Tuesday, April 25, 2006

What Not to Put in Your Query Letter

Perhaps there are evil editors who take pleasure in rejecting your brilliant work, simply because it's better than anything they could do. But consider that an editor has a job to do. His job is to identify writing that's good enough to lead to fame and fortune. Not for you, of course; for his publishing house.

Evil Editor has seen pieces on the Internet doling out such trivial advice as, "Don't use the term 'Ms.,' when writing to an editor, for fear of offending." Look, there may be editors whose skin is so thin they would risk losing a bestseller to another house just for the satisfaction of temporarily destroying the hopes of a writer who typed "Ms. Leslie Fleigelschmidt," when he should have typed "Mr. Leslie Fliegelshmidt," just as there is, no doubt, a waitress somewhere who would risk her job for the satisfaction of spitting into the soup of a customer who earlier mistakenly addressed her as "sir" because she bears a striking resemblance to Robert DeNiro, but for the most part, editors want to find good books that they believe large numbers of people will buy, so that their publishing company will flourish and get bought out by a German conglomerate that will downsize and squeeze them out.

I pay no attention to anything in a query letter other than the author's description of the work, and the author's writing skills, as evidenced by the only thing I have to go on: his or her ability to compose a query letter. Oh, I might also notice your credits, like if Random House published your last novel, but then I'll wonder why they aren't publishing this one, and I'll start thinking maybe you're trying to capitalize on your recent success by unloading that old rag you wrote twenty years ago that's been rejected by everyone in the business, including, a few years back, me.

The purpose of a query letter is to make an editor want to read your book. You have about a page in which to do this. Why waste any of that precious space telling your life story, confessing that you're unpublished, bragging that your sister's friends love the book, or demonstrating that you can't spell? I'm not necessarily going to refuse to look at your novel about a Philadelphia lawyer just because you wasted half your query letter telling me you've worked as a nun, a stripper, and an astronaut, but unless you've worked as a Philadelphia lawyer, you're wasting valuable space. You're telling me things you could save for later when we meet to celebrate the publication of your work, and . . . uh oh, it's happening. I'm starting to lose interest in your novel! I'm starting to think, If this writer can't stay on topic in a one-page letter, do I want to read his entire book? I'm starting to think, Did I forget to turn off the Mr. Coffee this morning?

Below are a few other items you might consider omitting from your query letter, again, not because they are the kiss of death, but because the space could be better used writing about your book (and also because you don't want excerpts from your query letter appearing in Evil Editor's blog). By the way, examples are taken from actual query letters, cut and pasted from e-mail letters, with errors in spelling, grammar, etc. intact--Evil Editor is too lazy to retype or repair anything, and certainly too lazy to spend time making this stuff up):

1. Name Dropping

I am a young writer, around the age Matthew Pearl was when he began his best-seller, The Dante Club.

I’ve added a touch of the Dan Brown style with mystery, but I took it to ten levels above that.

I believe the timelessness of authors such as George Orwell and H.G. Wells proves that there will be a large and continuous audience for this genre of fiction.

My work has already been professionally edited by, Dawn Doddle, editor of Sleuth Editing.

My style has been compared to Twain and Harte, Vonnegut and Hiaasen, and Marlowe and Spillane.

My novel has one very important thing in common with Dan Brown’s "The Da Vinci Code" - its subject matter has the potentially of being tremendously controversial.

i make spephen kings book look like a walk through the park

Before I go anyfurther I would liek to know if you would be interested in reading the first of five fantasy novels for children that are much in the spirit of Harry Potter?

2. Your Opinion of Your Work

Every page overflows with desecrated horror.

This book will make you laugh one minute and cringe in horror the next, but it will not let you put it down.

I look forward with enormous anticipation to working with your Publishing Firm in marketing Ascending Powers toachieve the astounding sales this book will broadcast.

I must stress that this is not done in a way that seems to try to shove a load of crap down the reader’s throat.

Why would you want to read my fiction? "Sales" is the most direct answer.

This story will take you on a spell binding experience; with a twist that will question everything you thought to be make believe.

3. Your Future Projects

I am technically finished with the manuscript but am rewriting it for the 3rd time.I am also working on a story about how the tooth fairy came to be.

"Visions of Eden" is the first book in the five part "Biography of an Earther Saga". Books two through four are also complete. The last novel in this series is set for completion in Q1 2002. Further, I have solid plans for "Lisa" (anticipated completion 9/1/2002) and "Raia" (3/1/2003), a two-book follow on series entitled "The Earther's Daughter". After that, I currently plan to begin work on the Ancestors series of between eight and twelve novels. All of these novels are related, telling the same overall story at different time periods.

4. Clever First Sentences that Fall Flat

Dear Editorial Department: "I am King David, although I wasn’t always one.

5. Unimpressive or Irrelevant Credits

I am an English major and for two years served as editor for my college newspaper.

My life has been checkered with past experience as a mover, lifeguard/swimming instructor, door-to-door salesman, carpenter's helper, Russian translator, soldier, phone solicitor, collections counselor, and teacher.

Though I have yet to publish a novel, an early version of one of my novels, made “Editor’s Choice” in a writer’s group.

I have written articles for The Woodstock Times and Charleston Magazine.

If you check out my website, you will notice that I have written another unpublished novel

6. Your Financial Situation

Also, I'd be happy to email anyone a synopsis, but as I'm very poor (currently) I can't really afford even postage on mailing stuff off

7. Whether Your Book Would Make a Great Movie

This book would make a great movie.

Tomorrow: Do you need an agent?


Jessica said...

You're too funny. Love your sense of humour. So glad that you're writing this blog. I know it's meant to strike fear into the hearts of writers, so I apologize if I offend you, but what you've written has actually taken alot of the angst out of sending out my ms, when and if I ever finish it. :) If one were to believe all one reads or hears about editors, well, they become a daunting breed of monster. I just had a difficult time believing all that shit, and thanks to you, I see that I was wise to withold judgement--this time. Btw, your writing is primo excellente. Keep writing. Thanks.

Your new fan,


Anonymous said...

As if we writers didn't have enough to obsess over--now I live in fear of some editor finding my query so comically inept that he posts it on a blog for the world to deride!

Thanks for the laughs and advice,


none said...

Oh dear, irrelevant credits is what I usually end up with, because I don't have any RELEVANT ones. Sometimes I even try for humour.

I need help...

Anonymous said...

This post should open with a beverage warning. I almost spluttered my tisane all over the screen.


word verification: grrrorie
(looks like an onomatopoeia for some bizarre animal)

Anonymous said...

this is the best advice i have found! so direct and with a touch of humor.