Taglines, Blurbs, and Book Specs: How to Write Fiction and Non-Fiction Query Letters

Amazingly enough, you’ll probably write your query letter to agents and the handful of remaining publishers accepting unsolicited submissions more times than you rewrote the manuscript. Good thing a letter is so much shorter!

A query letter is short—a mere 250-400 words consisting of a “hook,” summary, manuscript specifications, and an author biography.

Eek!

That’s quite a lot of information to convey in only a handful of words. Your ability to do so, and do so well, however, alerts agents and publishers to the fact that you are a stellar writer. Exactly what they’re looking for in fact. That’s why mastering query letter writing is so crucial.

The first step is to transform how you think about writing. Instead of writing more, write less. Instead of adding, cut. The object of a query letter is to portray the essence of your writing—tone, style, plot, and characters for fiction pieces; and tone, style, problems, and answers for non-fiction pieces—in an engaging way that makes your readers want to bite. Just like in advertising.

And, just like in advertising, you’ll begin with something that will pique the interest of someone inundated with query letters—someone reading hundreds or even thousands of queries a month. This is the hook, or “tagline” for your manuscript. Your tagline should be a short statement or rhetorical question that causes your readers to think, Hm, I might like to read that. Let me look into this some more, just as the taglines on a movie poster make you want to check out what a movie is about. So make your tagline both memorable and interesting. Also, make sure to include the title of your novel. Just like commercials frustrate viewers when they don’t know what the product is until the last second, a tagline without this important bit of information leaves your readers floundering.

From the hook, you move into the summary. Calling it a summary is somewhat deceptive, as it is more like the blurb on the back of a book than an unimaginative summary you’d read on Sparknotes or Wikipedia. Remember, this is advertising, and you’re trying to persuade someone to read your book. So go and look at the blurb that caused you to pick up the stray book that became your favorite. Generally, blurbs reveal just enough about the characters and plot to emotionally connect a prospective reader to what’s happening, or mention enough of the findings and writer’s tone to whet a reader’s curiosity to know more. Your summary, then, should walk a fine line between too little and too much information, while at the same time, conveying the tone of your manuscript.

Now you’re on to book specifications. This includes the title, word count, and genre of your manuscript. You need all of these items as they explain to the agent or editor reading your query that this is something they’re interested in and have a market for. (Hint: If they specify word count, make sure yours is within the range, and so forth.) Additionally, try to pull out some comparable stories. What books, TV shows, movies, etc. influenced your writing and tone? Is your book Rick Riordan meets Die Hard? If so, state that. Have you answered the question that millions of people are asking about why the chicken crossed the road? Good, give those stats. Publishing is, after all, a business, and agents and publishers need to know that there’s an existing market for what you’ve written.

Finally, you need to provide a short biography, which tells agents and publishers why you’re qualified to write about what you’ve written. This does not mean telling them about the essay contest you won in fifth grade, but instead briefly outlining your current writing credits and background (as it applies to your manuscript). If you have no such credits yet, you can always begin to develop them by submitting articles or short stories to credible magazines, journals, contests, etc., or simply forgo writing a bio—although this is not recommended.

Overall, writing a query letter is quite challenging, but it is also rather fun. Especially when you know you’ve accomplished what you set out to do. So good luck and enjoy!

(Next week: The One Page Synopsis)


Query Letter Writing Tips

  1. Query writing is like business writing, in that you are demonstrating that you are not only a good writer but also a professional. As such, keep your tone polite and recall the rules of business letter etiquette.
  2. If you browse through Chuck Sambino’s “Successful Queries” on the Writer’s Digest website—which I highly recommend—then you’ll see one consistency: each agent is enamored by a query letter for a different reason. There is no surefire way to win a contract other than good, intriguing writing that follows each agent or publisher’s specifications.
  3. Intensively revise and rewrite your query letter. Your query is how you get your foot in the door to display your wares (manuscript), so it needs to be a strong pitch. The best way to do this is to take the time you need to write it—not a day, not a week. Let other people read it. Get objective advice and criticism. Write multiple drafts. Polish it and love it as much as you did your manuscript. All of this effort is bound to pay off and work in your favor.
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Radio Silence and Rejection: How to Deal with Agent and Publisher Rejections

Congratulations! You’ve completed your novel and have perfected it to the best of your ability. Bright-eyed and expectant, you send it out into the world, certain as anything that everyone will adore your work as much as you do. Of course they will. It’s your baby, the offspring of your mind.

After some time you hear… Nothing at all. No reply, what I like to call “radio silence.” Or else a firm, polite “no.” Your beautiful baby has been rejected, or worse, ignored. Your dreams of becoming the next New York Times Bestseller are fatally crushed. Or are they?

