Congratulations, writer—you’ve finished your book manuscript! You’ve had it professionally proofed and edited, and your beta readers gave you great reviews. Now it’s time to write your query letter. Sometimes, even the most gifted writers may feel the query letter is more challenging to write than the novel. But in order to score a literary agent for your book and get published, you will need to write a persuasive query letter. Luckily, Writer’s Relief has been creating effective query letters for over 26 years, so we have some great tips to help you grab an agent’s attention and boost your odds of getting a book deal.
Ace the salutation. Getting the agent’s name right is very important. At one time, it was customary to address literary agents with the title Mr., Mrs., or Ms. However, current publishing industry etiquette is to use only the agent’s first and last name. You can check the agent’s blog or website to be sure you have the proper spelling.
Include the title, genre, and word count. You’d be surprised how often authors leave out one or more of these important details! Also, make sure the agent you are querying represents the genre you are pitching. Pinpointing your book’s genre can sometimes be as tough as writing a great query, so be sure to check out this article and confirm the genre you’ve selected is correct.
Craft an engaging (and brief!) book blurb. Some literary agents request that you first send only the query letter (rather than a query letter, synopsis, and pages all at once), so make sure your letter does the job! The book blurb in your query letter shouldn’t be longer than 200 to 250 words. You want the reader of your query letter to be attentive, intrigued, and eager to see more. This can be the most difficult part for most writers—it’s hard to encapsulate your novel into a small, tasty bite.
Provide the overall story arc in your query letter summary, but don’t include less essential points. Ending on a cliffhanger is fine—and never give away the ending in your query letter! Save secondary characters and plot points for the two-page synopsis.
Have a hook. Be sure your book blurb offers a tempting hook for the reader. It doesn’t have to be just one sentence, but you want to keep it short, tight, and engaging. The hook highlights what makes your book unique and sells your book to the reader.
Mention your writing credentials and/or your educational history. Mention your publication credits, especially any relevant to the book manuscript. Attended a master class with Joyce Carol Oates? Yay! Are you a member of a writing group, and you’ve attended a few writing conferences? Bravo! Make the agent aware. Did you study organic chemistry in college and now write about carbon bombs in your dystopic spy thriller? Were you a detective with the LAPD when you came up with the idea for your story? Don’t leave this info out—it shows you can write with expertise on your topic.
However, if you won a writing contest in second grade—well done, but no need to mention this or any other irrelevant history to the agent. Nothing screams “amateur” more than including extraneous details in your query letter.
The key to a great query letter is selling your book and yourself without overselling yourself. Confidence and bravado are two totally different things. Don’t put in your query letter that you are the next [insert famous author name here].
This is also where you could include a sentence or two about yourself. What’s that? You don’t have any idea how to write an author bio? You should read this.
Show gratitude. Literary agents receive hundreds of queries per day. Let them know you appreciate their valuable time. Something simple like Thank you for your time and consideration is enough to make them feel appreciated.
Proofread. Proofread. Proofread. A query letter filled with grammar mistakes will not impress an agent—more likely it will be deleted as the agent moves on to more promising submissions. Check the spelling, punctuation, and grammar, and then have another proofreader take a look. Leave out unnecessary exclamation points, underlining, colors, or odd fonts. And don’t even think about adding emojis.
To see what elements of query letters make agents cringe, check out this list of literary agent pet peeves.
Question: Which part of writing a query letter is hardest for you?
For most writers, the path to publication is full of obstacles, detours, and potholes. Tenacity and resilience are required to reach your destination. Observe these commandments:
If you keep these ten commandments, you will ultimately succeed. Don’t compare yourself to anyone else—some of us have a steeper learning curve than others, and that’s okay. And when you get a positive response, celebrate and start or finish another project. Don’t let your genius languish.
I’m interested in how a novel can be symphonic, by which I mean that, like in a great symphony, I like my novels to be composed of certain movements. There are crescendos, motifs, that peak over the course of the book played by different instruments in different tones, the final chords to give the listeners the satisfaction that yes, that ended in the right moment. ~Amor Towles, interviewed in the Nov/Dec 2019 issue of Writer’s Digest
Jenifer Tull-Gauger and her husband, Kirk Gauger, run East Valley Martial Arts in Mesa, Arizona. Tull-Gauger has also been writing and drawing since childhood. Her most recent book, The Two True Karate Kids: A Dojo Kun Character Book on Battling Dishonesty, was released December 1, 2019. I met Jenifer through folk dancing, and reconnected with her in November at the Tempe Book Festival. I’m thrilled that she consented to be interviewed for ARHtistic License.
