The Most Forgotten Marketing Tool

April 23, 2010

Here’s a way to nudge your odds of getting published up a bit. And you don’t have to rewrite your query letter to do it. Even better, once you’re published, this trick can improve your sales.

Put some thought into your title.

I caught some footage of Bob Mayer as a guest instructor for the Whidbey Island Writers MFA Program. Here’s a bit from his bio:

Bob is the best-selling author of over 40 books. He is a West Point graduate, served in the Infantry and Special Forces (Green Berets)… He also served in Special Operations Western Command on a variety of classified assignments.

He is the Co-Creator of Who Dares Wins Publishing, a Flex Publishing house dedicated to military fiction and the non-fiction of Excellence.

He brings a unique blend of practical Special Operations Strategies and Tactics mixed with the vision of an artist.

And here’s 90 seconds of don’t do what I did:

(It looks pretty rustic for a classroom, doesn’t it? It’s actually a century-old inn on Whidbey Island, a ferry ride from Seattle. You can hear floorboards squeaking as people walk around upstairs.)

— Steve

Two Query Letters That Worked

September 26, 2009

I would trade all the query letter guides, manuals, and help books for a set of query letters that actually worked. Nothing is better for polishing your query letter than seeing actual letters that made an agent say “Send it.”

A couple of writer buddies of mine have just heard those two magic words, so I asked them for permission to post their letters here. I’m also posting the responses from the agents, although I’ll change their names to the names of Star Trek characters.


Dear Captain Kirk,

I stalked you at the PNWA conference last weekend but when I finally had a chance to talk to you, you had to leave to make another appointment. You told me to send you my query electronically. I particularly wanted to talk to you because your Web site says you are interested in Latino/Latina works.

If Clive Cussler had written Ugly Betty, it would be The Inside Passage. The Inside Passage is a ninety-five thousand word thriller about a group of terrorists plotting to blow up an American cruise ship, but the story is really about a young Latino man coming of age in an Anglo world.
Ted Higuera is the brash, goofy son of illegal immigrants from Mexico. An unlikely football scholarship was his ticket out of the barrio. Now he is graduating from the University of Washington and the well-to-do father of his college roommate and best friend, Chris Hardwick, offers the boys the use of his sailboat for a summer cruise up the Inside Passage.

When Ted and his friends stumble upon an al-Qaeda plot to blow up a cruise ship, the clock starts ticking.
The Inside Passage could be in the headlines today. It will appeal to readers of thrillers in general, but also be marketable to sailors and the yachting set. More importantly, it should find an audience among the country’s forty-five million Latinos. The Latino segment of the population is the country’s largest minority. By 2030, they’ll be the largest single demographic group in the country with buying power of over a trillion dollars.

There are virtually no Latino heroes in American popular culture. The Latino population is hungry for a hero of our own. Ted could be that hero.

My grandparents emigrated from Mexico. I have lived Ted Higuera’s life. I am a life-long sailor, a Security + certified security expert, a graduate of the University of Oregon with an MBA from City University of Seattle. I’ve been on the board of directors for the Write on the Sound writers conference in Edmonds, Washington for three years. I’m the treasurer of Los Norteños, a group of Latino writers in the Puget Sound area, and a member of two writers critique groups. Stories of my sailing adventures have been published in Nor’Westing and Good Old Boat magazines, several of my recipes have been published in KCTS Cooks and I’ve sold short stories to Voices of Lung Cancer and Potpourri. I have done readings at the Fisher Poets Gathering in Astoria, Oregon, for the Seattle Latino Heritage Festival, at Los Norteños’ Day of the Dead celebration and my work has appeared at the Sustainability/Sostenibilidad exhibit at the Benham Gallery.

I am including the first chapter of my manuscript. Also included is the plot synopsis. If you would like to read the entire manuscript, please respond to this e-mail.

Thank you for your consideration. I know that you are very busy and I appreciate you taking the time to look at my work. I look forward to hearing from you soon.


Penn Wallace

Here’s the response from the agent. I’m including it so you can see the sort of detailed instructions you may be asked to follow when submitting.

Dear Penn,

Thank you for your query; we greatly appreciate your interest in our agency, even the stalking!

We’d love to take a look at some pages. Please send the following information as a package:

• A one-page synopsis, including in it the essential dilemma represented in the work, and word count. A copy of your query will do, if it covers these basics.
• A brief outline, by chapter — simply a few sentences per chapter that will give us a feel for pacing, plot, and flow.
• The first 50 pages in standard 12pt font, double-spaced format, single sided, with pages numbered.
• An author bio, including published works and relevant info. If the manuscript has been represented by another agent, previously in print form, or seen by any publisher, we need to know that up front.
We do not request the above items lightly. Please do not send without them, as they are vital to the decision making process and things you will likely need to have to find representation/publication, regardless. It’s fine if it takes you a while to complete them.

