Writing Queries That Get Read

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My guest today is managing and acquiring editor Jennifer Slattery. Jennifer gives us insights into the query letters writers must construct to sell their works. At the end of her post, check out her new book Healing Love.

Jennifer: Most of us spend months if not years writing then perfecting a novel then pop off a query, our stories first introduction to professionals, in ten or so minutes. For some reason many of us have come to believe this is a skill we inherently lack and will never quite master, but I disagree. We’re communicators—that’s what we do. And like with any other element of the craft, we can learn to write strong, effective queries that get read—and perhaps even warrant an invitation to submit a manuscript.

Make it personal.

In other words, let the agent or editor know why you chose to query them and they’d be interested in your project.

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No one likes to be a part of mass emails or to feel like they’re simply one of several dozen professionals you’ve contacted. This has nothing to do with pride. Rather, it’s an issue of effective time management. More often than not, mass email queries are sent by writers who didn’t take time to research recipients. Therefore, they usually miss the mark. These authors pitch memoirs to editors of romance. They send high fantasy projects to those looking for marriage and family pieces.

Often, such queries provide a strong and lasting impression—a negative one. The better option: take time to find out who wants what you’re writing. If you’re not sure, ask. I would much rather spend my time responding to someone looking for writer’s guidelines than trudging through an inbox full of irrelevant material.

Keep it concise.

Let the agent or editor know, right up from, your genre, word count, if it’s complete, and if you have or are submitting it elsewhere. You can do all that in one sentence, two tops. Here’s an example from a query I sent out years ago for what became my fourth release:

I’m writing to introduce you to my 91,600 word, multiple submission, women’s inspirational fiction, Breaking Free. 

Up your queries “bam-grab-me” component.

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Yes, a query is an email, in essence, a letter. And yes, it’s important to tell the editor or agent all the pertinent details regarding our projects, but we don’t want to bore them in the process. As with almost anything we write, our story premise must grab our reader and shake the cobwebs from their brain. (This is exponentially true for agents and editors who may have already spent hours-upon-hours sifting through gunk before getting to your gem.)

This is where you’ll want to practice writing 75-to-150 word back cover blurbs. Strong blurbs (or pitch paragraphs) set up the tension for your novel, tell us what’s at stake, and reveal genre, tone and the author’s voice.

In other words, it’s not something one can pop off in an afternoon. It’s always a good idea to sift one’s blurbs through a handful of critique partners before sending them out to industry professionals.

Sound daunting? I hear you. I haven’t met a writer yet who enjoys writing back cover copy. But if we’re going to spend months perfecting that novel, it only makes sense that we’ll also invest the necessary time to make sure it gets read.

Querying can be intimidating and stressful. Not only must one embrace risk by sending their work out, but they also must present the hook of their story in less than a page, and present themselves well. But like with anything else, this is a skill we can learn, if we’ll but invest the time. Plus, with each query, the writing becomes that much stronger and the process that much easier.

What would you add to my list?

Strong book queries tell what’s at stake and reveal genre, tone & author’s voice. Click to tweet.

Author, speaker, and ministry leader Jennifer Slattery writes for Crosswalk.com and is the managing and acquiring editor for Guiding Light Women’s Fiction, an imprint with Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas. She believes fiction has the power to transform lives and change the culture. Healing Love is her sixth novel, and it was birthed during a trip she and her family took to El Salvador that opened her eyes to the reality of generational poverty and sparked a love for orphans and all who’ve experienced loss.

Her deepest passion is to help women experience God’s love and discover, embrace, and live out who they are in Christ. As the founder of Wholly Loved Ministries, she travels with her team to various churches to speak to women and help them experience the love and freedom only Christ can offer. When not writing, editing, or speaking, you’ll likely find her chatting with her friends or husband in a quiet, cozy coffeehouse. Visit her online at JenniferSlatteryLivesOutLoud.com and connect with her and her Wholly Loved team at WhollyLoved.com

A news anchor intern has it all planned out, and love isn’t on the agenda.

