Writing a query letter can feel as daunting as drafting an entire book. How can you distill all the beautiful complexities of your book down into just a few sentences? Will my query sit at the bottom of a slush pile forever? How do I stand out?
I’m an acquisitions editor, which means I get to read queries and submissions daily. I’ve also been on the other side of submissions. As an author, I have received 72 rejection letters, 2 partial requests, 5 full requests and 2 book contracts from my own queries.
When I sent my first query in 2015, I remember feeling nervous at how I would handle the inevitable rejection letters. Someone told me to expect 100 “no’s” before I got a “yes”. I told myself that I wasn't going to quit querying my manuscript until I got 100+ no's. So, each time I got a rejection, I took a tally and felt excited that I was getting closer to my "yes".
I’ll admit, rejection still hurts even with a good perspective. But, querying is a numbers game. Perfectly publishable manuscripts are rejected every day. Don’t give up on your book before it reaches the right hands. Agents and editors are rooting for you to become their next favorite author!
As I honed my own query over the years, I realized that there was definitely a recipe to crafting a submission. I found a wonderful book called "From the Query to the Call" by Elana Johnson. If you are in the querying trenches, this e-book is a must-have. It taught me what editors and agents are looking for and how to simplify your novel into just two paragraphs.
Now that I’ve read so many different voices in a variety of query formats, it’s easier than ever for me to see what makes a query letter stand out in the slush pile. In this article, I'll give you formatting and content advice, then I have a few wonderful volunteers who submitted queries for critique. I'll go through these (already solidly written) critiques and point out what they did right and how they could make it even stronger.
Let's get started.
Have you ever finished a book and realized it was 2 AM? Then, spent the rest of your week playing out the character's happily-ever-after because you're just not willing to let them go yet? Finally, desperate to share your experience, you tried to tell someone the plot and felt like you just couldn't do it justice?
Yeah--me neither (*shifty eyes).
What is it about some books that transport us into an entirely new world? How do we write like that?
A few months ago, I wrote an article on writing beautifully, but today I'm going to go a step further. This mini workshop will help you see how to envelope your reader into your world so completely that they won't be tempted to use that cute new bookmark they bought between your pages. Whether your reader is looking for escape or experience, writing a transportive novel will ensure that they get what they're looking for.
Here at Writing Through Brambles, we believe that parent writers are basically superheros. Often times being a writer means that you're juggling raising a family, perhaps a full time job, and a passion project. Holli Anderson is a model example of this. She has a degree in nursing, is the Chief Editor at Immortal Works, an amazing mama, and writes paranormal and urban fantasy. Her newest novel, Myrikal, is being released on February 12, and I was excited to sit down with her to discuss it's release!
Rachel Huffmire: In your dystopian world, Myrikal is born during a time when pregnancies are rare. Not only is Myri's existence improbable, but her life is granted unique powers. What inspired you to give Myrikal the powers she has?
Holli Anderson: The inspiration for the whole story came from a video I watched on Facebook, believe it or not. It was a young woman testifying before Congress about being an abortion survivor. She survived a saline abortion attempt and was born 2 months early with chemical burns all over her skin. She was placed in foster care and ended up growing up to be this amazing woman. Her name is Gianna Jesson, I believe. This is also what inspired me to make her most obvious power invulnerability, her skin is impenetrable. The other powers sort of showed themselves as she grew and as the right opportunities presented themselves.
Rachel: From the moment the book starts, we are plunged into a pretty harsh reality. Not only the world Myrikal lives in, but her very parents are shockingly severe. It definitely sets the naturally compassionate Myrikal apart from the world around her once she arrives. Was this inspired by anything?
Holli: I think it stems from my belief that we can choose who we want to be no matter our circumstances. We can choose good even when surrounded by bad.
Rachel: Is there a quality in the real world that you think brings hope to any circumstance?
Holli: Yes – our innate desire to help others. Whenever there’s a disaster anywhere in the world you see normal, everyday people clambering to help in anyway they can. From donations to actually jumping into the disaster area with both feet. I love Mr. Rogers’ quote about helpers, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, "Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” No matter your political, religious, cultural beliefs—there are always people who will help in dire circumstances.
Rachel: What was your favorite part about developing Myrikal's character?
Holli: My favorite part was her friendship with Branch. That’s when she really started to believe that her dad was wrong about there not being any “good” people in the world. She saw the good in Branch and was then able to see the good in others, too.
Releasing a novel is a bit like being sucked into a tornado while a bunch of people smile and wave at you. It's exhilarating, terrifying, and you can't always predict which direction you'll be thrown. With the expanse of online communities and personal networks available to authors these days, it's hard to know what to focus on when you're trying to self promote. Or how to self promote in the first place.
So, that's what I'm here to talk to you about. No more illusive talk, I'm getting down to the basics. It doesn't matter if you've never been published or have already published and want to grow your audience; it's never too early or too late to start self promoting.
logo by maditwedephotography.com
1. Brand yourself.
When you start self promoting, it's exactly that: SELF promoting. You are the business you are trying to sell, not a particular story. You want all of your other endeavors to succeed because you are the one responsible for them. The goal is to make your name recognizable, so you'll have to decide early on if you want to use your real name or a pseudonym. Once you decide, create all your social media accounts, online community profiles, websites, and business cards with the same name. You don't want to be @rachelhuffmire on one site and @rachiewrites on another. Keep them consistent and professional.