ARHtistic License: Have you always lived in Arizona? What are the pros and cons of living in a desert area?
Jenifer Tull-Gauger: I grew up in southern California and our young family moved to Arizona over 22 years ago. Arizona has provided opportunities that California couldn’t. We love the people here, and are so happy to be here now. A huge perk is the weather most months out of the year. And for me, a huge drawback is gardening in an arid climate. I don’t like working with cactus, so I must contend with big water bills.
AL: You and your husband have been practicing karate for twenty years. How do children benefit from karate training?
JTG: Karate is great for people of all ages, but children especially stand to benefit from karate training because it helps them form values, inner strength and the knowledge of their power, in their formative years. For our children, we have seen improvements in self-confidence, self-defense, respect, and character-building in addition to the fitness it provides.
AL: I know a dojo is a karate school, but what is dojo kun?
JTG: A kun is an oath, so the dojo kun is the oath of a traditional karate school. Our Dojo Kun lists our most important rules and values that we uphold. Each student is expected to work on using them in daily life – both in and outside of our classes. For me as an instructor, I teach people how to fight or harm others for self defense, and these rules teach them how not to fight, or at least how to have a moral code for the use of force. Our Dojo Kun is the traditional one created by Shungo “Tode” Sakugawa around 200 years ago. It is translated as: 1) Strive for a good moral character. 2) Keep an honest and sincere way. 3) Cultivate perseverance or a will for striving. 4) Develop a respectful attitude. 5) Restrain my physical abilities through spiritual attainment.
AL: You’ve been drawing since you were a child. What sort of art training have you had? What advice do you have for budding artists?
JTG: I took as many art classes as I could in junior high and high school. Other than that, I have practiced a lot on my own, including learning Sumi-e, Japanese brush painting, from a book. That was fun. My advice for budding artists is to just do it! Practice with different styles and media. Sketch as much as you can (or would like to) and regularly. Youtube is also a great source for techniques, ideas and inspiration.
AL: How is illustrating a book different from drawing pictures? What did you have to keep in mind as you created your accompanying illustrations?
JTG: For me, the biggest difference (and thorn in my side) in illustrating a book is the editing process. In fine art, I create a piece and when it’s done, it’s done. In illustration, I receive feedback from my art editors and then make revisions to make sure the pictures are supporting the story I want to tell. With book illustration, there is also the use of left-to-right action and awareness of where the eye is led in order to encourage the turning of the page.
AL: Do you draw your illustrations by hand, or do you use graphic software? Tell us about your process.
JTG: I use a mostly traditional process, but with the help and support of technology. My process for the Dojo Kun Character book series is to do a rough layout sketch or book dummy, then create real-size pencil sketches. After input from my art editors, I go over the outlines in black ink. All of that is done by hand. Then I scan the line art into digital files, print it all out, and fill in the colors by hand with brush pens. After another round of editing thanks to other artists’ eyes, I’ll make additional edits. Then I layout the pictures and text in Microsoft Publisher before consideration of final adjustments. If images need more digital manipulation than Publisher allows (such as removing backgrounds or parts of pictures), I’ll use GIMP.
AL: How do you find time to write and work on illustrations?
JTG: It is tricky finding the time to do both. This tripped me up for years. Then I implemented two things that help me make this doable. One is prioritizing. I have one project at the top of my list that I work on regularly. I put most of my focus and energy into that project. (I’ll put things of secondary importance in my to-do list where I anticipate having a break in my primary project, such as when waiting on input from editors or “beta-readers.”) The second is I commit to working on my books daily, even if it’s only for a short block of time. And when my day allows, I spend more time. Using a to-do list helps. As did figuring out which one series of books I want to work on at this point and having one area of focus. It is true that my other stories, my poetry, and my personal journal writing are on the back burner as I’m focusing on my karate picture books at this time. But it’s worth it to see the progress of these Dojo Kun Character Books as they come into being.
