Archive for the 'Writing a Query' Category

Nov 04 2011

Miscellaneous Links

I provide advice about how to write novels, comic books and graphic novels. Most of my content applies to fiction-writing in general, but I also provide articles specifically about superhero stories.

  • Stars and Stripes has an article about how Hollywood (mistakenly) depicts military uniforms.  If you’re very into realism and didn’t know that Marines can’t wear hats indoors unless they’re armed, I’d definitely give it a look.  Some of these are just common sense, such as giving soldiers eye protection in the desert.  (Patrolling Iraq without sunglasses is crazy–sunglasses are the fount from which all badassery gushes. Iraq’s also pretty sunny, I hear).
  • Janet Reid has some thoughts on a query that tries covering too many characters.  If at all possible, I would not recommend mentioning another character in your query until you’ve covered something interesting and/or plot-critical for the previous character.  (My rule of thumb is that it’s probably best to mention only the characters that are individually vital to understanding the story–for example, if your main character joins a group of 4+ superheroes, you probably don’t need to introduce all of his teammates individually).  Reid liked this approach to an ensemble cast better.
  • I’m reading Stephen Henning’s A Class Apart today.  Some of it is rough around the edges.  For example, the plot is a bit hard to understand and the female main character is obviously written by a guy (see #1, #2 and #4.1 here). However, if you’re writing a book with superpowered action, I’d recommend checking out the scene where the bomb explodes.  I like his use of sensory detail there.
  • Especially if you’re an experienced job-seeker, I’d recommend checking out this legendary cover letter by an applicant to the OSS (the WWII-era CIA predecessor).  Notice how fluidly he shifts from the needs of the organization to how he is qualified to fit those needs.  He comes across as both modest and confident.  If you’re not an experienced applicant, I’d recommend focusing instead on how you meet the posted job requirements rather than proposing a new course of action in the cover letter.

6 responses so far

Dec 03 2010

Best premise I’ve encountered this month: Top Ten

Published by under Synopsis

Top Ten: “A killer who believes himself an artist of unmatched talent is incensed by being placed last on the FBI’s most wanted list, and begins killing off those fugitives above him, each in a twisted manner that serves his creative vision.”  Hopefully your two-sentence synopsis is that interesting!

Hat-tip: J.A. Konrath.

5 responses so far

Aug 05 2010

16 Reasons Your Manuscript Got Rejected Before Page 1

Publishers and literary agents reject quite a few manuscripts on page 1.  However, if the query letter is bad, the editor will probably reject you without even looking at page 1.  Here are some common problems and how to avoid them.

1.  “This is just like Harry Potter meets Dirty Harry.” Comparing your work to another will probably make your work sound like an uninspired ripoff.  Also, you can’t assume that the editor likes Harry Potter, or Twilight, or Spiderman, or whatever else you might think is the most awesome work ever.  Instead of trying to hitch a ride on somebody else’s bandwagon, talk about your work.  If editors think “this will totally work with Harry Potter fans,” great, but let them make that determination on their own.


2.  The description of the plot/characters lacked details. “Gary must work with his partner to stop the villain and save the day.”  What are Gary and the partner like?  What’s the villain like? What’s the villain’s goal? Why should we care if they stop him?  A more detailed description is usually more interesting.  If I had to describe The Taxman Must Die in a single sentence, I’d prefer something like “Two unlikely Homeland Security super-agents, an accountant and a fun-loving mutant alligator, must band together to prevent a deranged cosmeticist from destroying humanity.”  See more details on how to write an interesting and exciting pitch for your story here.

2.1  You forgot to mention the main goal(s) of the characters and major obstacles.  That’s sort of the point of the book!  Don’t miss it.


3.  You addressed the letter “To Whom It May Concern,” “Dear Editor” or “Dear Agent.” If at all possible, get a name–it’s more personal.  Most literary agencies have bios and specialties listed for each agent online, so address it to an agent that specializes in your genre(s).  If you’re submitting to a publisher, try using Google and addressing it to an editor that handles submissions.  Even though your manuscript may well be evaluated by somebody else, that will show that you have put some thought into this company specifically.  If the publisher has made no information available, then I think Dear Editor is the least awful alternative.  (I would recommend against calling the publisher and asking for the name of somebody to address it to–I think that’s generally seen as a breach of etiquette).

