Sunday, September 6, 2015

Writing Tips: How to Wirte a Bomb-Diggity Query Letter

 I was chatting with some agents about no-no’s in a query, so I thought I’d write a little post about what to actually include in a query. For aspiring writers, when trying to get an agent, or even an editor if you want to bypass or don't need/want an agent, a query letter is your first point of contact. You have to be professional. Agents aren’t your buddies. This isn’t the time to write like you text. Behave in a way that you would when seeking employment…decent employment…at a well-known and respected company…that has the potential to take you places.

 First off, address the agent by name with a Mr. or Mrs., and once in a while, a Dr. if applicable. You should know wether your agent is a man or a woman because by the time you write a query geared toward them, you would have read their website, perhaps internet stalked them for interviews, panel quotes, Twitter wish lists, etc. Remember how annoying it is when someone gets your name wrong? Spell those names correctly! Double and triple check!

 The letter itself should be about three to four paragraphs long. The first paragraph can either dive right into a hook or pitch that should snag their attention and tell them what the book is about and leave them wanting more. That’s a lot of pressure to put into an opening line, isn’t it? It is, which is why you need to take the time to perfect that hook. Imagine if you were riding an elevator with a dream agent and you had five seconds to wow them. This is your pitch. Pitch it well. If you’d read somewhere that they were looking for this exact thing, mention where you read that. If you’ve met them or someone recommended you or the agent themselves requested a query, mention it here. A lot of queries happen because of pitch sessions, meet and greets, contests, etc.

 The next paragraph or two should be a quick synopsis introducing the main characters, wonderfully weaving in the main plot and conflict. This should read like a book blurb, or that intriguing bit of info on the back of the book. Imagine this agent has picked up your book and reads the blurb. Will it make them want to open the book or put it back on the shelf? Be clear and pique their interest. Read lots of cover blurbs to get an idea of execution.

 The final paragraph should be a mini-bio telling the agent a little about yourself and your credentials, but only things that pertain to your novel and writing. Have an MFA in writing? Include it! Have a PhD in genetics and you’re writing about a sci-fi that deals with DNA? Say so! Your momma and the entire neighborhood raved about your book? …Uh, no. Leave that out. This letter is like a resume. Keep it professional and pertinent. Here’s the time to mention notable writing credits, awards, platforms, professional writing organizations, etc.

 End with a thank you and a polite sign-off. Include your name, email, phone number, and if this is a snail mail query, a mailing address.

 Sometimes, agents request a sample to be attached to the query letter. This will be in their submission guidelines. The first page, first three pages, first ten pages, first chapter, first three chapters, entire manuscript, synopsis, whatever it is. Mention in your closing paragraph that you’ve included material. Unless otherwise noted, always copy and paste in the email. Agents, like most people, are wary about attachment emails from strangers.

 And those are your basics for writing a query letter. No gimmicks. No randomness. No creepiness. No over-powering flattery. No flatness.

 Is it a lot of work? Yes. It may take you days or weeks or months to perfect your boiler plate query letter, to be tweaked and personalized for each agent, but it’s worth it. You may have only one chance at getting their attention for this book. This should set the precedence of how your relationship will go and tells agents about the type of writer you are. Are you going to be sloppy, put in little effort? No. You are not. You’re going to take your time, then send it to writer friends for feedback and critique. You’re going to take time to carefully read agent websites and guidelines and make sure they represent your genres and styles and have sold books that you wished you had written or love reading. Because that means your agent has similar tastes, and that’s important. Take out more time to find interviews and wish lists, and sometimes agents have lists of things they don’t want to see right now. Pay attention. Don't waste their time, don't waste your time.

 Will they take anywhere from one minute to several months to reply? Yep. Is that fair? Well, again, like sending out resumes for a highly sought after job, one agent might get thousands of queries a year and you need to stand out. You’re after them, so you put in the effort and let it show in your query.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Desiderata for Approval

 There is an innate desideratum in all of us, and at some point that was/is approval. From a parent, sibling, significant other, instructor, boss, social or religious leader…we have the need to either seek or crave acceptance. I remember when my name was added to a plaque in the school’s trophy case for literary and artistic excellence. I went to the awards ceremony with my neighbors because we were all nominated for something. Some in sports, some in academics, others in the creative reaches. Imagine my delight when they called my name and handed me a two-foot tall trophy, and then my stupor when I tried to walk off stage twice, and twice they said, hold on…you have another. I went home with three trophies that night. It was the talk of the school that week, but not the talk of the family. Poetry? Art? Well, those are just hobbies. Does that sting because you hoped for approval?

 Let’s say that you strive to do good things and are a good person and by someone’s standards are knocked down and ripped apart, do you let it get to you? Is the judgment and lies from people who are jealous, envious, or even just annoyed by your gifts going to burrow beneath your skin? Will people with power over you abuse and forsake their positions and responsibilities to belittle and drag you down the rabbit hole (because at some point, if it’s constant, it will make you a little crazy)? Is the color of your skin, your culture, your gender, your economic and educational status the target of misogyny, bigotry, or defamation of character?

 These aren’t trick questions. These things will always be true. Someone, whether close to you, a stranger, an insignificant acquaintance passing you on the path of life, will do or say hurtful things. They will not give you approval. But here’s the thing…don’t seek approval from them. Why? Even if they mean something to you, even if the mere thought of not being accepted cripples you, it doesn’t matter. There’s a bigger scheme of things, a giant canvas where these negative blotches are hidden by the beauty of the picture as a whole. Make sure that what you add enhances this beauty because that is the only way ugliness will not prevail.

 Why am I even talking about this? Because you’ll most likely face these things in one form or another. Knowing this world, most likely dozens of times over. It may be in response to your writing, or it may be in reference to a million other things in life.

 Remember that you can always try to be a better writer or a better person or a better student or a better worker, but not by the standards of pointless people. Don’t write or express your passion or do anything for the sake of the wrong people. They don’t get that privilege. Point. Blank.

 We seek or expect approval sometimes. Encouragement is a desideratum of the human psyche. But you don’t need it from worthless people who think “impunity” is their middle name. You really don’t. You can pursue and accomplish dreams without them. You kind of have to, right? That’s the point here. They don’t want to support you, they'll do anything to drag you down, so you do it without them. And when you think you are alone, you’re not. Because there are nurturing instructors and communities and fellow creative minds and true friends who appreciate you. Ignore the naysayers. Forget the haters. Stay focused. Move forward. Enjoy and explore your dreams. Because when you fight for it and keep fighting and are doing the right thing, you’ll get there and success will taste sweeter when you look back and see the carnage left behind by hatred, the carnage that never consumed you.

 The desiderata, then, should be approval from the right source, happiness, and a healthy and productive psyche.