AL: You’re a member of SCBWI and you have critique partners. How did that help you on your journey to publication?
JTG: Both of these have helped me immensely. The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators has helped with my professional development and with teaching me the nuts and bolts of the trade. Through them, I’ve also met people who have helped guide me on my path to publication. I have found a lot of moral support and help in both the SCBWI and my critique partners. Plus, it’s awesome and inspiring just to be around other creative types. Additionally, it is invaluable how good critique partners can help you “see” the writing and illustrations through other people’s eyes or from other perspectives.
AL: Are you a plotter or a pantser?
JTG: I’m a mix of both, and depending on the story, I may lean more toward plotting it out beforehand, or flying by the seat of my pants and making it up as I go along. I actually enjoy both. When left to my own devices, I will usually have a solid idea plotted out in my head of what I’m going to write. But I try to stay open to inspiration and go with the flow of creativity while writing. I did a longer work, a children’s chapter book for NANOWRIMO a couple years ago, and was amazed and delighted at how some parts of the story took twists and turns that I hadn’t expected when plotting it out. There were times that I was writing my characters into trouble and had no idea how they were going to get out of it.
AL: What was the most difficult part of writing your books? What is the most fun part of writing your books?
JTG: The most difficult part of writing my first book was the uncertainty of what to do with the story and when to do it. I actually had the idea and wrote the first draft years ago. After I took it to my writer’s support group for feedback, it sat, going nowhere, for years. (That is the purgatory where most of my stories and poems sit.) The most fun part of writing and illustrating my book is just overall the adventure of it all. Some of the high points of the adventure are getting lost in the creative process, and learning of new (or previously unknown) helpful resources such as the Biteable app which eases the process of book trailer creation. I enjoy meeting new people at writers’ events or even on social media. It’s fun to encourage other writers and artists to find that spark within them and follow where it leads. And I love bringing my art and writing to the table in karate training, as well as bringing the most important lessons of traditional karate out into the world to help children, even those who may not train, improve their lives for now and for their futures.
AL: What types of books do you like to read? Which authors do you admire?
JTG: I like to read all types of children’s books. It’s important to keep up with the industry. I admire Tomie dePaola for continuing to support and encourage younger writer-illustrators in the SCBWI even though he doesn’t need to. And I admire many authors I have met who have helped and encouraged me, including Pat Curren who once won a Tomie dePaola DVD on the craft of picture books and gave it to me because she writes for teens. As far as my personal reading, I’m open to trying out any book from any author, but I will put it down if it doesn’t hook me within two pages. Dean Koontz is my favorite author to read.
AL: What is your favorite book about writing?
JTG: There are so many great books about writing! I would have to say my favorite is Natalie Goldberg’ Writing Down the Bones. It contains so much great advice and sharing of knowledge and writing experience. I also really like Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, which inspired me to get to know her better through her writing.
AL: Your book The Can-Do Karate Kid: A Dojo Kun Character Book on Defeating Laziness & Procrastination came out in May 2019, its companion coloring book came out in November 2019, and The Two True Karate Kids: A Dojo Kun Character Book on Battling Dishonesty came out in December 2019. What’s next?
JTG: My third Dojo Kun Character Book, about wrestling with quitting, is at the top of my writing and illustrating priority list. I’m also working on a companion coloring book to go along with the second book in the series. These will be released in the first half of 2020. And I’m looking forward to my book launch party for The Two True Karate Kids on February 15th, 2020. It will include a Karate with Your Dog Class!
AL: Do you have a funny story about any of your books or about the writing process?
JTG: Maybe not really laugh-out-loud funny for most people. But I enjoy a dry sense of humor, and I find many of the “little things” in life hilarious. My picture book adventure has so many little funny things like that. Such as a five-year-old calling both the snail and slug monster in my first book “snails” (he’s from Arizona). Or his mom giving Procrastination (the snail monster) a voice, “Don’t do it now, you can do it later.” Or the response from a teen “beta reader” when she saw that I made the adult female karate teacher bald. (She was not on board with this idea.) I got to see her face as I was there in person: priceless.
AL: What is something about your books or about yourself that you wish your readers knew?
