"If you can't tell us the concept, you're probably not ready to submit."

Harlequin Editor Defines The Elusive Query Letter

Highlights of a DFW Writers Workshop Seminar

NOVEMBER, 1996 DALLAS/FORT WORTH — It is the nagging question every writer asks at one time or another. What is a query letter? What should one say in it? And how does it differ from a synopsis?

Susan Sheppard, editor of the Temptation and Love & Laughter imprints at Canadian-based Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd., unraveled the tangled question for members of the DFW Writers Workshop at a recent Dallas/Fort Worth area seminar. Harlequin romance Writer Mica Kelch joined her on the program.

"A query letter is a faster, better way to interest an editor in your work, than sending a book proposal and sample chapters," she asserted. "A writer might wait three months to a year for an editor to respond to a book proposal. A one-to-three-page query letter lets the editor know right away whether he or she is interested in the work."

Ms. Sheppard, who receives 30-40 query letters per week, in addition to countless slush pile submissions, said a query letter should contain only four key pieces of information:

" Tone: The tone of the letter should reflect the tone of the book. If the query letter is funny, but the book serious, you're apt to give the editor cognitive dissonance, she quipped. A serious book requires a serious tone in the query letter. A funny book requires a funny tone.

" Hook: What kind of story is it? A hook is a salable point, often the main point or points of conflict. Here, you must nail down the concept. If you can't tell us the concept, you're probably not ready to submit. The more hooks there are, the better. It tells me you have enough material to sustain your story. Think about what your major hooks are, and include them in the query.

" Market: What is the market for the book? The audience demographic? Is this a book for middle-aged homemakers who have never held a job? Or career women who have never stayed at home?

" Story Length: The length of a work determines whether it is suitable for one imprint or another. If your query letter is funny in tone, the title is funny, and you tell me the length is 52,000 words, I automatically read your query with the mind set that it's a possibility fo r Love & Laughter, rather than Temptation. Do your homework. Read the line you want to write for, and submit stories that are of an acceptable length for that particular imprint. A 100,000-word manuscript would not be right for Love & Laughter."

So how long should the query letter, itself, be? "If you're writing a 50,000 word story for Love & Laughter, the query probably would be no more than a single page. If you're writing a 100,000 word historical fiction book, the query will probably be two or three pages in length.

Contrasting "synopsis" against "query letter", author Mica Kelch described the synopsis as chapter by chapter plot points. "The synopsis shows the purpose of your key scenes, and usually runs about 10-15 pages.

"Many writers fear that if they submit a synopsis to the editor for a book that is not yet finished, they'll be forced to stick to the synopsis even if the story turns out to need different plot points. Not so. A good editor will be flexible. The synopsis is a guide, not a straight-jacket."

Mica begins a synopsis with a one-line concept, the germ of an idea. "There are two important questions which must be answered in the synopsis: Why? and Because.

The synopsis should give the editor a sense of who the characters are. The characters are the backbone of the story. Then, the all-important theme, such as love conquers all. The theme is what holds the book together from beginning to end. The synopsis tells the sacrifices the characters will make to attain their goal. Every scene and sequel will prove or disprove the theme. The crisis, climax and resolution of the story, must all prove the theme, in this case: love conquers all.

"The synopsis should present the goal, the motivation and the conflict," says Kelch. "The protagonist will have two goals–the conscious desire, which is what he wants, and the unconscious desire, which is what he needs. The unconscious desire remains the same, but the conscious desire changes."

According to Kelch, there are only three unconscious desires: to possess something or someone to obtain relief from something or someone to seek revenge.

The three types of conflict are: to eliminate an opponent (man Vs man) to overcome an obstacle (man Vs self) to avert disaster (man Vs nature) Harlequin's Susan Sheppard suggests writing the synopsis "for your own sake, not mine."

"I want to see the query letter first. If I like the idea I'll ask to see the entire manuscript, not a synopsis. For me, there is nothing in-between. But the synopsis is a necessary evil. It will help clarify your story in your own mind," she concluded.

Contact information:

Susan Sheppard


Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.

225 Duncan Mill Road

don Mills, Ontario

Canada M3B 3K9 Copyright, 1996 by Multimedia Strategies