Sunday, February 27, 2011

Writing the "Great" Fiction Query Letter!

"That mountain of paper ain't no exaggeration!"




I no longer have to write query letters to agents.
That part of my life is over. I have a great agent now and plan on spending the rest of my life with him. I can't tell you how happy that makes me.

I wasn't always good at writing agent query letters. It took a lot of practice honing the essential information I needed to include in the letter and to be able to present said information on a single page. Agents hate to read more than one page and often will read no further than your first sentence. So make it a good one.

But I've spent literally hours upon hours working up query letters and getting them out to agents. Originally I did this via snail mail and the cost was astronomical. For the past decade I've been able to pretty much go through the process of query submission and agent response via email and while that has diminished the cost element, it still takes up a huge chunk of time.

Time that could be used for writing.

That said, I thought it might be a good time to give you an idea of what makes a great query letter. Notice I don't say a “good” query because in this climate of radical publishing shifts in which the Big 6 publishers in New York are slowly downsizing, giving way to a huge influx of indie presses like StoneHouse Ink and StoneGate Ink, and/or self-published authors, agents must be more choosy than ever in which clients they decide to take on and which they decide to reject.

Here are the basics (I'm probably gonna forget some things here so bear with me):

-Have a great opening sentence that states the title of your project, the genre (mystery, literary, romantic suspense, paranormal, etc), word count, and series or stand alone info.

-Follow up with a brief paragraph that summarizes the book. This isn't a book jacket blurb to entice readers. It's a short summary that will entice agents as to the novel’s salability.

-Follow this up with a short paragraph or two describing your credentials, especially your credentials in the genre, and if you've been published before. The agents don't care if your work was included in the "Mom & Pop Review," but they will take an interest in hearing about The Paris Review or The Maryland Review, etc. You can finish this paragraph with what you do for a living.

-Finalize your letter with a statement about your marketing savvy: your social networking connections, your blog, your virtual tour info (if you’re already a published author), your contact information and urls, your official website, etc.

-If the agent requests to see the first page of your manuscript, attach it as a word document or, if required, include it in the body of the letter. DO NOT SEND MORE PAGES THAN THE AGENT ASKS FOR. If you choose to ignore this rule and send five pages instead, you will be rejected outright.

Ok, if all this sounds a little hazy to you I'm including a typical agent query that worked well enough for me to have attracted the attention of some pretty big agents in the business, including Suzanne Gluck at William Morris. Feel free to copy and paste it, and edit in your own information:

Dear Mr./Ms. Agent Orange.

This is to tell you about my new, 72,650 word, stand-alone hard-boiled/romantic suspense thriller, The Remains.

Thirty years ago, teenager Rebecca Underhill and her twin sister Molly were abducted by a man who lived in a house in the woods behind their upstate New York farm. They were held inside that house for three terrifying hours, until making their escape. Vowing to keep their terrifying experience a secret in order to protect their mother and father, the girls tried to put the past behind them. And when their attacker was hunted down by police and sent to prison, they believed he was as good as dead. Now, it’s 30 years later, and with Molly having passed away from cancer, Rebecca, a painter and art teacher, is left alone to bear the burden of a secret that has only gotten heavier and more painful with each passing year. But when Rebecca begins receiving some strange anonymous text messages, she starts to realize that the monster who attacked her all those years ago is not dead after all. He’s back, and this time, he wants to do more than just haunt her. He wants her dead.

My first novel, As Catch Can (Delacorte) was touted in two pre-publication articles by Publishers Weekly and was called "Brilliant" upon its publication by The New York Post. The Boston Herald attributed it as “The most arresting first crime novel to break into print this season.” My second novel Godchild (Bantam/Dell) was published to excellent reviews and sales. My novels have been translated into the Dutch, Japanese and soon French. My novella Permanence (based on my most anthologized short story) was touted as “Reads like Raymond Carver with a long breath,” by Douglas Glover, winner of Canada’s Governor’s General award for Elle. My new noir thriller, Moonlight Falls, will be published by the emerging indie press, RJBuckley in the winter of 2009/10. At present, Heyday Productions has expressed interest in film rights.

I’m engaged in both traditional and virtual tours for Moonlight Falls.

A full-time photo-journalist and freelance writer, I earned my MFA in Writing from Vermont College. I freelanced for The Albany Times Union, The Source, Home and Style Magazine, Builder/Architect Magazine, Appalachian Journal and others. I was a frequent contributor to Hudson Valley Magazine, Orange Coast Magazine, Buffalo Spree Magazine, Game & Fish Magazine, Globalia (Berlin), Robert Pelton’s The Black Flag CafĂ©, inosmi.ru, New York Newsday and many more. Much of my recent work has been reprinted and/or syndicated in other publications.

I’ve published short fiction in the Maryland Review, Orange Coast Magazine, Italian/Americana, The Maryland Review, Fugue, Lost Creek Letters, Negative Capability, Buffalo Spree, and others. My work has also appeared in Rosebud and was recently included in The Best of Rosebud.

Presently I edit three award-winning building and design and tech-related BtoB newsletters and blogs for www.Globalspec.com, the web’s largest online engineering resource with over one million subscribers worldwide. I’m also a hard news stringer, features writer and the author of the blog, Dangerous Dispatches, for RT (Russia Today TV) (http://rt.com/About_Us/Blogs/dangerous-dispatches/2009-12-9.html). This blog has proven such as success, it’s been serialized at several different news networks. (NOTE: this popular blog will become available due to recent budget concerns at RT).