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27 responses so far

Mar 22 2010

The Writing Advice I’m Reading Today

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Mar 17 2010

Specificity Sells Proposals, Says Nathan Bransford

Literary agent Nathan Bransford has some great ideas about how to make book proposals more enticing by adding specificity.  If you’re trying to find a professional publisher for your novel or comic book, I would recommend checking it out.

Here’s an excerpt.

Be as specific as possible about the plot.

I get so many queries that read (literally, though this is made up for the purposes of this post) like this:

Character Name is living peacefully in Hometown. But then a life-changing event occurs that changes everything. Secrets are revealed that turn her life upside down. Character Name faces grave danger as she embarks on a quest to save her people. This novel is filled with humor and passion and suspense and romance, and there’s a shocking twist that leaves the reader breathless.

Being vague leaves an agent with so many questions: What are the secrets? What is the life-changing event? What is the danger she’s facing? What happens that is funny and suspenseful and romantic?

When all of these key details are kept hidden the query ends up sounding like… well, pretty much every novel ever written. And chances are an agent is going to move on to the next query.

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Jan 13 2010

Ten Facts About Queries That Surprise Prospective Writers

A query is a page-long business letter introducing your novel or comic book proposal to an editor or agent.  Here is some advice that will help you write a convincing query.

1.  What goes with the query? A novel’s query is usually accompanied by a partial manuscript (~50 pages) and/or a 2-5 page synopsis.  If you’re writing a comic book, you’ll probably send in a cover letter– a page accompanied by some combination of the synopsis, the full script of the first issue and art samples. (Follow the submissions guidelines, obviously).  Cover letters are very similar to queries, so I’ll refer to both as queries for simplicity’s sake.

2. Your main goal is to show that your story is strong and interesting. Do NOT give them opinions like “my book is interesting!” or “everybody I know loves it!” Give them the evidence so that they will conclude the book is interesting. “I’m writing an interesting novel about a detective solving a murder case” is weak. “I’m writing about a poisoned detective that has two days to solve his own murder” is much more gripping. Likewise, if you’re writing a comedy, you need to prove yourself by making them laugh. According to literary agent Janet Reid, “if you tell me your book is a comedy, and the query letter isn’t funny or amusing, you have a big problem.”

3. Most queries include the following: an introductory paragraph/hook, a body paragraph summarizing the work in a clear and interesting way, 1-3 sentences about your writing qualifications, and contact information. Don’t worry too much about your writing qualifications. It’d be nice if you had them, but it’s not a deal-breaker for fiction writers.

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7 responses so far

Jan 12 2010

What do you think about this query letter for Superhero Nation?

A query is a page-long letter used by a novelist or comic book author to interest an editor and convince him that the writing is promising enough that he should spend the time to look at the sample chapters (for a novel) or script (for a comic book). What do you think about this query letter?


It’s been a normal day for IRS Agent Gary Smith, besides the car-bomb.  And the US Marshals threatening to send him on a one-way trip to Alaska.  And the revelation that everybody he knows has a pretty good motive to murder him (even besides the fact that he’s an IRS agent).  His only chance of surviving with his sanity intact rests on joining a top-secret spy agency and partnering with a mutant alligator whose powers of deduction make Scooby Doo look like Batman.

Superhero Nation is a wacky mix of an office comedy and national security thriller.  I’ve enclosed the script for the first issue, five colored and lettered sample pages, and the synopsis for the five issue arc.

My main writing qualifications are that I’m a communications contractor for [AGENCY NAME] and the webmaster for a superhero writing advice website with hundreds of thousands of readers.

Thank you for your time and consideration.  I can be reached at [PHONE] or [EMAIL].



8 responses so far

Dec 06 2009

Escaping the Slush Pile

The Rejectionist talks some more about reviewing the slush pile, a vast collection of unsolicited query letters explaining why the company should publish the author’s novel.

