How to Write the Killer Query

Query-letterDoes the thought of finding an agent or publisher give you vapors? If so, you are in good company. Query letters are among the most important documents an author writes. Whether you are a full-time freelancer or a wannabe one-time writer hoping for publication of a memoir, your future hangs on that one page. It can make or break your chances of seeing your words between commercially printed covers.

Writing great query letters is a special art form, and not one that we learn in any classes in school. Some people complete their MFA in writing without learning this crucial skill. So what’s a person to do?

The traditional way to learn is to find a good book. You may find something in your library, but this is an important topic, and it’s worth having something on hand to refer to whenever you need it.

I must include a disclaimer here. Since I had any clue at all about how to write, I’ve only written one query letter and received an acceptance within half an hour of sending the email. That was to a local newspaper and I included the story cold, so it wasn’t a true query letter. Both my traditionally published books were pitched in a face-to-face meeting, without so much as a proposal. Remember the old saying, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know”? That does help. Because I’m always as busy as I want to be without tracking down additional writing assignments, I don’t write query letters, so I can only offer suggestions.

What I suggest, besides scanning the titles on Amazon, is to surf over to  visit Query Shark. That site has an amazing collection of query letters that have been critiqued by Janet Reid, an agent with the FinePrint Literary Management Agency.

Janet suggests that you read all the posts and learn from them. Now that there are more than 200, perhaps the most recent hundred will do. Then, if you wish, you may submit your query letter in hopes of having it anonymously critiqued. There are explicit instructions on how to accomplish this and increase the (slim) odds yours will be chosen. She focuses on fiction, but her Q&A page says she occasionally runs examples from other genres (like memoir).

A couple of paragraphs way down one page on the AgentQuery site advises you that memoirs are marketed like fiction, so Janet’s models should give you terrific guidance.

Miss Snark, the literary agent seconds AgentQuery’s advice that the memoir must be finished and polished before querying. She adds further that “You get one shot on this. Don't **** it up by querying before your ms is ready.” Check out other topics on her site. She retired after two years, but her helpful posts remain, and her blog writing format differs from QueryShark’s.

On her PubAgent blog, Agent Kristin advises that “Writing a memoir is not therapy.” Focus on the artistic merits of your work, not the fact that writing it changed your life. Art sells, therapy doesn’t.

Lynn Griffin has uplifting news in her “Easy-Peasy Query Letter” post on The Writers’ Group blog. “Writing a query letter for fiction or memoir should take no more than 15-20 minutes tops. Assuming, of course, you've been researching agents while writing your book.”

Research. Aw, yes. All agents want to read queries they way they ask for them to be written.  Read and study their sites. Know what they handle, how they want to be approached, and anything else they tell you. Then write away. Your odds will be much higher if you study this subject before you start collecting those infamous rejection slips. Perhaps you’ll win the submissions lottery on your first submission.

Write now: read a couple of AgentQuery’s columns, then practice writing a query letter for your story or memoir. Who knows? You might find someone to send it to, now or later.


You’re Never Too Old for Stars

StarChartSometimes I’m as surprised as anyone when I hear the words that come out of my mouth. That was the case recently when I suggested to 85-year-old Jack that I was going to make  him a star chart to reward him for sticking to his determination to write at least fifteen minutes each day on his memoir project.

“A star chart? What on earth is a star chart? I’m not into astrology!” he quickly informed me.

“Don’t worry, it’s nothing like that. It’s a tool that parents and teachers use with kids to get them to do things like making their beds or turning their homework in on time. It’s a kind of game. You’ll get a star each day you write. You already have five. I’m going to send you your stars as soon as we hang up.”

He was a little dubious, but he liked getting the email with the stars. I send him a new one every week or so with an update. He hasn’t missed a day of writing in 47 days now. Some days he writes for the minimum fifteen minutes, other days he might write for as long as two hours. Usually it’s closer to half an hour.