Brooke Endress is on the cusp of her lifelong dream when her younger sister persuades her to chaperone a mission trip to El Salvador. Packing enough hand sanitizer and bug spray to single-handedly wipe out malaria, she embarks on what she hopes will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

But Brooke is blindsided by the desperation for hope and love she sees in the orphans’ eyes. And no less by the connection she feels with her handsome translator. As newfound passion blooms, Brooke wrestles with its implications for her career dreams.

Ubaldo Chavez, teacher and translator, knows the struggle that comes with generational poverty. But he found the way out – education – and is determined to help his students rise above.

When he agrees to translate for a mission team from the United States he expects to encounter a bunch of “missional tourists” full of empty promises. Yet an American news anchor defies his expectations, and he finds himself falling in love. But what does he have to offer someone with everything?

 

Buy Link 

Goodreads link 

Spin a Plot from One Story Element

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Are your story ideas starting to sound alike? Have your stories become the same plot with fill-in-the-blanks for such elements as:

  • character’s career,
  • the opening line,
  • the props, and
  • the title?

What if you could start with one story element that’s clever, quirky, funny, and/or mysterious—something that is so fresh that it’ll lead you into a reader-grabbing plot?

To show you what I mean, I’ll give examples from my experience.

Character’s Career

 

I majored in math, but never planned to become an actuary. But once in the profession, people drawn to the career fascinated me. People outside the department didn’t understand actuaries, so the jokes and jibes about actuaries’ peculiarities spread. Over the years, I collected jokes and amusing true-life stories about actuaries from my own observations.

I wanted to write a novel that centered on an actuary. So, I pulled together the truths, quirks, social phenomena, and funny situations I’d learned concerning actuaries. I wrote the love story between a male actuary and a woman his extreme opposite—a marketing rep. What I knew about actuaries wrote the story for me—the plot and the conflicts. I didn’t include all the jokes and idiosyncrasies I’d collected, but they helped me know how my private, introverted, analytical actuary would act and react in the kinds of circumstances the guy would fall into.

This novel was my first published novel, Calculated Risk.

Opening Line

 

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While daydreaming, an opening line flashed. With the many interruptions to her already loaded schedule, when would she find the time to kill Rita? I entered it in an opening-line contest, and it won. I subsequently wrote, “Plotting Murder,” and Christian Fiction Online Magazine published the short story. Because I focused the plot and characters on that line, it forced me to construct something unique and mysterious to keep my audience guessing until the end about why a housewife would have this unique problem.

Props

 

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Researching an idea for a romantic suspense story, I discovered a company that makes lifelike silicon masks that are exact replicas of people. I wrote a story about criminals manufacturing these masks. They sold the service of performing damaging actions while wearing the masks that would ruin or setup lucrative blackmail situations against politicians, CEOs, celebrities, and the like.

Another suspense idea came from authentic actuarial data I’d mined concerning multiple births. I used the phenomenon I’d uncovered in a story about a criminal ring headed by an obstetrician.

Although the rejection letters I received complimented my story ideas, I had not yet learned to write well.

Title

In another daydreaming instance, O. Henry’s title “Gift of the Magi” entered my thoughts. Immediately, magpie inserted itself. I wondered what a story titled, “Gift of the Magpie,” would be about. After brainstorming what the magpie could be other than a bird and a storyline different than O. Henry’s, I wrote a short story. The plot grew and demanded to be a book. My second inspirational romance, Gift of the Magpie, releases mid August.

Write a unique story starting with a clever, quirky, or mysterious story element. Click to tweet.

What story element have you centered an engaging story around?

Come Play a Game About Literary Devices!

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I’ve finished a series on literary devices. (One is more a problem than a supportive device.) As a review, I list the devices, definition hints, and the sentence number(s) of where they show up in my scene below. I invite you to ignore my answers and try to spot the examples(s) for each device. If you want to know more about a device, click on the device’s name to go to my post about it.

