Need help writing a query letter? The query process can be scary, confusing and alienating, particularly for writers who have yet to chalk up runs on the board in terms of publication.
Jane Friedman has recently added a post on this subject. She targets fiction writers but will be providing another post for those who write nonfiction.
As an inveterate info hunter on the Web, I’m used to an incredibly mixed informational bag in bloglandia. Jane’s post stands out. She’s generous with her experience, educates in a friendly and non-pushy way, and covers most of the bases. And in explaining the rationale for each part of the literary query process, she demystifies it.
There is no guarantee that we’ll be successful when we query, but she shows us how we can be professional.
When researching a writing project, it is easy to be overwhelmed by the material you gather. It may help to remember that the data you collect is only the straw. You still have to spin it into gold to create your book, article, or whatever you are writing.
In the beginning: What start works for you?
Do you research first, write first, or start in some other way?
- Research first. Starting a writing project by first investigating a topic is a familiar process. We learned it when we were students, checking the views of experts before starting an assignment. I suspect many of us also like to start with research because as step one, it’s more engaging than writing. Our early writing can be demoralising as we wrestle with competing thoughts and stare at a blank screen. Research provides action—we hunt down sources, make piles of notes, accumulate enough material to give us a sense of accomplishment.Starting with research is fine—if we control it. It is easy to go too wide or too deep. Some writers collect such diverse information that they end up with information overload, swamped by various points of view and interesting but inconsequential material. Some writers go so deep into a particular topic that they begin to doubt if their individual take on it is worth writing about.
- Write first. Barbara Turner-Vesselago, who teaches a writing approach called Freefall Writing, believes that making writing your first step helps you discover your story/topic. You temporarily remove your analysis hat and write without constraint, capturing the first thoughts that come mind.This approach can enable you to capture more ideas than usual. Because much of this first writing is raw, ragged and wild, you may discover a new direction or find new themes you would not have thought of otherwise. And it may help you identify what you do not know, so that you can focus on where research is needed.
- Question first. Some writers make questions their first step. The answers they come up with help them focus both their writing and research. Examples: Why do I think my topic or story is interesting and of value? What do I most want to communicate about this topic? Why would readers find it valuable or interesting? What kinds of readers would my material attract, and why?The focus on motive helps you assess what and how much material you need. It can also show you what material dissipates this focus, shifting readers’ attention elsewhere.
- The Middle Way or ‘Sandwich’
This approach has three stages:
Base: Undertake a small, focused investigation to discover the most important ideas.
Filling: Develop a loose first draft to see where it leads you.
Top: Conduct further research as needed.
Find the known in the unknown
Once we have our topic and work out what we know and don’t know, we can jump into research—right? Turner-Vesselago suggests one more pre-writing step: Identify whatever you know about unfamiliar areas in your topic.
Her example: We may know nothing about the ‘anxious situation’ that prevailed in the 17th century French court. But by drawing on what we understand about human nature, we can grasp how people may treat each other when in a similar situation.
Motivation and emotions are two important elements that entice readers to keep reading. By focusing on the important issue of WHY, we get a better idea of what and how much to include of the WHEN, WHERE, and other details.
More research while writing
After the initial research and drafting, we usually have more research to undertake. New material comes to hand, new ideas change our thinking.
Turner-Vesselago cautions against halting your writing to undertake more research because you run the risk of never getting back to your writing. I know that problem. I can lose myself in looking up various facts and ideas. When I return to my draft, I find I’ve lost the flow.
Now I resist the urge to stop writing. Instead, I type the word CHEKME at each point where I need information. I make the word a different colour so I can find it easily and sometimes add an explanatory note, such as CHEKME DEATH-DATE. If I’m on a roll but see where more information is needed, I add a quick XXXX. Like CHEKME, it helps locate points to develop later. If you love researching, refraining from looking up material immediately when questions come up may seem like cruel and unusual punishment. Persevere!
Geraldine Brooks is a former journalist now lauded for her award-winning historical fiction (e.g., Year of Wonder, March). She suggests researching only when a writer sees a clear need to do so. In one of her 2011 Boyer Lectures she explains that although facts form the basis of her historical fiction, fiction dictates its design. It is the story that ‘must tell me what it is I need to know.’ Whenever she discovers that she needs more information, ‘only then do I go looking for it.’
© Marsha Durham, Writing Companion blog on WordPress, 2007-2014.
How did you get ‘here’? And what does ‘here’ refer to?
Australia Day originally commemorated a date in 1788 when three ships sailed into what is now Sydney Harbour to found the first British colony here. Now the day is more inclusive, recognising Australian Aboriginals, whose forebears were here centuries before the ships appeared, and recent citizens and residents from many countries.
