Monday, February 20, 2006

Tuesday Tips: Showing a little leg to get a john

The end of the writing and re-writing and editing and another re-write, hairpulling, cursing and swearing or weeping and gnashing of teeth and finally re-writing again is something not unlike having your tender regions mashed through a cheese grater - querying publishers and agents.

Once you believe your book is ready to be marketed, it's time to step out there and show the world what you've got. The majority of writers are limited to querying agents and publishers via snailmail, or in some cases, email.

What this means is that you can't rely on your boyish charm, your winning smile, your funny jokes and your easy-going manner to get an agent or publisher to warm up to you. You'll actually have to sell your work to them first.

The cover letter is your first introduction to the person you're trying to get to look at your work. When I attended Harrogate last summer, the panel of agents and publishers agreed: typos in the cover letter show me you're lazy and don't take writing seriously. One even said that typos in the cover letter means the rest goes in the garbage.

Sound harsh? You bet. But here's the reality: Once you start trying to sell your work, whatever you've called it up 'til then, writing is your career. If you drag your ass into the office half hour late with your face unshaven, smelling like gin and with your shirt untucked, your pants having more wrinkles than a 105-year-old woman's face... well, most employers are only going to let that go so long.

Your cover letter is you walking in the door for that interview. You need to impress.

This is where it helps to know a bit about who you're approaching. I find this part hard. Not all agents publish client lists, but if you can find out who represents the authors you write like, then it's a good starting point. Those agents already know where to market your work because it fits with the list of material they've been selling.

So, no typos. No coffee stains. No crumpled corners or handwritten notes from the last agent that rejected it.

Clean, crisp, professional.

Some agents and publishers want a letter and a synopsis. Some want a few chapters. Whatever they ask for, that's what you should send. Nothing irritates an agent more than getting what they don't want, and remember, you want them to recognize your name for positive reasons, not because you're the latest person added to their shitlist.

To be honest with you, I think it can be hit and miss when it comes to writing a good query letter. This is the beginning of the one I used for one of my manuscripts:


My husband once told me a true story about three small-town drug pushers who were decapitated in an accident when their truck drove under a semi.

As a volunteer firefighter, he was thinking about the strain of searching through ditches for heads. I was thinking that if you could find a way to stage such an accident, it might be the perfect murder. That was the genesis of ECHOES AND DUST.

Constable JACK ROBERTS has spent years trying to deal with his past by avoiding it. Since he was arrested as a teenager for assaulting his mother he’s worked hard to establish his career in the serious crime division of the Surrey Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) Department in British Columbia’s bustling lower mainland area.

Jack’s career path takes an unexpected twist when he is temporarily transferred to his hometown after an officer there is injured in a suspicious accident. He is unaware that the injured officer had been investigating the team, and is faced with open hostility from Constable VAN MCIVER, including open allegations that Jack is connected to the local drug trade through the criminal activities of his family, known for smuggling various contraband across the Canada-US border for decades.

Galveston, a growing city in the BC interior, is experiencing an influx of crime including drug trafficking and vicious attacks that hint at gang activity. Shortly after Jack returns to Galveston, the body of a young girl is found on the street. Jack’s new sergeant, already under pressure to address the local drug trade, now has to deal with a sixteen-year-old runaway who died of an overdose...


Technically, I don't know how well it measures up to the standard advice. But something about it got a lot of interest, because I had multiple offers for publication or representation on that manuscript. And each one came after I got in the door with this query.

One of the things I did was write it, send it out a few places that I thought there was no chance in hell I'd get a look from, and wait for the rejections. Then, I tweaked the query with each rejection. It wasn't long before a form rejection turned into a personal note, and then the "This sounds really interesting, but I'm afraid my client list is full at the moment" turned into, "Send me more."

So, that's how I figured out I was on the right path. Trial and error.

If you can think of your book in terms of a back-jacket blurb and get that into a query letter, then tack on the ending so they know where the story is going and how it's resolved, it's the best way to approach writing a query. Quick, tight, concise writing that reflects your style while giving enough of the plot to wet the appetite.

I'm planning the Tuesday Tips as a new thing to discuss writing topics, since some people have asked for that regularly. And I don't mind having something I try to do every week, but you can't get mad if I miss one every now and again.

But I would REALLY appreciate topic suggestions, so if you're into this, leave a comment with an idea for a future Tuesday. I started this week with something boring and safe. Next week, I'll maybe discuss how to kidnap a publisher and use the 'Misery' strategy to sell your book.

Or not. If my publisher is reading, I meant talk about the terrible people who harass publishers...

Now, off to la-la land. But I will have the article up about the bookstore owner and some general advice in the morning.

My morning, that is!

And now, A Wish For All The Difficult People In Your Life (boy this would have been great yesterday)


Bonnie Calhoun said...

Yikes...that looks like it could shred a few butts!

That was a great attention grabbing query...good job...but then the proof is in the worked...again congrats!

JamesO said...

I hate writing query letters. It's the ultimate distillation of months (sometimes years) of solitary work into a dozen sentences, and however good you are at it, the end result always seems to sell all that effort short.

Your introduction certainly grabs the attention (though I take issue with any part of BC being 'bustling'!)

I look back at some of my early letters and cringe. I seem to have tried almost everything from 'here's a book, what do you think?' brief, to rambling disections of the publishing industry that almost fail to mention the manuscript I'm trying to sell at all. I figure most agents and publishers will have seen everything already - handwritten letters in multicoloured crayon, rose scented notepaper, cash inducements. The only way to get their attention is to be true to the work, and have a damned good story in the first place.

Boy Kim said...

"boy this would have been great yesterday"

We're on first (nick)name terms now?

Sandra Ruttan said...

James, you clearly haven't been to all places in the BC interior! Bustle Bustle Bustle!

And yes, you do need that damned good story in the first place.

Kim, if that had been for you, there would have been spikes attached. (Kidding! You little brat!)

Anonymous said...

That TP just might appeal to some hemorrhoid suffers.