Submit to Me!
A quick guide to help you
avoid annoying the editors

Absolute Blank

By Erin Nappe (Billiard)

In addition to my editing here at Toasted Cheese, I also recently took on a freelance editing job for an e-book publisher. As a result, I read many query letters, cover letters, and synopses (as well as stories and novels) from first-time writers.

When trying to get published, it’s best to be sure that you don’t do things that annoy, vex, or otherwise irritate the editors you’re hoping will publish your work. I surveyed my fellow editors for their favorite pet peeves, and we came up with these eight things you can do to make sure your story or novel doesn’t get tossed to the bottom of the slush pile:

  1. Make sure your submission follows the guidelines

The surest way to make sure your submission doesn’t get read is not to follow the submission guidelines. Most publications have their guidelines readily available, if not online, then in books such as the Writer’s Market. If you don’t want to buy your own copy, make a trip to the nearest bookstore or library and take notes. (Please note—guidelines on a publication’s website supercede information found in a print publication. They’re usually more up-to-date!) Submission guidelines are written for a reason; they’re not just arbitrary rules. We disqualify dozens of submissions each submission period for not adhering to our guidelines.

Read and follow guidelines carefully. And do be sure to actually read the publications to which you’re submitting. Many times, you will find stories and articles available online. If not, head back to that bookstore or library, or order sample copies of the publication.

  1. Adhere to deadlines

If you’re given a deadline, stick to it. Being late will not endear you to any editor. Here at TC, stories submitted to the e-zine after the submission period ends get bumped to the next submission period. We publish quarterly, which means you’ll be waiting a long time for a response. Know the deadlines and plan accordingly.

Other deadlines are a bigger deal. A late contest entry will be disqualified, for example. Missing deadlines for magazines or corporate jobs will likely cost you the job and damage your reputation.

If you’re working with an editor on a novel, missed deadlines will make your editor cranky. No one wants a cranky editor. If you say you’ll have a manuscript to your editor by a certain date, well, it only stands to reason that the manuscript actually reach your editor on or near that date! Quite simply, you need to maintain positive working relationships with the people who want to publish your writing.

  1. Take as much care with your cover letter/query/synopsis as you do with your story

Nothing turns an editor off more than a sloppy, poorly-written cover letter or synopsis. This is the surest way to make sure that your submission doesn’t get read.

Write carefully. Proofread. Edit. Proofread again. Have a friend/spouse/significant other proofread it for you. Don’t be careless with this step; often, it’s the first impression we’ll have of you. Make sure it’s a good one!

It’s also important to note that you shouldn’t skip this step. We want to know who you are, and we want to know why you think our publication is the very best place for your work.

  1. Keep it positive

Theryn Fleming (Beaver) says, “My #1 cover letter peeve is when people say something negative about themselves and/or the publication being submitted to.”

Most of the TC editors agree on this one. Statements such as, “If you don’t like it enough to respond, it won’t be the first time”, “I’ve never been published”, or “You probably won’t like this” tell us you don’t really have faith in your work. “If [the writer] doesn’t believe in her ability, why should I?” says Baker. “Let your story do the talking for you. Better a ho-hum cover with a great submission than a ‘losing already attitude’ and the same submission.”

In most cases, it is not at all necessary to say you haven’t been published before or that this submission is your first. If you don’t have any relevant publishing credits, simply leave this section out of your letter.

(For more, see The short, sweet guide to writing query letters by Baker)

  1. KISS your queries and cover letters

The best advice for queries and cover letters is to keep them simple, only providing the necessary information. You don’t need to tell us your age, occupation, hobbies, or shoe size. We don’t need to know where you went to college, where you grew up, or how long you’ve been writing.

And as for previous publications? We think it’s best to list a few of your most recent or relevant publications. Many editors find long lists of publications tedious and unnecessary.

  1. Write your query/cover letter naturally

I’ve seen a number of queries that follow submission guidelines point by point. I find this tedious and distracting. For example, the publisher I’m working for asks that the query letter include a “marketing hook.” I got this in one of my queries:

“Since I’ve never submitted to an e-publisher before, I’m not sure what you mean by marketing hook. I certainly understand what marketing is but would ask you to clarify that requirement.”

Statements like this will only mark you as an amateur, and a lazy one at that. If you’re not sure about something in the guidelines, do some research or ask for clarification. (P.S.—the place to ask for clarification is not in your query.)

  1. Make it personal

Generally, editors do like to be called by their names. Do a little bit of research to find out who you’re submitting to, instead of using the generic “To Whom it May Concern” or “Dear Editor”.

There is an exception, though. If the publication has an editorial board, like Toasted Cheese does, don’t address your cover letter to a single editor. This will just make you seem rude. “While you may have done your homework, you didn’t understand it,” adds Beaver.

And finally, please, please, please don’t send us a letter addressed to an editor at a different publication. Don’t send out letters that are obviously mass carbon-copies to dozens of editors. You will forever be branded as amateurish and unprofessional. While it’s fine to use the same basic template for your cover letter, be sure to personalize it for each publication.

  1. Show, don’t tell

I saved my own personal biggest pet peeve for last—authors who tell me in their cover letter or query how wonderful/funny/touching their story or novel is, as in this example:

“How they resolve these issues is at times funny and at others poignant.”

Also, please don’t tell us how much your mother/spouse/next-door-neighbor/dog loved your manuscript. While this may be true, it is entirely irrelevant.

