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How to Write a Query Letter for Short Stories
A Question from Rachael
I wanted to ask you for one of your future "columns" if you could post three samples of query letters about one topic - short stories.
Perhaps one for a magazine who publishes several short stories per issue, one for an agent who just got done working with Madonna on a book of short stories, and one for a publisher who has published short story collections and anthologies in the past, but since we don't know any of those writers, this would be a cold call type of letter so to speak given we don't know the publisher either, but yet we know he publishes short stories.
I know the last one(publisher solicitation) is a no-no without an agent, but some people have just the right material and can get to a publisher's heart without an agent. So could you (maybe in the next week or two) dedicate an article (hub) to writing those 3 samples of query letters.
Maybe keep it on the one topic of fiction short story pieces for magazine, collection of 10 short stories for the agent and for the publisher, so the query letters are targeting something specific and you won't have to guess what the reader might be doing -- "if you are writing a proposal, write this query letter, or if you wrote a novel, write this query letter, etc." Just short stories, just ideas of how to phrase it, how long it should be, how much info to share, etc.”
Rachael Ohalloran, your wish is my command.
The Basic Elements of a Query Letter
Before I give you an example, let’s talk, very briefly, about the basic elements, or components, of a successful query letter. I have mentioned before that, quite honestly and realistically, the query letter is as important as your book, short story, or article. Why? Because if you don’t sell the publisher with your query letter, you will never get your work published in a traditional way. In other words, the query letter is the all-important first step, and it is quite easy to trip, stumble, and fall with a poorly-written query letter.
So, what should be included in a query letter?
- You must have a hook, and it should appear first-thing out of the gate. You need to convince a publisher in the first paragraph of your letter that your project is worth their time and effort.
- Biographical information should also be included, but don’t overdo this. Keep your qualifications brief and pertinent.
- Word count, genre, and a brief synopsis should also be included.
- Address your query to a particular agent/publisher, using their name and not a generic “dear sir.”
- The query letter should be one page in length, normal font, one-inch margins, and your contact information.
Now Let’s Look at an Example
Rather than give Rachael everything she asked for, which would require a much-longer article, I’m going to concentrate on the last part of her question/request, a query letter for a book of ten short stories. I think that will serve the purpose and give you a general idea of what you should be doing.
I’m going to use an attention-grabber from my own query letter for my recently completed novel, Resurrecting Tobias, to kick of this project.
Dear Ms. Rubenstein,
I once saw a woman stoned to death. That shit will stay with you once you see it. That shit will alter the course of your life, and put you on a path you never envisioned when you were a youngster playing Kick the Can. It did for me, and my writings today reflect those moments when mankind’s brutality overshadows all advancements made in the past two hundred thousand years.
I am looking for representation for my recently-completed collection of ten short stories entitled “Silent Screams.” These ten stories, totaling 60,000 words in length, all have the common theme of social injustice. They are a call of awakening, and they are a call for action. They take issues like homelessness, sex-trafficking, and abuse, and they slap readers alongside the head and demand attention. They are not for the squeamish, but they are for those who wish to see mankind elevate to a higher level.
I have published six ebooks and self-published two novels to date, and my articles have been featured in Iowa Living, Grit, and Family Living.
I know you have a fondness for short story anthologies, as shown by your publishing of “Take the Money and Run” by Eleanor Francis, and I believe my collection of short stories will stimulate and interest you. I have pasted one of my stories below my signature for your review.
William D. Holland
Did I Cover Everything?
I believe I did. The hook is definitely there. Book length, genre, all included, as are the biographical section and a brief synopsis. I accomplished my task in one page, and I have included a sample for the publisher to read. Mission accomplished!
And now some words of caution!
Buy yourself a copy of “The Writer’s Market.” This is an invaluable tool for those who are going to query publishers and/or agents. It includes information about the types of works that publishers will look for, and you most definitely need to know that. Never query a publisher about a project they are not interested in. A publisher that concentrates on romance novels is not interested in hearing about science fiction, and the same is true when we are talking about a collection of short stories.
Make that first paragraph pop! If you don’t sell the publisher on your idea in ten seconds, it’s never going to happen. The first paragraph of your query letter should take the majority of your time to write. The rest of the query letter is filler compared to that first dynamic paragraph.
For best results, your collection of short stories should have a common theme, or belong to a common genre. Agents and publishers do not like guessing. They want focus, so give it to them.
Once you have completed your query letter, send it out to ten publishers and then stop and wait for replies. If you don’t get any bites from those ten publishers, then re-write your query letter, because obviously it is not doing the job.
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- William Holland | Helping Writers to Spread Their Wings and Fly
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What About Magazines?
The same principles mentioned above apply to query letters to magazine editors. You still need the hook, the mini-biography, the personal information, word count, genre, and a brief synopsis. Just take the example above and tweak it to fit one story and you are in business.
Regarding magazines, I have mentioned this before but let’s cover it one more time: most magazines ask that you pitch an idea to the editor before you write the article or short story, but there are a great number of magazines that will accept an already-completed article or short story. Look on the magazine website for submission requirements before you query.
And That’s All There Is to It
Allow me to repeat a word of caution: if you use a query letter ten times and get no favorable results, rewrite your query letter because it obviously is not working. The number ten is a random figure I chose, but you understand the point I am making.
Now, all that is left for you to do, is write those short stories and then sell them.
So get busy!
Rachael, I hope that helps.
2014 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)
“Helping writers to spread their wings and fly.”