I like mine scrambled with cheese, onion, and tomatoes. The beagle likes hers any way she can get it. Or steal it. The editor down the way likes hers over easy. The editor across the street likes his poached. What this means for the cook is that he has a dozen eggs and must cook them to order. Makes perfect sense, right? I hate poached eggs, so why would I patronize a restaurant where I can’t get what I want?
So it goes for query letters.
We all get a lot of template queries. They’re easy to spot. Invariably the font is different on the first paragraph and switches over to TRN 12 pt. for the rest. These Drop ‘n Drag queries save the author from writing a fresh query fifty times over, and much of the information is redundant.
Or is it?
See, if you Drop ‘n Drag , you’re not speaking to any particular crowd. And believe me; we can see that. Generic is only good when you’re getting medicine. Just like the short order cook, a clever author would write different query letters by focusing on specific aspects that an editor is looking for.
So let’s say you have a political thriller but it has a very human element that plays an equally important and pivotal role. How do you write your pitch? From the personal journey aspect or the thriller aspect? It doesn’t matter, you say? Ahh, go stand in the corner so the beagle can taunt you with bad poetry. The correct answer is, it depends on who is on the receiving end. Are they ordering a short stack of thrillers with extra onions, or do they only eat personal journeys with salsa?
Here’s an example of tailoring a pitch for the same book. I made this up, so no fair giving me any crap, ok?
Pitch to thriller editor:
Sam Burkett has a face that fits in with any crowd, so when it came time to infiltrate the Al Nubit terrorist cell, CIA director Tom Morgan chooses the nimble Sam as the most likely choice because ice water runs through his veins, making him impervious to the charismatic leader Abdul bin Salim. When Sam’s control agent turns up dead in a darkened Saudi Arabian alley, all indications are that Sam is the assassin. Tom grows more concerned when a satellite photo shows Sam killing a Bedouin in the desert. All contact with Sam has been cut off at the same time the CIA picks up internet and cell phone chatter that something big is on the horizon, and Los Angeles is the intended target. Tom is desperate to contact Sam to find out the exact location, how they can prepare to fight it, and how to beat the terrorists at their own game. But Tom’s main concern is whether his best field agent has been turned and has now revealed all the CIA’s inner secrets.
Pitch to socially relevant personal journey:
Sam Burkett has a face that fits in with any crowd and the linguistic skills to mirror any nationality, so when it came time to infiltrate the infamous Al Nubit terrorist cell, Sam was the perfect choice. His life as the CIA’s strongest undercover agent trained him to bury his feelings deep below the surface, so no one could know that before leaving for Saudi Arabia, he said his final goodbyes to his father who is lost to the ravages of Alzheimer’s. There was never enough time to spend with his father, the man whose gentle, loving hand would raise one of America’s top government killers, and Sam must bury his pain deep within his soul one last time. When Sam gains access to the inner circle of the Al Nubit cell, he finds an unlikely father figure in its charismatic leader, Abdul bin Salim, who is suffering over the loss of his son. The unlikely relationship has Sam and Abdul uncharacteristically vulnerable, and Sam’s journey of loyalty leaves them and the U.S. teetering on nuclear destruction.
See how I highlighted the human aspects in one and the thriller aspects in the other? Yet it’s the same book. This is how one tailors a query to highlight the aspects that the editor is looking for. Had the author sent me the thriller pitch, I would have ditched it. But the human element pitch would have me interested because I can sell that.
These are what I call cross-elements; storylines that scratch a couple itches. Keep in mind these cross-elements have to be pretty darned transparent and interrelated. Otherwise you have two separate stories going on in one book. It can get a bit crowded.
I’ve seen plenty of queries that insisted they were socially relevant, but I sure as fire couldn’t find it. Don’t try to make a square peg fit in a round hole. If a socially relevant theme is missing from your work, then we’re not the right ones for you. Simple as that. The idea is to find the RIGHT people for your work, not seeing how many folks you can query.
The thing to remember is that a good short-order cook will collect bigger tips because he knows how to cater to his customers. And don’t worry about the beagle. She’s on a diet.