Proposals: Query Letters and Bios

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Thanks to bensound.com for the intro and outro music!

ASK THE AUTHOR: From James Earls via Facebook: For the Christian writer: how much is too much, when it comes to love scenes, and is language ever permitted in your work with characters who aren’t believers – how far is too far? Do you show unbelievers as they are before conversion or transformation or is that just plain risky and could deter publishers?

AARON: Ah, the age-old question. While this question is specifically geared toward Christian Fiction, I think we have to ask the same thing of any publisher. Even in the secular market, you’ll find a wide variety of what publishers like (and don’t like). One of the best things to do is read books by the potential publishers you’re interested in. Your agent (if you have one) can give you some good guidance here. They’ll know a little more specifically. I say write conservatively. If you end up overstepping a bit, your editor can reign you in. But if you overwrite to the point of gratuity, you may end up costing yourself a contract from a conservative publisher. Best thing to do is ask. If you’re not under contract, I’d let your conscience be your guide. Do you feel guilty writing it? You may want to dial it back a bit. I know this is a somewhat vague response, but it’s hard to give specifics in the time we have. Also, the answer will vary from publisher to publisher.

AL: Oh, the stories I could tell. This is a hot topic in my world. Writers in the CBA (Christian Booksellers Association) wrestle with this all the time. Opinions run deep. In the ABA (the mainline booksellers and publishers) it’s not an issue. They are different worlds. The answer rests in knowing your audience. Those who buy Christian books are looking for a safe read, one without cursing and graphic sex. The reader knows all that goes on in the world, but they choose not to read it. In a discussion of this at an author’s meeting with a major publisher someone said such things should be included because it exists in the real world. I commented, “I know there are cockroaches in the real world but I don’t want to see one on my plate.” It’s not about being puritanical. It’s about understanding your audience. Many Christian read secular/mainline books.

There’s another consideration that is often overlooked. Sometimes offended readers will return a book to the bookstore, unload on the clerk, then walk away. That book is returned to the publisher and that costs the publisher a lot of money.

Bottom line: know your audience. For the CBA author, avoid gratuitous sex, language and violence. That is not to say you can’t have any, but you should be more creative. My books always have violence. Wounds has a lot of violence in it.

MOLLY: Great question, James. As the newbie writer on this block, I asked this more than a few times. Especially writing the dark culture of New Orleans, I wanted to add as much as I could, but also be aware of my audience’s comfort level. I think the question you need to ask yourself is not “Am I a Christian writer?” but “Is my book Christian fiction?” I relate this to the older James Bond movies. You knew when he closed the bedroom door what was going to happen, we didn’t have to see it. You can do the same with your writing. Set up the scene, lead the reader to the door, let them take it from there. When language is involved, you needn’t spell it out. Hint at it. “She winced and uttered an expletive.” Or “He grumbled profanities.” You can still show without telling, and show quite a lot without showing it all. I also think this would draw a larger readership, because not everyone curses the same, explodes the same violently, etc. By leaving a bit to the imagination, your reader can put a bit of themselves into the story, which is, I think, our ultimate goal as writers.

Firsts in Fiction

Proposals: Query Letters and Bios

Over the next few weeks, we’re going to be talking about writing things that will get your writing published. Specifically, proposals and the like. This is a completely different kind of writing, but let’s face it, we’re writers. Words are what we do. Still, it can be a challenge. Here are some tips to help you maximize your chances of being picked up for publication.

QUERY LETTERS: A query letter, simply put, is a one-page letter to an editor or agent designed to get them interested and excited about your project. Usually, this gives you about 300 words to play with.

WHAT A QUERY LETTER IS NOT: It is not a proposal. It is a short “sales sheet” of your project. Say it clear and say it quick. If the agent or editor likes the letter, then they will ask for the proposal.

Here are some tips for writing a fantastic query letter:

 

  • AL: Remember, the query letter needs to be some of your best writing. It is your sales tool.

 

  • Every query letter should have two things:
    • Something about your project
    • Something about you
    • And it all needs to fit in a short letter.
    • The purpose of the letter is to open the door to the agent (or editor). Your proposal will answer the questions.
  • ONE WAY TO DO IT:
    • PART THE FIRST: THE HOOK (The success of your letter depends on this.)
      • Begin with your hook. This will be your elevator pitch. Short and to the point. Get to the meat, to the heart, and give them a taste of the central conflict of the novel. Some examples:
        • “Imagine you’ve been asked to complete an autobiography started by your murdered estranged son. Now imagine that you might be the next one dead.” (Who is Harrison Sawyer?)
        • Oliver’s always been too smart for his own good, but even he can’t figure out how he and his friends ended up inside a video game.
        • The hook should:
          • Sizzle (“sell the sizzle not the steak”).
          • Be as unforgettable as possible.
          • Set the tone.
          • Haunt the recipient.
      • IF YOU HAVE A PERSONAL CONNECTION TO THE AGENT:
        • Be sure to mention it.
        • Greet them by name.
        • Remind them how they know you. “Mr. Gansky, as you may recall, we had the pleasure of meeting at the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writer’s Conference, where we spoke of my book, The Example Novel.”
        • If a writer friend has agreed to mention you to his/her agent, be sure to include that. “You client, Ace Prose, mentioned my work to you.”
    • PART THE SECOND: THE SUMMARY
      • Keep it short, but thorough. We don’t need all the details, but we’ll need all the main characters. Think of the plot line: What’s the dramatic set up? How is it resolved? There’s an art to writing a good summary. Read some good examples (back copy on Amazon for some of your favorite books). Try a few different versions. See what works the best.
        • Spend some time on this. Since the hook is only about a paragraph long, you can write a half dozen of them and see which one stands out.
        • Read it aloud. Pretend you’re voicing a movie trailer.
        • Let a trusted few read it and see if it intrigues them.
    • PART THE THIRD: THE BIO
      • INCLUDE PERSONAL INFORMATION: Don’t be afraid to include where you live, what you do for a living, and what makes you a good choice to write this particular novel (i.e., you’re a NASA scientist and you’re writing about space travel. Or you’re a teacher at a private school and you’re writing about a murder in a private school, etc.).
        • Don’t veer off the point of the bio. The bio is meant to make you look the best one to write this novel. I recently was asked by an agent to review a proposal for her client. The guy’s a great writer but when it came to his bio, he felt compelled to mention the number of awards he won for his landscaped yard. His book was a thriller so it was a mismatch.
      • INCLUDE YOUR HEART FOR THE PROJECT: Where did you come up with the concept? Why is it important for you to write this novel?
        • Keep this brief. A line or two at most. You have only one page. Your proposal will have all your selling points included.
      • INCLUDE YOUR PUBLISHING HISTORY: This includes short stories, guest blog posts, articles, etc.
        • The agent needs to know you take writing seriously.
      • INCLUDE PROFESSIONAL EXPERIENCE IN THE INDUSTRY: This might include things like “guest editor for Blah Blah Blah in November of 2016, editor of the Blah Blah Review, editor for the Such and Such series, etc.) If you’ve got education, you can include that here as well (Graduate of Harvard, MFA in Creative Writing from AULA, Graduate of Iowa Writer’s Workshop, etc.)
      • INCLUDE BASIC STATS: length, genre, audience (young readers, lovers of romance, etc).

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