So, you’ve written a book. It’s awesome that you’ve actually finished it. If it’s ready for publication, it will have a compelling beginning, a strong middle and a satisfying end.
Assuming those things are in order, you’re pumped because it’s a great book, and you’ve done your very best. Hopefully, you’ve had it edited and are confident that it’s ready to mail. You’re on the downhill side of this process, right? Wrong.
As much as we all wish we could avoid it, there’s something else that’s just as important as the book itself. That’s the proposal, beginning with the query letter. We need to be just as passionate about writing query letters as about writing the book itself.
Just as you and I wouldn’t try to make a great first impression in our old frumpy sweat clothes, it’s essential to make a masterful and memorable first impression on those to whom we’re pitching our work. As the saying goes, you only get one chance to make a great first impression. And I will go so far as to say that the query needs to be just as enticing and excellent as the book if you’re going to grab the editor’s fragmented attention.
Think of how you evaluate a book. First you look at the cover, and it has to be intriguing, colorful, catchy—something to entice you to pick it up. Then it has to capture your mind, your attention with the back cover or inside jacket blurb. The same is true of the query letter.
Many editors get thousands of proposals a month. With limited time for each one, you have to make yours stand out from the rest. You have to make it sing.
Okay, so how do you do that? Well, just as you and I need a hook to get our reader past the first paragraph or the first page, we need to hook the editor immediately, by using a dynamite query letter.
He doesn’t have time to read pages on the subject. He needs it to be short, sweet and to the point. A half page to a page is perfect.
So your first line might be a hook/question. I’ve used this one—“Every woman wants to be married, doesn’t she?”
Think about your book. What’s the one question you can ask or statement you can make that will make the reader want to know more? Dare him to keep reading? Your challenge is to capture that editor’s mind, to break through all the distractions vying for his attention.
After your introductory question or first sentence hook, you want to sell the story idea. Think about how you tell the storyline to your best friend. You put your heart and soul into the writing, and you probably put that same effort into pitching the idea to your friend so she catches your vision. Okay, well, now’s the time to do that same thing with the editor.
Give him the soul version, with punch.
Here’s a sample. “When the same nightmare wakens fifty-year old Kellan Richardson for the thousandth time, she is trembling and soaked with perspiration, grateful that her husband hasn’t moved to another room or even another galaxy. As an RN and a doctor of psychotherapy, her life is out of control. A plaque on her wall echoes her heart cry. “Physician, heal thyself.”
As the victim of a botched abortion, forced on her by her aunt thirty years earlier and the subsequent hysterectomy to save Kellan’s life, she now has terrifying nightmares of the awful event and feels like she’s falling apart.
As if things weren’t bad enough, her first patient of the morning is a twenty-eight year old woman, suffering from her own post abortion trauma.
And to make matters worse, Kellan only spirals further when she catches a glimpse of the man who did her abortion years earlier, on the front page of the newspaper. He is accused of failing to pay taxes on millions of dollars of unclaimed income.
In an attempt to heal from her past, she composes a letter to the abortionist, intending to destroy it later. But her husband, Zack, inadvertently mails it, unaware of its contents.
Thus begins a horrifying ordeal, as a crazed Dr. Sam Sweeney decides to make an example of Kellan, hoping to put the fear of God into those he perceives as harassing him.
When the threats only increase, she must face her own inadequacies, before finding that God is completely faithful, no matter what the circumstances.”
Just as you did with your story, try to pare down the words, fine-tuning until not a single unnecessary word remains. Remember, you want every word to count. So make every word as active and dynamic as possible.
After you’ve written your query letter, don’t be in a hurry to send it. Instead, lay it aside for a day or two and come back, looking at it with fresh vision. Does it grab you? If not, rewrite it to make it sing. You can do this!
Hopefully, the melody will be a catchy tune the editor will be humming for months and years to come, excited about the prospect of publishing your story.
Copyright 2004, Nancy Arant Williams. Used by permission.