Monday, January 19, 2009

Querying the Query Letter Lady

Today's Make It Happen Mama is Wendy Burt-Thomas. She is a full-time freelance writer, editor and copywriter with more than 1,000 published pieces. Her third book, "The Writer's Digest Guide to Query Letters" hit stores December 2008.

1. Can you tell us about your book?

The book was a great fit for me because I'd been teaching "Breaking Into Freelance Writing" for about eight years. In the workshop, I covered a lot of what is in this book: writing query letters to get articles in magazines, to land an agent, or to get a book deal with a publisher. Since I'm a full-time freelance magazine writer and editor with two previous books, this was incredibly fun to write because it didn't require tons of research. I was lucky enough to receive lots of great sample query letters from writers and authors that I use as "good" examples in the book. I wrote all the "bad" examples myself because I didn't dare ask for contributions that I knew I'd be ripping apart!

In addition to the ins and outs of what makes a good query, the book covers things like why (or why not) to get an agent, where to find one and how to choose one; writing a synopsis or proposal; selling different rights to your work; other forms of correspondence; and what editors and agents look for in new writers.

It was really important to me that the book not be a dry, boring reference book, but rather an entertaining read (while still being chock full of information). I was thrilled that Writer's Digest let me keep all the humor.

2. Why are query letters so important?

Breaking into the publishing world is hard enough right now. Unless you have a serious "in" of some kind, you really need a great query letter to impress an agent or acquisitions editor. Essentially, your query letter is your first impression. If they like your idea (and voice and writing style and background), they'll either request a proposal, sample chapters, or the entire manuscript. If they don't like your query letter, you've got to pitch it to another agency/publisher. Unlike a manuscript, which can be edited or reworked if an editor thinks it has promise, you only get one shot with your query. If it's not fabulous, don't send it until it is.

3. You're also a magazine editor. What is your biggest gripe regarding queries?

Queries that show that the writer obviously hasn't read our publication. I'll admit that I did this when I was a new writer too – submitted blindly to any publication whose name sounded even remotely related to my topic.

4. There's an entire chapter in the book about agents. Do you think all new writers should get agents?

Probably 99% of new writers should get an agent. There are lots of reasons, but my top three are: 1) Many of the larger publishing houses won't even look at unagented submissions now; 2) Agents can negotiate better rights and more money on your behalf; 3) Agents know the industry trends, changes and staff better than you ever could.

5. You've been a mentor, coach, or editor for many writers. What do you think is the most common reason that good writers don't get published?

Poor marketing skills. I see so many writers that are either too afraid, too uniformed, or frankly, too lazy to market their work. They think their job is done when the write "the end" but writing is only half of the process. I've always told people who took my class that there are tons of great writers in the world who will never get published. I'd rather be a good writer who eats lobster than a great writer who eats hot dogs.

6. What must-read books do you recommend to new writers?

Christina Katz (author of "Writer Mama") has a new book out called "Get Known Before the Book Deal" - which is fabulous. Also, Stephen King's "On Writing" and David Morrell's "Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing." Anything by Anne Lamott or my Dad, Steve Burt.

7. What did you enjoy most about writing this book?

Writing the "bad" query letters. I've read – and written! – so many horrible ones over the years that it was a little too easy to craft them. But misery loves company and we ALL love to read really bad query letters, right?

To learn more about Wendy or her three books, visit www.GuideToQueryLetters.com. If you have a writing-related question, you can post it below.

4 comments:

San Diego Momma said...

GREAT information. I've attended any number of writing conferences, but it's nice to hear this information so succinctly expressed Good interview, Sugar!

San Diego Momma said...

P.S. Looks like I need an editor. Good God.

Christie-A Work In Progress said...

This was very timely for me as I am in query writing HELL! Thanks for sharing!

Jen said...

I surely want to be a "lobster" eating writer!! Good point that once a book is finished, it still needs to be marketed. I better start talking to Oprah now :)