Do not send by email. Please mark the package “Requested Material -September.” Do not send by anything that requires a signature and/or a special trip to the Post Office. If you’d like any of the material returned to you, please include the appropriate SASE.

Partials are running four to six weeks at this time. If you have any comments or questions in the meantime you are always welcome to contact me via email.

Thanks again for your time and for the chance to view your work. We very much look forward to seeing it.

Best regards,

Jim Kirk

Now, here’s another successful query letter. You’ll notice similarities – both of these writers went to the PNWA conference and tried to get together with a number of agents they had researched – but be careful not to miss differences in style and format.

Dear Mr. Spock:

I attended PNWA as a speaker and a worker at the Mystery Writers of America table but was not able to connect with you at that event. I’d like to ask you to review my mystery novel, Death Policy.

Death Policy is a 71,000 word humorous mystery novel featuring Kaitlyn Willis, a 38-year-old, triple D-chested, blond Code Enforcement Officer for the City of Cedar Grove, Washington. While investigating a nuisance complaint, Kaitlyn stumbles on more than rusty cars and piles of trash. She finds a sad case of animal hording—and a dead body.

Readers of other light mysteries by authors like Elaine Viets, Stephanie Bond, Laura Childs, Victoria Laurie, and Kate Collins will enjoy this book.

Kaitlyn Willis has just come off a nasty divorce followed by a lonely dry spell and the first guy she’s interested in is investigating her for murder.

Kaitlyn is pulled into investigating the murder to stay off the suspect list and protect her friends. All the while she’s helping her best friend through a bad break up, trying to repair a bank account sucked dry by her ex-husband, dealing with a homeless cat who has decided to adopt her–and falling for the police detective on the case. Kaitlyn’s “week from hell” ends with fear for her job, wondering which of her co-workers she can trust, and coming face-to-face with the killer.

I have written eight novels and have published numerous nonfiction articles. I teach fiction writing to beginners at Cascadia Community College. I’ve won several writing contests, including the Pacific Northwest Writers Association, and am a regular speaker there and at Willamette Writers Conference and Write On The Sound. You can find out a little more about me and my commitment to writing on my website,

A short synopsis and 10 sample pages are pasted below. On your request, I am prepared to send the complete manuscript of Death Policy. Thank you for taking the time to consider representing my work.

Leslie Adkins

And here is the agent’s reply. The standards – and styles – among agents vary wildly.

Hi Leslie,
Sorry we didn’t connect. I’d be happy to take a look at DEATH POLICY. Kindly send a copy along for my prompt review—a Word attachment is most preferable if possible.
You can go ahead and read the manuals, but your learning curve on queries will be steeper if you just model your stuff on what works.

Sam the Novel Dog

Sam the Novel Dog

Query Letter Mad Skills

May 23, 2009

Many artists (including novelists) reject formulas as straitjackets on their creativity. Fair enough. Great artists should reject formulas.

But you’re not great yet. You’re just a beginner. So suck it up and find the writing formulas (and tips, tricks, and hacks) that will get your special-writing-bunny-slipper in the door. And if you won’t do it for your fiction, then at least do it for your query letter. Too many good novelists write crap query letters – which is absurd, because it’s not that hard. Just find a formula that works, and follow it!

Here’s a 300-word formula that has gotten me requests from agents. I borrowed it from author Jarucia Nirula, along with two examples. The third example is by me, describing a novel of mine.


Begin by three or four paragraphs introducing your novel. Most important is to introduce your main character and your main character’s core challenge (in other words, a hint of the plot).

Query Letter One:

Nothing thrills Una more than sailing the high seas with she-pirates. The only problem: she’s never been on anything more exciting than a car ferry. She figures her adventures will always begin and end in books. Then a crow starts stalking her. When strange accidents at school and home follow, along with vivid dreams of the pirate queen Korina, Una thinks the planets must be out of whack or something, but doesn’t suspect these are signs that a real adventure is about to begin.

For her thirteenth birthday, Una’s parents reveal she’s destined to train as a Guardian of the Elements. The prospect of leaving the comfort of home for life aboard a ship full of strangers suddenly doesn’t seem so great, until her best friend Reed shares that she’s going too.

On departure night, Korina materializes as a very real and lethal threat. Una escapes with Reed to their training ship, but leaves believing her parents are dead. Thrust into her new life, Una tries to balance the grief of loss with new friendships, her Elemental training and preparing for a year-end Challenge that might bring with it a danger far greater than Korina. [195 words]

Query Letter Two (for the same novel, now with a sharper hook):

Until shortly before her thirteenth birthday, Una’s biggest adventures occurred in books or in her mother’s stories.

Then a crow started stalking her.

