Friday, March 20, 2009

Writing the Query Letter

Today we have a Q & A with Wendy Burt-Thomas. She is a full-time freelance writer, editor and copywriter with more than 1,000 published pieces. Her third book, "The Writer's Digest Guide to Query Letters" hit stores in January 2009. To learn more about Wendy or her three books, visit If you have a writing-related question, you can also post it on

Can you tell us about your book?

The book was a great fit for me because I'd been teaching "Breaking Into Freelance Writing" for about eight years. In the workshop, I covered a lot of what is in this book: writing query letters to get articles in magazines, to land an agent, or to get a book deal with a publisher. Since I'm a full-time freelance magazine writer and editor with two previous books, this was incredibly fun to write because it didn't require tons of research. I was lucky enough to receive lots of great sample query letters from writers and authors that I use as "good" examples in the book. I wrote all the "bad" examples myself because I didn't dare ask for contributions that I knew I'd be ripping apart!

In addition to the ins and outs of what makes a good query, the book covers things like why (or why not) to get an agent, where to find one and how to choose one; writing a synopsis or proposal; selling different rights to your work; other forms of correspondence; and what editors and agents look for in new writers.

It was really important to me that the book not be a dry, boring reference book, but rather an entertaining read (while still being chock full of information). I was thrilled that Writer's Digest let me keep all the humor.

Why are query letters so important?

Breaking into the publishing world is hard enough right now. Unless you have a serious "in" of some kind, you really need a great query letter to impress an agent or acquisitions editor. Essentially, your query letter is your first impression. If they like your idea (and voice and writing style and background), they'll either request a proposal, sample chapters, or the entire manuscript. If they don't like your query letter, you've got to pitch it to another agency/publisher. Unlike a manuscript, which can be edited or reworked if an editor thinks it has promise, you only get one shot with your query. Make it count!

I see a lot of authors who spend months (or years) finishing their book, only to rush through the process of crafting a good, solid query letter. What a waste! If agents/editors turn you down based on a bad query letter, you've blown your chance of getting them to read your manuscript. It could be the next bestseller, but they'll never see it. My advice is to put as much effort into your query as you did your book. If it's not fabulous, don't send it until it is.

You're also a magazine editor. What is your biggest gripe regarding queries?

Queries that show that the writer obviously hasn't read our publication. I'll admit that I did this when I was a new writer too – submitted blindly to any publication whose name sounded even remotely related to my topic. One of the examples I use was when I submitted a parenting article to a magazine for senior citizens. Oops! A well-written query pitching an article that's not a match for the magazine isn't going to get you any further than a poorly written query.

There's an entire chapter in the book about agents. Do you think all new writers should get agents?

Probably 99% of new writers should get an agent. There are lots of reasons, but my top three are: 1) Many of the larger publishing houses won't even look at unagented submissions now; 2) Agents can negotiate better rights and more money on your behalf; 3) Agents know the industry trends, changes and staff better than you ever could.

You've been a mentor, coach or editor for many writers. What do you think is the most common reason that good writers don't get published?

Poor marketing skills. I see so many writers that are either too afraid, too uniformed, or frankly, too lazy, to market their work. They think their job is done when the write "the end" but writing is only half of the process. I've always told people who took my class that there are tons of great writers in the world who will never get published. I'd rather be a good writer who eats lobster than a great writer who eats hot dogs. I make a living as a writer because I spend as much time marketing as I do writing.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions that writers have about getting a book deal?

That they'll be rich overnight, that they don't need to promote their book once it's published, that publishing houses will send them on world book tours, that people will recognize them at the airport. Still, you can make great money as an author if you're prepared to put in the effort. If it wasn't possible, there wouldn't be so many full-time writers.

What must-read books do you recommend to new writers?

Christina Katz (author of "Writer Mama") has a new book out called "Get Known Before the Book Deal" - which is fabulous. Also, Stephen King's "On Writing" and David Morrell's "Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing." Anything by Anne Lamott or my Dad, Steve Burt.

What's the biggest lesson you've learned as a full-time writer?