JTG: Hmm, I feel like I put all of these things out there in my weekly writer-illustrator and karate blogs. So this is a tricky question for me. But there is one thing that I may not get out there enough. I wish that all adults with elementary school aged kids in their lives knew I aim to make my books educational yet fun, character-building conversation starters with enough weirdness to make kids want to talk about them (and a can-do attitude, honesty, perseverance, etc.).
To learn more about Jenifer Tull-Gauger, check out her author website. And if you’ll be near Mesa, Arizona on February 15, you’re invited to the launch party for The Two True Karate Kids. Since the plot includes karate and the adoption of a dog, the book’s publication will be celebrated with a karate class that’s going to the dogs. The party will take place 9:45 a.m.—11:30 a.m. on Saturday February 15, 2020, outside East Valley Martial Arts, 1829 S. Horne, Suite 8, in Mesa. It will include book signings, a book reading, pictures with your dog and the author, and a Karate with your Dog Class. Participants in the class are invited to bring their dogs to go alongside them through a martial arts influenced obstacle course. Donations will be accepted for the Arizona Humane Society. Sounds like lots of fun, doesn’t it?
[Subtitle:] And You Shouldn’t Even Bother Me with Your Stable Characters
Lately, I’ve been watching a lot of Netflix with my husband – particularly British crime shows. Well, actually, anything British. I don’t know why. But this blog is not about that. What it is about is the fact that I am always, always, always most interested in the trashiest, quirkiest, strangest, darkest, most unstable characters. Liars, cheats, addicts. Personally, I would rather eat cold, overcooked oatmeal than read about a good character who does good things in a good world where everybody is on time and well-groomed, consuming a healthy diet, getting enough sleep, living life in tastefully decorated rooms with Barry Manilow piped in to set the mood. My husband pointed this out to me a few weeks ago when we were talking about my girl crush on actress Nicola Walker’s character in “Last Tango in Halifax,” which then led to binge watching another of her series, “River.” I actually sank back into the sofa and sighed and said, “Oh, she is so screwed up. I love her.”
My husband was perplexed. But he wasn’t really worried until a few weeks ago when we finished our nightly romp through the “Luther” series. In the final episode, my favorite character, a narcissistic psychopathic serial killer who saves the hero, uttered the most fabulous line to his little wisp of a girlfriend. It was the best line of all time, delivered with steely eyes and a smirk. If you hurt him, I will kill you. (INSERT DELISCIOUS PAUSE) And eat you.
OH, YES! I jumped off the couch, cheering and laughing. I made my husband rewind it. (Do you rewind anything anymore?) Twice. I said the lines with her, dramatically. Gleefully! And my husband, who is a brave man, rolled his eyes. The same way he rolled his eyes later in the week when he caught me making a Pinterest board dedicated to these characters. If you make fun of my Pinterest Board of Psycho Characters, I will kill you. And eat you.
Now, really. I don’t want to kill anyone, much less eat them. But, man! It got a reaction out of me – this character saying those perfect words at that perfect moment and what it meant to the person hearing them. Even though, obviously, the character is quite the psycho, I loved her.
So, why am I confessing all of this to you at risk of sounding like a sicko and losing your readership forever? Because I’ve been trying to work out my fascination with the most unstable characters and why I love them best when I’m a reader. And – here’s the twist – why I’m always so afraid to write them.
Don’t get me wrong! I DO write them. I ALWAYS write them. I write them cloaked in what THEY believe is noble, but they’re screw ups, heroes and villains, alike. Listen, I’ve been to the conferences and the panels and the workshops. Dammit, I teach them! I know what they SAY about how your characters are supposed to be three-dimensional and flawed. I know what they SAY about how a good story is only a good story because there’s CONFLICT. I know how books like Gone Girl have flown off the shelf and been made into blockbuster movies and caused us all to despise Ben Affleck and get our own secret badass undercut bobbed haircuts. Girl Reading This Blog, I know!