Don’t tell me how good your story is. Show me. A good cover letter should give me enough information to make me want to read on and discover all the things you love about your manuscript.

Some final words of advice

We know how scary submitting your work can be. Don’t let yourself get rejected simply for making these easy-to-fix mistakes. Approach all submissions professionally, be yourself, and above all, make sure your writing sparkles!

Final Poll Results

Five Quick Tips
for Getting Your Story Published

Absolute Blank

By Erin L. Nappe (Billiard)

The slush pile. It’s where no writer wants to be, and where no editor wants to go. As an editor at Toasted Cheese, I’ve had to wade into the slush pile on many occasions. As a writer, I’ve tried my hardest to keep out of it.

I recently had the good fortune to have one of my short stories published in the national-circulation women’s magazine Woman’s World. In light of this success, I thought I would share a few quick tips for keeping out of the slush pile, a vital first step toward seeing your name in print.

  1. Know your market!

It’s no mistake that the magazine that published my story is one that I’ve read. My mom has been picking up Woman’s World and reading it since I was a kid. And because I read just about anything you put in front of me, I’ve been reading it for about that long. As I got older, I started looking at the fiction with a writer’s eye, and truly believed this was a market I could succeed in. The stories that I’ve submitted to Woman’s World were written specifically with this market in mind.

Woman’s World publishes two types of stories; short romances and mini mysteries. Knowing this, I wouldn’t send them, oh, say a science fiction story. I was writing a short romance, and I know that Woman’s World‘s readers want uplifting, character-driven stories with endings that hint at the possibility of true love. With that in mind, I wouldn’t send them my angst-ridden piece about a young woman in love with a musician who keeps breaking her heart. You need to understand the magazine or journal’s readership, and you need to be aware of what the editors are looking for. If you don’t think your story will fit in, it probably won’t.

Read the publication before submitting. At the very least, send for a sample copy or spend some time online or at a bookstore looking at examples of what’s been published by this market. Getting published is kind of like dating or job hunting… it’s all about finding the right match!

  1. Follow submission guidelines carefully.

Always, always, be sure that you’re following the most recent submission guidelines. When I first submitted to Woman’s World, the maximum word count for short romances was 1,500 words. Sometime between when I submitted the story and when it reached the editor’s hands, that word count was cut to 1,100 words. Fortunately for me, the editor liked my story and gave me a chance to cut it down to fit their guidelines. But the bottom line is this; if you’re given a maximum word count, don’t go over.

Make sure you submit your manuscript in the correct format. If the magazine or journal wants a hard copy of your story, don’t send an e-mail (and vice versa). If the online journal asks for submissions in the text of an e-mail, don’t send an attachment. Check the most recent copy of the Writer’s Market for guidelines, or check to see if guidelines are listed on a web page. Don’t let your manuscript be thrown out over something you could have avoided!

  1. Submit only your best work (editing and proofreading are your friends!).

I cannot stress this enough—before submitting, make sure your manuscript is clean and error-free. Once, I submitted a story that had a punctuation error in the first sentence. It was immediately rejected (with the error circled), and I’ll never know if it was thrown out because of the story’s content or because of my mistake. Don’t let this happen to you! Post your story at one of our online forums for critique before sending it in. You want to be completely happy with what you’re submitting. Have a meticulous friend check your spelling and grammar. (Even the best of us make mistakes—trust me!)

  1. Be professional.

When submitting your work, always do so in a professional manner. Manuscripts should always be typed, and you should make sure to include all requested information such as address, telephone number, e-mail address, etc. When submitting manuscripts through regular mail, you should always include a SASE to help the editor keep you informed of the status of your submission.

DO NOT inquire about the status of your submission until after the time designated in the submission guidelines. If the publication’s guidelines state that they normally respond within three months from submission, don’t write an inquiry letter after two. Editors are busy, and bothering them unnecessarily is not recommended. After the designated four-month period had passed, I sent an inquiry to Woman’s World with another SASE, and heard of my acceptance via e-mail within a couple of weeks.

Be sure to keep good records of what you submitted, when and where. You don’t want to embarrass yourself and forever be tagged as an amateur by sending an inquiry letter to the wrong publication!

  1. Keep your cover letter and bio brief.

Brevity should be the soul of your cover letter. The editors don’t need to know your life story. My cover letter looks something like this:

Dear Ms. Granger:

Enclosed is my short story “A Mother Knows” (1,089 words). You are the first editor I am soliciting with this story, as I believe Woman’s World is the ideal place for it. [Your introduction. Name the story, give the word count, maybe say something nice about the publication. You might possibly also include a brief synopsis.]

I am a part-time college writing instructor and substitute teacher in Buffalo, New York. I am also a contributing editor at Toasted-Cheese.com, an online writing community and literary magazine. I have had short stories published in the online magazine NoNounsense.com and in Journal of the Blue Planet. [Your bio. Keep it simple. List any publications… if you don’t have any publications, leave this part out. Don’t draw attention to it!]

I will wait four months for your reply before approaching another publication. Please notify me of your decision by using my enclosed SASE. Thank you for considering “A Mother Knows”. [Your closing.]

Sincerely,

[signature]

That’s it. Simple and to-the-point.