After all, you sent it out knowing that rejection was a high probability, didn’t you? Take heart, you’re in good company! We can’t all be like Terry Pratchett, whose first story was published at the tender age of 13. There are numerous rejection stories from famous, well-loved authors. These include classics still highly popular today by writers such as Jane Austen. Do I hear a sharp intake of breath? Yes, her first 3 novels were rejected–years later, she retitled and reworked them and they were published as Pride and Prejudice, Northanger Abbey, and Sense and Sensibility. Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations was virulently rejected, as were Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind, and (incomprehensibly, to my mind) Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. There was also Agatha Christie, who received nothing but rejections for five long years, before going on to publish 91 titles. Add to the list C. S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia and Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time.

Moving on to more recent famous rejections are J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter (“far too long for a children’s book”), and Meg Cabot’s Princess Diaries. Neil Gaiman lied about his publishing experience in order to get his first novel accepted. (NOT recommended, this was done before the advent of the internet!) Are we feeling any better yet?

Still, you hoped it wouldn’t happen to you, and you’re not quite sure what to do next. Well, first of all, keep going. As the wise Dr. Charles Stanley always says, “Disappointment is inevitable but discouragement is a choice.” In other words, be dauntless! You can choose to move forward, choose to persevere. Don’t get me wrong. Rejection is hard. It hurts, especially when our hopes are high. It does, however, serve the purpose of showing us how determined and dedicated we are to the craft and business of writing.

Now then, how do we handle the rejection of this precious baby of yours? First, let’s keep in mind the infamous “slush piles” that many editors and agents today are facing are greater than ever before. Do the math: the number of potential writers these days has increased exponentially with the advent of fan-fiction forums, reality TV shows, blogs, etc., all combining to make people think that writing is an easy job that requires little or no attention to the craft. Publishers have received so many of these submissions that it is now virtually impossible to be published without an agent–who now receive thousands of these submissions a week.

Now consider this: how many editorial staff members and agents do you imagine are sitting at their desks dealing with this influx of manuscripts? Don’t assume that publishing houses have hired hundreds more editors to read through what is, inarguably, going to be a lot of submissions that aren’t ready for the market. They haven’t. Check out the latest Writer’s Market and read through the listed publishers. Even smaller publishing houses that, a few years back, welcomed any and all submissions, are now saying, “Not accepting submissions at this time.” At the same time, agents’ client lists are filling up, meaning that they also no longer accept submissions, especially not from new authors. The reason many give for this is that they received thousands of submissions a week.

So you’ve been rejected by an agent or publisher, now you need to regroup. Take a good, objective look at your query letter and synopsis. Check first for grammar and spelling errors. Next, ask yourself, does my letter pack the needed punch? Does my query and synopsis quickly and effectively get at the essence of the story? Does it sound interesting? Does it meet the necessary requirements?

Then, as you’re searching for agents and editors, carefully read the description of what they’re looking for. Also, do visit their websites to examine the latest books they’ve published. Does your story fit in with others they’ve published? If it doesn’t, your query/submission will be rejected out of hand. You’ve just made it easy to “deselect” your story and move on to the next.

Think of it as fishing. You wouldn’t go deep-sea fishing in a brook, would you? And you wouldn’t fish for trout in the sea. Take the time to know where you should be fishing for your story and what kind of “bait” your “catch” is going to “bite” at. Then bait your line with the best query and synopsis you can, and cast it out onto the waters. And then, be patient. You would hope, but not expect, a fish to immediately take your bait. But that doesn’t usually happen. If nothing bites in the waters you’ve fished in, move on to other waters. Do some more research on agents and publishers you haven’t yet approached. Then, send it out again. With each cast of the line, you’re one step closer to your publishing dreams. There are plenty of fish still biting out there, though at times it may not seem so.

Next week’s topic: Writing Query Letters


Final Tips for Interacting With Agents & Publishers:

  1. Remember, not everyone will like your writing when it is published. This adage holds true for agents and publishing companies too. That’s fine, everyone is allowed their personal preference. So, when you get rejected, decide that these were some of the few who wouldn’t have been interested in your writing anyway and keep plugging away like a dedicated professional.
  2. On the note of being a dedicated professional, do retain a level of decorum in your interactions with each agent and publisher. While today’s society tends toward more casual interactions, business etiquette and dignity remain necessary. More often than not, they show you’re serious about your craft as a business as well as a passion. Additionally, you may want to query a certain agent or publisher again in the future, and it does you no good to burn bridges before you’ve had a chance to build them!
  3. When researching agents and publishers, make sure they publish your kind of writing. Agents who accept your kind of book have the right connections to the right publishers and publishers tend to generate content for a certain type of audience. It behooves you to do your research, since it means you won’t receive unnecessary rejections.
  4. If you receive comments on a certain aspect of your writing (and this makes you lucky in the world of form rejections and radio silence!) carefully examine your writing to see if making the suggested changes is something necessary or not.