Queries the Pacific Northwest Writer’s Conference Way

Mid-July is a special time for me, because it means that it’s time to trek to Seattle for the Pacific Northwest Writer’s Conference – July 16-19.

I’ve been honored to be a part of this conference for about four years (or is it five?), and I’ve loved every one of them. The talent base is amazing. I’m not sure if it’s because the constant rain keeps people off the streets, thereby increasing their BIC Index (Butt In Chair), or whether talent simply gravitates to the Pacific Northwest because it’s so achingly beautiful. Whatever the reason, I’ve been fortunate to have signed two wonderful authors from that conference over the years – the achingly talented Heidi Cave, author of FANCY FEET, and the equally talented Kim Kircher, author of THE NEXT 15 MINUTES: STRENGTH FROM THE TOP OF THE MOUNTAIN – so the conference and fabulous staff hold a very dear place in my heart.

Among my duties at the conference is to sit in on a panel about query letters, particularly what grabs my attention. I’ll wait for you to grab your bottle of antacids and bottle of Jim Beam, because we all know that query letters have been written about by anyone with a pulse in the publishing industry, and we’re all ready to take a blade to our own jugulars.

However, if I’ve learned anything over the years it’s that there are no rules. Scary, huh? I’ve seen stuff that breaks all the “rules” and stuff that made my eyes glaze over.

The most important thing is make it easy. You can buy books…BOOKS…that talk about nothing but how to write a query letter. Gag me, already. Let’s keep it simple and real. All a query letter does is tell an editor about your book. Since we don’t reside in your head, you gotta be clear, so let’s start with some basics:

Who, What, When, Where, Why?

Who: Okay, this is easy…we’re talking about your main characters. Don’t get hung up on ancillary characters. My eyes have glazed over when authors want to tell me about every character that draws a breath in their stories. If they’re not intrinsic to the overall plot, then leave ’em out. Who cares. Stay on point.

What: Again, this should be easy if you stick to the main points. All the little subplots don’t really matter as much, so don’t bother taking up more than a sentence…and only include them if it’s an added benefit to the overall plot.

Having a tough time narrowing it down? Start small and build up. Pretend you have a friend who has about five seconds to catch her train but wants to know the gist of your book. All you have time for is about two sentences. So figure out what those two sentences are that best describe your book and build from there.

Example:

Twist McPherson is an accidental romance publisher charged with trying to protect the identities of three genteel ladies, all in their seventies, who write some of the hottest, yet refined erotica to hit the shelves in years, and the internationally famous legal thriller author, Jack Crawford, whose secret romance stories help him shatter his writer’s block.

You’re looking only for the high points, but it’s given you enough to begin building a longer query.

When: The time period really helps. I want to know if the story takes place in the 50’s or 2015. Makes a huge difference.

Why: Why is the story taking place? I know, sounds simplistic, but you’d be amazed how often it’s omitted in a query. It’s the Action/Reaction…something happened that caused the story to take place, and it’s important to talk about it.

Example:

Twist McPherson, on permanent hiatus from the rat race, moves to Palm Springs and sets about writing the Great American Novel. Her timing couldn’t be worse; the sour economy has publishers signing only the big blockbusters, like world class author Jack Crawford and his courtroom dramas. After one too many Harvey Wallbangers with her best friend Roz, Twist agrees to dust off her advertising talents and create her own publishing company.

Where: Simple. Where does the story take place? Again, it’s important, because editors include all this information when thinking about marketing and promo plans.

Here’s an example of a synopsis I wrote up for my seminars that gives you the who, what, when, why, where:

Twist McPherson, on permanent hiatus from the rat race, moves to Palm Springs and sets about writing the Great American Novel. Her timing couldn’t be worse; the sour economy has publishers signing only the big blockbusters, like world class author Jack Crawford and his courtroom dramas. After one too many Harvey Wallbangers with her best friend Roz, Twist agrees to dust off her advertising talents and create her own publishing company.

During a chance Mah Jong game with a group of saucy ladies, all in their 70s, Twist casually mentions her publishing plans. Before she can eat the olive out of her martini, Naughty Little Secrets, LLC is born, and Twist has a stable of three new writers who, under nom de plumes, have spent the past three years writing some of the hottest, yet refined erotica to hit the electronic bookshelves. As southern belle, Lucinda Du Pont, drawls over tea spiked with Jack Daniel’s, “Smut sells, dear.”

In the midst of cover designs and distribution, Twist—so named for her metaphorical gifts of rearranging the male anatomy during tough business negotiations—meets the mighty Jack Crawford, newly arrived to the desert to finish his faltering tenth book and meet his thrice-past-due deadline. He absolves his writer’s block by writing for Twist under the name Marcella de la Prentiss.

It wouldn’t have been so bad had Chicago Times book reviewer Carl Beckenham not smelled a story in the young new publisher who blasted onto the scene with her classy advertisements and sophisticated promotion. But Snarlin’ Carl’s nose for a hot story has him digging deeper into Twist’s business to find out the identity of her writers, which threatens Jack’s career and the ladies’ naughty little secrets.

Consistent Voice

One thing I’m very sensitive to is voice in a query letter. I like to get a feel for the tone of the story by the flavor of the query letter. I think it’s easy to see that this synopsis is for a light-hearted rom com, and the writing matches the tone of the query. Too many times I see light-hearted query letters, and get the idea it’s a light-hearted story, only to suffer a shock when I see the writing is very deep and heavy. Misfire!

So see? It’s not rocket science, but it does take lots of thought because this is the intro to you and your story to a total stranger. We’ll be discussing this stuff a ton at PNWA in Seattle on July 16-19, so I hope to see you there. It’s always a ton of fun and a huge wealth of knowledge!

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