Of course, I can’t guarantee that following these guidelines will get your story published. What I can guarantee you is that not following these guidelines will get your manuscript thrown out before anyone even reads it! Of course, submitting your work will always be hard, but knowing your market and following the rules of the game will make it a little bit easier. I know; I’ve been there.

Final Poll Results

On the Art and Business of Writing:
An interview with Wendy Corsi Staub

Absolute Blank

By Erin L. Nappe (Billiard)

Last year, I picked up a new novel in Harlequin’s “Red Dress Ink” line titled Slightly Single by Wendy Markham. I was intrigued by two things; the author’s light, witty style, and the fact that the main character was from the geographic area I now call home.

I learned that Wendy Markham was a pseudonym for writer Wendy Corsi Staub, who grew up in Dunkirk/Fredonia, N.Y.—about 40 miles from Buffalo. I was soon captivated by another one of her books, In the Blink of an Eye—a thriller set in the nearby spiritualist community of Lilydale, N.Y. When I finished, I was inspired to write to Wendy and tell her how much I enjoyed her writing. Luckily for me, and for all of you reading, she graciously offered to chat with me.

Wendy majored in English with a minor in Creative Writing at the State University of New York. She sold her first novel at age 27, and she has published in several genres including historical and contemporary romance, television and movie tie-in, biography, suspense, and horror.

She is the author of more than fifty novels, published under her own name and three pseudonyms: Wendy Markham, Wendy Morgan, and Wendy Brody.

TC: How long have you been writing? How did you get your start?

WCS: When I was in third grade I wrote an essay about Abraham Lincoln and my teacher, Janet Foster, thought it was so good she read it aloud to the class, telling me I had real talent. I was encouraged by her reaction and went home and told my mom I was going to be an author when I grew up. I never wavered from that goal, believe it or not. I read everything I could get my hands on as a kid, and I’ve been writing “books” since elementary school, though I never finished one until I was in my twenties. I used to scribble chapter after chapter in longhand on that colored notebook paper that was so popular in the mid-seventies, ambitiously thinking that I would be the youngest bestselling author the world had ever seen. At least half that dream came true. I became a bestselling author…but not until I was in my thirties! I worked in a bookstore during college and moved to NYC right afterward, where I worked for several book publishers-always with the goal of networking and learning the book business inside out.

TC: When was your first publication? How long did it take you to get published?

WCS: Not counting the local newspaper column I wrote in high school and for my college newspaper, my first “real” publication was a poem in Seventeen magazine when I was twenty. They spelled my name wrong and I earned only $15, but I was thrilled.

TC: I noticed that you write in several different genres…do you have a favorite?

WCS: To be honest, while I love creating chick lit, romantic comedy, and young adult, suspense is my absolute favorite thing to write. I’m itching to finish my current project and get back to the new suspense novel I started a few months ago, because my books tend to be page-turners as I write them, not just as readers read them. Even though I know whodunnit, I can’t wait to see how, or why.

TC: A lot of writers have a hard time with the “business” of writing. Do you have any advice on the practical side of publishing?

WCS: If you’re going to write purely for your own pleasure and for the sake of art, then you can afford to think of your work as art. But if you’re going to write for publication, you have to think of your work as a product, which requires a certain level of professional detachment. Remember that you are a salesman, not an artist. You must have a thick skin. If a salesman’s product isn’t marketable, he doesn’t take it personally. He also should not be opposed to tweaking it until it works and should accept constructive criticism gracefully.

Too many beginning authors make the mistake of becoming too emotionally attached to the project they’re trying to sell, stubbornly refusing to adapt and write for the market’s needs, and then wondering why they’re not making progress. Pay attention to what’s on the bookstore shelves. More importantly, pay attention to what’s flying off the bookstore shelves. I’m not urging writers to engage in plagiarism, but it’s a good idea to note what works and what doesn’t, and which publishers are having success with which genres. Do your homework. Nothing turns off an acquiring editor more than a clueless or a cocky novice. I used to be an editor and I encountered more than my share of both.

TC: What writer (or writers) do you like to read?

WCS: I’m a big fan of nonfiction-biography, history, true crime. I have to read a lot of nonfiction as research so I rarely have time for pleasure reading. But I’m also a big fan of pop culture stuff and humor. Not cartoon humor, but humorists like Dave Barry. When it comes to fiction I love suspense—to name a few favorites: Harlan Coben, Lisa Gardner, Patricia MacDonald, Joy Fielding, and Tom Savage.

TC: Do you have any writing “rituals”?

WCS: Absolutely. I can’t produce fiction anywhere other than on my own laptop, on Word Perfect software, in my office at home. I can’t be wearing shoes, I must have a cup of coffee at hand, and one leg is always tucked beneath me, the opposite foot up on my chair in a comfortably contorted position. I write best when I rise at four or five in the morning, before the pressures of the day can “taint” my mindset. And when I’m on a deadline-which I always am lately-I have to have a set number of pages I’m going to accomplish that day. I don’t stop until I’m done. If I finish at noon, great. If it’s eight o’clock and dinner is over and I still have four pages to go, guess who has to miss Must-See TV?

TC: What advice would you offer to those writers struggling to balance writing and “real life”?

