How to Write a Query Letter for Your Novel

A good friend of mine recently asked me to help him write a query letter for his novel. I did a lot of research and wanted to share my findings with you.

First of all, a query letter must be one page.
I repeat, ONE PAGE. Not two. Not three.

Basically, there should be 3 paragraphs:

1) The hook
2) A mini synopsis
3) A short biography of the author

You must end your query letter by thanking the reader (agent, publisher, etc.) for taking time out of his or her busy day. Then, alert the reader that your manuscript is available upon request. This is important: Don’t query agents or publishers if your novel is unfinished! You absolutely MUST be able to send the entire manuscript the moment you are asked.

But my most important piece of advice to you is to spend a good deal of time researching how to write a query letter. Read books about it. Look at websites. Visit agentquery.com where you can search a database and read actual query letters that resulted in book deals!

Sure, you want to be different than everyone else and catch the reader’s attention, right? But you need to remain in the ballpark, so to speak. Ok, I’ll leave my sports references alone for a minute. How about movie stars? It reminds me of an actress who is about to walk the red carpet to the Academy Awards and wants to wear something really special. Well, let’s all remember it’s a fine line between landing on the Best Dressed and Worst Dressed lists.

My advice? Basically, be Angelina Jolie and wear a slit up to your navel.
Don’t be Björk and wear an entire swan.

(And look for my next blog post where I explain what makes a great ‘hook.’)

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Still…

Looking for inspiration because I’m in so much pain,
and I can’t bear to put pen to paper.
I found this:

“Don’t try to figure out what other people want to hear from you;
figure out what you have to say.
It’s the one and only thing you have to offer.”
-Barbara Kingsolver

Well, ok.

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Quote for a Monday

IMG_0703Writing is something you do alone. It’s a profession for introverts who want to tell you a story but don’t want to make eye contact while doing it.

                                   -John Green

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How do I write with a broken heart?

How do I write with a broken heart,
when all I really want to do is sit and cry
and let this sadness wash over me. Drown me even.
I don’t want to try to be strong.
I don’t want to get on with my life.
I don’t want to send my article to the editor, write a query letter,
I just want to sit and cry.
I can’t think about sports or the environment or any of the other topics I’m supposed to be writing about right now.
I want to cry about how much my heart hurts
and about how I think it will never stop hurting.
I want to write about how I’ve lost faith in humanity,
about how if people can treat me the way they’re treating me, and they’re still allowed to walk the earth…then I don’t believe in the earth anymore.
How am I supposed to write when my heart is broken?
In order to write, I need to use my brain, and my brain just doesn’t want to function at the moment.
It’s mad. It’s saying, “Too many people are walking around not using their brains. I want the day off, too.”
Tonight I don’t want to write.
I just want to sit here and cry.

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Power Writing: Part 1

I’m always interested in finding ways to make my writing more POWERFUL.
Today I read through my notebook and came across this quote:

The adjective is the enemy of the noun. – Voltaire

I remember exploding the first time I read this quote. So true!
Let’s say I’m describing a sneaky, immoral doctor. I could hem and haw and try to get the reader to see what I’m trying to say,
or I could use the perfect noun and get my message across more directly:

Weak: He was a sneaky, immoral doctor.
Strong: He was a charlatan.

Bam. Done. Message conveyed. Time to get on with my story.

So for today’s post, I’m letting Voltaire’s quote inspire me to ‘power write.’
Here are 6 ways to achieve this.

1. Expunge every adjective and adverb from your writing.
Instead, utilize perfect nouns and verbs.

2. Never begin a sentence with “There was.”
Weak: There was a knock at the door.
Strong: A man knocked at the door.

3. When choosing a tense, think: simple.
Weak: He had spoken. He has spoken. He was speaking. He would have liked to have spoken.
Strong: He spoke.

4. Use the active voice.
Weak: She was always brought to tears by the first snow of the season. (Passive)
Strong: She cried during the first snow of the season. (Active)

5. Use positive actions. (Say what happened instead of what didn’t happen.)
Weak: The child did not enjoy going to the museum.
Strong: The child detested going to the museum.

6. Avoid clauses using the –ing construction.
Weak: Removing her mask, she turned to face him.
Strong: She removed her mask and faced him.

7. Do not use clichés. At all. Ever.
(Exception to this rule: You may use a cliché if you change it slightly. This is an attention-grabber.)
Weak: He took the newcomer under his wing.
Strong: He buried the newcomer under his wing.

