To Query or Not to Query

There are two words in the English language that never fail to give me a painful case of writers block: Query Letter.

Just the thought of it has me wiping sweaty palms on my jeans. Writing a query letter often feels like an exercise in futility, like I’m sending out a request for another rejection. Even when I’ve carefully researched the market, picking only those houses that publish fiction like mine, I’ll still have a rough time finding the words to tell them how great my story is while staying within the suggested boundaries of the query letter.

There are countless articles and resources to help craft a strong intro and a good hook. They offer examples, advice and the ever-useful template. I want to write exactly what an editor wants to read. I want to offer her a perfect synopsis of my masterpiece, so I’m paying rapt attention to every tip I can get. But I’m not going to kid myself that there aren’t thousands of other writers reading those same tips and adding them to their letters.

The editor I’m trying to impress may read dozens of queries every day, and except for author names and story titles sometimes it might seem like the same letter repeating itself. I know that my eyes might start to glaze over and skip some of the details, which is where the gravy is.

There aren’t many ways around that for beginners, unless you’ve got a relative who’s in the biz. So you might as well suck it up and conform to the norm. Pick out a template for the basic framework of your query letter. Check each publication’s guidelines – like when you’re on a job hunt and tailoring each resume and cover letter to match potential employers. Confirm the address and the editor’s name. This person has likely never heard of you –let alone read your work– so don’t start off by misspelling her name.

I’m certainly guilty of rebelling against the norm and meandering off the template path, but I’ve also lost count of the query letters I’ve sent that elicited no response at all. These days I’m less likely to stray from the pattern and am learning to appreciate a good foundation for my letter writing.

Templates still allow plenty of space to pitch your story, so take advantage of this first opportunity to make an impression, to express your idea or story in such a unique way that it stands out from the chaff. The point of a query letter is to tantalize, to seduce an editor into wanting more of what you have to offer. To pique her interest so she’s eager for more. To make her want your story over any other.

I spend far too much time agonizing over nearly every word in every query letter I write. I want to make a good impression but resent the whole exercise because I’d much rather be writing stories instead. But the letter must be written or no one is ever going to read it.

I’ve wished for an easier way to get my work noticed, a system that would let me just toss it out there and hope it stuck to something. Something simpler than soliciting one potential publisher at a time. Something far-reaching, like maybe a personal ad for my manuscript, if I knew editors were trolling the classifieds:

Exciting new manuscript seeks publisher for meaningful, stable relationship. You are powerful, well-connected and share many of my interests. I am vibrant and enjoy meeting new readers…there’s plenty of me to go around. I promise that once you pick me up, you won’t be able to put me down. Make me an offer I can’t refuse and we’ll make beautiful novels together.”

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