My 7-part “alternative” travel blog, Embedded in Africa, proved a great success for RT (Russia Today) upon its publication in both June and July of 2009. (http://www.russiatoday.com/About_Us/Blogs/Embedded_in_Africa/2009-06-05.html).

An active member of the International Thriller Writers Association, I am an Awards Panel Judge for 2010.

I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Sincerely,

Vincent Zandri

00-1-518-225-7777

www.vincentzandri.com

Ok, admittedly, this letter is a little bit longer than what you need, but it contains all the essential information an agent operating a successful agency in 2011 will need to see. I’m a fulltime pro and it makes their heart’s pound to see that I wear my work on my sleeve.

But on the other than, they also know that I’m a professional who won’t make their life a living hell if they decide to take me on. Agents are bombarded with queries these days (How many MFA programs exist in the US alone???) and the last ting they want is an author they suspect will be calling or emailing five times a day. It doesn’t work like that. Even the most successful authors only call their agents if it’s absolutely necessary (like where to meet for drinks! Ha!). The same for email. Agents contact you with info on a need to know basis. Think of it like this: the time an agent wastes with your insecurities could be better spent by his selling your work to editors who are also slammed these days.

I hope this helps. Agents still play a crucial role in supporting the writer. They sell your books, move your foreign rights, and will negotiate television and movie rights. They remain an integral part of the business, even if you do decide to self publish one day. I haven’t gone that route yet, but I have secured several deals with my new publisher, “unagented.” But that doesn’t mean my agent won’t be shopping that same project for other media opportunities.

Good luck!


Thursday, February 24, 2011

Do You Miss Typewriters?

"Papa at the typewriter in 1940. He once said, 'Travel and writing will broaden your mind, if not your ass.' Which is why he often wrote standing up."



When I first got into this business, it was not uncommon to find writers who still used typewriters on a daily basis. Now, I'm talking 20 years ago. But it's a fact that back then, Jim Crumley, Robert Parker, Norman Mailer, Hunter Thompson, (hell, even Hemingway had he lived into his 80s) were using typewriters, even if they were powered electrically like the famous IBM Selectric.

'Course, all the writers I just mentioned are dead now, and so too it seems, is the typewriter.

I loved that famous picture of Papa seated at a desk in Ketchum, Idaho, looking healthy and burly, shirt sleeves rolled up to the elbows, while he pounded out the manuscript that would become For Whom the Bell Tolls. To me the sound of that machine-gun clatter that only a typewriter can make is music to the soul. Especially the clatter from a manual typewriter. Back then I envisioned myself doing the same thing, typing out my stories and novels in single-extended-index-finger style on an old black Remington portable, not unlike the one Papa is using in the famous photo.

I'm a sucker for old typewriters and whenever I see one in an antique store or junk shop, I usually pick it up. I even wrote the first draft of Moonlight Falls on an old Olympic my wife Laura purchased for me at a garage sale way back when. I still have that typewriter, even though the ribbon is all used up. I do not however, have the wife.

I have another identical Olympic that is in pristine condition, ribbon and all. I also have an old Remington Rand Model No. 5 from the 30s or 40s, a pre-war Remington my grandfather used in Europe to type out his daily reports while fighting Germans in France and Germany. I have a one-hundred year old Remington that I can hardly lift (but it was probably considered the highly portable laptop of its day), and several other models, the names of which escape me now since I keep them down in a room set aside for me in my dad's office building.

Here's a writer who also loves her typewriters the way I do. So much so she did a little research on which writer used which machine. You can get the story here!

Today I use a Dell Vostro 1320 Laptop, which I like a lot. I wrote The Remains, Godchild, and The Innocent on Dell laptops, after having penned them out in hand on blank yellow legal pads. In fact, I've gone through several laptops at this stage of the game, and at 46 and a half, I suspect I'll go through a lot more. I'm thinking maybe a MacAir 13" is in order since I travel so much.

I like laptops precisely because they remind me of the old typewriters, even though they don't have that romantic "ding" that happens every time the carriage reaches its limit, and you have to swing the carriage back in place with your right hand, locking and loading it for the next line. There's nothing like a good machine on which to make words and sentences. What I don't like about laptop computers is they grow slow, burn out, on occasion freeze up, or just shutdown altogether, and your work, some or all of it, is gone for good. Such are the risks of all mod cons.

I wonder, if Papa were alive today, what he would be writing on. Probably a laptop. I doubt he'd use a big desktop computer. They wouldn't be portable enough for a man who liked adventure almost as much as he did making up stories. I wonder how he'd feel about For Whom the Bell Tolls not only becoming an Amazon bestselling Kindle book, and at the same time, far outselling the paper versions.

Almost certainly he'd still be writing his manuscripts out by hand in blank notebooks (cahiers), several penknife-sharpened Ticonderoga No. 2's at the ready. Because even though typing and books have gone electronic and digital, one thing has not changed, nor will it ever change for a writer. And that's the enormous possibilities that exist, when you sit down at your writing desk in the early morning and do the existential stare-down with a blank page.