“After years as a slush reader in various aspects of the industry, I am quick to recognize and dispatch; I can often tell within the first sentence if a query will be any good, and I am now so ruthlessly efficient that I can blow through an inbox of 50 e-mails in half an hour, sometimes rejecting submissions within moments of their arrival…

Rendered in a labyrinthine and frequently unintelligible grammar, the truly awful query is often notable for its length, its torrid verbosity, and the mechanical specificity of its sex scenes, which tend to read like appliance-repair manuals in their exhaustive and emotionless depictions of moving parts. The bad query’s sentence sometimes resembles a battlefield wherein subjects hack it out desperately with adjectives, perennially besieged by legions of unwieldy adverbs. Apostrophes go on suicide missions and commas appear at random. Formatting tends to be interpretive; it is not uncommon to find e-mails that are 50 pages long, are bright pink, contain pictures of the author on vacation, or are written in Papyrus.”

I think that every prospective author should know about the process through which his work will be evaluated, whether he’s writing about superheroes or space slugs.  However, please don’t let exotic failure stories and the generally unforgiving nature of the business scare you away.  Here are a few brief rules of thumb to keep your query letter on track.

1. You are writing a business letter to a skeptical, time-strapped professional.  For more thoughts about communicating with them, see this.

2. Your goal is to convince him or her that your book is awesome enough to sell thousands of copies.

3. They’ve heard every possible variation of “I’ve just written an awesome book” and rejected at least 99% of them. Telling them your book is awesome is not good enough.  You need THEM to decide the book sounds awesome.  Show, don’t tell.  Lay out your plot in a way that they want to keep reading.  “John Lee is a detective investigating a murder” sounds cliche and boring. “John Lee is a poisoned detective that has two days to solve his own murder” sounds a lot more interesting.  Give enough information to intrigue them.

4. Different publishers have different tastes.  Make sure you submit to publishers that are well-suited to your manuscript.

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Nov 27 2009

Janet Reid’s Query Count

Janet Reid tallied up a day’s worth of queries.  (A query is a letter asking an agent to represent your novel). 

I’m getting impatient with writers who can’t seem to tell me what their book is about. I get lists of characters, descriptions of setting and events, but nothing about choices/conflict/decisions. 

I started at 10 pm with 68 queries. 

  • Query letter missing too much plot: 21
  • Not enticing: 12
  • Nothing fresh or original: 8
  • Not right for me but someone else will snag happily: 6
  • Writer clearly uninformed about genre or category s/he intends to write in: 3.  (B. Mac adds: a common mistake here is using the phrase “fiction novel.”  Novels are ALWAYS fiction, so “fiction novel” makes the author sound uninformed). 
  • No platform (non-fiction queries only): 2.  (A platform is a tool used to market a book or author.  For example, this website.  They’re only required for nonfiction authors). 
  • Just plain old bad writing: 4
  • I don’t think I can sell books in this category: 4
  • Overwritten (probably should be included in bad writing): 1
  • Unable to suspend disbelief (also bad writing): 1
  • Writer is a crackpot: 2.  (Dammit!  I wish I had known that this was a disqualifier before I started writing). 
  • Topics I really loathe: 2
  • Queries set aside to read more closely: 2

A parting thought for you:  decisions and conflicts are the intersection of character and plot.  Don’t neglect them!

2 responses so far

Nov 15 2009

How to Communicate with Agents and Editors

When you’re ready to submit your novel or comic book to an agent or publisher, these tips will help you make the sell.

1.  The only goal of your submission is to convince a publishing professional that your novel or comic book is likely to sell thousands of copies. Nothing else matters.

2.  Follow the instructions on their website. Most agents and publishers will have submissions pages that lay out what they want to see.  In most cases, it’s best to provide just what’s on the list and nothing else.  (Exception: if you’re submitting a comic book script, consider submitting some inked or colored pages even if they aren’t required– these pages will help the editor decide very quickly whether your proposal is serious).