Radio producer Bellinda Lopez took her microphone, hopped on the commuter trains loaded with people going to the celebrations in Sydney’s CBD this year, and asked the question, ‘How did you get here?’
Responses fell roughly into three categories. People from an Anglo-Saxon background tended to give the station where they boarded the train. Some mentioned their forebears who arrived when Australia was still a British colony, 1778-1900. More recent citizens/residents were apt to explain how and why they immigrated to Australia. Indigenous Australians tended to mention their ancestors’ early presence.
- Do you have a story about how you ‘got here’, however you wish to interpret what ‘here’ is?
- Imagine that one day people who wish to live elsewhere can magically and instantly do so.
Would you take this opportunity? Why or why not? What if there are stipulations? E.g., perhaps once you relocate, that decision cannot be changed, or only certain people or groups are allowed this opportunity.
If people relocate, how would it affect your hometown, or some other place you choose?
Moving away from the resettling topic, the question offers so many possibilities that it is a wonderful writing prompt. Suggestions to explore.
- Create a scene that starts with one character asking another the question, ‘How did you get here?’ What happens next?
- Develop a monologue where the character responds to the question, with the focus on a particular place, time, or situation.
- Choose something from your life that is relevant to telling how you got here. Perhaps you once you found yourself in a particularly good or bad situation.
- Imagine someone—past, present future—asking you this question. How would you respond, taking into account the person and the context?
- Combine the how got here phrase with one or more of these words: anxiety, birthday, clouds, diet, east, frontier, garden, hunting, insurance, jazz, kids, luxury. What can you make of the combo?
- Emphasis. HOW did you get here? How did YOU get here? How did you get HERE
- Location. Where is ‘here’ and why is it of interest? What makes it special?
- Scope. Large (planet, country, region, city)? Medium (school, zoo, prison, holiday spot)? Small (Classroom, cell, roof of building, bedroom)?
- Situation. What’s going on, that causes this question to be asked? Is the situation something to avoid? Confront? Celebrate?
- Time. Is the ‘here’ in the future, present or past? If the past, is this hours ago, or days, months, years or centuries ?
- Mood. What ‘s the dominant mood? Nostalgic? Angry? Scary? Humorous? Is the overall effect positive or negative? Serious/reflective or light-hearted?
- Focus. What’s at the heart of the accounting for getting here? Is there a mystery? A payback? A lesson learned? A relinquishing? A reversal?
A pitch session is an event where you have a short time to talk with a number of experts in the book business—editor , agents, publishers. Whether you are planning to participate in a pitching event, or have arranged to talk with a single literary gatekeeper, you can prepare by treating it like a job interview. Most of us know about job interviews, so what can we draw upon?
Identify your immediate goal
People see a promising job ad and post their resume and cover letter. What’s their immediate goal? It is not to be offered the job. That outcome is farther down the track.
When you are talking with a literary gatekeeper about your manuscript, know what you’re shooting for. Your immediate goal is not a book contract, but an invitation to send more of your work, such as a long synopsis or a complete manuscript.
In a job hunt, cluey applicants identify how their experience and expertise connect with the requirements of the position. You can do the same by identifying how your work is relevant to the gatekeeper’s needs and interests. E.g.,
- Does my material best suit a mainstream publisher, a smaller independent one, or a specialised publisher such as a university press? Why?
- What category describes my material? E.g., young children’s lit, crime fiction, self-help?
- In my chosen category, who are the successes, the big names? How does my work fit in? How does it differ?
- What kind of readers would be attracted to my writing? And why?
Prepare for the big day
A pitch session or a talk with a literary gatekeepers differs from a job interview in one important way. If you get a job interview, the material you have sent has already communicated much about you. The panel is already interested in you and want to know more.
In a pitch session, the people you talk to usually know nothing about you and they have not specifically asked to see you. You may have only 5-10 minutes to interest them in your writing project. It’s a stress-inducing situation, so it pays to prepare.
Aim to hook your listeners, so much so that they will ask you to provide more of your material. ‘Hooking’ strategies include the following:
- Establish rapport. People are more likely to forgive minor glitches if you make a positive connection. Smile, make eye contact. Engaging in a little small-talk at the start can make you appear confident.
- Highlight your strengths and successes. Interview panels assess applicants’ experience and ability, but they also look for positive qualities—commitment, professionalism, enthusiasm. Identify your strong points, as well as concrete examples. E.g., how have you demonstrated professionalism? You may not be asked such questions, but preparing examples can help your confidence.
- Highlight your unique selling point. After you identify how your work can be categorised, it helps to point out how it differs from other works in your chosen genre or subject. Does it provide a different and valuable slant? Create a new niche or significantly expand an old one? Or is its strength that it follows a familiar pattern, such as romance fiction, and does it very well?
