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Beware of the Weary Query: Not a Nancy Drew Mystery

by Hope Rayman

A tale of a query gone wrong.
Yes, it's true! I wrote on spec. I came up with a great idea and I wrote the entire article without anybody asking for it. Stupid, stupid, STUPID! I knew it was wrong, but it felt so good. I had to cover my tracks. I dashed off a query letter as if I was just proposing to write the piece. Never mind that I couldn't find the submission information in any of my trusty resources. I winged it. I found some information on the Internet. You know how reliable that is, don't you? A week later I felt a gnawing in my gut. I finally located a number to call and was devastated to find out that I had sent my precious letter to the wrong editor. Instant rejection. I rebounded. I sent a cover letter with a copy of my misdirected query and tried to jokingly salvage my pride and my opportunity. No dice. No response. Many weeks later I tried a new and improved query and referenced my old one, hoping all these errors were relationship-building.

I guess it's time to lick my wounds, learn my lesson, and do the right thing next time. Don't let this happen to you!

We all share the same primal urge to write something brilliant and then just submit it, hoping some editor is waiting for that topic to surface on his/her desk. Unfortunately, publishing doesn't work that way, in part because hundreds of us are submitting things willy nilly, creating the biggest slush pile this side of the Mississippi. Also, editors might want some input in the direction you take your piece. A successful writing career requires good marketing strategy, diligent research, an arsenal of skills, and an intense love of writing.

What's the difference between a query letter and a cover letter? Author and instructor Alexis O'Neill uses an overhead projector to aptly demonstrate the difference. She pretends to shake her own hand casting a silhouette of a handshake. That's a cover letter. Meaning, "Hi, here's my manuscript." Then she traces a question mark. Meaning, "Hi, would you be interested...?" That's a query letter. Great, now you know the difference. HOW THE HECK DO YOU WRITE A LIVELY ONE, NOT A WEARY ONE?

Hmm. What do I feel like writing about?
First scope out what you want to write about. What are you an expert at? What are your passions? You've heard this before, but write about what you know. Tapping into a niche market is always a smart start for a beginner. Don't forget to factor in the interests of the age group you're writing for. Teens probably aren't dying to know about the Social Security Administration.

Remember that there are many alternatives to features if you're trying to break in. You can propose games, recipes, timelines, sidebars, activities, etc.

Take aim and...
Pull out your latest rumpled copy of CHILDREN'S WRITER'S & ILLUSTRATOR’S MARKET and peruse your opportunities. Check to see if multiple submissions are accepted, then send away for the guidelines you're interested in. Study each publication thoroughly. What does the cover communicate? Does the table of contents or the information page give you any clues? Analyze the articles, illustrations, photos, as well as the advertisements to get a sense of the targeted readers. Investigate a minimum of six back issues to get a feel for the needs of the publication. You want to be sure to send the right idea to the right place. Do integrate the tone of the publication with your own voice in your query letter. Don't neglect to obtain updated information. A quick call to confirm the correct editor to submit to and if he/she is still accepting queries would be wise. Take it from one who has learned the hard way!

Hook line and sinker.
Your first paragraph should hook the editor. Clearly and briefly state your idea. Picture book writers take heart. You're well practiced at being succinct! Include the title if it serves the query. My Day as a Middle-Aged Woman might be risky for Seventeen magazine.

The good news is that the lead paragraph can often be used in your article. Begin with a startling statistic or an amusing anecdote to capture interest in the first paragraph. Make it shine.

The middle.
The second paragraph needs to include the angle which will make your piece different. Find a way to imply why it would be right for its readers. List resources you plan to use and interviews you will conduct. Do interject examples to support your pitch. Don't overdo it. The letter should be no longer than one page.

In the third paragraph you can state a few of your writing credits if relevant to the submission. Instructor, producer, and author Pat Broeske suggests stating that you're currently on assignment if you truly are. It would also be appropriate to include that you won the National Horticulture Green Giant Genius of the Year Award if your piece is on gardening. You can mention that you're a member of SCBWI as well. It's fine to skip this section if you haven't acquired credits yet.

And they lived happily ever after.
It's time to close the deal. Thank the editor for his or her time and state that you are including a SASE (self addressed stamped envelope) for reply. Also, note if you are enclosing clips (a maximum of three samples of your published work). Do make sure that you put on adequate postage for return of all your materials. Despite your best efforts, sometimes things aren't returned. Never send original clips.

Ready, set, post!
Proofread your letter and correct all grammatical and spelling errors before the mailperson comes. Editors are looking for low maintenance writers. Be that writer. Do follow up with a postcard or brief letter if you haven't received a response in the amount of time they listed.

It's a question of class.
Can you benefit from a query writing class? This writer says an emphatic yes. It provides you with comprehensive information that you can't get from an article, a book, or good genes. Also, the handouts can be great. A course in query writing is a wonderful opportunity to build confidence and skills. Writing good queries takes practice. Classes can be inspirational and supportive. Call around for catalogs and keep a sharp eye out. Query classes are infrequent and fill up quickly.

Good luck.
Persistence, faith, and luck are your new friends. Be weary no more and may all your queries be answered.

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