian or scribe and just write what he does, sees, touches, tastes, hears, and feels.

So when your character goes across the street to eat spicy noodles in a run-down little shop, you understand that one of his favorite childhood memories was visiting Thailand with his father and uncle after his mother died when he was twelve.  He couldn’t sleep one night and went for a walk, where an old woman saw him and fed him spicy noodle soup.  He never told anyone he went there, but he can still feel them slipping down his throat, smooth and delicious, with a burn at the end that left his eyes watering and his nose running.  This is the same shop and the same woman and the soup is just as good – and the old woman wasn’t as old as he thought, she just seemed old to a twelve-year-old boy.  On top of that, he hates raw fish, so he’ll never eat at a sushi place.

Just because you, as the writer, likes sushi, don’t assume your character does.  Only by becoming your character can you understand what he likes and dislikes, and why.  You gain a sense of his tastes, what turns him on, what makes him cry.

Remember, this is not about us.  This is about our character.  We don’t have to agree with his beliefs, morals, or politics.  Those are all our character’s choices.  Their choices are what make them who they are.

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[Image above is original artwork for Eric Brown’s Necropath series]

Eric Brown wrote the fascinating Necropath series set on an exotic spaceport tethered in the Bay of Bengal.  The main character is named Jeff Vaughan, a drug-addicted telepath.  He is deeply flawed and the ultimate hero, though it takes him some time to come to the conclusion he’s alright with being heroic.  The reader travels with him over three novels, getting to see his failures, his triumphs, and all the reasons he feels the way he does.  He rescues and marries a prostitute, the sister of a young girl who was murdered.  His choices are what form him, and eventually transform him.  While I personally would never choose to take drugs, I understood his motives.  I cared that he got himself in hand and moved forward with his life.

In the same way, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is a wonderful study in character immersion.  From the very beginning we care about poor little Harry, whose parents have been brutally murdered.  The fact that he’s abused by his relatives only makes us care more.  We want him to escape, and Hogwarts is a wonderful place – until it isn’t.  Ms. Rowling understood Harry and she dragged us into Harry’s character and his world, from which we surfaced reluctantly.

Think about your own favourite authors.  What do you love about their characters and why?

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So how does a writer become the character?  The simple answer is to talk with him.  That will only take you so far.  Ask him if he’ll take you with him, show you what he feels, sees, touches, smells, etc.  Promise him you’ll only write what he shows you.

Like any human relationship, there needs to be a measure of trust established before they will let you that close – or you are willing to get that close.  I have a character in one of my novels that I simply could not get a good handle on.  It seems as if there was a barrier between us and he was just showing me what he wanted me to see, not who he really is.  I finally asked him why and realized he’s desperately terrified of letting anyone get too close.  So he puts on this lovely smile and gives generous hugs, but he’s keeping the real him hidden.  This will take some work, but now I’ve got the glimmer of a way through to him.  The fact that he trusted me enough to let me see his fear is an honour.  I did not know about this facet of his character and it changes everything, opens new paths for the series.

None of this is easy, and many times I have to stop in the middle of the writing and check with my characters, especially if they are reluctant or recalcitrant.  Sometimes it’s a plot hole, or a plot bunny we think would be fun to chase (and which then needs to be unwritten), but usually it’s because I’m assuming my character wants one thing when he really wants/knows/feels something entirely different.  If I’d slow down and just write what my character is doing, seeing, feeling, etc., we’d be good.

Now that I am in my character’s skin, what do I do?  That’s for next time when I discuss how to write from the inside of our character.

I love hearing from my readers.  Which authors do you love for their characters and why?  If you write, how do you become your character?

Until next time, enjoy the journey.

Moving Right Along

The last time I blogged, NaNoWriMo was nearly here.  We are now thirteen days in and the writing is going well.  My usual goal is 2000-2500 words a day, so NaNo’s goal of 1667 words a day is easily achieveable.

On a good day.  This is November, so of course, there are distractions, storms, and doctor appointments.  To say nothing of Thanksgiving and the need to do Christmas baking so it can be sent.

I find this takes ruthless planning.  I write from 9 am to 1 pm, go and bake, cook dinner, and come back from 7-10 to get my words in.  Most days I can get them in by 1 pm and have the evenings free, but last night it took me ALL DAY to get in 2566 words.  it was like pulling teeth.  I knew what would happen, was giggling my way through the scene, but what was in my head would not come out on the screen.  It was definitely like giving birth: long, slow, and painful.

I liked what I got, though, so I’m happy.

For many writers, NaNoWriMo feels more intense than our normal writing, probably because we who do it have set goals, some like one of my friends, are really high — she wants to write 100K words this month!  Wow, you go, girl.  I’m enjoying watching her word count mount each day.  Another friend successfully finished her 50,000 words in eight days!  I am content to do my 50,000 words by the time Thanksgiving gets here, because after that, I have company which is more important than writing.  People always are.

Another reason for the intensity is some of us challenge ourselves to see how many words we’re capable of in a month.  This is good, I think. I look at NaNo as a marathon.  Some people will naturally run from the front of the pack, others in the middle, pacing themselves, and some will fall off the back.  The fact that they entered and ran is good, no matter if they finish or not.

