A Peek into MisCon 26, Part 5
In the panel transcriptions, I’m mostly paraphrasing what the panelists said. If there are any errors, they’re mine and mine alone. For any corrections, just drop me a note.
I’ve only written, like, two query letters before and they were kind of hit-or-miss, so I figured I’d see what the pros had to say about this in the panel “The Art & Science of Query Letters.” The panelists were S.A. Bolich, Margaret Bonham, J.A. Pitts, Eldon Thompson, and John Dalmas. (AQ is an audience question.)
(From left to right: J.A. Pitts, Eldon Thompson, S.A. Bolich, Margaret Bonham)
JAP: What’s solicited and unsolicited? What’s the goal of the query letter?
MB: Your goal is to pique the interest of the reader, that is the editor. You need a good lead to pull them in. Offer them a question to interest them. It should be short, sweet, and to the point. Give them a feeling of your writing style. You should address your query to a specific editor or it will go to the slush pile, especially in places where they take unsolicited queries.
ET: It is always better to target your query.
SAB: It’s far better to send it to an editor as requested material. I find I have better luck with editors than agents although agents can get you better deals.
ET: You need a track record if you’re unsolicited. You need to say, “I met you at this particular event.” You need to target the recipient. And have your work done before you query.
JAP: Editors and agents need a query. When they say to send a query and you’re not on a deadline, you don’t have to worry too much. But if you’re on a deadline, you need to do it.
ET: Get it polished first. Do your homework. Don’t send a cookbook to a sci-fi editor.
MB: That’s a waste of time and effort and it may annoy the editor. I once got a query from a girl. There were several e-mails as I tried to see what she wrote, but she didn’t even know what an rtf file was.
ET: You can hide deficiencies in a query. You’re teasing, you want them asking for more. Know what they’re publishing. Flattery can get you in the door and it shows you’ve done your homework. You want a mutual working relationship, so filter.
JAP: Look at Publisher’s Weekly. 60-80% of the editors are there and you can find who published particular books. Editors all talk to each other. So have professional interactions.
SAB: Keep up with the industry since editors move around.
JD: There are books on how to write query letters. All publisher sites have guidelines for you to follow.
JAP: There are many examples on the web such as a blog by an agent from the Donald Maass Literary Agency. You need to ask yourself, what are you trying to accomplish?
ET: You need to look at it from their perspective. They’re trying to look for good material, but they receive lots of stuff. It’s like L.A. traffic, you have to fight your way through.
JAP: For Surrey International Writers’ Conference in Canada, you can have a one on one with editors. I met my editor at RadCon. Act like a professional. If they say to e-mail them, then it’s solicited. Have the e-mail ready.
MB: In one of my writing classes, there was a lady who just wrote titles. So you have to write the book. The book must be finished.
JAP: They’re content sellers. They dream of finding the next Harry Potter, but they have to get through the backlog. You need to be compelling and practice your craft. This shows in the query. Query letters can be different depending on who you send it to.
ET: I have different templates for each type of submission. You have to figure out, what is the “in” with that person? When you’re talking to an editor, don’t keep talking or they’ll glaze over.
JAP: Do the elevator pitch. It’s short, two to three sentences. X meets Y.
ET: But only draw attention to successful properties X and Y.
SAB: And it has to be something that they’re familiar with.
ET: Or don’t hate.
SAB: It needs to be interesting so they want to see it.
ET: The pitch should be 25 words or less according to some. Others say 17 is the magic number. It doesn’t matter how many subplots you have, there’s a main theme.
JD: [An example of a pitch] Second Coming – what if it happens in our time?
MB: Great! Send it to me.
JAP: Twitter is where the elevator pitch started.
ET: A key error is when people try to describe the premise. Don’t use superlatives. Don’t say “awesome” or “wonderful” since you’re asking for an opinion. Don’t tell them their reaction.
SAB: Show, don’t tell.
AQ: How many people don’t come across as professional?
Entire panel: Most.
MB: For me, the first chapter or first page is usually make or break.
JAP: Online, there are people who track this. 40% who get rejected can’t follow basic rules. They send it to the wrong house or can’t spell the agent’s name right.
MB: They don’t have coherent sentences, they use texting and abbreviations. You need good English. Follow the guidelines from query books.
JAP: Pro writers will also put out their query letters.
ET: I have one on my website.
MB: You can buy the editor drinks.
AQ: What if you go to cons to meet editors but you don’t know where they are?
JAP: If you write mystery, go to mystery cons. You can look at dedications, Publisher’s Weekly, online search, and networking.
JD: It’s easier to get an agent if you have short fiction sales, even if the agent doesn’t handle short stories. You can also ask other authors to intercede with their editor and you may get past the slush pile.
ET: What about introductions to yourself in query letters?
MB: Generally, no. Usually you start with the elevator pitch before listing your credentials. Be succinct. List credits especially if it’s a credit that the editor knows about. This may not necessarily be pro ‘zines since editors know other editors.
ET: But if you have no credits, don’t address it. Use your strengths for the intro. If you have no strengths, don’t address it either.
JAP: If you write a medical thriller and you’re a doctor, say you’re a doctor.
AQ: One resource is AgentQuery Connect.
ET: You can use a focus group or some test people to see how your query letter comes across.
SAB: Especially people coming in cold.
MB: Many editors read queries at 2 AM and they’re bleary-eyed. If they can’t make heads or tails of it, you’re not clear.
AQ: What about newer agents?
JAP: Ask yourself, what do you want? If you want to sell to New York, get a New York agent (although there are exceptions). Target the top and go down. There’s no licensing to be an agent. You might want to get a middle agent if an established agent is concentrating on high profile authors.
JD: Some agencies have staff.
JAP: If the agent is in a good agency.
AQ: Does length of the book matter?
JAP: Depends on the genre. Is your story right? Let the agents and editors worry about marketing.
SAB: Before querying, go to Preditors & Editors.
ET: Don’t go to anyone who will charge you to read your stuff.
JD: Go to the publisher’s website and follow their instructions.
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Stayed tuned for Part 6, which is on romantic fantasy.