WCS: Discipline is the key. You have to treat your writing as responsibly as you’d treat an obligation to an employer. I would love to sleep in every morning and lounge around watching Matt and Katie till ten, but I make a point of hauling my butt into my chair without fail every weekday morning and most weekends. Writing is a fun and thrilling career, but it takes hard work to remain successful. I try not to answer the phone when I’m working, and I try not to let e-mail become a distraction. The one exception is my young children. If they need me, I drop everything. If they have a little league game or a cub scout program or school trip, I’m there, regardless of deadline pressure. They, and not my career, are “real life” right now. I love being a writer but Mommy is the most rewarding job of all.

Learn more about Wendy Corsi Staub and her writing at WendyCorsiStaub.com

Final Poll Results

10 Secrets Of A Synopsis That Sells

Absolute Blank

By Melissa Muro

If you’re a writer and there is a novel sitting on your desk, waiting to be sent out to prospective agents, there will come a time that you have to formulate a synopsis.

Cooking up a hot synopsis is not something that writers need to fear, yet they do. If there is one thing that really gives them reason to procrastinate, it’s that daunting task of compressing a single novel into a single page or ten pages, depending on what the agent or publisher has requested.

Is ‘daunting’ the correct word to define the task of writing a synopsis? Many writers think so, but it does not have to be. First, we must take a closer look at what the word ‘synopsis’ means. A synopsis is a narrative summary of the main action of your finished or unfinished book-length manuscript. The way I like to define such task is quite simple: condense the entire novel into a short story.

There are slight variations on how to write a successful synopsis, but the basic elements are the same.

Background Image: Pete O'Shea/Flickr.

Background Image: Pete O’Shea/Flickr (CC-by).

  1. Begin by getting off to a fast start with an opening line that has been crafted into a truly stunning narrative hook. Then, move directly into the story. Do not make a shaky entrance. Start where the action and excitement of the story starts, not before. It’s a good idea to avoid telling the back story because your chance of losing the reader becomes greater. Open your synopsis, as you open your book, with conflict. This increases your chance of the reader wanting to continue on.
  2. Determine what the main points of the story are. This will help you avoid writing your synopsis in a chapter-by-chapter format. In a novel, there are usually several points that are profound and it is important to recognize what those points are. Once you’ve identified those, write them down in order and then expand on each one. What factors do I look for? There are several factors which make up a single main point: Meeting—the conflict facing the character or characters; Purpose—why is such an event occurring?; Encounter—what is the air around the story like, the drama; Final Action—win, lose or quit; and Sequel or Aftermath—state of affairs, then lead into your next scene.

I usually go through my novel and pick out five to six main events or turning points. One event is fleshed out a bit and looks something like this:

  • Meeting–between the daughter and her father.
  • Purpose–of the daughter is to convince her father to change the curfew from 10 p.m. to 12 p.m. Why? Because she feels that all of her friends get to stay out late and she feels left out when the party is still going on and she has to go home.
  • Encounter–as arguments sway back and forth. The father says that the curfew stands; that he has a responsibility as a father and it’s important to follow the laws of teenage curfew. Tempers flare.
  • Final Action–again the daughter rejects her father’s argument.
  • Sequel–the daughter leaves in anger, determined that she will get her father to see her point of view. This points towards the next scene.

After one ‘scene’ is complete, go ahead and continue on with the other four or five, or however many are needed to write a compelling short story. Once that is done, bring everything together and the hardest part of the synopsis is done.

  1. Write the synopsis in the present tense and the third person. Make sure the tone matches the style of your novel. If the novel deals with family drama, then make the synopsis dramatic. Similarly, with a humorous novel the synopsis should be funny, and with a romance, romantic. An editor will be confused and be more apt to reject your work if she/he reads a funny synopsis, then reads the first three chapters of your work and learns that it’s all about death and melancholia. If you find that preparing your synopsis to match the tone and style of your novel is difficult, one recommended technique is to tell the story into a tape recorder, always in chronological order.
  2. Be sure to include a brief description when a character is introduced, concentrating on the individual’s nature and personality rather than physical appearance. The names of the main characters need to be capitalized the first time they are introduced. Do not include their ages. When mentioning secondary characters or location, there is no need to add intricate details. It’s best to keep descriptions to a minimum unless they are significant to the synopsis.
  3. Whether it is a one-page, 10-page or 20-page synopsis, the format is the same. A one-page synopsis should include all the main points in sharp, concise sentences. For longer works, the standard expectations of agents, editors, and publishers are that the first two pages open the door to your exciting novel, the middle pages advance the story along with scenes filled with drama, and finally the last two pages wrap up the end scenes. If the above method in # 7 is used, the sequence of events will flow naturally.
  4. Make sure that your synopsis is filled with emotions. Don’t tell the emotion, show the emotion. Readers, from an agent reading a manuscript to a person in the store with a book in her hand, want to be lost in stories filled with emotions. On the most basic level, we all have the capability to feel and when something makes us feel, good or bad, there is a sense of connection.
  5. Resist the urge to insert comments in the synopsis that address the reader directly to ensure the reader “gets it.” For example, you might write, “The conflict is…” or “At this point in the story…” Do not do this because doing so jars the reader from the flow of the story.
  6. Read your synopsis aloud. Reading your work in silence is not the same as reading it aloud. Many times I have read my synopsis aloud only to catch errors. What looks good on the screen or on paper doesn’t necessarily sound pleasant when it’s read aloud. Plus, I find that if I’m stumbling over a sentence or the flow of one paragraph doesn’t sit right, then it’s time for a minor rewrite. The edited version always sounds better.
  7. Once everything is complete, check the formatting and make sure it’s correct. Some tips:
    1. Double Space.
    2. Use 1 inch to 1½ margins on all four sides.
    3. Use white, clean paper. Print on one side only.
    4. Use a high quality printer, no dot matrix or typewriter.
    5. Left justify.
    6. Do not bind papers.
    7. Use a header with name, title and page number.

