A Road Less Traveled: Writing the Query Letter
Last month Tim Broderick, began a series of articles detailing the path to publication of his graphic novel, "Cash & Carry" (based on his webcomic Odd Jobs, featured at Moderntales and Timbroderick.net). In his first article at ComixTalk last month, Tim covered how he signed with a traditional prose publisher as opposed to a comics publisher. This month Tim dives into the specifics of how he constructed his ultimately successful query letter for "Cash & Carry".
One day a few months ago, at a dinner with several of her local Chicago authors, my new publisher talked about a presentation where she discusses the ins and outs of getting published - including the best query letter she'd ever gotten. She revealed then that it was mine.
I didn't say it out loud, but at the time I remembered thinking that there must be a lot of really crappy query letters out there if mine looked that good by comparison. So here's how to avoid writing a crappy query letter. And we're going to start with your frame of mind.
This is a sales job, but it isn't hype. It's also not your last chance at happiness and fulfillment. Neither overblown bragging nor desperate begging are called for here. And make no mistake, editors tell horror stories about query letters. So approach this in a business-like manner.
You need to impress with your content, not your materials. Choose a plain serif type like Times Roman at 12 pt. Use plain white paper in a common desk-jet printer - the kind you get for free with every computer purchase. Don't use wild colors for the paper or the ink, it's a sign you're not confident in your abilities. And it's OK if you're actually not confident in your abilities - no one really is all the time - just don't show it.
Yes, you should know where you live. But my letter didn't have this presented in this way. I designed a letterhead.
A lot of advice about query letters says to generally avoid a letterhead. But that's advice for prose novelists, not graphic novelists. And chances are, this will be the only piece of paper a prospective editor or agent will have to look at. So I think a small letterhead featuring art that captures the essence of your style is not only appropriate, but necessary.
Don't go over the top, though. Keep it small and well designed.
Karen L. Syed
Echelon Press Publishing
9735 Country Meadows Lane 1-D
Laurell, MD 20723
To Ms. Syed:
Oh boy, you spell the name wrong here and you might as well give up on the whole business. So do your homework. If you have a Writer's Marketplace, make sure it's the latest edition with the most up-to-date information. Even with the latest edition, it doesn't hurt to call and confirm that so-and-so still works there and they spell their name this way.
You're only looking to talk with a receptionist, and not for a long time either. But with smaller publishers, you may find yourself talking to the person you're checking up on. That's fine - just let them know why you're calling and don't take too much of their time. They'll appreciate it.
Right off the bat, I tell the reader the length of the book, that it's a graphic novel and it falls in the mystery genre. But most importantly, it tells them that it's done. Established authors might be able to pitch half-formed ideas -- beginning authors usually can't.
Then, I talk about my professional experience as it pertains to writing a novel. Whether my experience as a news artist or the fact that I've been toiling on a webcomic for years is any indication of the quality of my novel is debatable, but it does convey that I've brought something out of my professional and personal experience, and that doesn't hurt.
If you don't think you have pertinent experience, don't worry about it. It's not necessarily a strike against you.
Next paragraph is all about the book. Sum up the plot in as an enticing way as possible. No need to give away the ending -- that will be handled by the synopsis. Here you have to intrigue the person reading this letter enough so that they request the rest of your materials or the book itself.
Next, talk about what you were trying to accomplish in writing your story. Quitting your horrible day job is not a good answer here - you'll need to think about themes and your own motivations.
It doesn't have to be as pretentious as I wrote, it could be as simple as "I love pie! I wanted to write about a character who loves pies as much as I do." The point is, you give the reader an idea as to what motivated you to write the story. Remember what excited you about writing the story when you first started. Try and capture that feeling in words here.
This is the paragraph that you're not going to find in all those how-to books. Painfully aware that I was submitting a graphic novel to a publisher with only prose experience, I chose to have a kind of "sum-up" paragraph to convey that I've approached this thing with some planning in mind.
What this paragraph does is show the beginnings of a marketing plan, how you intend to position and sell the book once it's published. It's not required, but I don't think it hurts to show that you've put some effort into understanding the market you intend to sell in. Especially if you're sending a graphic novel to someone who's never sold a graphic novel before.
This is a pretty standard wrap-up paragraph. In it, I note that I included a SASE, short synopsis and 30 pages. I included those because THE PUBLISHER ASKED FOR THEM. Do. Not. Send. Anything. That. The. Publisher. Or. Editor. Does. Not. Request. Don't give them any excuse to toss your stuff into the circular file.
And that's a query letter. I won't lie to you, it's hard to write. But you may find there's a lot of value in putting these thoughts into words - beyond just selling your book.
Next month: Writing the synopsis! (That's just a huge misuse of an exclamation point.)