Provide a conceptual frame. Job applicants may use a framing device to help the interviewing panel make sense of their work history. The frame is usually a statement of their career goal, and then they write about their various jobs with this goal as their focus for what they include and exclude.
You can provide a similar frame for your writing project. Randy Ingermanson, the famed ‘snow-flake’ writing guy, suggests starting with a one-sentence summary of your material, giving the kernel of your story and focusing on one or two major characters , without using their names. His examples:
- Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone: A boy wizard begins training and must battle for his life with the Dark Lord who murdered his parents.
- Pride and Prejudice: A young English woman from a peculiar family is pursued by an arrogant and wealthy young man.
- The DaVinci Code: A Harvard symbologist and a female French cryptographer solve the puzzle of the Holy Grail in a race against death across Europe.]
After this, provide details. But remember that in this situation, less is more. Try for a maximum of five sentences.
Practise your pitch
Once you work out what you want to convey, practise it so that you are confident about what you can communicate it in the allotted time, with poise and enthusiasm.
Practising out loud what you want to say helps you sharpen your responses and get a better sense of what works and what doesn’t. When I help people prepare for a job interview, I pose questions and have them respond, again out loud. Is there a friend whom you can ask to fire suitable questions at you and give feedback in terms of what you say and how?
It happens at interviews, and it may happen to you at a pitch session: You run into someone who is obnoxious or demeaning. A pitch session is short so try to remain professional and gracious.
And don’t go over to the ‘dark side’ yourself by picking an argument, not answering a direct question, interrupting, talking too much, using inappropriate humour, or getting way off track. I’ve experienced all of these no-nos from applicants when I was on interview panels, and in each case the person was not offered the job.
Diana Jenkins’ article provides a helpful account about participating in a pitch session: Nervous White Female.
A hot summer’s day here. Earlier, I was hanging out the washing. At the end of one of the Hills hoist’s metal arms I saw a gray spider, the size of a raisin. Taking a closer look, I spied an even smaller black spider, about the size of the head of a pin. I was thinking that the bigger one was probably the parent, when suddenly it snatched the little one. Not parent after all, but predator.
Much in life is not what it seems. The spider in the above photo may look vicious to some, but in reality it is the harmless Huntsman. Illusion as a writing prompt offers many possibilities. Start with the phrase Not What it Seems or It Was Not What It Seemed and see what you come up with. Some ideas to get you started.
Look into your past
If you tend to write personal accounts, look into your past. Did someone or something—a social group, political or social ideal, way of life, leisure activity, job, lover, teacher, music group, habit—turn out to be very different from you first thought or expected? In what way? What happened as a result?
Sometimes we do not understand the currents of ‘not what it seems’ until weeks, months, even years later. Here’s a famous quote, ascribed (probably incorrectly) to Mark Twain:
When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.
Use an example from your life.
Try the present tense
Apply the prompt to something in your present life. Is the ‘not what it seems’ primarily humorous? Poignant? Or . . . ?
Go beyond the personal
Consider what is not what it seems in your world—politically, socially, ethically. Perhaps select a major issue, such as global warming, refugees, conservation. Or something local or particular to a specific group. Is it tragedy or comedy? Or something else again?
Get into make-believe
Fictional stories often rely on change, something turns out not to be what it at first seemed. Whodunnits have red herrings. Sci-fi often subverts expectations. In the classic Day of the Triffids, the triffid plants, originally considered to be odd but harmless garden plants, turn out to be killers.
Is the ‘not as it seems’ element in your story an invitation, holiday, gift, promise? Does a relationship change? Or perhaps a character shifts in terms of their appearance, habits, likes and dislikes, or their sense of what’s right and wrong.
Even fairy tales can be subverted to show an alternative. What if it is the three pigs who are the tormenters? What is Goldilocks, now a grown-up, overbearing TV host of a house renovations program, sets out to completely change the three bears’ home?
- Find your poetry muse
Writing in poetic form is a fun way to respond to a prompt. Perhaps focus on a single item: incident, season, relationship, or an object that is not what it seems. Or try a list poem, throwing in lots of elements that fit this topic. Or try a different perspective, keepint to the ‘not what it seems’ topic but putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, e.g. a head of a country, teenager, helper in an aged care centre, petty thief.Set your thoughts out in poetic form, however you define this. And remember, it does not need to rhyme.
Having trouble thinking up writing prompts? I recently discovered that WordPress has a free e-book of writing prompts for each day in 2014.
The prompts were put together to give bloggers new ideas for their posts. Most are simple, and sometimes simple is better. After all, a prompt is simply a launching pad. And there are no rules so if a prompt doesn’t appeal, you can rejig it into something that does get your creative juices flowing.
I’ve listed three of the prompts from January, and suggested some ways to explore them in writing.