Write these 7 suggestions on a Post-it note to hang above your desk. Whenever you are editing your writing, use it as a check list to pump up the power!

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Three Words Can Be a Hug

bye humans from rustyLast month, my sixteen-year-old son and I were housesitting for my childhood best friend in Northern California.
Even though she and I had only recently reunited after many years apart, she trusted me enough to let my son and I stay in her home while she, her husband, and two kids were away on vacation.
She was also entrusting me with her cat, Rusty.
One night, Rusty didn’t come home.
My son and I frantically scoured the backyard, front yard, neighborhood…but no Rusty.
The pit in my stomach was a million pounds.
How could I lose her cat?
Now what do I do?Will she stop talking to me? Will I lose her friendship all over again?
I had to call my friend and admit, with my tail between my legs, that I had lost her cat.
I could go on, for pages and pages, about how meaningful this trip was for me,
of how grateful I was for her letting my son and I stay,
allowing me to give him a vacation I couldn’t otherwise afford…
and then I went and lost her cat. The cat her kids LOVED.
In her kitchen, my son stared at me, waiting to see if I would crumble.
I was determined to show him I’ve changed. That I’ve become stronger.
But the damn tears were almost about to spill out.
I sat on the couch. Concentrated on my breathing. Told myself I’m not a failure. Tried to ignore the voice in my head saying, “Yes, you are.”
After a few minutes, my son came over to me and told me to go look at the refrigerator.

“BYE HUMANS – RUST”

My son was acting scared. He said he just noticed this message on the refrigerator.
I stared at the magnets.
My brain knew it wasn’t possible that the cat left us a message.
So, why did I keep staring? Well, the magnets are low enough to the floor…
Finally, I burst out laughing. And the tears I’d been holding back burst forth, as well.
“Oy vey!” I yelled.
My son smiled and said, “I couldn’t find a y.”
I looked at my son. 16.
I longed to hug him, but those days are gone.
This was his hug. His way of saying everything is going to be ok.
Everything.
“You think the cat will come back?” he asked.
I didn’t think so. In fact, I had been brainstorming ways to replace a cat. Secretly.
The voice in my head was still screaming, “You’re a failure.”
Telling me I’d just messed up yet another thing for us.
But instead I said, “Yes. The cat’s just mad that we’re here and his family’s gone. He’ll come back.”
That seemed to ease his mind, and we played Scrabble for the rest of the night.
Lying in bed later, I realized my son probably didn’t care one way or the other about the cat.
He just wanted to know if his mom was going to be ok.
And I am.

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Inspire me, oh poetry!

Sometimes reading poetry is my best inspiration.
Because often a poet desires to say the universe, but with the fewest words possible.
I always think of the six-word poem attributed to Ernest Hemingway.
(It’s often referred to as a six-word novel.)

For Sale: Baby shoes, never worn

Wow, right?

But for today, I want to share a poem with you that I stumbled upon in the library one day, early last year, when I was looking through the literary magazine, Poetry (January 2013).

I don’t buy it, says
the scientist.
Replies the frail
and faithful heart,
it’s not for sale.

Seventeen exquisite words by Wendy Videlock. Seventeen words that made me say, “Yes, that’s right! That’s how I feel.” That’s what good writing is supposed to do.
I was overcome by how much she was able to communicate with so few words.
I immediately wrote them down in my notebook so I’d always remember.
I reread them often and hope someday I can write like this.

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Writer’s Block

I don’t feel so much like I have ‘writer’s block.’
I have so many things I want to write about. Ideas aren’t the problem.
The problem is that I can’t get myself to sit down and focus.
There are a million things standing in my way.
The dog needs to be walked,
I saw a scary-ass bug in the bathroom today and really need to spray my apartment with something that won’t make me grow a third arm,
my significant other is telling me, ‘we need to talk,’
I find out today that the lightning pain in my tooth won’t go away unless I get a ROOT CANAL,
(I keep putting ROOT CANAL in all caps whenever I text someone about it),
And then Obama decides to start bombing something called ISIS which sounds eerily like an operating system.
So I don’t think I have WRITER’S BLOCK as much as I’m facing a WRITER’S BLOCKADE.
I want to write.
I need to write.
If the world would just stop falling apart for a second, maybe I could get some shit accomplished.
To combat WRITER’S BLOCKADE, I took a quick look through my #freelance writer’s notebook (hashtags make me crazy) to find some tips I’ve learned over the years to combat WRITER’S BLOCKADE.