3.  Check your spelling, punctuation and grammar. Trying to impress a publishing professional without clean writing is like trying to run a filthy restaurant.  It really doesn’t matter how good the cooking is–customers will run out screaming anyway.  Proofread or perish.  Not many publishing professionals would bet tens of thousands of dollars on an unpolished writer.

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13 responses so far

Oct 31 2009

November 1 Links

3 responses so far

Oct 01 2009

More Tips on Writing Two-Sentence Synopses

Synopses that are just a sentence or two long are intensely useful because 1) they’re often required as part of the query process and 2) they convey a lot of information in very little time.  The editor or agent reading your manuscript has a thousand other manuscripts in his pile and you have maybe a minute or two to impress him before he tosses you.  The synopsis is your best opportunity to do so.

Here are a few tips about how to write an extremely short synopsis.

1. It’s usually more effective to refer to characters by their profession and/or key traits rather than by name. Calling him a “neurotic detective” tells us more about the character than calling him Adrian Monk. Unless the name adds something critical, I’d recommend leaving it out. (For example, if you’re writing about a real person, you obviously need to name him).

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23 responses so far

Oct 01 2009

Sharpening Your Concept With a Two-Sentence Synopsis

What’s your story about?

That question usually sets off a rambling and unappealing description of the novel or comic book.  As part of your query, you need to describe your book in 1-2 sentences (I’d recommend 10-30 words).  New authors often have a great deal of trouble doing so– they’re so intimately familiar with all the details of their work that it’s hard to see what the big picture is.

As a writing exercise, I’d like you to boil down a lengthy work into 1-2 sentences.  That’s not easy.  It forces you to make tough decisions about what is absolutely essential to the core of your novel or comic book.  It also provides you an response when someone asks you what your book is about. Having a simple, elegant introduction available is crucial.

Here’s an easy way to write a two-sentence synopsis.

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100 responses so far

Jun 27 2009

Thanks, Evil Editor!

Evil Editor reviewed my query letter for Don’t Forget the Death Ray!, a guidebook about how to write superhero stories. Although he and his readers mostly panned it, I found their comments very helpful and informative. It’s really important for prospective writers to have thick skin, so I’d like you to know what kind of feedback I’m getting.

  • “You may not have meant it this way, but you managed to insult professional writers while talking down to teens.”
  • “This is a bad query letter… Now you show a great facility with language in this letter. Obviously your writing ability is there; but you need to consider the subtext of what you are saying just a teensy bit when you read what you wrote.”
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19 responses so far

Jun 17 2009

My Query Letter

Hello. This is an early draft of my query letter for Don’t Forget the Death Ray!, a book about how to write superhero stories.
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No responses yet

Apr 27 2009

List of Superhero Novels and Their Publishers

When you write a novel query, publishers may ask you to describe some similar, competing titles. Ideally you can come up with a few similar titles that were successful; that suggests that your title will be successful as well. If you’re pitching a superhero novel, here are a few titles that might be comparable to yours.  NOTE: If you’re looking to get a short story with superheroes published, check out this list of publishers instead.

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15 responses so far

Apr 21 2009

Survey Planning

Hi.  I’m about to pitch a book about how to write a superhero story to publishers.  In the near-future, I’d like to do an audience survey to help describe my readers to prospective publishers.  These are some of the questions I’m considering.  I’d appreciate any suggestions.

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6 responses so far

Apr 02 2009

What do you think about this nonfiction query? (Draft 3)

I’m pitching a nonfiction book about how to write superhero stories. What do you think?

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8 responses so far

Mar 27 2009

What is a query? How do I write one?

Novelists write a query to convince a literary agent or publisher that…

  • The book’s concept is exciting and well-designed.  If they don’t like the concept, they won’t read the sample chapters.
  • The book is marketable and could find an audience.
  • The book has some sort of advantage or angle that will allow it to compete with similar books.  Why will readers pick up this novel instead of a competing title?

The formatting depends on which literary agency or publisher you’re submitting to, but usually it will feature the following sections:

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26 responses so far