KICK IT: What’s the 11th item on your bucket list?
We’re bombarded with superlatives, so I was entranced about considering something that is only mildly interesting in my life. Not a ‘must‘ (as in must do, must see, must hear, must visit) but more of a ‘yeah, probably’. What would you pick? Why?
An alternative is to slip something onto your bucket list after the fact. The Wizard of Oz museum in Wamego Ks was not on my list but given that I was driving through, I stopped there for a break. I enjoyed the displays and remembered how scary the movie was when I was little. As a prompt, the movie could lead to writing about childhood fears, perseverance, good and evil, being recognised for one’s good traits, or about a time when you did not know you had already the means or path to achieve something you longed for. I bought one souvenir, a folder showing the wicked witch, threatening Don’t make me get the flying monkeys. I’m not sure where that would lead as a prompt!
QUOTE ME: Do you have a favorite quote that you return to again and again? What is it and why does it move you?
Quotation prompts are useful because there are various ways to use them. You can reflect on its truth generally or, getting more personal, apply it to your life. You can start or end a poem or story with the quote, or use part of it in your title. Rather than using a direct quote, you can draw on its sentiment or message.
How would you start with one of these quotes, from the late author David Foster Wallace?
The truth will set you free. But not until it is finished with you.
Try to learn to let what is unfair teach you.
Everything I’ve ever let go of has claw marks on it.
Acceptance is usually more a matter of fatigue than anything else.
CALL ME ISHMAEL: Take as your starter the first sentence from a favorite book.
A first sentence—from any source—can lead you down some unusual writing paths, whether you are freewriting or exploring via a particular writing form, such as a story, poem, essay, meditation, or reminiscence. Where could these sentences take you? They are from an essay collection I’m currently reading (A Country Too Far, edited by Rosie Scott and Tom Keneally).
* Afloat on the empty night it is the sea itself that amazes him.
* Early on the morning of the final day, you are ready to leave.
* He cannot sleep.
* She says to me, ‘Tell me everything. Tell me what happened.’
All the art of living lies in a fine mingling of letting go and holding on.
˜Henry Ellis, psychologist
This quote works well as a writing prompt, both for fiction or nonfiction.
Perhaps it is because we have all experienced bouts of letting go and holding on in terms of issues and beliefs, likes and dislikes, in our relationships, activities and passions.
Sometimes the outcome of holding on or letting go is positive. Sometimes it is not. If the holding on or letting go is a deliberate decision, we may be clear about our rationale. In another situation, years may go by before we understand or perhaps acknowledge our choice. In some cases, the choice remains a puzzle, with no answer forthcoming.
Fine mingling suggests that the good life consists of balancing: Don’t let go of too much; don’t hold on beyond what is realistic. But in writing, things are different. It is the imbalance—of a character, a situation—that attracts us as readers and viewers and keeps us involved.
General writing starters
Explore the concepts of letting go and/or holding on. See where your creative mind takes you. Suggestions:
- Freewrite for 10 minutes or more, letting your mind play with one or both terms. Don’t restrict yourself. Write down whatever comes up, no matter how odd.
- Brainstorm about possible ideas for a story or article. What was or could be let go? Held onto?
A person? A memory? An activity? An emotion? An object? What pluses and minuses are involved?
- Develop a scene, imagined or real, about one or both elements. What happens and why? Who is affected? What’s the outcome?
- Consider a specific person, incident, or place—past or present, real or imaginary—that is linked in some way to letting go or holding on. Consider other elements that may be driving the action, such as ambition, responsibility, fate, pain.
- Choose a particular person, incident or place—past or present, real or imaginary—that for you embodies letting go or holding on. Is the outcome positive, negative, or mixed? Why? Does anything unexpected eventuate? If so, how does this affect things?
Flesh out any interesting results by considering these questions:
- Who or what is involved?
- What’s so special about this particular act of letting go or holding on?
- What’s the motivation?
- Setting? Occasion? Location?
- Does it take place in the present, past or future? Time period? Duration?
- What is the dominant mood, e.g., comical, bittersweet, nostalgic, creepy?
For life writing
If you are drawing on your own life for this prompt, here are some additional questions.
- What have I let go of or held onto in the past? Why? What has been the outcome? Was it my choice?
- At this point, what could I let go of? Hold onto? Why? What would possibly change as a result?
- Have I ever made an exchange? Letting go in some way in order to achieve a holding on in another way? Or the opposite, choosing to hold on to achieve a letting go?
The outcome? If it was some time ago, what do I think about it now?
At this point in my life, or in the future, what would make me consider an exchange? What could be a possible or probable outcome?
- Do I tend to let go more than I hold on? Or the opposite? What’s that all about? What is the effect on me? On others?