Here are my notes:
1) Get in the habit of writing down your brainstorming sessions.
This is a great reason to have a #freelance writing notebook. I will go through the day and often be inspired by the strangest things. If I don’t write them down, these inspirations disappear into the ether forever. But on a night like tonight, when I can’t think straight because my tooth is killing me, my idea to blog about a road trip seems magical.
2) Hone your observational skills.
Take time every week to go out into the world and write descriptive observations of what you see, smell, hear, taste and touch. I’ve also found it helpful to take pictures with my phone and write about it later.
3) Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
Practice writing in the style of your favorite author. I need to do this more. One of my favorite essayists is Joel Stein, who has a column in Time. I think he is one of the most talented essayists around today. I carry around his column on tough days when I need to ensure a smile. I’m not kidding. In fact, I recently brought his column to Divorce Court not long ago…
4) Have more than one egg in your basket.
Don’t work on one project at a time. If you’re writing a novel, also be working on a magazine article and a poem. This is helpful because when you just can’t get the characters of your novel to cooperate and do what you want, you can take a break and write an article about the evils of gluten.

Those are the best pieces of advice I could find in my notebook. Can you add to this list?

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6 Reasons Why I’ll Never Get Published

I’ve been really thinking about it, and there are six big reasons why I’m afraid I’ll never get a personal essay published.
1. I’m too private a person.
In conversation, I’m always the listener. Maybe because I’ve always been surrounded by talkers. They’ve lectured, hypothesized, aggrandized, psychoanalyzed, theorized, argued, asserted, claimed, informed, insisted, proclaimed, professed, and promulgated. I’ve always been a loyal set of ears.
2. I avoid being serious.
I’ve suffered from deep depression for thirty years and am finally feeling like I’ve escaped its clutches, so I’m hesitant to write anything heavy. I’m afraid if I let myself ‘go there,’ I’ll succumb to depression’s power and be trapped in the dark place again.
3. I’m not political enough.
This is weird because as a kid, I was always being called a commie-pinko by my teachers and classmates. But now, I don’t feel I have a handle on what’s going on in the world enough to comment on it. Plus, it’s depressing. (See #2)
4. I’m not funny enough.
Oh, I’m funny. But I’m funny in the way that bad things keeps happening to me. I don’t really know how to write comedy. I mean, my Chihuahuas are way funnier than I am. They know a good joke opportunity when they see it. Like, when I take them for walks and they get all tangled up in each other’s leashes and then wind up peeing on each other. They obviously enjoy making me scream because they perform this joke regularly.
5. I’ve never had a personal essay published before.
Well, that’s not true. As a teen in the 80’s, I wrote about how black and white movies shouldn’t be colorized, and it was published in Newsday. HA! That was what my luddite-self was obsessed with back then. Boy, things have come a long way since…
6. I don’t use big words or spicy metaphors.
But I like big words. Especially ones that sound like what they mean.
Like curmudgeon. I would love to write a story someday about a curmudgeon. It’s the old man who lives alone and hates the neighborhood kids who throw rocks at his windows, right? But instead, I think I’ll write about an old woman who goes around telling teenage girls that they’re dressed like dimestore floozies. My grandmother used to always say that. And that’s a good one, too. Floozy. Sounds like what it means.

So, should I give up on trying to get a personal essay published? I’m afraid I’m just not hip enough to get anyone’s attention. I mean, I’m too old to leak nude photos of myself, but I’m too young to be appreciated for just being me. What’s a girl…ok, woman…to do?

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RIP Joan Rivers

Today I’m thinking about Joan Rivers.
I’m thinking back to the 1980’s when I’d watch her on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson.
I loved the shocking things she’d say.
“Elizabeth Taylor has more chins than a Chinese telephone directory.”
What I loved most, I think, was the reactions of the people around her. They would laugh…uncomfortably. Like she was telling the truth, but that maybe she shouldn’t be saying it.
I liked that a lot.
And isn’t that what writing is all about?
It’s not really worth much to keep repeating what’s already been said, especially if everyone agrees on it.
I remember a time when she and Johnny Carson were discussing relationships. Carson was trying to argue that men aren’t shallow. He said they don’t only like women for their bodies. They appreciate a woman’s intelligence, too.
Joan disagreed.
“No man has ever put his hand up a woman’s dress looking for a library card,” she replied.
She had a way with words and inspired me to write my truth.
I will miss her.

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