Example:

Name of Author
Street Address
City, State, Zip Code
Telephone #

Synopsis: Title
Category:
Approximately XX,XXX words

Synopsis
TITLE WRITEN IN BOLD AND CAPS

  1. Find a positive affirmation. I believe that words are power and when you say them out loud, they manifest into truth. Instead of saying or thinking, “I can’t do this synopsis,” or even, “I write such great novels, but yucky synopses. The editor will never buy it.” If you wrote a compelling novel, then you can write a compelling synopsis. Instead of focusing on what you can’t do, find a simple phrase such as “I am the master of synopsis writing,” or “Synopsis writing is easy to do.” Say your new affirmation seven times and it will come to fruition.

I live in Louisiana, which is a fertile ground for imagination considering all of the history behind this state. I have written and produces several plays for the deaf, as well as screenplays, novels (pending publication), non-fiction books and short stories. E-mail Melissa: dragonflies [at] wnonline.net.

Final Poll Results

The short, sweet guide
to writing query letters

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

Updated April 2009

Ah those blissful days when you first finish your novel. You might take a little time to bask in your own glory or you might dive into rewrites. In any case, sooner or later, you have to do it: find an agent to sell your novel to a publisher, so that others will bask in your glory for you.

Maybe you don’t write fiction at all. Maybe you had an idea for an article for your favorite magazine so you decided to give it a try and darned if it doesn’t look pretty good. Maybe they’d buy it from you, if only you knew how to get it into an editor’s hands.

If you write for publication, you have to query. If you write short stories, creative non-fiction or certain kinds of non-fiction, you might never have to write a full-blown query letter. A few lines to introduce yourself and your story could be all you’ll ever need to send to an editor.

Some of you have a novel finished or a collection of short stories. Some of you have a few how-to or “personal experience” articles rattling around in your mind or collecting dust on your hard drive. You want people to read your work, right? So introduce yourself and your work to the right people with a query letter.

What’s a query letter?

A query letter is used to approach editors or agents about manuscripts. You’re saying “here’s what I have” and “does it interest you?” There are two possible responses: “yes” and “no.”

The agents I’ve queried have been cordial and professional. Some have asked for more based on my query. Some have said, “Not for me, thanks.” Some have sent back a form letter that they are not taking on new clients. No agent has ever sent back something like, “Are you serious?” They won’t do it to you either.

The worst response you’ll get is no response at all and, so long as you’ve included an SASE, anyone who doesn’t have the courtesy to reply is not someone with whom you’d want to work anyway.

Who to query

Send your novel’s query to an agent, not a publishing house. Reputable agents may be researched online at http://www.anotherealm.com/prededitors/pubagent.htm or in books like the annual Writer’s Guide to Book Editors, Publishers, and Literary Agents. More information about how to choose an editor is available at http://www.sfwa.org/Beware/agents.html

If you are querying an article, contact the publication directly. Make sure the editor you’re writing to is the right person to read your article and make sure that the person you’re contacting is still with the magazine.

For novels, novellas and short story collections

Many authors admit that writing a query is more difficult than writing a novel. Approach your query as though you were selling the story to the reader, not to an agent. Make every sentence count. If you bore the agent in a query, he might fear being bored by your novel.

Be general about the story. Don’t delve into your themes and symbolism and subplots. Leave them for the agent to discover. However, don’t be so general that the agent has no idea if the book is for his agency or not. Your summary should read more like the inside flap of a dust jacket than the back cover.

In writing the synopsis paragraphs, be vivid and economical with your word choice. Identify your intended audience or genre, if it’s not obvious. If you believe your book has an element that will make it stand out from others in the genre, tell the agent.

Some agents like an outline instead of a plot synopsis. In this case, your outline may be included on a second sheet of paper, separate from the query letter itself. Don’t get fancy; just write a tight outline and follow any suggestions laid out in the agent’s guidelines.

One way to structure your letter is as follows:

  • Paragraph 1: Begin with the reason you’re writing, the name of the book, the word count, the genre, etc. (example: “I am seeking representation for my mainstream novel, WHITHER THE EMU, complete at 80,000 words.”) For your word count, round to the nearest 1000.

Begin your synopsis by focusing on your main character and his predicament. Describe some other important characters. What is at stake? Where is the conflict? If you have room, you may want to make this a separate paragraph.

  • Paragraph 2: Continue your synopsis by getting into the book itself. Stay factual and open. Don’t try to rouse the agent’s curiosity by keeping plot twists to yourself. What’s the action? How do the characters interact? How does your main character change during the novel? How does the conflict manifest itself and how is it resolved? Remember: characters + problem = conflict and conflict + action = resolution and change.
  • Paragraph 3: This is where you get to introduce yourself as a writer. Include a line or two about why you wrote the story. Tell the agent about your qualifications, publishing history and any other relevant information. Following the guidelines you read when researching this agent, let her know that chapter samples, the first fifty pages or whatever samples she requests in her listing are available.

