My Query Letter Breakthrough

Or “How I learned to stop worrying and love the query. “

Like most writers, I abhor query letters. I cannot guess how many books I’ve read over the years, searching for advice on how to succeed through querying agents and publishers. I think every unpublished author is seeking the magic formula to a winning query.

I discovered mine by accident.

Only now, looking back, do I see all the mistakes I was making.

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I kept approaching it like a formal business letter. Sure, you need make it look like one from afar — proper formatting, normal fonts, etc. List all of your contact info (remember include your social media links here, but only your “public” profiles). No lipstick smears or doodles in the margins.

But the secret is that it shouldn’t read like a library overdue notice. People don’t speak to each other that formally anymore. And publishers aren’t looking for novelist who communicate in dry, flat sentences.

They want to hear your voice.

Photo by Helloquence on Unsplash

Another problem for most of us is that we spent so much of our childhoods writing book reports. The problem is, nobody ever taught us to make those reports interesting. No, they made us jam the page full of an entire book’s plot, list of characters, and random events to prove that we’ve actually read the thing. As writers, we not only have these bad habits to fall back on, we also find our own stories endlessly fascinating.

Resist the urge to fill the query letter with every detail of your novel.

Most modern advice goes something like, “Give them an idea of your story, the genre, and your style without getting too wordy.

Great. But how do you do that?

I floundered for months until I discovered #PitMad on Twitter. It’s a free, public contest that runs once a quarter where authors are encouraged to submit their entire query into a single Tweet.

It sounded easy, until I ran up against that 280-character limit over and over. I re-crafted pitches, tightening the words, thinking of different approaches, driving my family crazy with a continuous barrage of pithy sentences. In the end, I’d consolidated it down to the kind of summary you’re likely to find on the cable guide when you’re flipping through movie channels. They were so terrible that even I was tired of reading them.

At that point, I did something crazy.

I started to get flippant, writing some pitches that were only for my amusement:

A necromancer, a deity, and a bride walk into a bar. The Hellfire Witch will walk out.

I started sharing some of these oddball pitches with my writer friends, and they connected. They cared. They wanted to hear more.

After that, I rewrote the Tweets I’d been planning to use in a way that you would actually talk to someone in conversation. I realized, if you pick up a book and read only the opening line, what would interest you?

This freed me from all the constraints I’d put on myself before. Who cares about my characters names at this point? Or the setting, or themes, or even word count? No one. Keep all that in the body of your query letter, but what gets them to read that far?

What matters is the hook.

Eloping with a necromancer was only the beginning of her problems. Now the posse wants her dead, her lover wants her undead, and only the fickle Goddess of Revenge is on her side.

I entered #PitMad with three pitches. They didn’t exactly follow the log line structure I’d been taught, but they each held the heart of the story. More importantly, they gave a glimpse into my writing style and what people can expect when they read this book.

No, I didn’t get an agent during the contest, but I took the Tweet that had gotten the best responses, made that the opening line to my query letter, and I signed with a publisher less than two months later.

The man of her dreams turned out to be a necromancer's illusion. Now she's stranded in the Old West, falsely accused of murder, hunted by Death himself, and determined to wrest her lover's soul back from the gods.

My advice to all aspiring writers is – use Twitter to refine your pitch. It’s free, and I’ve found the Writing Community there to be incredibly supportive. Even if you skip #PitMad, you can still use the same approach. Tweet your pitch and ask for feedback.

Once you have a winning opening, you’ll be amazed at how quickly the rest of that pesky query letter falls in line behind it.


Read more about #PitMad at https://pitchwars.org/pitmad/

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