Updated: Jun 16
A Session with Steven Manchester
For years—at workshops and writers conferences throughout New England—I’ve worked with hundreds of aspiring writers. Besides trying to inspire them to have enough faith in their work to weather the storms of rejection we’re all forced to face, I’ve also shared five basic requirements that have helped me to get each of my books published.
The first requirement is to write a great book. Trust that this is not a practice in vanity; I’ve learned that if you don’t believe completely in your work, then agents and editors won’t either.
The second is to write an absolutely amazing query letter.
The third is perseverance.
The fourth is perseverance.
And of course, the fifth and final requirement to getting your work published is perseverance.
As writers, we’ve all chosen a very challenging path. The catch-22 in the publishing industry is that without an agent, you can’t secure a publisher; and without being published, agents won’t even take a look at your work. There are some cases where this might be true, but it has been my experience that if you practice perseverance, do your research, and polish your work until it shines, then you’ve positioned yourself to enjoy success. Some people rely on luck, but I’ve always believed that when preparation meets opportunity, you can make your own luck. One of our jobs as writers is to prepare ourselves for that glorious moment when the right publishing opportunity presents itself.
One of the real tricks to success in this business is merely being seated at the table when the winning cards are dealt. I can’t tell you how many talented writers I’ve met that have succumbed to rejection and left the game altogether. Please don’t let that be you. Have enough faith in your work—your dreams—to stay the course.
Truth be told, I endured so much rejection on my first book that the box in which I kept the rejection slips outweighed the family cat (and he was a chubby boy). Thankfully, I’ve practiced my craft for many years, have become a much better writer, and have learned just how crucial an effective query letter is toward finding success.
Basically, this refers to submerging yourself into the pool that you belong. If you write fantasy, it doesn’t make sense to pitch your work to agents who only represent romance writers—or to publishers who have never released a fantasy book in their company’s history. Go online and visit bookstores to make lists of agents and publishers who are clearly interested in your type of work. Most agents and editors will appreciate that you’ve made the effort and, as an added bonus, you’ll even discover which ones accept email submissions (making the process much more efficient). Just knowing who you’re pitching will reduce your rejection rate. You’d be surprised at how many writers randomly submit their work to agents and editors who would never have any interest.
You’ve written the best book you can, have edited it three times—or until you’ve become blind to even the most glaring errors—and have solicited an editor to add a final coat of polish, right? You may have even gone the extra mile and shared it with several industry professionals for potential pre-publication endorsements (and we all know this doesn’t refer to your mother or some friend who is obligated to love your work). So your book is done! Now comes the one most important page you’ll ever write—the query letter.
The query letter is probably the most difficult piece you’ll ever write. Think about it: you have one single page to capture what has taken you tens of thousands of words to describe. And this one-page letter has only a few precious moments to grip an editor or agent’s attention. But like it or not, it’s the first precious step in catching his or her interest and, hopefully, securing the sale. Without a powerful and effective query letter, your story—yup, those tens of thousands of words—will never be published or read.
That being said, it’s no surprise that your writing needs to be at its very best here. This is the point where you aim for greatness and accept nothing less—because that’s exactly what editors and agents are looking for. In one page, you need to be clever, eloquent and intriguing, while leaving your reader wanting more. The query letter is nothing more than a sales pitch, so its only purpose is to cause an agent or publisher to request more of your work: a synopsis, full proposal, the first few chapters, or perhaps even the entire manuscript.
Before we get into the proper format of the query letter and a few examples to show you what has worked for me, I have to share one final observation: I’ve known writers who have applied painstaking effort into every paragraph, every sentence of their manuscript, but have blown through their query letter like they’re jotting down their Christmas list to Santa Claus. This is a really bad move. No, strike that—it’s a fatal move!
Your query letter—that measly one page—is your first impression to an agent or editor, for both the project you’re trying to sell, as well as your writing ability. It is your proving ground that you can write well. No one will request your manuscript unless you can woo them. Make one simple mistake and you’re all done (at least with that particular editor or agent). There’s just no room for errors. Before you begin, place these four words into your mind and allow them to marinate: professional, intelligent, concise and intriguing. Once you’ve set those expectations for yourself, you’ll need to write four paragraphs like the life of your manuscript depends on it (because it does).
