What’s a Query Letter?
I wrote my first book long hand on yellow legal pads, then typed the manuscript on the typewriter at the office. I didn’t use white out. I’d read that the manuscript had to be clean. So if I made a typo, I retyped the entire page. I estimate that I typed about four copies of that book. (I still have the onion skin carbon copy – which tells you how long ago that was!)
Although Romance Writers of America was birthed the same year I wrote my first book, I didn’t hear about them for a while. And unlike today when the Internet puts aspiring writers in easy contact with other writers, both published and unpublished, I was alone in this process. Just me and my research books.
I did, however, work up the courage to contact that aforementioned first time published author to ask her what a query letter should look like. Writer’s Market said I needed a query letter but it didn’t give me an example. Bless that writer’s heart. She shared hers with me.
So after the Christmas season was past, the tree gone, and the decorations put away, I wrote my query letter. And then rewrote it and rewrote it and rewrote it. At the same time, I combed through The Writer’s Market, looking for any book publishers who might be interested in the novel I’d written.
Today’s aspiring writers know they’re supposed to know their market. I didn’t even know what to call my book other than “historical” and “fiction.” I’d never heard the term “genre.” Now I can tell you it was a “romantic historical saga,” but I didn’t know it then.
I made a list of 21 publishers and prepared my 21 query letters. I made sure I knew the name of every editor. (I’m great at following directions.) Either ten or eleven of those publishers wanted a synopsis and three sample chapters, but nothing in the instructions said the “first three chapters” so I tried to pick out my best three chapters to send. Oh, groan. Now I realize how dumb that was. After all, what reader bops around in a book, looking for the best chapters? They start reading in chapter one, and if you don’t have them captured in those first three chapters, they won’t care if chapter ten is awesome.
By the end of January, I’d made photocopies of those three chapters and the synopsis, boxed them up with those personally addressed query letters, and mailed the 21 submissions to New York publishers.
And then I waited.
Rejection: 20 … Acceptance: 1
I know now that a few of those 21 submissions would never have wanted my type of fiction (like sending a chick lit to a publisher who specializes in SF & Fantasy). Two or three publishers never responded at all. Two requested to see the full manuscript. The rest sent form rejection letters of the “your manuscript does not meet our needs at this present time” variety. [Note: I have a great Peanuts cartoon where Snoopy receives a similar rejection, followed by the sentence, “If it ever does, we’re in big trouble.” Chuckle.]
I made photocopies of the manuscript(the working title was On Wings of a Song) for the two editors who requested to see the full and shipped them off. The Writer’s Market said I would have to wait six to eight weeks for a reply.
Full of hope, I got to work on the sequel to On Wings of a Song. By the way, I advise all aspiring writers to do the same. Ship off your book and go to work on the next one. Otherwise, the waiting will kill you. And unless all you ever want to write is one book, this is good practice for the future when you may have deadlines, one right after the other.
Later, I would learn that over 100,000 novels were written every year and less than 1% of them got published, but at the time (1982), I didn’t know the odds were stacked against me. [Side Note: I’m pretty sure there are more than than 100k novels written per year nowadays, but the ease of publishing ebooks has changed the publishing stats a lot.]
Wonder of wonders! In April, I received a contract offer from one of the two publishers who requested the book. I raced to the library and got all of the publishing contract law books that were available (maybe two or three) and studied them carefully. In short order, the contract was signed and returned and I waited breathlessly for the pittance of an advance I’d agreed to. Who cared about the money? I was going to be published! My book was going to be in print!
When I still didn’t have my executed copy of the contract back with the advance check six weeks later (I was supposed to receive it in 30 days), I called the editor. She said she would look into it. That was in June.
By the end of July, I’d finished writing and typing the sequel, but I still didn’t have the contract and advance check. So I called again. The phone lines had been disconnected.
In August, upon returning from a camping vacation with my two daughters (I was a single mom, in case I haven’t mentioned that before), I learned the publisher had gone bankrupt. Shortly thereafter, I also learned I was going to be unemployed as the place where I worked was closing its doors. The next blow was that I had to move because the house we’d rented in May was being sold.
August/September 1982 was not a great time in my life!
Stay tuned for more Fact and Fiction in the future.
But for now, I must share the exciting news I received yesterday.
Keeper of the Stars is a RITA© Award finalist in the Religious & Spiritual Romance category.
This is my 11th book to final in the RITAs (two of my novels have been honored with the award), and I can tell you that I was just as excited over that phone call yesterday as I was the first time I got the call in 1992 (25 years!!!)
And I’m not the only Inspired by Life author to get a call regarding the RITAs. I won’t tell you who but her name begins with Karen. LOL! Congrats, friend!!
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