Seize every opportunity - especially when you first start writing. I remember telling someone about a really high-paying writing gig I got and he said, "Wow. You have the best luck!" I thought, "Luck has nothing to do with it! I've worked hard to get where I am." Later that week I read this great quote: "Luck is when preparation meets opportunity." It's absolutely true. And writing queries is only about luck in this sense. If you're prepared with a good query and/or manuscript, when the opportunity comes along you'll be successful.

What did you enjoy most about writing this book?

Writing the "bad" query letters. I've read – and written! – so many horrible ones over the years that it was a little too easy to craft them. But misery loves company and we ALL love to read really bad query letters, right?

What do you want readers to learn from your book?

I want them to understand that while writing a good query letter is important, it doesn't have to be overwhelming. You can break it down into parts, learn from any first-round rejections, and read other good queries to help understand what works. I also want them to remember that writing is fun. Sometimes new writers get so caught up in the procedures that they lose their original voice in a query. Don't bury your style under formalities and to-the-letter formatting.

What great info! Thanks, Wendy!


  1. Wendy, thanks again so much for dropping in on the Stiletto Gang. You offer so much great advice! Wish I'd had all these tips when I was sending out queries. ;-)

  2. Susan,
    I wish I had these tips when I was first sending out queries! When I think about how many trees I wasted....

  3. Great post.

    One comment about agents--I've had seven over the years--yes, seven. My first book was sold to a New York publisher without one.

    They with all the agents I never could break in again. All the publishers I've had for the last twenty plus books have been small independents which means no advance, just royalties.

    If an author can get an agent to really work for them that's great--and for a new author, I agree that's the way to begin.

    a.k.a. F. M. Meredith

  4. Marilyn, like you, I broke in without an agent (not that I didn't have several representing projects for me before that--just never worked out!). AND THEN SHE WAS GONE was published in 1999 (and reprinted in 2000) after I won a small press contest. After that, I got busy promoting and making friends in the mystery world, which led to my signing with the agent who sold BLUE BLOOD to Avon (plus two more titles in that series). That relationship wasn't what I'd imagined, so I signed with another agent who's the perfect fit! She's helped my career move in a direction that I've wanted to go for a long time. I so envy authors who find their perfect agent from the start, but that's definitely not a reality for everyone, for sure.

  5. I definitely agree that the reality is not that everyone finds a perfect match with their first agent. I've had 3 agents (more like 3.5 - but that's another story) and although my first was great (I never actually met her in person) for the first two books, she started focusing on romance later. Romance is definitely not my genre so we parted ways. Sometimes, however, it's just a personality clash. I've heard some horror stories from fellow authors!

  6. Wendy, I'm wondering about that .5 agent you had. Was she just really skinny? (Kidding!) Jerrily Farmer, who has a mystery out now with Joan Rivers, once told me that signing with an agent is like getting married. You have to have faith and you never know if it'll work out until you take the leap. So true!

  7. Well, the .5 was an agent that pretty much agreed to represent me then wanted me to completely change the focus of my book. I did not agree. We hadn't signed a contract yet so I found another agent.

    ....and what's this about a mystery with Joan Rivers??

  8. And Susan,
    Thank you for calling me "awesome" on the site. Would you mind telling my husband? He thinks I sit around and play online Scrabble all day....

  9. Wendy, I'd be happy to tell him you're awesome (though I have a feeling he already knows it). ;-) As for Jerrilyn's latest book, yep, it's a mystery she wrote with/for Joan Rivers. It's called MURDER AT THE ACADEMY AWARDS, and it's doing really well. When Jerrilyn was in town awhile back, we had dinner and she told me all about how Joan's agent had talked to a bunch of mystery authors before her; but she and Joan just hit it off. She got to spend time with Joan in NYC getting her ideas for the book. Then Jerrilyn sat down and wrote. I think she's had fun with the collaboration after her Madeline Bean series with Morrow/Avon, and I'm happy she's doing so well! Just goes to show how being flexible as an author and open to different projects can really pay off.

  10. Thanks for having me!
    Susan, please tell your fellow authors from the Gang to email me so I can feature them on my blog.


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