Writing a Query Letter That Sells

by Alex Keegan

I'm a great advocate of write-write-write (rewrite) submit-submit-submit, but I also tell my students not to submit unsolicited manuscripts of novels! Yes there are stories -- we all know at least one -- of manuscripts plucked off the slush pile and making millionaires of their creator, but how many of these good-luck stories do we know? Two? Twenty? Two hundred? Remember there are almost one hundred thousand books published in the UK/US every year. Sure there are going to be some surprises, but the reality of submitting lumps of manuscript by mail and then hoping is that it is a very, very long-shot indeed, and, (and this is the real point), inefficient and a waste of money. Every story that did surprisingly make it off the slush-pile, could have been sold, (at least stage one), with an approach/query letter. And the 32 cents a time for query letters compares incredibly well with $10 a package for your great American novel.

Editors are the world's busiest people. I was staggered when I got to see and appreciate the workload of my first editor. What reading she did was done travelling, late at night, and at weekends. Did she carry massive manuscripts around, unsolicited ones? No, she said, she had enough to do with the ones she had solicited, ones that came from agents, ones from established writers -- and not only that, she said, but have you seen the quality of the average unsolicited manuscript? This last point is crucial. When a publisher gets an unsolicited MSS, he expects it to be bad. Sure everyone wants to find the next literary heavyweight or the next John Grisham but bitter experience tells them that the odds are massively against finding gold -- and here's the crunch, they are tuned in to expect to reject and are therefore even more likely to reject. One publisher once said "We reject them all because the odds are so much in favour of that as an efficient method." So what if they miss one gem? How much time, effort and money does it cost to find that one gem? Why bother when there are MSS coming in anyway from richer-veined sources? Many publishers now don't accept unsolicited manuscripts at all.

So my advice is, when you've written your novel, and re-read it, re-written it, then polished it to the best of your ability and laser-printed it with good margins, good spacing, correctly page-numbered and it's ready to send out, don't! Instead, sell the idea, learn to sell the story, preferably in a single page, never more than two. Why? Well, you know how busy editors are -- give them their chance of finding gold but give it to them in a short, snappy, interesting, read-while-having-a-coffee, byte-sized chunk. They'll have the time to read an unsolicited letter, it might be from a new Tom Clancy.

Now one response is, "But I can't write a short, snappy letter!" OK, say I, give up writing, go away and become a potter. You're a writer, a wannabe novelist and you tell me you can't, you can't learn to write one good query letter? So why should I think you can write an interesting opening, good characters, and dialogue that's alive? Isn't a good, professional letter an example of your ability? Oh and by the way, quiet confidence is OK, but please don't over-hype your story, don't be cute. Introduce yourself briefly and then outline your novel.

So what should your letter contain? Not the plot, definitely not the plot. Have you ever tried to describe a plot, even of a damn good film? Why does it always come over as boring, full of loose ends, hopelessly convoluted? Well, one, we don't actually care what the intricacies of plots are, what we care about are the protagonists and their problems. We want an idea of what kind of book it is, when and where it's set and what happens to the people. That's enough. Remember, commercial editors are pressurised, they make quick decisions. This decision is whether to answer you or not, then with a no or a "Please send more details." At this moment they are thinking ballpark only; they want to know if there's a possibility your story might suit them, could fill a slot. The letter suggests, the follow-up will contain the evidence either way. So hook them!

I got serious about my writing in October, 1992. In June, 1993, I went to another writer's conference. I listened to Caroline Oakley, then of Headline Books, who said that certain genres were out of fashion and that other genres were just coming into vogue. I listened when she said that Women-in-Jeopardy novels were in great demand. I listened at a second lecture when she explained how to approach a publisher, how to frame an introductory letter, how too many people sent in page after page of a detailed plot. What was needed, Caroline explained, was a short letter, one page, a maximum of two, outlining the essence of the book, the who and where and maybe the why. Caroline wanted to know the genre and the essential conflicts affecting the protagonist.

I decided to write to Caroline after the conference. But when I looked at my saved Caz Flood blurb it was five pages long! I set myself a target of 200 words which was really hard to achieve. When I'd composed the letter - and I took two days polishing it -- it was as good as I could make it.

Dear Caroline,

I attended two of your lectures at the recent writer's conference in Southampton and we spoke briefly about a WIJ thriller I've been writing. If I had to encapsulate the book in a line it might be:

"Caz Flood desperately needs to prove herself, she might die trying."

Caz Flood is a brand-new detective constable, an athlete and fiercely independent. She is confused as to what she wants from men and her drive to become a very special policeman conflicts with a budding romance. She stumbles on to a gruesome "domestic" killing and, a small cog in the resultant investigation, she fights to make an input. She is outgunned because she is junior, inexperienced AND a woman.

Her boss, DI MacInnes, is an obsessive catcher of killers. He sees Flood as his eventual replacement and steers her away from the worst excesses of the police department. Flood is at odds with her superiors but forced to keep her head down. When the series of killings is apparently solved, Flood has the last weekend to tidy up the loose ends and chooses to do this, rather than consummate the relationship.

In these few days, she manages to uncover the twist in the tail, comes close to being murdered herself, overcomes the real killer and realises she is becoming more like DI MacInnes every day. She hasn't yet totally forsaken her personal life for one catching bad people, but deep down, she knows the two don't go together.

I trust the above shows the three conflicts to be resolved without telling the story! One other thing - DNA finger-printing looks like taking half the mystery out of who-dunnits. But what if a villain turned the science to his advantage? I have 26,000 words completed from an estimated 90-110,000. I would be grateful if you would take a look at them on behalf of Headline.

This letter is 314 words, the actual book outline is 198 words.

The Reply

Many thanks for yesterday's fax -- and congratulations, your letter of introduction does the job extremely well. I'd love to see the first 25,000 words or so of Caz Flood's story. It sounds exactly the kind of material we are looking for at the moment.

And the rest, as they say, is history...

Alex Keegan British Crime and Literary Fiction Author Alex Keegan is publisher and editor of the British literary magazine, Seventh Quark. He is creator of the five Caz Flood novels: Cuckoo (Headline Books, St. Martin's Press), Vulture, Kingfisher, Razorbill (Headline Books) and A Wild Justice (Piatkus Books) which all feature feisty female private investigator Catherine "Caz" Flood. Cuckoo was published in the U.S. by St Martin's Press, and was nominated for an Anthony Award as best first novel.

His prize-winning short stories have been featured in numerous publications including Mystery and Manners, BBC Radio 4, Blue Moon Review, Southern Ocean Review, and The Atlantic. He is a Contributing Editor for The Internet Writing Journal. His blog can be found here.

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