So what are you going to do to make sure you minimize future mistakes?
Okay, first off, I’m not even going to attempt to distinguish what makes a well-written query and what makes a crappily-written one. There are ample examples of both floating around the internet by people better qualified to write and crit them and, besides, a lot really depends on what you’re submitting and to whom. But while writing a good query letter is certainly an art form, it is also a matter of skill and discipline. And that’s where I think I might help. All it takes is a simple, reliable quality control mechanism, and what better than the checklist?
In this sample QL/CL (query and cover letters share some basic “manufacturing” attributes that allow the same QA principles to apply to both), I’ve highlighted the problematic areas (click image for larger version). Use the checklist to ensure your QL/CL doesn’t fall victim to “rookie” and other careless mistakes.
No colored or gilded or handmade paper and envelopes.
If you have pre-printed letterhead, make sure it’s professional. Fancy or gimmicky won’t float you to the top of the slush pile, and it may even get your sub thrown away without consideration. Also, do not include bribes, money, fruit baskets or anything other than your manuscript pages and SASE (if consistent with submission instructions).
And as regards envelopes, the general rule is if you’re sending less than four sheets (including the CL/QL), it’s acceptable to bi-/tri-fold and send in a smaller envelope; if four or more sheets, send unfolded (either in an envelope or box).
□ 2. Did you include your real name, address and date?
No pennames (you may get away with it if you’re already published and established under that identity, but then again, if you are, then this checklist isn’t for you anyway).
□ 3. Are you targeting your submission?
If you’re subbing to agency, you absolutely must target your letter to a specific agent. “Ms. Agent” or “Mr. Agent” won’t cut it. If you’re subbing to a publisher, unless you have prior dealings with a specific individual or public knowledge that said individual is accepting submissions (for example, if published in SCBWI Bulletin or PW, etc.), it probably is better to send to “Editor” or some variation thereof.
□ 4. Did you explain why you’re writing them?
A simple head’s-up saying this is a query, the type of submission and title of your work is critical.
□ 5. Are you addressing appropriately?
As with #3, above, make sure you’re addressing the right person, using the right gender titles. In this day-and-age of cut-and-paste, it’s easy to make a mistake. Use “Dear Mr.” and “Dear Ms.” rather than “Dear Firstname.” And never “Hey X” or some other such silliness. Be respectful. This is a business letter. If you don’t know the specific name at a publisher, just address “Dear Editor.” It’ll get to wherever it’s supposed to go.
□ 6. Have you customized your submission?
You’re sending your work to this particular agency/publisher for a reason, aren’t you? If not, just give yourself a big “R.” So, if you are, tell them why. Maybe it’s the type of clients they take on, or the titles they publish. Whatever the reason, it has to be relevant. You want to connect; you want your work to connect. One without the other won’t cut it.
□ 7. Are you providing the basic information about your submission upfront?
Repeat the title (or a keyword of it, if it’s long), estimate your word-count (just use the word count feature in your word processing program and round to the nearest thousand for longer works), and indicate the genre. Oh, and it damn well better be complete and polished. Anything less and you’re just embarrassing yourself.
□ 8. Have you made your pitch?
Only thing I have to say is, make your summary brief. Your QL/CL should be about a single page. You don’t have to include every detail, just enough to hook your targeted audience. Note: synopses are extended summaries and can extend for several pages, but are often separate from the QL/CL. This is not the place to explain why you wrote the piece or provide an analysis of it.
□ 9. Is your bio relevant?
What makes you qualified to write the work? What previous related experience do you have? Have you published in this or closely related genres? Do not, dear god, say that your kids or neighbors or dog loved your work. You’re just insulting the person you’re addressing your letter.
□ 10. Are you including all the necessary materials?
If they ask for three chapters, send them three chapters. If they ask for ten pages, send ten pages. My only caveat to this is when thirty or more pages are requested. In these cases, I would try to send as close to the requested number of pages while avoiding cutting scenes and chapters off. If your chapter ends on page 32, send the extra few pages. If fifty pages are requested but your chapters end on pages 46 and 57, either send 46 or find an appropriate place to cut in the middle of the next chapter.
As far as SASE’s go, include when requested with the appropriate amount of postage and make sure it’s addressed to you, not the agency/publisher.
□ 11. Close with respect.
I think this explains itself.
Recheck, recheck, recheck. And then, after you've rechecked, recheck again.