Query Letters That Worked, Query Letters That Didn’t, and the Stories Those Letters Tell

Learning to query is a process. Author Rebecca Colby has been through it all, from struggling through learning the intricacies of querying to selling a book and acquiring an agent. Lucky for us, she’s sharing her experience here at Sub It Club! Rebecca tells us her story and breaks down the letter she queried her agent with.

What is your query letter saying? Rebecca’s breakdown will help you look at your letter from the most important perspective of all–the agent or editor you are querying. Here’s Rebecca:

rebecca colby (392x523)I feel pretty fortunate. Last year, I wrote two query letters that “worked”. The first query letter landed me an agent and a second, separate query letter got me a publishing contract.

But I have hundreds—and I do mean hundreds—of query letters that didn’t work. So why did these two query letters finally work?

Some might argue that it wasn’t the query letters that sold my work. Perhaps my writing was finally up to par. Or my timing was good and I put just the right manuscripts in front of the right people at the right time. Or any number of different reasons that have nothing to do with my query letters.

And I wouldn’t deny that any or all of these things may have played a contributing part, but I also know that if I hadn’t written a good query letter, that the agent and editor wouldn’t have taken the time to read my work.

Why? Because half my story was in the query letter.

That’s right. The query letter tells an agent or editor just as much about your work as your manuscript does—sometimes more.

For example, is your manuscript the correct length for the age group you’ve written it for? Have you researched this agent or editor to know if they will be a good fit for your work? Can you sum up your work in one sentence? What’s your “voice” like? Are you someone who is easy to work with?

And the list goes on.

However, I didn’t always feel this way. It took me the better part of seven years of writing and submitting picture books to realize how vital a good query letter is to a submission. I was stubborn and unprepared to spend more time on my query letters than my manuscript.

But then I won a free critique. Yippee! Someone else was going to cast a helpful eye over my work—except it wasn’t a free critique of a manuscript, it was a free critique of a query letter. That’s when the ball dropped. It finally dawned on me that I should be prepared to spend as much time on my query letter as my manuscript–if not more.

From that point on, I got serious about query letter writing.

I went back through my files and looked at my old query letters. They were absolutely cringe-worthy. With few exceptions, my early letters opened like this: “Dear Submissions Editor”. I couldn’t even be bothered to find out the name of the editor in charge of acquiring picture books.

Another early letter started with this paragraph: “Please find enclosed three picture book manuscripts. The first two manuscripts were written with a series in mind. I have enclosed a CD with illustrations by a local artist to accompany the third manuscript.”

What was I thinking by enclosing illustrations with my picture book manuscript? And what made me believe suggesting a series before I’d even made a sale was a good idea? Worse still, I hadn’t even tried to make a personal connection. I knew nothing about the editor and her interests and my query letter clearly indicated that fact. My letter also clearly indicated the fact that I was still very much a beginner. Yes, my query told that editor everything she needed to know about me and my work.

Over time, my queries changed more and more, while continuing to tell editors and agents the other half of my story.

“She sounds cold and impersonal…”

“She hasn’t studied the other books on our list…”

And the biggie—“She’s not prepared to invest enough time in her query letter…”

Once I truly saw how much of my story these letters were telling—not to mention how much I didn’t like the story they were telling—I changed tack and got serious about sprucing up my query letters. What would I want to read if the tables were turned?

Published by Floris Picture Kelpies in 2014

My queries still didn’t “work” right away, but they were getting attention. An agent would write a personal note. An editor would invite me to send another manuscript. I knew they finally liked the other half of the story I was sharing with them.

So what worked for me?

I’ve cut and pasted one of those two query letters that succeeded, alongside the story I was really telling this agent. My story is spelled out in capitals.

Dear Ms Rushall,

(THIS LETTER IS FOR YOU, AND ONLY YOU! )

I was thrilled to read your tweet yesterday stating that you love little witches. I love little witches too and have written a humorous picture book about witches entitled IT’S RAINING BATS AND FROGS.

(I CARE ABOUT YOU ENOUGH TO FOLLOW YOU ON TWITTER AND TO RESEARCH YOUR INTERESTS. ISN’T IT WONDERFUL THAT WE HAVE THINGS IN COMMON?)

IT’S RAINING BATS AND FROGS was written first as a picture book manuscript and later as a storybook app. I’ve attached only the picture book manuscript but please know the storybook app text is available upon request. A synopsis follows:

(I’M FLEXIBLE AND I’M WILLING TO LOOK AT OTHER BOOK FORMATS AND NEW TECHNOLOGY. IF YOU TAKE ME ON, I WILL WORK WITH YOU AND WILL BE OPEN TO YOUR SUGGESTIONS.)

