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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.

 

The approach

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.

 

The basics

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.

 

Letterhead

 

Tim Broderick
Address
Address

 

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.

 

Addressing

 

February 19, 2006
Karen L. Syed
Publisher
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.

 

The Letter

 

"Cash & Carry" -- a complete, 206-page graphic novel from my Odd Jobs mystery series -- draws on stories encountered during my 20-years experience working for newspapers in and around Chicago. Since 2002, Odd Jobs has been earning money at the subscription website Moderntales.com.

 

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.

 

In "Cash & Carry," David Diangelo -- a man who makes his living doing odd jobs -- must deliver a mysterious briefcase to Las Vegas with a pair of industrial spies hot on his trail. It's a thrilling challenge at first, but when David discovers the body of a man brutally murdered the simple job takes a deadly twist. David doesn't know who to trust, he doesn't know that the case he carries is only a decoy, and he can't foresee that the road ahead promises only heartbreak and pain.

 

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.

 

"Cash & Carry" explores the moral challenges individuals face when cut off from the security derived from links with family and friends. In my Odd Jobs series, I examine how people find work in an uncertain world, and how -- in making those connections -- they're thrust into great mysteries.

 

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 a novel created for mystery readers by a mystery reader. As a full, "Active" member of Mystery Writers of America, I've studied how graphic novels should be crafted to appeal to readers of this genre. My art is heavily influenced by the great American newspaper serial comics and classic European adventure strips. The heavy black-and-white art brings a noirish mood to my stories.

 

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.

 

Wrapping Up

 

With this letter, I've enclosed a SASE, a short synopsis and the first 30 pages of the story. I would be happy to send the complete novel upon request. Thank you for your time, and I look forward to your response.

 

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.)

Re: A Road Less Traveled: Writing the Query Letter

thank u for your help. i am finnishing a graphic novel and working on a query letter..perhaps i could ask some questions of you if thats cool

Re: A Road Less Traveled: Writing the Query Letter

As a writer looking to be published I have done a LOT of research on the query letter. I know what to do and what not to do for a regular query, but I had no idea about how to make one for a graphic novel. I am in the process of writing my first manga trilogy, so I was curious about how to do this. Also, since I am writing a trilogy, would I pitch book one or the entire set? I won't query till they're finished (and I don't have an artist yet, so clearly it's going to take a little time, but I'm enjoying the ride!)

Re: A Road Less Traveled: Writing the Query Letter

Wouldn't you want to explicitly state what it is you're wanting--what you're inquiring about? You know, basically, "I was wondering if you'd be interested in publishing this."

Thanks for the helpful essay. It's bookmarked!

-B.

Re: A Road Less Traveled: Writing the Query Letter

Tim Broderick's picture

It certainly wouldn't hurt to start that way. I've seen very good letters set up both ways, but stating what you're writing about would be a fine variation.

Speaking of variations, I had several for the final paragraph depending on what my research about that specific agent or publisher accepted for blind submissions. For instance, if they wanted a letter only I said I had enclosed a SASE and that I had a synopsis available plus I could send them the first thirty pages as a sample or the entire novel if they desired.

This letter is really just to get you started. Don't be afraid to experiment with it as you see fit.

Re: A Road Less Traveled: Writing the Query Letter

Greg Carter's picture

Thank you! I've read a lot about what NOT to do, but never in so much detail what TO do. It's hard to stress enough just how important it is to get it right. From visiting blogs of editors and writers, query letters are one of the easiest places to screw up. A bad first impression will land even a Nobel Prize-worthy piece in the trash. They might not even finish reading the letter.

Anyone who wants a course in what not to do can visit 101reasonstostopwriting.com and editor/publisher sites linked from there. The horror stories are funny in a sad way, quite numerous, yet easily prevented. Sites like that are written by and for prose authors but apply equally well to comic creators. Especially now that "traditional" publishers are taking on graphic novels.

Thanks again for sharing this with everyone. I can't wait for the next part. I never know how to summarize my story! (More exclamation point abuse.)

Greg Carter Abandon UpDown Studio

Greg Carter - Abandon: First Vampire - Online Graphic Novel