Thursday, September 8, 2016

Query Letters -- A Personal Journey

From the web archives: Query Letters: A Personal Journey

“We do not accept unsolicited submissions.”  How many times have you read those dreaded words in marketing guides?  But your article is just perfect for Dig or Faces, you moan.  So how do you get your foot in the door?  By way of a query letter.

Conquer Fear:

I feared writing a query letter, thinking that I couldn’t possibly explain how wonderful my idea would be, that my manuscript would speak for itself.  So, I targeted magazines that only accepted unsolicited submissions.  I got lucky with Ladybug soon after I started submitting.  But there were other magazines that I enjoyed reading that I wanted to write for, like those of the Cobblestone Group, that did not accept unsolicited submissions.  All their magazines are “themed,” that is, on a particular topic, and writers are told to query their idea.

The Odyssey:

I took the plunge when I looked through Odyssey’s theme list and saw one on bioterrorism.  Right up my alley, I thought.  No, I am not a terrorist.  But I was a former scientist – and microbes were my specialty.  And after fifteen years of thinking about how microbes do their good and bad deeds, I knew I could write an article for this issue.

I was like a kid in a candy store.  So many choices!  I decided to stick to the ones that had the most meaning for me.  I chose to write about smallpox and anthrax.  These topics were my starting points.  And related ideas kept coming and coming and coming.

Rough Drafts Can Really Save You:

I confess.  I did not write the outlines as the guidelines required.  I wrote rough drafts, gauging how many words I’ll need for each of the articles.  I didn’t want to say that I could explain the science behind smallpox in 500 words.  My rough draft was 2,000 words and I got a good sense of what I could cover in say, a thousand words, pulling ancillary information into sidebars.  Then, I wrote the outlines.

I carefully read Odyssey’s guidelines, again.  They wanted a detailed outline of the proposed article with references.  New writers needed to submit either clips (published articles) or writing samples.  I decided to send them two of my scientific papers, even though they do not match the writing style of Odyssey, because that’s all I had published.  I debated sending them a short sidebar so they could see a more appropriate writing sample.  I also had an article on the ICL website, and Mel Boring, then editor of the ICL website, suggested that I let my outlines and scientific background speak for itself.  And was he ever right!

The Query Letter:

I wrote a one page query letter – that’s a rule of thumb for me and I have yet to violate it.  I think that editors have too much stuff to read anyway, so it’s best to use the KISS principle – keep it short and simple.  Here is part of my first query letter:

Dear Ms. Lindstrom,

I would like to contribute to the March 2004 issue (Secret Agent: Understanding Bioterrorism).  Smallpox has been a scourge upon us for most of our history.  That it has been eradicated is an achievement that speaks volumes about the ingenuity of men and women.  I propose three related articles about smallpox.

1.  Smallpox (900 words) will describe the history and biology of smallpox.

2.  Lady Mary (400 words) will illustrate the practice of deliberately catching smallpox.

3.  A shot in the arm – how vaccines work (400 words) is exactly that.

NOTE: Everybody should practice telling what their book or story is about in ONE line.

In the next two paragraphs, I told her that I was a former scientist along with a list of meagre writing credits, three to be exact.

My closing paragraph:  Please let me know whether you would be interested in working with me.  Odyssey is one of my favorite magazines and I would be proud to be a contributing author.  Thank you for your time and consideration.

Even though it was my first query and I didn’t have a lot to razzle-dazzle the editor with, I was professional.  I was honest.  Emboldened, I sent her another query two weeks later on Robert Koch, who studied anthrax and laid the foundation for modern microbiology.  People often advise you to send only one thing at a time, because you would be competing against yourself.  I definitely agree, but in this case, I went with my gut feeling and passion for the topic.  I also felt that I had nothing to lose. 

Max and Dagny at the time of that first query! I don't think I slept much ...
The Call:

Two months later, I got the call!  The editor was soft spoken and my children were very excited along with me, so it was hard to hear.  After we all calmed down, the editor said, “Your query letter was impressive, but can you write for children?”  I assured her that I could.  After all, if I could write for Ladybug, which had a younger audience than Odyssey, I could surely write for Odyssey.  She accepted every single query!