I’m a pacer.  I hit 22,750 words last night.  I’m ahead of the curve by a few hundred words.  That’s really all I want.  I don’t want to feel too stressed.  I need to stay within myself for health and stress reasons, so I’m writing as I normally do: 2000 words every day.  Takes all the stress out.  The novel I’m writing will be done before I hit the 50K word mark.  I’m writing the last “half” for NaNo.  If I get done early, I’ll write a series of short stories to add to the word count.

I’m enjoying NaNo this year.  As usual, my characters surprise me.  I had one throw a twist into the storyline I hadn’t seen coming.  Hmm.  Not what I thought he was.  I was left wondering if there was another twist coming, and there is.  I can see it glimmering out at the end.  I’m still not sure how it will all fall out, but when it does it will make logical sense to the characters (and I hope, to the readers, too).  I don’t plot a great deal in advance, but keep the action that has taken place in mind so I don’t drop something in the future.  This novel has a lot of moving parts in a lot of different places.  I keep notes of where my characters are at different parts of the novel and then pick them up when I need them.  I need them all together at the end, so I’m having to plot this a bit more carefully but still give them room to move.

We have a huge storm blowing through right now, high winds, lots of rain and 27′ beach surf.  Dangerous conditions outside, but just perfect for staying in with a cup of tea or coffee and writing my next 2000 words.  I’ll see you all again soon.

How to Write With All Five Senses

A really good way to use the five senses in our descriptive passages. Tell me what you think. Write me a descriptive sentence of two using one or two of your five senses…

A Writer's Path

Smell

Description With All Five Senses

This might be a little grade school for some of you. Or you might think it’s a little grade school. Frankly, I think we could all stand to be reminded. So there you go.

When you are describing something, it looks a certain way. Yes indeedy. We get that. We got it three paragraphs ago. We got the visual flavor of this city through your description of Corinthian columns, crenellated parapets, vast marble blocks that take twelve oxen a week to tow anywhere useful.

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You Might Be a Writer If…

Just have to reblog one of the funniest posts I’ve ever read on being a writer. Thank you, Kristen Lamb.

Kristen Lamb's Blog

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A lot of “stuff” has been going on in my life lately. Hard stuff. Heavy stuff. The kind of stuff that just makes me want to write massacre scenes….except I am so brain dead I had to google how to spell “massacre.”

Masicker? Missucker?

WHAT AM I DOING???? *breaks down sobbing*

I am supposed to be an adult an expert okay, maybe functionally literate. Fine, I give up! I have nothing left to saaaaayyyyyy. I am all out of woooords *builds pillow fort*.

I figured it’s time for a bit of levity. Heck, I need a good laugh. How about you guys?

We writers are different *eye twitches* for sure, but the world would be SO boring without us. Am I the only person who watches Discovery ID and critiques the killers?

You are putting the body THERE? Do you just WANT to go to prison? Why did you STAB…

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Taking Notes

When I started writing seriously back in the 80s, I used loose-leafed sheets and a pencil (lots of them over the period of writing a complete novel).  I wanted to be able to erase my mistakes and get that first draft properly down before typing it on the typewriter.  I started with an old Olivetti or something like it.  No Selectric typewriter for me.  Then we got our first computer, one with the old changeable 5.25″ floppy disks.  I still kept everything on paper.  And a good thing, too; I got up one morning to find that 8 of the last 11 pages were missing — the middle 8 pages!  No big deal, I just rewrote from my notes.

In the beginning I did it all long hand, with scribbled phrases on the back side of the sheet.  Since then I have bought exercise books, journals, diaries, spiral bound notebooks both large and small, hard-bound or soft, bound notebooks with tear-sheets, and a myriad other configurations.  I have a love of all things notebook.  There is something about opening a fresh book that is stunning with possibilities.

I do try to make each notebook about one novel, but have just realized that didn’t happen with a couple of them; I was on the plane to and from Hawaii when an idea struck, so just used whatever was to hand.  I also have notebook I use for writing prompts and practices.  Still only one subject, but stories are usually short and range from fantasy to romance to science fiction, to speculative.  On the backs of pages, I often have a shopping list, phone numbers, notes for another story, a quote I think I’ll remember for a story in a different book, Christmas lists, a recipe, etc.

Yesterday I took some time to read a book I’ve been wanting to start for some time.  It is called Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks.  Of special interest to Christie fans and writers, it details how she wrote her stories, using her notes in 73 notebooks.  It’s fascinating reading, and I find I’m not the only one who writes random stuff on the back of the pages.  However, many of her book notes are scattered about throughout as many as six notebooks at a time and she will often have notes for as many as five or six books in one notebook.  She just started taking notes on whatever book came most easily to hand and on whatever page she opened to.  Amazing, and it shows the sort of mind she had: prolific, with ideas tumbling over one another, river-like.

These days my notebooks are sparser than they used to be.  I make notes on chapter ideas, something about the characters, maybe a reminder that X has grey eyes not green, and H is married to N and not T so that I can go back and make H married to the right person all the way through.  (Oh yes, here’s that salad recipe I wanted two weeks ago!  Well, I sort of made up a new one and wrote it down in another notebook.  Both were good).  If I’m stuck on a character and need to interview him, I often scribble down a series of interview questions and sometimes the answers.  Once in a while I get a good bit of the chapter down just to makes sure I’m going in the right direction — or I want to explore a different direction.

Do any of you use notebooks? And if so, please describe them. What is your note-taking writing style?