Call me old-fashioned, but when I order dinner at my favorite restaurant, Joe’s Slop House and All Things Margarita, I don’t expect to receive my dessert first. Nor do I want my dinner roll with my strawberry margarita. ‘Course, if I’m at home, all bets are off, and I’ve been known to eat dessert for dinner.
My point is that there’s an order of things people expect to experience when going out to dinner. The same goes for a query letter. If you remember only one thing, you’ll never go wrong:
Editors need to know what the story is about.
That’s it. Easy peasy. That means you don’t need to begin your query letter with any of the following:
- Why you decided to query me in particular – it’s sweet that you think I may be nice, but flattery doesn’t get you to the front of the class.
- Tell me that there are crooks in this business, and godbless Editors and Preditors – these are things we are already aware of. It has nothing to do with us, so what’s da point?
- Tell me that you queried me because I’m recommended on Editors and Preditors – this, I already know, too. And bless Dave Kuzminski for his tireless efforts for maintaining this huge database.
- Tell me that you’re not naive when it comes to sniffing out the crank publishers – not only do I not care, but I have my doubts. What does this have to do with your story?
- Tell me your entire bio and philosophy on what’s wrong with the US – by this time, I’m gathering up rope and eyeing the ceiling rafters. Is this a dissertation or a query letter?
- Tell me all the things you don’t want your book to say – this could go on all day. How ’bout focusing on what you do want your book to say; the intent, the message. Otherwise I feel like I’ve been unwillingly dragged into your private conversation.
- Tell me that you aren’t writing this book with the idea of making any money – while I understand what you mean, and it’s very nice, the fact that I’m pouring thousands of dollars into your book and have an entire sales team committed to selling the book, you can bet your verbs and nouns that my eye is on making money. And I expect your eye to be focused on that same goal.
- Whoopsie, where’s da word count? If you don’t tell me your word count, then I have to ask. But worse, if I have to ask, it’s because you didn’t do your job.
- The rambly pitch – just…don’t. I need to know:
– What does your main character want?
– What keeps him from getting it?
– What choices or decisions does s/he face?
– What terrible thing will happen if he chooses one path and what terrible thing will happen if he doesn’t?
Stories, including memoirs, should have some flavor of these elements because it’s what draws readers in and engages them. If your story is a wandering “she did this, she did that,” then I’m going to be looking for the compelling issues. If more writers asked themselves, “why should the reader care?” I think the quality of query letters would improve.
Remember, a query letter is a job application, and it’s every author’s job to write the best job application they can by giving only the pertinent information. There are a lot of people vying for a limited number of slots, and we have the luxury of choosing the very best. The idea is to make sure that you’re the cream, not the dregs.
After all, does anyone want their bill to arrive the same time as their dinner?