But it’s a challenge to actually do it. And I often fail at it before I succeed. Why? When I first sit down to create characters I love they come out fabulously twisted and depraved and socially awkward. But inevitably, I start to lose all confidence that readers will stick with them. I’ll invest tons of energy second-guessing their morality and editing their language. I will smooth out their rough edges and bad habits and cover up their body art. I will make them better parents. I will sweeten up their motives and switch out the shots of whiskey in their hands to a tall glasses of sweet tea. All in an effort to convince my readers they can safely embrace my paper people. They can love us (because, the truth is all of my characters are an extension of me.) We’re perfectly acceptable, if you just don’t notice that little bit of psychopath sticking out from beneath our neatly pressed collars.
Before I know it, my characters turn out like a whole new cast of the Mickey Mouse Club, chilled out on anti-depressants. They turn into cold oatmeal and nobody, not even me, wants to read about them. I’m perplexed. I loved all those super freaks when I started. What went wrong? It’s a common lament and I think I know the answer, but it might not be what you think.
This article has been reprinted with the permission of Web Design Relief. Whether you’re just starting out or a best-selling author, Web Design Relief will improve your existing website or build you an affordable, custom author website to support your author platform, boost your online presence, and act as a hub for your social media outreach. Web Design Relief is a division of Writer’s Relief, a highly recommended author’s submission service. Sign up for their free e-publication for writers, Submit Write Now! Visit the site today to learn more.
Did you know that every website needs regular care and housekeeping? So unless you have a fairy godmother or can sing well enough to inspire woodland creatures to assist you with your chores, you should keep a virtual broom and wrench handy. Even the most meticulous author website design may experience issues that arise over time: Links break, information becomes obsolete, plugins stop working, etc. Thankfully, the most common mistakes writers make on their author websites have easy fixes!
Check out these website blunders and Web Design Relief’s tips on how to fix them without IT support intervention.
Broken images: Uh-oh, has your beautiful photo been replaced by a sad face or what looks like a torn piece of paper? This means that the file containing the image may have been corrupted. But this can be fixed simply by re-uploading your photo to your author website or installing a handy plugin to solve the problem for you!
Typos: Some of the most damaging mistakes on an author website are typos, grammar mishaps, and incorrect punctuation. After all, you’re a writer—you’re held to a higher standard of web content than your online neighbors. Typos and grammar gaffes on your website may cause visitors to question your writing skills in general.
And you can’t count on website building elements to alert you to typos; they don’t feature spellcheck like word processing programs do. Thorough, expert proofreading is the solution to this common mistake and can ensure that your author website is up to professional standards.
Dead Links: Is there anything more frustrating than a link that leads nowhere? If the hyperlinks you have included on your website are no longer active, your site will look abandoned and poorly maintained. Worst-case scenario—improper use of links can even get your site banned.
Fortunately, reviving dead links is easy! If a website has a new web address, simply update your link with the new URL. If the site you are linking to no longer exists, remove the link altogether or find another source. And remember to check your hyperlinks often to make sure you aren’t letting dead links lurk on your website!
Slow Response Times: Does your website take a long time to load? Having too many elements running can cause lagging. Download time is an overlooked issue on many author websites. And if your website is taking too long to load, visitors will bounce off your site.
To fix a lagging website, reevaluate what you really need on your web pages and what is simply clogging up response times. For example: There is no need to have images larger than 1500px, so you may want to resize large photos so that they do not take up so much space. However, don’t lose the resolution—make sure your photos have at least 300 dpi (dots per inch). Another tip: Instead of uploading videos directly to your website, upload them to an external website like YouTube and then embed them on your site to save space!
Design Is Not Mobile-Friendly: Your author website may look perfect on your desktop computer, but nowadays more and more people visit sites using their cell phones and tablets. So it’s important that your website looks great on mobile devices too! The key is sizing. Make certain that your buttons are big enough to be seen on smaller screens, but that your photos and graphics aren’t so big that they are cut off.
Our pro tip: Test, test, test! View your author website on as many devices as possible and adjust your design elements accordingly.
Check out these 7 tips for a more mobile-friendly author website!
BONUS TIP: While most mistakes on your author website can be easily fixed, there will be glitches that require more complicated intervention. But don’t panic! Regular website backups can still save you lots of grief. Backing up your website frequently gives you the option to revert back to an earlier version (before the error kicked in!).
QUESTION: What are some overlooked mistakes you’ve found on websites you’ve visited?