“I’ve got to tell you, I was skeptical when you told me about that star chart thing, but I’m surprised how much I like getting those stars. It’s kind of like having perfect attendance at Rotary for the last fifty-two years. When I start something like that, I don’t give up easily!” he told me a few weeks later, grinning like a little kid.

Especially considering that he had started working on this project half a dozen abortive times over several years before we met, this is phenomenal progress, and he’s eager for the world to know how powerful star charts are.

Jack’s progress got me excited. I’m going to make one for writing blog posts – an undertaking that has become too easy to put off in the crush of other activities.

I like to make them in Word, starting with a basic table like the one you see above. You can use the Draw toolbar to make a basic star shape, then copy and paste that into a cell each time you earn a star. You can award stars for completing tasks on specific days, or you can accrue them for results apart from time. For example, Jack gets them for any amount of writing, but there has to be at least fifteen minutes each day. He only gets one star whether he writes for fifteen minutes or two hours, and he gets no star if he doesn’t write.

Another way to do it would be one star for each fifteen minutes or one star for each page, or … you get the idea.

Jack proved that you are never too old to benefit from a star chart. How about you? You are the star of your story. Would a star chart help you get it written?

Write now: think of a writing project – or something else if you prefer – that might move along more smoothly if you had a place to give yourself stars for your efforts. Make a chart, on the computer or a plain sheet of paper. If it’s real paper, you can glue on old-fashioned stars, or draw them with a marker. Decide on the conditions for awarding your stars, then, however you do it, give a try.

The Tip of the Iceberg


The material that makes it into a finished memoir is like the tip of the iceberg, representing only 10% to 20% of the relevant material. Deciding what to include and what to omit is a major challenge for anyone aspiring to write memoir.

Many factors go into this decision. Three of the most important are retaining focus on the primary story, controlling length, and respecting personal privacy of self and others in the story. My purpose here is not to explore these factors, but to share my experience reading a memoir that disappointed me by leaving too much ice under the water, resulting in a flat, confusing berg of a book that probably won’t get much notice.

I won’t identify the book, and say only that it was about the disintegration of a marriage and the author’s eventual realization that although she couldn’t fix the marriage, she could and would fix herself. Bravo!  I hope that writing the memoir was a big step along that path.

The disappointment springs from the fact that the author stayed so intensely focused on the month or six weeks during which the marriage ground to its ultimate conclusion that she failed to include background information that would put these weeks of personal agony into context. I know the couple had moved to a new state a year or so earlier, but nothing about their life together prior to the move, and little about it in the new location prior to these climatic weeks. She fleetingly mentions that she used to have a good job, but I had no idea what that was.

She mentions money in an account that belonged to her that she’d promised to give her husband – or something like that. His mother knew the whole story, but he didn’t, and readers know only that there is a mystery. She never says what it is or how it happens that there is still money belonging to her in an account he purportedly had drained.

More mysteries arise in the concluding chapters when she infers that he had left her a few times before, but again, no details are given.

Then there is the matter of sex. Now I’m one of the last people to suggest that sex is a necessary component  of a memoir, and I’ll be the first to blush if you include details. But when a couple is slipping into bed together the first night of a reconciliation and she seems thrilled at the fact he’s simply lying there beside her drifting off to sleep with her hand on his shoulder … a key element is missing. I don’t know if this is normal and a reason they remain childless, or perhaps she’s omitting  a key detail, or … Shucks, if nothing happened, let us know that much. There was just no contact at all beyond a couple of pecks and sterile hugs.

These are not the only loose ends, but they are the major ones. I have no idea why so much was left out, but I felt teased and led on. I wanted her to go back and finish the book. It was quite short as it was, barely over 200 very small pages – maybe 33,000 words. It could have been half again as long without seeming wordy.

It’s not possible to write a story that doesn’t leave a certain number of unexplored side paths, but a well-crafted one gives enough of a view up those paths to round out the main story without distracting side trips.