Strange accidents at school and home follow, along with vivid dreams of the pirate queen, Korina, and all are signs that many of the tales she’s enjoyed her whole life are more than fantasy.

With her birthday, Una learns she’s destined to train as a Guardian of the Elements―a steward of the Earth. She angrily refuses the prospect of leaving her normal life behind to train with strangers. That is until her best friend Reed shares that she’s to train too.

On departure night, the very real threat of the dreamed-of pirate queen arrives. Barely escaping Korina’s lethal attack, Una believes her parents are dead as she watches helplessly from her departing training ship. Grief propels Una into her life as a Guardian trainee with Reed. But, she soon meets new friends, Phoebe, Myles and Darriun, and stumbles upon the secret truth behind the year-end Challenge. Throughout the training year, suspicions that someone is trailing her vex Una but leave her far from suspecting the one threat greater than Korina―Malovias. [193 words]

The challenge with these paragraphs is keeping them short enough. Don’t exceed 200 words. Begin with nothing but a single sentence exposing the beating heart of your novel (and that’s probably your main character) — then gradually add.

Query Letter Three (mine, with the novel’s title and genre up front):

I would like to send you my 67,000-word fantasy adventure novel, Mountain Man.

In a newly-discovered land that is not quite North America, the sacking of a coastal village fuses the fates of two opposite characters: a twelve-year-old printer’s son named Jeffrey Jones and a bearded, wilderness-wise misanthrope with a raccoon-skin cap and a hunting knife made from a sabertooth fang.

Jeffrey is small, but smart; scared but determined. His new companion, Tiberius Bogg, is fast as a splintercat and stealthy as a hidebehind. He can conquer anything… except a vulnerable boy who needs his help. As they turn the tables and pursue their attackers (mercenaries from the old country), Jeffrey comes to find his strength, while wise-cracking Bogg comes to find his heart.

Together they trek through a merciless landscape full of extraordinary creatures — jackelopes and thunderbirds, fur-bearing trout and four-legged hills — all culled from American tall tales, Indian legends, and backwoods folklore. [156 words]

The second part of the query consists of a paragraph comparing the novel to what’s been published already. Do your research. Mention some novels clearly similar to yours that did well (but don’t mention anything from the top of a bestseller list – comparing your novel to Harry Potter or The Da Vinci Code makes you look like a doofus). Mention any thoughts about your intended audience. Who will enjoy your book?

In this paragraph, you can also mention anything that you love about your novel that wouldn’t fit in part one, such as theme. And lastly, if you didn’t mention the title and word count in part one, do it here.

Query Letter One:

Small caluminar cover3

Varuna Kannon and the Caluminar’s Cave is a 99,500-word YA fantasy novel written to appeal to all young readers. It highlights themes of friendship, teamwork, growth, and environmental stewardship. Fans of imaginative fantasy adventures featuring young heroines and heroes alike will enjoy this introduction to the five-part Guardian of the Elements series.

Query Letter Two:

Varuna Kannon and the Caluminar’s Cave is a 95,000-word YA fantasy novel aimed at girls. However, themes of friendship, personal responsibility, growth, and environmental stewardship are relevant for all young readers. Fans of the imaginative adventures of young heroes and heroines in His Dark Materials trilogy and the Xanth series will enjoy this introduction to the five-part Guardian of the Elements series.

Query Letter Three:

Fans of Jonathan Stroud’s The Bartimaeus Trilogy or Orson Scott Card’s Alvin Maker series will recognize a unique world that blooms from familiar roots and enjoy characters who are both quirky and magical.

In the final paragraph, talk about yourself. What’s your experience as a writer? (Skip this if you don’t have any.) More importantly, what led you to write your novel? How are you connected to it?

Query Letter One:

A career with children and love for all things magical inspired me to pursue a life as a YA writer. I work as a fiction editor for the non-profit journal Conclave, am an active member of OWW for sci-fi/fantasy/horror writers and hold two Master’s degrees.

Query Letter Two:

Years of working with children and a love for all things magical inspired me to pursue a career as a YA writer. I work as a fiction editor for the non-profit journal Conclave, blog regularly, and participate in multiple writing groups.

Query Letter Three:

The first seeds of Mountain Man came to me after hearing tales and forest folklore while working with the US Forest Service on the Tohono O’Odham Indian Reservation. My speculative fiction has appeared on Quantum Muse, Anotherealm, and elsewhere.

Lastly, tack on a call to action, something like I have attached a synopsis and the first three chapters (yada yada; strike this sentence if you’re just sending this letter). I look forward to hearing from you. Don’t screw around here, just be brief and professional.

You can put these three parts into a letter that’s under 300 words long, and then you’ll have a tool that will help you get your novel on the desk of agents and publishers. Later, as you gain experience and relationships in the industry, you can writer query letters that are more unique (or the ultimate dream: tailored for particular agents). But for now, you’re on the road!