Stay professional, not personal. Don’t include information like what kind of dog you own or how many kids you have unless it’s relevant to the book or the market. Don’t confess that you’ve never been published.

Close professionally, with your contact information (phone number, e-mail address, etc.), and thank the agent for her consideration. Include a self-addressed stamped envelope for a reply.

For articles

If you use a formal query for your article, you will have an advantage over 90% of the writers submitting pieces for publication. Even if you submit electronically, follow the query letter format.

Follow the same basic structure of the novel query. For your word count, round to the nearest 100 words if your article is under 2000 words; round to the nearest 500 if the article is over 2000 words. Identify what section of the magazine you believe is best suited to your article. This will have the added benefit of showing the editor that you are familiar with the publication.

For your opening paragraph, present the idea up front (example: “Rumors abound as to the best way to get pregnant. Could some fertility myths be true?”). Be specific and persuasive. Use these paragraphs to showcase your writing style.

For your middle paragraphs, give an idea of how the article unfolds. Include bullet points, sidebars and any other information relevant to the layout and presentation of the article once it is in print. If you have illustrations or ideas for illustrations, some editors want to hear it and some don’t. The best thing you can do is to follow the editorial guidelines. If you have illustrations or photographs to include with the article, mention that. The editor’s reply will include whether or not she is interested in the illustrations or if the magazine will use its own art department or freelance artists in this capacity.

You may also want to include a paragraph about why you have chosen this magazine for your article. How will the two compliment each other?

For your closing paragraph, include previous relevant publishing experience. If your work has been printed in similar “rival” magazines, mention it. It shows that your work is suited to this type of publication. Let the editor know why you are qualified to write this article. You have a little more leeway here than writers submitting novel queries. Mentioning personal experience can be a boon and do so, if it has bearing on the subject.

Don’t…

  • Use unusual fonts, colored paper or other “tricks” to stand out. Let your professionalism and writing ability create the “stand-out” quality you want
  • Call your novel a “fiction novel”
  • Send samples with your query unless the guidelines say you should
  • Send more than the agent asks for as a sample
  • Use pseudonyms. If the agent is interested in your work and takes you on as a client, you can discuss pseudonyms later
  • Mention how often your work has been rejected and/or by whom
  • Mention that you’ve never been published or are an “amateur” or that you write as a “hobby”
  • Tell the editor or agent that the piece “needs work” or ask for any upfront editing advice.
  • Discuss copyrights or payment
  • Query more than one piece of work per letter
  • Query the same agent or editor repeatedly after being rejected

Do…

  • Be professional from beginning to end
  • Limit your query letter to a single page, using a formal business letter format
  • Let your tone should reflect the piece. If it’s funny, have a lighter tone. If it’s serious, stay serious
  • Hook the reader in the first paragraph. Keep this paragraph 100% about your work, not about you. You’ll have the opportunity to talk about yourself at the end of the query
  • Spelling, grammar and punctuation must be perfect. Don’t leave it up to Word; ask someone to give it a once-over or come back to it after a cup of tea
  • Make sure the market matches the piece. Query relevant magazines. Query agents who specialize in your genre
  • Get to the point and stick to it
  • Research the agent or editor. Her guidelines supersede any advice in this article. Editors like to work with professional, respectful writers. Your query illustrates that you fall into that category
  • Respond quickly when an editor or agent shows interest

One more bit of advice

  • I believe the best rule of thumb is this: if your query sounds anything like the lyrics of “Paperback Writer,” start again from scratch.

Final Poll Results


[ April 2009 Update ]

In the six years since publishing our Absolute Blank article “The short, sweet guide to writing query letters,” the way in which we query has changed.

These days, agents accept more electronic queries (some take e-queries exclusively) and this means they want your hook right up front. Why? So that when the opening of your query shows in the agent’s inbox, they will see your hook. Agents, like anyone, love to be thrilled and they like to see a hook that compels them to open an e-query immediately.

So here’s how to structure an electronically-submitted query (e-query):

Paragraph 1: Your first or only line should be your hook. A hook is a single line meant to intrigue the reader. Agent Colleen Lindsay writes, “A strong hook in your initial query is going be the most effective tool you’ll have to help all of these other publishing and bookselling professionals sell your book.” Here are some examples of hooks from agent Nathan Bransford’s blog:

  • A man goes into the jungle to search for a missing general (HEART OF DARKNESS)
  • A reclusive chocolatier opens up his factory to the lucky children who find golden tickets (CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY)
  • A monomaniacal sea captain forces his crew to search for an elusive white whale (MOBY DICK)
  • A train engine thinks it can make it up a hill (THE LITTLE ENGINE THAT COULD)

AgentQuery also provides guidance on how to craft your hook.

You can segue into your synopsis from here or leave your hook as a single-line paragraph. I recommend going into the synopsis, since some of that might show in the agent’s “preview” of the content of your e-mail as well.

Begin your synopsis by focusing on your main character and his predicament. Describe some other important characters. What is at stake? Where is the conflict? Talk about the action of the story without mentioning every plot point. Remember: you have one paragraph and one entire page to accomplish your query.

Paragraph 2: This information is unchanged from the original query formula we presented in 2003.

Paragraph 3: Here’s where you give the title of your novel, the word count (rounded to the nearest 1000 words), the genre and the fact that the novel is complete. If it’s not, you’ll need to hold off on your query.