During our conversation, the editor explained how she planned to put the issue together and so to change the slants on two of the articles.  Later, when we were casually discussing bioterrorism in the news, I mentioned monkeypox and SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and the editor asked me whether I could write about them, too.  And without missing a beat, I said, “Yes.”  She took a huge chance on me – an unknown writer – and I will forever be grateful to her for giving me this opportunity to grow and develop as a writer.

I had two weeks to write all the articles.  I was glad to have rough drafts for some of them.  Out of nine feature articles, I wrote four.  I also wrote two sidebars.  This was my publishing debut in the kid-lit world.

I continue to write for Odyssey on topics that fuel my excitement.  I’m happy to say that almost everything I’ve queried has been accepted.  The editor knows that I deliver the goodies on time.  I have even gotten a call to write a story for a particular issue without making a query.

I no longer need to write rough drafts twice as long as the intended article.  I dive straight into the outline with catchy phrases and things I know I want to cover.  And I no longer fear writing that query letter.  They have opened doors to even book publishers.

Writing Exercise: 

Summarize your story in a single page – double spaced – about 250 words. 

Now tell your story in a single short paragraph, about fifty words. 

Find the essence and pack it in a single line.

If you do this for each and every story, not only will it clarify your thinking, you will be ready to query.  Some publishers ask for a one page query letter with outlines and sample chapters and others ask for only the one page letter. 

Go forth open doors with a query.  I wish you luck.

"Query Letters: A Personal Journey" was first published in June 2005 issue of ICL's Rx for Writers.


Faith E. Hough said...

I'm loving these great articles from your archives, Vijaya!
I have to admit, I'm totally intimidated by magazine querying. It's that whole "sample of published work" that I don't know how to get around. You were so bold, and smart, to send your scientific work.

Mirka Breen said...

You were well positioned to write for the magazines you queried, Vijaya. I'm glad I got to see your kiddos' photo from back when.

Barbara Etlin said...

Great advice about querying, and about when and how to break the rules (sending your scientific papers).

Yanting Gueh said...

And I thought "no unsolicited manuscript" meant exactly that ~ no unsolicited manuscript! It was bold of you to send queries, Vijaya, and that brave move paid off. This is a great jab of confidence for the rest of us. Thanks you for these inspiring posts. We need your experience as a guide!

Vijaya said...

Faith, thank you. Don't let a lack of a publication record stop you. The fact you've won awards for your as-yet unpublished books is huge. Put it in your credits.

Mirka, I truly felt this issue fell into my lap at the right time. Later, when I talked to Beth, she told me that most of the queries were of the fear-mongering type without the science to back it up. That is why I got this wonderful opportunity. My ideas really did fit with the tone of the magazine. And that's something else I forgot to mention -- to read the magazine you want to submit to.

Gosh, looking at the old pictures makes me nostalgic. My babies!

Thanks Barb. I sweated about the rules in the beginning, but there really are times when you have break them. I think our instincts are right.

Claudine, thank you. I am glad to have these articles up on the blog. What I didn't say is that after I hung up, I was in a panic. Two weeks to write all this? I was paralyzed that night, not knowing where to begin. But the next night I started writing.

Remember too that "no unsolicited manuscripts" is not the same as unsolicited queries. I do this even with book publishers. If they are open to queries, I send one out.

To all, good luck. I think it's normal to be afraid. I still panic every time I accept a project because what if I can't do it? But a little bit of fear is good motivation.

Leandra Wallace said...

This was definitely interesting to read! I would be too scared, but your braveness should be a lesson to me. And you definitely did the work behind the scenes, so bravery + hard work does pay off!

Johnell said...

We get Odyssey, or rather Muse now since it changed names. I love it! I'll have to look in our old magazines to find your stuff. Super cool. Cricket has really great magazines. We also get Dig, another favorite. How fun to read your success story.