Query Tips: Give Us a Road Map

Our editors at Forest Avenue Press are continuing to receive submissions that don’t include a paragraph about the manuscript in the query letter.

In these cases, there’s usually no introduction either. No introduction means the author couldn’t be bothered to personalize a letter, but wants our committee to spend our free time with his or her work, possibly years if we love it. Usually no introduction means the writer is submitting because we are listed in a database someplace, not because we might be a good fit.

No description of the manuscript, though, is far worse. We need that road map. It tells us where we’re going and gives us a marker by which to evaluate the first pages. Is the theme strong? Is the sense of place working? Are the stakes immediately apparent, and if so, are they the stakes the author intends?

Often, our readers give an author an allowance of extra pages, if the first ones aren’t working, and if we like the one-paragraph synopsis of the plot. We’ll leave notes like, “Start at chapter two” for each other in the comments. All we need to give the writer the benefit of the doubt is one paragraph about the manuscript, not a page, not a thesis.

Without those sentences, without that road map, my readers are leaving internal messages for each other like this:

“Hard to know much–no real cover letter. Well written, but . . . doesn’t feel fresh. I’d be okay with a form letter rejection unless someone else speaks up.”

Or this: “I’m not sure where it’s going (the author was so busy telling us how amazing he is that he forgot to tell us the plot).”

The writing might be amazing, and the bio might be impressive, but without any sense of how the opening matches the author’s conception of the plot, it’s hard to understand where we’re going and why we should go there.

Sometimes we write back and ask for a description; sometimes we find the author’s website and share the information ourselves. But a month into this national open submission period, it’s easier to say a non-letter introduction is a reason to pass. We want to spend our time on authors who give us the tools to evaluate their manuscripts, not the ones who know how to copy and paste.

As a reader, once I decide on a book, I push past the back cover marketing language and dive in, entering the dark wood of someone else’s mind without a map. As an editor, I need that map, I want a well-written invitation, the author’s hand reaching out with a friendly, “Here, we’re going this way, come along.”

For writers who are avoiding writing full-fledged query letters because they are afraid of doing it wrong, or because they want the work to speak for itself, read this recent piece by Diane Glazman, a slush pile reader for an agent. It takes the pressure off while offering some useful tips and reassurances.

About Laura Stanfill

Publisher, Forest Avenue Press
This entry was posted in Books, Publishing, small press, Writing and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Query Tips: Give Us a Road Map

  1. Martha Ragland says:

    Great post, Laura! Thanks for sharing your observations about the mss. you’re receiving.

  2. susielindau says:

    I can’t believe writers don’t take the time to research and at least follow basic formatting. Sheesh!

  3. Dunx says:

    I’m curious what you mean by “description” here – do you mean how the story fits the publisher’s criteria? Or a one paragraph story summary?

    … but I am appalled that anyone would submit without at least personalising a cover letter. That seems like a waste of everybody’s time.

    • A paragraph about the manuscript; it’s the meat of the query, but I didn’t really want to call it a synopsis here, because that sets off writer-alarm bells about distilling the whole plot into a page or two-page summary. And it’s not really a synopsis; it’s the one-paragraph hook. “Summary” is closer than synopsis, but these paragraphs aren’t supposed to tell the ending, either, just get the agent or editor a good sense of where the book is going.

      I don’t mind the mistake ones addressed to the wrong person, because they’re obviously typos and embarrassing for the author, but it takes time when the author didn’t do any homework and sends me, say, a children’s book on cats, or a 1980s-set fantasy novel when I’m seeking contemporary realistic fiction.

      • Dunx says:

        now I understand. Thank you for your patience.

        (not having done any actual queries yet I am still a little green)

        • You’re so welcome! It’s confusing; I used to call that paragraph a synopsis of the story, but really it’s more like spunky, hook-oriented back cover language, not the dreaded one page (or longer!) synopsis some agents and editors request to get a sense of the whole plot, including the ending.

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