Slice conference! Part deux: query letters

Smart Moves to Take Before You Pitch Your Work” was another very useful panel I attended. Here’s what I took away:

  • The best query letters are words 250 or less. Saba Sulaiman said a couple paragraphs could even do the trick. Agent Jeff Kleinman said the he can know in a couple sentences whether the tone is a good fit for his own house. Editors do this all day, they learn the shorthand quickly of what works and what needs further edits
  • The query letter should include the setting and premise. It should give a taste of the book without giving anything major away. A great study for a query letter is the jacket copy of your favorite book. Often the editors of books will write the jacket copy. If you have an editor in mind, reviewing the jacket copy of books they’ve taken on can be invaluable in crafting your query letter.
  • Questions and themes are great to bring up in a query. Showing an awareness of the market for this particular book will also help the editor see the value and position of your book. Showing what other books it may appear on the shelf is a great way to show you know about the market. Compare your book to an author who has a similar voice, theme, and (in particular) qualifications. If you’re unpublished, it’s not wise to compare yourself to Steven King. But if you’re a kindergarten teacher or a small town reporter, you could compare yourself to Margaret Edson or Eowyn Ivey.
  • And with these comparisons the most important question is if your manuscript speaks to the same readership. While it could help to mention the published authors you’ve worked with on the manuscript, for some editors like Kleinman, it’s an annoyance, if not a red flag. However, all the panelists agreed that if you could lock in a blurb from these authors, that’s a game changer and a major boost to your credibility.
  • The query letter shouldn’t have the passive voice. It’s often a reflection that the book’s main character might have things done to him/her, rather than impact the world, which is far more interesting.
  • The situation, premise, and characters in the query letter should make the editor ask more questions, said Sulaiman.
  • Kirby Kim said a bio is useful, but the shorter the better. “Jack lives in New Hampshire” is stronger than listing a string of so-so publications. It may actually fault your credibility to list accomplishments that aren’t jaw-dropping.
  • Unless the work is a world-expanding event for them, editors are highly unlikely to accept manuscripts. As Kleinman said, editors follow LTS as a rule: life’s too short. They only have time for great, not good.

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