IT’S RAINING BATS AND FROGS (450 words) – It’s raining on the Witch Parade and the witches are wet and miserable, so Delia decides to change the rain to cats and dogs, then hats and clogs, and finally bats and frogs. But each new type of rain brings its own problems. Eventually, Delia magics the rain back and the parade proceeds with the witches showing a great appreciation for real rain.

(I KNOW MY MARKET AND MY BOOK FALLS IN THE ACCEPTABLE WORD COUNT RANGE. I ALSO KNOW YOU EXPECT ME TO BE ABLE TO WRITE CONCISELY, SO I’VE SUMMED UP MY MANUSCRIPT IN THREE SENTENCES.)

My writing credits include winning the 2011 Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Barbara Karlin grant. This is an international award given out each year to one aspiring picture book writer.  In 2012, I won first place in the Winchester Writers’ Conference ‘Writing for Children 4-7 years’ category. I also won the 2012 Margaret Carey SCBWI British Isles Conference Scholarship for picture book writers and illustrators.

(I’M SERIOUS ABOUT MY WRITING. I’VE JOINED A PROFESSIONAL ORGANIZATION AND I’M DEDICATED AND HARD-WORKING. I’VE BEEN WRITING FOR SEVERAL YEARS, AND I’VE PUT ALL MY ENERGY AND FOCUS INTO WRITING PICTURE BOOKS.)

Before writing for children, I worked for the Russian comedian Yakov Smirnoff, taught English in Taiwan, traveled the world as a tour director, and worked as a librarian. Born in America, I now live in England.

(EVERYONE HAS A STORY TO TELL, AND THIS IS MINE. I’M MORE THAN A WRITER. MY CAREER LIFE HAS BEEN VARIED AND I HAVE PLENTY OF EXPERIENCES TO WRITE ABOUT. I’M ALSO NOT AFRAID TO EMBRACE NEW EXPERIENCES.)

Thank you for your time and consideration of my work. I look forward to your reply.

(YOU’VE TAKEN TIME OUT OF YOUR BUSY SCHEDULE TO READ MY LETTER AND HOPEFULLY MY MANUSCRIPT. YOU ARE A STAR! I REALLY APPRECIATE IT AND I HOPE WE CAN BECOME BESTIES! OR AT THE VERY LEAST, I HOPE WE CAN BECOME PEN PALS.)

Sincerely,

Rebecca Colby

So if your query letters haven’t succeeded yet, I’d ask you to think about the other half of the story that you’re sending out with your submission. What does it really say about you and your writing? Have you given it just as much time and attention as your manuscript?  And is it a story you’d want to read? If not, it might be time to write a better story.

—————————————————————————————————-

Rebecca Colby writes picture books and poetry and is represented by Kathleen Rushall of Marsal Lyon Literary Agency. Her debut picture book, There was a Wee Lassie who Swallowed a Midgie, is published by Floris Picture Kelpies. A further picture book, It’s Raining Bats and Frogs, will be published by Feiwel and Friends in 2015. You can learn more about Rebecca at www.rebeccacolbybooks.com.

You can also find her on Twitter @amscribbler and Facebook.

A huge THANK YOU to Rebecca for sharing her story with us! Writers helping writers. That’s one of the things that makes this profession great! We are so fortunate to have Rebecca as part of the Club!

18 thoughts on “Query Letters That Worked, Query Letters That Didn’t, and the Stories Those Letters Tell

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  1. This was a great post. The way you paired the actual sentence with what it really means was so effective. I am saving this post to read each time a query/cover letter to remind me once again.

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    1. We often say so much more than we realize. It’s good to have a think about the message we are really sending out. I’m pleased to hear you felt the breakdown was effective. Thanks, Angela!

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  2. Rebecca,
    I really appreciate you taking the time to share your ‘road to landing an agent’, along with a sample letter of how to pull everything together. You truly have a knack for clearly and memorably writing down your story elements in a well organized fashion. Your sample has provided me with the inspiration and courage to write a query, so I can’t thank you enough for providing this!

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    1. Thank you for your kind comments, Jodi! I’m so glad to hear that the letter provided you with the inspiration and courage necessary to write a query. Courage is often half the battle! I wish you all the best and would love to hear how you get on.

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