You should also put your writer’s biography here. Include your credits (if any), and any personal data that’s relevant to your novel. For example, if your book is set on a horse ranch in Montana and you spent your college summers cooking toasted cheese sandwiches for ranchers in Wyoming, you might want to include it—or not. At a minimum, you’ll want to include your contact information: Name (Pen Name, if applicable), e-mail address, mailing address and phone numbers.

Thank the agent for her consideration and say that you look forward to hearing from her.

For land mail queries, you can follow this structure or the structure we presented in 2003. The trend is toward this structure but some agents might prefer the older style.

Additional resources:

-Stephanie Lenz

So You’ve Finished Your Novel:
Now What?

Absolute Blank

By Dee Ann Ruffel

Recently I completed my third work of novel-length fiction. The senses of relief and pride overwhelmed me as I typed the two most beautiful words in the world, “The End”. But still I did not kid myself; I knew my tale needed honing, major editing. I didn’t mind. I loved the story, and enjoyed the tuning as if my novel were a scuffed Steinway in need only of a little tenderness to be beautiful again. After two overhauls and an exhaustive search for the perfect agent, I was finally ready to unleash my story. So what happened? What did I hear back on it? The two ugliest words in the world, “Slush Pile”.

Think it couldn’t happen to you? Read on, please. Oh, I know what you might assume (just as I once smugly presupposed of unpublished writers), her novel must not be that good. Don’t think that about my work, and don’t think it about yours when you get that first rejection letter. Writers Digest books, Writer’s Market and all of the ‘resources’ for aspiring writers can be dizzying with scarcely veiled promises of that big nugget—cue the bongos—a contract. So we buy the books (are you catching my hint?), read the articles, brush up on copyright laws, overseas rights, film rights, agent percentages, ah yes, and then come the money fantasies. Reading about $50K-plus advances can get even the most hard-boiled of realistic writers dreaming of hot tubs and a spot on the David Letterman show in a jiffy. But unless you’re a cousin of a friend of a publisher who owes your gangster father money, getting your foot in the door of the publishing industry is more like going twelve rounds with Mike Tyson than a happy-footed skip to the post office.

And speaking of snail mail, do not send manuscripts via the expensive priority route. See, while you may be in a giant rush to have your novel read and adored, agents I’ve spoken with (the Donald Maass Agency, to list one), say it doesn’t do a whit of good to overnight, express, return-receipt, or buy into any of Mr. Postmaster’s extra extras. If you want to insure your package, go ahead, but why would you waste your money? Without a contract, that copy of your novel is, well, worthless to anyone but you.

Discouraged yet? Don’t be. If you’re a Writer with a capital W, as Stephanie Lenz (Baker) says, nothing will stop your locomotion. Your itch to burrow into the literary world will drive you onward, deeper, inch by hard-earned inch, until one afternoon you realize that a year ago you would have popped champagne for the penny-a-word magazine sale you just made. And you stop worrying about the golden nugget for a moment and give thanks.

You’ve just smuggled one toe in the door of the publishing industry. And what you’ve accomplished, not just by making a tiny sale but having completed a novel of your own mood, characters, scenes, action, dialogue, plot, and conclusion, is a level more than many aspiring writers ever make it to in a lifetime. You say that isn’t enough, and you want more? Good, because with an attitude like that, you’ll eventually get your work published. You will because you can suffer the rejections and keep improving, keep submitting. Your first novel may never leave your hard drive, but neither will it leave your heart. You will build on your experiences and grow into the writer you know you’re destined to become.

In the meantime, there are a couple of facts you should know about the publishing industry—and you can’t take them personally or let them take your money. You just can’t, or they might destroy your will.

The Publishing Industry is about Making Money. That’s right. From agents to magazine editors to the almighty giant publishing houses, the fruit of your labors must sing, “I’ll pay your mortgage, I’ll make you rich, I’ll sell, sell, sell.” Now, how could they possibly turn down your novel when you know it’s better than half the crap you’ve seen on the shelves at Barnes and Noble? Because they aren’t clairvoyants, and they know it. They want numbers, a proven track record. They’ve published novels they personally liked, and ended up eating the extra copies the author’s family and friends did not buy. So it comes down to one question, one that has nothing to do with the quality of your prose. Can you prove that your book will make them money? It is no wonder more than ¾ of all publishing houses accept only non-fiction work from the masters of respective fields. Textbooks are guaranteed to sell.

The Publishing Industry Makes TONS of Money from Unpublished Writers. There are books about writing, about publishing, about ‘breaking in’. There are book doctors, agents who charge reading fees, writers’ conferences, and the list goes on. Not to say these practices can’t help, because I’m sure they can. But if you don’t have the wherewithal to become your own Book Doctor, how will you ever make it as a professional writer? These sharks claim the ability to whip your work into bestseller quality, but what I want to know is, where are their bestsellers? Why do they need our work and our money to survive? And any person (agent) who would dare charge a writer to have her work merely considered is not an agent, in my opinion, but a carpetbagger, a parasite who gorges on gullibility. Don’t be that naïve with your money, because if you’re anything like me, you don’t have much to begin with. There are too many resources (Toasted Cheese for one!), that are there to help you and don’t cost a dime. Most of the books for sale can be found at your local library, and the kind of contacts that can be made at conferences can also be made on the Internet. It just takes a lot of work and a lot of time. But you’re a novelist! You should be used to research and hard work by now.

