THE GARDEN VARIETY QUERY
It’s well after midnight, a cat is stuck in my ceiling, and the cavalry won’t arrive until after daylight. I’ve been wakened from my sleep, and it seems like a good idea to continue with my series on writing the elusive query letter.
Just a few a hours ago I received an email from the Nelson Literary Agency out of Denver. Sara Megibow has clearly and succinctly laid out exactly how Nelson Lit wants to be queried. Writers should follow their guidelines, of course. In this case, the rewritten query for Frank Bill’s novel wouldn’t be appropriate, but the old one wouldn’t work either, for the reasons I sited in my posts dated April 3rd and 5th. So what to do?
First, here is Sara’s clear-as-a-bell instructions on what they’re looking for:
This month’s “tip” has to do with those query letters and how to relax a bit when it comes to submitting them. Frequently, I see a letter which opens like this, “This isn’t your standard query letter…” and I think, “But WHY, when the format we set out works so well for us?” So, my advice is — relax. Read our submission guidelines and follow them. A well-written query letter with great writing and a unique concept stands out on its own. You don’t have to add fancy pictures, background colors, gimmicks, youtube clips, etc. in order to grab my attention. Simply follow our format and trust that there is a reason we do it that way.
So, now you may be asking, “So what’s the reason?” Here’s a little breakdown of our format and why we use it. I hope this helps!
1) We ask for a one-page query letter. That’s right — short! A few sentences to introduce your project (word count, completion status, genre), then a paragraph to describe the work. Why? Primarily because of the volume of submissions we receive (100-200 query letters a day currently). We want writers to capture their story as if they were writing the back cover copy of a novel on the bookshelves. We know this process works, because the vast majority of our current clients ( New York Times Bestsellers included) came through the query in-box.
2) We ask writers to email the query letter. No phone calls, no office visits and no snail mail. Why? Because it’s faster. We have all of our tools on our computers, so we can get to your query letter more quickly and with more focus.
3) Here’s a simple one that we list on our website — put the word “Query” and the title of your work in the subject line of your email. This helps me know that your email is really a query and not spam. Also, I tend to reread great query letters before asking for 30 pages and when I ask for 30 pages I use a standard email reply. If the name of your project is right there in the subject line it makes it easier for me to respond quickly.
4) Last of all — with that email query, no attachments please. Our server deletes these emails (which may be why you haven’t gotten a response from us). Also, we don’t open attachments because of the danger from viruses.
Writers who go for “this is a unique query letter” are not doing themselves any favors. If it is easy for us, then it’s worth doing (and I mean that only from a productivity and efficiency standpoint). So, read our submission guidelines and relax — follow the directions and trust that there is a reason we do things this way. It works! Put your energy into composing an awesome pitch paragraph that nails the heart of your story, and don’t worry any more about the gimmicks.
– END EXCERPT FROM NELSON LITERARY AGENCY NEWSLETTER, MARCH, 2009 –
So what is Sara really saying here? Over at Nelson, they lay all their eggs in your query basket. Unlike many agencies, they’re not interested in your resume, credits, awards or education if you can’t write a sizzler of a synopsis. That’s what separates the men from the boys—for them. You’ve got to deliver a concise overview of your novel, a one-page summary that blows their socks across the office. Sara helpfully offers exactly what achieves that effect: “We want writers to capture their story as if they were writing the back cover copy of a novel on the bookshelves.”
If you haven’t strenuously studied many back covers, the time is now. It’s promotional copywriting, an upbeat, sell-style all its own that zings the golden nugget of a story directly at the reader. No matter that advertising copywriters, not short story writers and novelists, most commonly use this style of writing—it’s what’s called for by this agency for their query. And they’re basing all their judgment on it. At some point in school you experienced the “sudden death exam,” right? At the end of the year 100% of your grade was based on the final? This is the publishing industry’s equivalent–sudden death by query.
If you are keen to submit to this agency and others with similar submission guidelines, a good way to prepare is by reading the back covers of books most like your ms. Familiarize yourself with the short, direct style of the copywriter as best you can. When you’ve shoe-horned your story into the one-page format, go over the copy a dozen times, smoothing it out, excising extra words and unnecessary padding, until it’s lean and mean like a one-page print ad. Or a back cover.
If the prospect has you up nights, defacing back covers in frustration, I also help writers with this type of query. You can email me at email@example.com
Pictured at right: Sara Megibow, Nelson Literary Agency