3 August 2008 - 16:49Query Letters, Part 1 - The Basics

Everybody knows that query letters don’t work.  Everybody also knows that nothing else works any better.  Not for an unrepped, unproduced writer who has no connections.

However, knowing how to write a good query letter provides you with the foundation knowledge you will need for all future pitching interactions.

In any circumstance where you are making a cold pitch, the person you are pitching to wants to know four things.

  1. What is it?
  2. How is it?
  3. Who are you?
  4. How to contact you.

“What is it?”

This leading information is minimal, business-like, and fast.  The chapter on loglines in Save The Cat is a good guide here.  We’re looking for title, genre, and any indication of audience, style and tone. (If you’re querying a publisher or agent about a novel, include the length in words, rounded to the nearest 1000.)  It could be just title, genre and logline, or it could be a teaser line.  “What if the president’s plane were taken over by ghosts?”

Here’s the deal: you may think you want them to read beyond this paragraph, but actually, the thing you most want is for this paragraph to be so perfectly clear, that anybody who isn’t interested won’t have to read further.  If it isn’t in the ball park of what they want, then they will be much happier if they know it immediately.  So give them the bare facts they need to know.  (But make sure it’s clear: Our ghostly presidential thing doesn’t sound like a family comedy — so if it is for kids, they need to know up top.)

“How is it?”

Now that they know whether it’s the kind of thing they want, they want a sense of how you developed it.  This is the meat of your pitch: a paragraph about the story that gives them an idea of the plot, and also shows them you know how to develop an idea.  Whether you intend it or not, this will demonstrate how clear your understanding of basic elements like character needs and story structure.  Do you know what drives a story forward?  This is where it will show.

So, if we didn’t learn it above, we might learn here that it’s about the first African American president, and that the ghosts are John Brown, the violently radical abolitionist, and his followers. They believe they are protecting the president from attack, and they are desperate and merciless.  We’d learn something about one or two major characters — how they may have triggered the ghosts, and the attempts they make to pacify the ghosts.  Is there a conflict among the president’s staff?  Are the ghosts themselves major characters  or just a monstrous force?  We don’t need to know the ending, just the direction and the major conflicts.

“Who are you?”

If you don’t have anything to say here, don’t say anything.  The rest of your letter gives them an idea if you are literate, and understand what makes a story good.  But if you do have something to say, keep it short, relevant and casual.  One line about writing credits or screenwriting prizes, and another line or two about any experience you have with the subject matter.  (If, for instance, you wrote our Presidential Ghost Story, and you happened to be the curator of the John Brown museum in Harper’s Ferry, then that would be a great thing to mention.)

How to Contact You

You’d be surprised at the number of people who don’t make this easy.  The decision to read may be spur of the moment, and they can just as quickly decide not to.  Even if you have the phone number and email at the top of the letter, put it again at the bottom. (Even if you are sending by email and they can just hit “reply” — the letter may have gone to the assistant, who may have forwarded to the exec.)

Later I’ll go deeper into some of the techniques you might use in each of these elements.

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