Query letters and story synopses are part of most writing careers at some point, unless one starts off self-publishing and sticks to it relentlessly. For the rest of us, querying agents and editors is part of the business, and so is preparing various sorts of submission packages. Consequently, it behooves anyone hoping for a professional writing career to be familiar with the various aspects of the process.
There are three important things to understand about the submission process:
- What the editor/agent says, goes.
Editors and agents, especially those with a lot of experience, usually have a good idea of what they want to see from an author. Sometimes, what they want to see is a bit idiosyncratic. Sometimes, what they ask for seems downright odd, particularly if one is talking about an experienced editor making a request from an established author whose work they are already familiar with…or from a newer author whom the editor has noticed without said author being aware of it.
Trust that they know how to do their job. If you have read two trillion web sites and a library’s worth of how-to-write books that all agree that a portion-and-outline should consist of a synopsis and first three chapters, but Ms. Professional Editor asks you to send a log line and the first and last chapters, send her what she says she wants. If Mr. Professional Agent states explicitly that he wants to see ten pages of storyboard instead of the regulation plot-outline, send him that.
But… do not send those things to anyone else, unless they, too, explicitly ask for them. “Explicitly ask for them” means that either a) they have written submission guidelines that say “Send me a ten-page storyboard,” or b) they have made this request directly to you, either face to face at a convention (and if it was 3 a.m. in the bar, it would be wise to politely confirm next day that this is really what they want to see) or in an email or letter addressed to you. Note that a) implies that you always, always, always check the publisher or agency submission guidelines. Because even if what the publisher wants to see is fairly standard, there’s a lot of leeway in “fairly standard” – some places want a one-page query letter, some want the initial contact to be a portion-and-outline, some want a query-and-outline, etc. Check.
Also note that this is the first point for a reason. If the editor or agent to whom you are submitting asks for something that goes totally against all the advice in this blog, ignore the advice and give them what they’re asking for (assuming that it’s legal and morally acceptable to you).
- Submitting a story for publication is a professional move, regardless of who, what, or where you are submitting it.
Query letters and partial submissions are professional documents. They should look and sound like it, even if the editor in question is your high school BFF. Small presses and micro-circulation magazines are often put out by people who work for the love of it; they deserve to be treated at least as professionally as editors at the big houses. Professional documents are not cutesy; they are not covered in My Little Pony stickers or delivered in pizza boxes; they do not attempt to attract attention by using exploding glitter or other cheap tricks that every editor in the business has seen a zillion times before.
Professional documents are, well, professional: they get the job done clearly and concisely, wasting as little of the recipient’s time and energy as possible. Yes, this means that you give the editor/agent enough information to decide quickly that this story is not right for their line/magazine, and to reject it. If that’s what they’re going to do anyway, it’s better for both of you to get it over with fast. This also means that you do not submit your grim and bloody horror novel to a line of police procedural mysteries on the extremely thin ground that yours has a policeman in it and he follows procedures for the first ten chapters until the zombies eat him. And it means that no matter how emotionally invested you are in making this sale, you neither explode in angry death threats nor blubber and beg if/when an editor or agent rejects the story. You chalk it up as another $%#^ learning experience, and move on without further comment.
- A query letter is not a back blurb, and a cover letter is not a query.
A back blurb is a marketing teaser aimed at a lone reader who will be risking $10 and a couple of hours of time on buying one copy; a query letter is a professional sales document aimed at an editor who represents a publishing house and who will be risking a sizeable chunk of his/her employer’s money (and in some cases, his/her job) on producing, publicizing, and distributing thousands of copies in hopes of ending up in the black. These situations are not comparable.
Queries are almost an art form in themselves. A query needs to be clear and concise and accurate, and as objective as possible. You know that “show, don’t tell” advice that gets hammered at on every how-to-write website and in every writing book ever written? This is where you apply it.
The difference between a cover letter and a query is that a query gets sent off all by itself; a cover letter accompanies a portion-and-outline, a partial, or a complete draft of a manuscript. Consequently, a cover letter doesn’t need to include a synopsis of the story – that’s in the accompanying material. All a cover letter really needs to say is “Dear Editor: Here is my book. I hope you buy it. If not, please dispose of the ms./return the ms. in the enclosed SASE. Sincerely, The Author.” There is no point in getting creative with a cover letter, because a lot of editors don’t even read them until after they have read the portion or the manuscript or whatever came with.
All of these points can be summed up by saying that the purpose of a submission packet, whether it is a one-page query letter, a portion-and-outline, or a 500-page finished manuscript with extensive notes on the next six books in a proposed series, is to persuade an editor or agent to move to the next stage in the process. “The next stage” after a query letter may be a request for a portion-and-outline, for a partial manuscript, or for the completed draft. “The next stage” after submitting a completed ms. may be a request for revisions and resubmission or the offer of a contract. It doesn’t matter; the above principles still apply.