I have been doing a lot of writing and rewriting of late. I have a handful of stories that are close to being ready to send out, but just aren’t polished up enough yet. But I am ready for the next step: the ever dreaded query.
Which means I get to labor just as long on the letter, if not longer, than I did on my picture book story and my fate lies not in my story but these few words I put upon the page. And then I get rejected, over and over, and I start to flash back to high school and not being one of the cool kids and holing up in the library with books because they will never reject me and…..
Okay, we will stop reliving the past and focus on the future.
If you are getting rejected, why might that be? To be honest, it is not any one thing, but a culmination of multiple factors.
- Marketability. This is a business after all. They need to be able to sell your book in quantity. Those quantities differ between different size publishers, so who can market your book makes a difference. Perhaps your book should be with a smaller press that can get behind your story.
- Saturation. It may be a great story, but there are already too many similar ones in the market. Or the agent or editor has already has one similar in the works and they don’t want to compete against themselves.
- Off Day. Agents and Editors pour through hundreds, if not thousands, of stories every week. Monday-Thursday, they would have checked out your story, but they read it on Friday and Friday was a bad day for them.
- Your Query letter is off. Maybe your opening isn’t polished enough. Maybe your pitch fell flat. Maybe you need better comp titles. Maybe your bio doesn’t make a connection.
We know you can’t control 1-3, though you can familiarize yourself enough to understand 1 &2.
So let’s look at what you can control.
When it comes to writing a query, I like the acronym K.I.S.S. Keep It Short & Simple. Think of it like speed dating. You have just a moment to catch someone’s eye.
Whether it is an agent or editor, make a connection. Keep it simple & short. My name is…. How do I know you…. How does this story fit your needs.
Example: My name is Matthew Lasley and we met at the SCBWI Spring Retreat in Alaska. I enjoyed your candor when you spoke about the future of the industry. I believe my story BLAH BLAH BLAH will fit into the super hero line of books you represent at These Guys Make Book.
You have made the connection, now you have to make the sale. Pitch your book. This is hard and is often the area where many of us (—> ME) fails. It is not always because it is written poorly, it may be we do not use our voice, or the character’s voice, or we put the wrong stuff in. Sometimes, we try to be clever…..remember K.I.S.S.
To understand what I mean, let’s look at three examples:
- In this 517 word picture book, Super Sam, despite his incredible strength, doesn’t know how to tie his shoes. His trusty sidekick, a tennis ball, has no hands and can not help him to tie his shoes. When he tries to leap tall buildings, he trips and the villain gets away. What is Super Sam to do?
- Super Sam has incredible strength and loves to save the day. But when his shoelaces come untied and he stumbles about, things go from bad to worse. This story is written like Scaredy Squirrel with the humor and pacing of Captain Underpants.
- Super Sam is super. He is super strong, super smart and super worried because he doesn’t know how to tie his shoes. Too embarrassed to ask for help, his day goes from bad to worse when he trips over his laces and lets the villain get away.
In the first example, we see two big problems. First, details about the book’s format are not necessary. That comes in the next part of your letter. Here, you want to keep it simple and short. This is where the agent or editor decides if they are going to continue reading. This is your idea, let it take the front seat. The second issue (and some will disagree, but it is my pet peeve) don’t end with a question. The only questions that belong are rhetorical, and those should be used sparingly to simply show writing style or establish voice. Let them come up with questions that they want answered. Let them feel involved.
Example 2, while short and sweet, is soulless. There is no voice or character. It is simply a plot. Also, comp titles do not belong here. This is another part of the story format. And if you are going to use comp titles, make sure they are from the right genre.
In Example 3, (while not the greatest…it is only an example) shows the writing style as being short and simple lines. There is a connection made with the character through empathy. Despite how super Super Sam is, he struggles and fails. I can see there is going to be a lesson in this story, so it does not need to be stated, or else it would appear to be didactic. This will lead the agent or editor to ask, how is Super Sam going to solve this problem? What growth are we going to see? How can I connect this to a child? Is there a big enough connection to market the book?
When you write your query, think about how it is going to be marketed. Who is going to read this book? Who is going to buy this book? They are not always the same.
The next part of the query letter is the dirty, technical stuff. This is where you give details about book format, word count, and comp titles. You might even tell who you see the market for your book. Sometimes there might be an unknown or untapped market the agent or editor never realized.
When I wrote my book, Pedro’s Pan, I shared about the local tourist market as well as the diverse readership that may be found in other regions. Looking back, I totally missed the broader educational market and readership.
The final part of your query letter, the closing; your bio. Who are you? What makes you qualified to tell this story? What accolades or connections to the writing community do you have that shows you know what you are doing?
Who are you and why are you qualified to tell this story? Tell them a little about you. Make it personal.
If you have gotten an agent or editor this far, you want to close strong. Your pitch and connection may have gotten them to consider you. The technicals may have made them consider the market. This last part may be the tipping point of which pile your story goes into.
Example: I live in Anchorage, Alaska where I teach first grade. Even as a kid, I wanted to be a writer, but no matter how good of a storyteller I thought I was, my dyslexia was a constant reminder that I struggled to read and write. I want to to tell stories that empower kids to overcome their struggles. I am a member of SCBWI and published my debut book, Pedro’s Pan, in 2019.
Keep it simple. You don’t need to talk about your kids, your pets, your job, your favorite color, or where you went to school….unless they are directly linked to why you are qualified to tell this story. Note that I shared my struggles with dyslexia as my link to telling this story.
If you so not have writing accolades or awards, don’t worry, the publisher and agent won’t really care if you have shown in this letter that you know what you are doing. Those are icing on the cake. But don’t over do it or embellish, they will know and it will stick to the top of their mouth like day old grocery store frosting.
Listing writing organizations that you are a part of shows that you are not just some Joe Shmoe at home who say his cat do a really funny thing and thinks that should be a story. These organizations are a link to your professionalism.
So the next time you get a batch of rejections, think about how you might tweak your story or your query letter. Remember, the editor/agent pond may be finite, but there are always new fish in the pond.
Wipe away the tears, eat a pint of ice cream (or a piece of good fruit) and do it all over again. And never stop believing that your story will find a home.