One of the roles I play for my coaching clients is pointing out where they have holes in their stories and loose ends such as this one had. Editors should be able to do the same. But you don’t need to rely on paid professionals. When you think your story is finished, as good as you can make it, you should have two or more trusted people read it to find structural inconsistencies, loose ends and holes in the story.

Family members may be great for proof reading, but the best hole finders are people who don’t know the history you are writing about. People in your reading group will be great helps, but I’d suggest calling in a couple of people who know are completely new to the manuscript. Listen to their input, then make your own decisions about what to do.

These extra eyes will make sure the important ice is on the top of your berg, your readers will feel satisfied, and your book will receive the notice it deserves.

Write now: make a list of people you could call on as beta readers when you have a finished manuscript. If you aren’t close to that stage, let the list be an incentive and keep scanning for willing and able readers in the meantime..

Photo credit:  Liam Quinn

Digging Deep—Interview With Boyd Lemon, Pt. 1

DiggingDeepCoverBoyd Lemon is the author of the recently published memoir, Digging Deep. His memoir is unusual in many respects: the depth and candor of the material, his organizing structure and his decision to self-publish and promote it like crazy. In this post Boyd answers questions about his general writing process.

SL: Early in the book you mention that you’d been writing short fiction and decided to write about your marriages. What gave you that idea?

BL: My young writing mentor, whom I call Kate in the book, suggested it. I yearned to write a novel, after having written about 15 short stories, and when I mentioned it to her, she told me she thought I wasn’t ready yet to write a novel and suggested that I write a memoir about my three marriages. “There’s gold there,” she said. After thinking about it, I decided she was right.

SL: When did your idea of writing about your marriages evolve into a commitment to publish a memoir?

BL: After I finished the third draft, I thought about publishing it. I sent it to a beta reader who was a best-selling author. He read it and told me I should publish it. That encouraged me, and I hired a professional editor, who came up with the idea of putting the material about my writing the memoir in the present tense to make it less confusing. I did and thought that made a world of difference. At that point, I decided to publish it, although it went through several more drafts after that.

SL: Your editor was inspired. I especially admired the way you alternate present tense reflections and an ongoing account of your writing experience with memory flashbacks. Many readers may find inspiration in this structure. Did you give yourself a deadline for finishing the project?

BL: Not a time deadline, but I gave myself a limit on the number of drafts, because I am the type of person who could go on making revisions forever. My arbitrary limit was 10 drafts, which I never reached, surprisingly. I decided it was finished after seven drafts, except for correcting typographical and grammatical errors.

SL: You’ve mentioned that you are working on a second memoir. Will it be structured the same way as Digging Deep?

BL: I don’t think so, although I haven’t settled on a structure yet. So far I have just been writing whatever comes into my head, and I’m only about half way through the first draft as best I can tell, but don’t think the present tense looking back to the past will fit this one.

SL: What is your uber-agenda as you write your second book?

BL:  It is about retirement, how I planned it, what issues I faced, what went right, what went wrong, what surprised me and how it changed me as a human being. I hope to finish the first draft by the end of October, complete the book by next summer and go on a cross country tour promoting both books next summer. However, if it doesn’t work out, I am not going to rush the second book. I’ll just go on tour with Digging Deep.

SL: What advice do you have for memoir writers?

BL: I think a lot of memoir writers have difficulty finishing their memoirs, probably because many memoirs are emotionally wrenching combined with fear of what others will think. However, I think that most of us who have finished a memoir have found them healing in the end. So I encourage memoir writers to keep at it and finish. Whether you publish it is another issue, but you don’t have to decide that before you finish it. The other advice I have is, above all, be honest. If you try to sugarcoat it, your readers will know.

Part Two of this interview is published on my sister blog, Writing for the Health of It. Click here to read Boyd’s answers to questions about the writing process as it relates to his ex-wives and children.

Readers can order print copies of Digging Deep from Amazon, any form of eBook from Smashwords, or you can order directly from Boyd’s website.