When I first started out, I heard an illusive term floating around: author platform. They told me it was important, but nobody really spelled it out for me. So here you go--- an author platform means all the places you'll be able to stand up and say "Hey! Look at this awesome thing I did!" The bigger the platform, the more people will hear about you and your novel. Your followers don't have to be restricted to writerly groups. If you have a following that watches your how-to videos on making felt finger puppets on YouTube, guess what! That's part of your platform! Figure out what niches you fit into, how you can offer people valuable content, and be friendly. Genuinely make connections, and you'll be surprised how quickly your group can grow!
A few things to think about... Your platforms need to be public, to draw people in. That being said, you need to decide how publicly you are going to broadcast your personal opinions and private life. For me, I decided not to post much about my kids, because, you know, weird people. But, I'm also pretty careful about staying clear of supercharged issues. My brand is not involved in politics, controversial events, derogatory speach, or anything explicit. That's the brand I've chosen. Whereas, some people's brands revolve exclusively around those things. Realize that you absolutely have to make some deliberate decisions about what you can be involved in online.
2. Develop a website.
When people hear your name, they need a landing zone. Your website is where you can tie all your platforms together into one big self-promoting mega machine. People might stumble across your latest tweet, or Instagram pic, but the people who visit your website are deliberate seekers of your brand. These people are coming with questions: What was her book called? Does she have any signing events going on? Can I sign up for a newsletter? I liked her book, I wonder if she wrote anything else.
A good website will have a short bio, blog articles, links to where they can purchase your products, newsletter subscription forms, and event information. You don't have to buy a domain yet, but as soon as you get that publishing contract, having a .com address will make you easier to find and look more professional.
After you get set up, do some research about how to improve your SEO (Search Engine Optimization). When people type in your name, you want to be the first google hit that shows up. It might be a little daunting, but I can promise you, having a polished website that is the first thing to show up on a google search will make all the marketing you do for your release day much more profitable. So get this step done early.
Cover design by Ashley Literski
The cover for Shattered Snow has finally arrived! Last week, I held a facebook live event on my facebook author page revealing this beautiful piece of art by Ashley Literski. I can't believe that in just a few short weeks I'll be able to hold this book in my hands! Everything comes at me so quickly these days, (pre-sale starts this week) and the learning curve is steeper than ever. Immortal Works has been an amazing publisher, and I've appreciated every step of this journey with them.
Handing over the concept to a graphic designer and seeing her visually interpret my story is amazing. Ashley asked about my characters, common visual themes, preferences, etc. She took everything I gave her and compiled it into this beautiful cover that subtly represents all three of my POV characters. It's the kind of thing I expect people to turn back after the story and go "ooooh! It's even more meaningful now!". She did a wonderful job.
Next, I am working with the illustrator for interior art that is absolutely breathtaking. While I can't show you it yet---I can show you some of her concept art...
I wrote my first children's play in high school. It was about a little boy who found a watermelon and imagined it was a dinosaur egg. A nosy neighbor girl insisted it was a 'plain ol' melon' which caused the boy to doubt his sense of imagination. In a final climax, the two fought over the fruit and in the scuffle lost control as it rolled down a hill. The girl gave up on it, but when the boy finally found the cracked rind, he was able to find value in the 'ruined' melon by imagining the dinosaur inside had hatched and he resumed his game to find it.
My theater teacher chose my script to be performed in class. As I watched two actors portray the children, I realized the magic of script writing. The actors enhanced my story by adding vocal inflections, movement, and props. They used my creativity as a point to jump off from and created something all their own.
Now, I'm writing a full length musical. It's a bigger task, but the rewarding memory from high school keeps me chasing the dream. I've been working on this collaborative project for over a year now and I am amazed at how often script writing skills reflect on my career as a novelist. Here are a few reasons why I think you should try writing a stage play.
We all want to write timeless prose and enveloping stories for our readers to sink into. But, beautiful writing doesn't always come naturally. It's a skill that must be sculpted and studied. During my own quest for improvement, I've gathered some treasured advice through the years. Some of it comes from my own personal observations, but a lot of it was passed down to me by people far wiser than me. I can't wait to share these ideas with you.
1: Your voice is beautiful.
“Don’t forget---no one else sees the world the way you do, so no one else can tell the stories that you have to tell.”
-Charles de Lint
One of the most inspiring books on finding your own voice is If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland. I am so grateful I read this early on in my writing career. Ueland showed me that even if I think my perspective is too commonplace to be important, nobody else sees the world the same way I do. My hometown, my family, my way of life is completely foreign to someone else.
For me, this concept was confirmed once I became an acquisitions editor. I once received queries with incredibly similar plot lines that sounded wildly different from each other. Even if your story has already been told, it hasn’t been told by you. Your voice is what makes your writing beautiful.
We're all writers, we're all moms, writing our way through the "brambles" of life and our stories.