So you’ve completed your novel. Now what? Search the Net and books like Writer’s Market and Guide to Literary Agents for non-fee charging agents and publishers who accept work from unpublished writers. Find out what kind of books they’ve sold, and to whom. Look for fiction similar to yours, then re-read your novel and pretend someone else wrote it. Is it ready? Are you sure? If you were looking for a good book to buy, would you buy yours over everyone else’s? Are you ABSOLUTELY certain? If yes, see if you can get someone to rub your aching neck while you pound out that query letter and synopsis, then double-check your submission for requested guideline adherence and get that sucker in the mail. But if no, you would not buy your novel over the likes of the bestselling authors who reign in your genre, then don’t expect anyone else to either. Keep writing, keep burrowing, and you’ll get there. As will I.

Final Poll Results

Writer with a capital “W”:
Treating Yourself Like a Professional

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

I am a writer. Better yet, I’m a Writer, with a capital W. My work is a source of income, pleasure, satisfaction and pride. When riding in the car, I think about a character’s background. While listening to people speak, I take mental notes on their dialogue. I run over the blocking of scenes as I drift off to sleep. Maybe I don’t exactly eat, sleep and breathe writing but it’s about as close as it can be.

A recent cover feature in Entertainment Weekly was an interview with Stephen King and the idea that he’s going to “stop writing.” The Writer in me doesn’t believe that. King is a classic capital-W Writer. A Writer never retires. Sure, those who dabble with the occasional poem or story might be able to walk away. Those who write, or “Write,” could no more think of giving up their passion than giving up eating, sleeping or breathing. King may not publish much more but no one will ever tell me he will be able to stop Writing.

It’s not as hard to evolve into a Writer as some may think. Sometimes it happens without our realizing it. It’s not a matter of volume or quality. It’s a matter of respect. Respect for your work and yourself. Even if you’ve never published (and want to) if you treat yourself like a professional, your writing can only improve.

Your space

As a Writer, you already have a writing space or spaces. It may be a home office, your kitchen table, the local café or your bed. Think of the places where you write. Compare the spots where you get your best work done to those where you accomplish nothing. What works in the positive space? The view out the windows? White noise in the background? The solitude? Access to your supplies? By recognizing your space, you can begin to create a haven for your muse.

The first thing to do is to empty your writing space. If it’s a desk, clear it off. If it’s your bedroom, get rid of the stuff on the nightstand and floor. If it’s a notebook in your bag that you carry from place to place, dump the bag’s contents on the floor.

Physically clean the space. Get rid of garbage and dust. Give yourself a “blank page,” so to speak. Anything that has nothing to do with writing should be put off to the side. You can deal with that stuff in your own way. Just don’t leave it in your writing space.

It’s up to you to organize your supplies but remember to treat them with respect. Don’t cram your notebooks in a drawer full of hair bands and Snickers bars. If you need your stuff to be portable, it doesn’t have to be fancy. A simple laundry basket will do to start.

Once you have a working system in place, enhance your writing space. Notice if you write more effectively with your senses stimulated or subdued. If you like aromatherapy, add a scented candle or a light bulb ring. If music helps you write, put a CD player in your space. Anything remaining in the space that distracts you should be placed elsewhere if possible.

Your money

Some say “it takes money to make money.” It definitely takes money to write, whether it’s the cost of a pencil and paper, a computer or books about markets and agents. But it doesn’t have to cost a fortune.

You have access to a computer or you wouldn’t be reading this article. Make the Internet work for you. Find a market that pays a couple bucks per story, sell one and use the money to invest in your work, like buying a copy of Poets and Writers or a file box for your hard copies. Your writing can pay for itself.

Your time

Writing appointments are an excellent way to respect yourself as a pro. Your appointments may last from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. five days a week or just through the commercial breaks on “Smallville.” To consider yourself a capital-W Writer, you must simply make the time to write.

If you want to treat yourself like a pro, make writing a priority. When scheduling time for your job, family, church or whatever, include “my writing” on your list. You deserve a few minutes once in a while to do what brings you satisfaction. Be selfish with your time.

Set deadlines. Enter contests with submission periods. Research themed issues of favorite journals and try to get something done in time. Get that next chapter finished by the end of the month. If you fail, you haven’t really failed. You may not make the deadline but in making the attempt, you succeed.

Your work

Writers write. There’s no way around it. Being a writer means producing work. Your goal may be to publish or just to get it out of your head and lock the story in a drawer. You don’t have to write every day but unless you’re producing some work, you can’t really call yourself a writer.

Sometimes Writers have to work in other ways because the muse isn’t always present. There’s always research to be done. Research on stories, markets, agents, websites, contests, etc. Your research may also spark your creativity.

There’s also the “Big E”–editing. Old stories can be improved with what you’ve learned since writing the original. They can also serve to show you how far you’ve come. Or, in these moments of doubt, they can remind you that you are indeed a Writer.

Value your work. We all have a certain amount of “crap” we churn out. No one writes gold every time. Recognize that even crap has its place and purpose. Even if it’s all you’re churning out, it’s work and is worthy of respect.

Never allow the Writer-you to get complacent. Keep learning about aspects of the craft. Challenge yourself. Branch into a new genre. When people ask what you do, answer “I’m a writer” and if you have another job, add “I also write” after your occupation. Maybe eventually you’ll capitalize that W.

Final Poll Results