Literary Device

Hint

Sentence #

Allusion

a passing reference

3

Amplification

add more information

14

Aphorism

true, short, and witty

45

Asyndeton

omission of conjunctions

11

Authorial Intrusion

author seeks relationship

11

Circumlocution

express in roundabout way

54-60

Diction

word choices

14, 15, 28, 46

Euphemism

less offensive expression

33

Faulty Parallelism

rebel in a series

22

Foil

opposing traits to protagonist

Sam

Foreshadowing

“clue” to the future

1

Hyperbaton

sentence order transposed

 29, 31

Imagery

creates strong mental pictures

10

Malapropism

sneaky lookalike

15, 18

Metonymy (Synecdoche)

things called by another name

4, 12

Personification

give things human traits

26

Symbolism

imbue things with deeper meaning

49

1Sam leaned against the bus stop pole and slid a piece of paper into his pocket. 2“Here comes Jocelyn. 3Time to don my Superman cape.” 4He flexed his pecs, expanding his T-shirt sporting the word STUD.

5On the bench, Grayson didn’t move. 6No way would he check behind him and let Sam blast him with another “gotcha,” especially when it had to do with Jocelyn.

7Sam’s eyes lit up and he turned on his I’m-your-man smile.

8The guy was telling the truth.

9Grayson turned his head until he could sneak a glance at Jocelyn. 10Her brunette ponytail swished as her pink tennis shoes slapped the sidewalk’s incline. 11You know the type, young, pretty, a fresh look of innocence. 12Grayson’s pumper skipped a beat.

13“I don’t think the cape’s going to help,” he said. “14In case you haven’t noticed, we’re loitering at a bus stop.”

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15 “Is your point that bus stops are for suave octogonians to pick up old women with oxygen tanks? Not for macho guys like me?”

16Grayson rolled his eyes then checked Jocelyn’s progress toward them. 17“For once, can you act normal?”

18“I’m no wolf in cheap clothing. 19I can’t help it I’m a friendly”—he pointed at the word on his shirt—“stud.”

20Had Jocelyn read his note? 21Grayson wiped the sweat beading his forehead. 22She didn’t look particularly happy, bummed, or had a frightened expression. 23Why had he asked her out in a note? 24How lame was that?

25“Hi, guys.” Jocelyn flashed them her full-lipped smile. See nodded at the bus stop sign. 26“Sam, is your clunker Camaro sick?”

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27“Clunker? 28Honey, that ride is a classic in her prime.”

29“So you say.” 30She turned to Grayson.

31Here it came. 32He braced for the shoot-down.

33I heard your dog passed away, Grayson. 34I’m sorry.”

35So was he, but what about the note? 36The date?

37Sam tugged out the piece of paper he’d pocketed.

38Grayson did a double take. 39That was the paper he’d scrawled his dumb note on. 40Sam had taken it off Jocelyn’s door? 41The slimeball. 42But wait. 43She hadn’t seen it. 44He let out a breath. 45Sometimes a buddy in greed was buddy indeed.

46“Well, lookie here.” 47Sam dangled the paper.

48Grayson stood, blood draining from his head. “Sam!” 49He eyed the note threatening his doom. 50Don’t. 51I mean it.”

52Jocelyn’s forehead wrinkled as Sam laughed.

53Sam waved the paper. “54I decided to ask you out, but when I got to your house what should I see on your door? 55It wasn’t a foreclosure notice. 56No. 57It wasn’t a bill collector’s letter. 58No. 59It wasn’t an offer for low-cost Internet service. 60N—“

61Grayson lunged and grabbed for the note. 62Sam yanked it out of his reach, guffawing. “63No, it was a note from Grayson asking you out. 64How uncool is that?”

65Jocelyn stared at Sam then turned to Grayson. 66“Sounds sweet to me.”

 See if you can spot seventeen literary devices in a short scene. Click to tweet.

What is your favorite literary device? Why?