Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Guest Post, Matthew MacNish: The Ancient and Honorable Art of the Query Letter

Today Matthew MacNish is stopping by to talk about the art of query letters....

The Ancient and Honorable Art of the Query Letter

My name is Matthew. Matthew MacNish is the pen name I publish fiction under. You can visit my blog, The QQQE, if you would like to know more.

Do you guys hate query letters? Do you think distilling a 60,000 word novel into 250 words is a study in insanity? I don’t blame you if you do. I used to feel the same way. When I first started sending out queries, I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t know any writers in real life, and I hadn’t met any on the internet yet at the time.

So I crafted what I thought was a good query (but was really a big mess of synopsis-ish writing, and egotism), and sent it out. I got a couple of requests (surely based more on the pages than the query), but I was inevitably rejected. I wasn’t ready. Neither was my query—or my book.

You can read some of my terrible old queries by checking the label “queries-rejections” at my blog.

I decided to study query letters, and as much as I hated them, I decided I would get good at them. So I started my blog, and began by sharing my own mistakes, so others could learn from them. Then I started finding some great resources for helping to learn how to write a better query. First, was Nathan Bransford’s blog, specifically posts like Query Letter Mad Libs, and Anatomy of a Good Query Letter. Then it was Kate Testerman’s blog, and especially her service Ask Daphne! About My Query. Then I met Elana Johnson, read her e-book From the Query to the Call, and after getting to know her (and the other great hosts) for a while, I won a query contest at Write On Con, which you can read the results of, in which Literary Agent Joanna Stampfel-Volpe critiqued my query, here.

So once I figured out how to write a decent query, I started hosting and analyzing successful ones on my blog. They didn’t have to have earned the author an agent, just a full or partial request. The fun part is though, several of those queries are now published books. You can find a list of those posts, here. Then, once I became familiar with good queries, I started critiquing query letters on my blog.

You can find those posts by checking the label “queries-critiques” at my blog.

Now that you know how I ended up in this position where I hate to love and love to hate the ancient and honorable art of the query letter, let’s talk about what one is, and how to write a good one.

Assuming you want to write a standard query letter, and not break any of the “rules,” this is how it works: One page or less, 250 words is generally a good guideline. Usually 3 paragraphs.

- First is your opening hook and pitch. You need to get across a strong sense of character right away, and if you can sprinkle in some backstory, in a nice, organic way, that's great. Then try to finish up with the inciting incident.

- Second, you want to introduce the conflict. If you can sprinkle in setting and stakes, great. Try to be specific as possible. Avoid clichés, and make it clear why your story is unique.

- Finally, you need to give us an idea of what choices your character has to make in order to overcome the conflict. The best choices are really tough ones, in which there is no clear or easy solution.

So that's: Character. Conflict. Choice. The three Cs.

If you can get those three things across clearly, and sprinkle in some great voice, you’ll be off to a good start.

Some personalization about why you queried that specific agent, and some kind of writing background bio are a great way to finish, but it’s the heart of the story that really matters.

Feel free to ask me any questions in the comments, and thanks Jessica for having me!

--Matthew M. Rush

Thanks so much, Matthew for stopping by and giving us some of your wisdom.  If you don't follow Matthew's blog you should definitely check it out. Every week he helps people out by critiquing their query letters.



Elise Fallson said...

Thanks for being so generous and sharing your experiences Matthew. I hope you don't mind me coming to bug you if I ever get to the query step. (:

Natalie Aguirre said...

Great tips Matt. I was just trying to remember the last C-choice. I couldn't think of the word and like always you're here to tell me what it is without asking. I need to remind a critique partner of this.

Loved Elana's book too. It's so helpful as are the tips in your query critiques.

Sarah said...

Matt, you perform such a wonderful service on your blog, and your feedback is always excellent! Hmmm. Maybe I should have you critique my attempts at writing the jacket copy for my book--it's astoundingly similar to a query. Query-writing is an important skill to master, because you don't stop needing it once you have an agent! And--thanks for hosting, Jessica!

Matthew MacNish said...

Thanks for having me, Jessica! If I can make a suggestion, you might want to add an extra space between the paragraphs, it looks like a huge block of text right now. It probably got screwed up because I sent it to you in MS Word. Let me know if you want me to send you HTML instead.

But either way, I'm glad you asked, and I'm happy to have this up here!

Christine Danek said...

Great points, Matthew. I know, personally, how great you are at this and can't thank you enough for your help.
Thanks Jessica for hosting this. You have a lovely blog.

Matthew MacNish said...

Oh, and @ Elise - anytime. Just email me. :)

Anonymous said...

OMG This post is PERFECT since I'm currently crafting my query (which I need to send to my crit partners for approval on Friday!)

Thanks for sharing your expertise, Matt, and thanks for hosting, Jessica!

Nancy Thompson said...

I snapped a screen shot so I'd never forget this awesome advice. I only wish I'd discovered you 18 months ago. And whenever a writer friend needs help with their query, I always direct them to you & your blog. Thanks, Matthew!

Matthew MacNish said...

Thanks so much, guys! Feel free to send it to me, Liza.

Cassie Mae said...

Matt is the king of queries! I've always been way too frightened to send him mine, lol.

Donna K. Weaver said...

I always enjoy your input on queries, Matt. You're very insightful but diplomatic in pointing out when parts don't work for you--and you're clear that it's you they don't work for, which leaves others comfortable to comment if they disagree.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Matthew is the query master!

Suzi said...

I haven't submitted a query yet, maybe for the next one.

Question for Matthew:
How backed up are you typically? Do you do every one you receive or pick specific letters for certain reasons?

Jemi Fraser said...

Matt does fabulous crits on his blog! I've learned a lot from him and Elana too :)

Carolina Valdez Miller said...

Matt is so good at this!

Matthew MacNish said...

Suzi - at any given time I usually have 3 or 4 people waiting in line, but I do 2 queries per week when I have people waiting, so it never takes me more than about 2 weeks to get to a query (except during A to Z April, I had to put everything on hold for that).

And thanks so much for having me Jessica!

Leslie Rose said...

Great resources in this post, Matt. Thanks. New follower waving hello, Jessica.

Kelly Kizer Whitt said...

Hi Matthew,

Thanks for the great info. I definitely need to rework my query. When I am ready, how do I go about submitting it to you for review?


Matthew MacNish said...

Hi Kelly,

My email is available on my blogger profile. You can send it to me at that address.