Although you’ll be expected to adhere to each individual agent or editor’s submission guidelines, there is a definitive standard within the publishing industry on how to construct a query letter. It contains four paragraphs: the hook, the mini-synopsis, your biography, and your grateful closing. Although there is room to flex some creativity within this one-page pitch, you must not deviate when delivering these four paragraphs. Agents and editors don’t have time for gimmicks. They expect professionalism and the query letter is the first impression you’ll make as a professional. However, there is some leeway as to how you put these four paragraphs in order. For example, the more experienced writer—with publishing credits or an established expertise in the subject he or she is writing about—may choose to open with their impressive credentials. Others with less experience are better served to open with their hook, using one or two brilliant sentences to hypnotize their reader.
Let’s look at the anatomy of the query letter:
FIRST PARAGRAPH: THE HOOK
The hook is a one-sentence (no more than two) tagline for your book. This is where you create that very first impression, so it’s imperative that you strike the right tone while immediately capturing the agent or editor’s undivided attention. It’s important that you don’t open like a used car salesman with some cheap sales pitch. Instead, you must capture your book’s undeniable marketability in a line or two that leaves your reader no other choice but to want more—and read on. If the hook is sharp enough, then the agent or editor will dive right into the second paragraph.
Here are a few of the hooks that have worked for me:
Following the death of his beloved wife, Grandpa John calls his family back home to face the memories they have made—both warm and cold—so they can move beyond them and into the future (for The Rockin’ Chair). Concealed behind tons of concrete, bricks, and steel lies a truly bizarre world; a world neither known or understood by most people. This world is called prison (for 6-5; A Different Shade of Blue under the pseudonym, Steven Herberts).
An emotional tale about the strength of family bonds, unconditional love, and the perseverance to do our best with the challenging gifts we receive, Goodnight Brian is a tribute to what happens when giving up is not an option (for Goodnight Brian).
A man must first move himself before he can move the hearts of others, and this soldier’s biographical adventure is not only intended to capture the imagination of the reader—it is meant to touch any soul in need of forgiveness (for The Unexpected Storm).
PARAGRAPH TWO: THE MINI-SYNOPSIS
In my opinion, this is the most challenging paragraph of the query letter—but it’s also where your writing can shine the brightest. No one said it would be easy summing up your 65,000-word novel into a single paragraph, but that’s just how much real estate you have to flex your muscle and try to get your book sold. Although you have no choice but to be succinct, that doesn’t mean you can’t be vivid; we’re talking four or five sentences to make that agent or editor’s mouth water for more.
Essentially, in the second paragraph, you need to describe the plot of your story. You should include the timeframe of your novel, as well as the scene setting. A brief depiction of your main characters should be followed by the conflict they must face and how they reach resolution.
In my experience, this one intriguing paragraph (around 125 words) is a tedious, time-consuming process that requires multiple drafts as well as honest feedback from objective peers. The good news is that this sales pitch—if strong enough—will be used throughout the entire publishing process; from securing the agent who will use it to sell the project to the publisher who will then use it to attract book buyers (your readers) You’ve seen these amazing paragraphs on nearly every book dust jacket you’ve read. In fact, it’s probably why you bought many of the books you have in the first place.
Here are a few of the mini-synopses that have worked for me:
Fate was working against little Brian Mauretti. The food that was meant to nourish him was poisoning him instead, and the doctors said the damage was devastating and absolute. Fate had written off Brian. But fate didn’t count on a woman as determined as Brian’s grandmother, Angela DiMartino—who everyone knew as Mama. Loving her grandson with everything she had, Mama endeavored to battle fate. Fate had no idea what it was in for. This 65,000-word novel, set in New England, is a modern-day tale of inspiration (for Goodnight Brian).
Don DiMarco has a very good life—a family he loves, a comfortable lifestyle, passions and interests that keep him amused. He also thought he had time, but that turned out not to be the case. Faced with news that might have immediately felled most, Don now wonders if he has time enough. Time enough to show his wife the romance he didn’t always lavish on her. Time enough to live out his most ambitious fantasies. Time enough to close the circle on some of his most aching unresolved relationships. Summoning an inner strength he barely realized he possessed, Don sets off to prove that twelve months is time enough to live a life in full. Based in modern-day New England, this 70,000-word inspirational novel is a glorious celebration of each and every moment that we’re given here on Earth, as well as the eternal bonds that we all share (for Twelve Months).
Rick and Abby grew up together, became best friends, and ultimately fell in love. Circumstance tore them apart in their early teens, though, and they went on to lives less idyllic than they dreamed about in those early days. Rick has had a very successful career, but his marriage flat-lined. Abby has a magical daughter, Paige, but Paige's father nearly destroyed Abby's spirit. Now fate has thrown Rick and Abby together again. In their early thirties, they are more world-weary than they were as kids. But their relationship still shimmers, and they're hungry to make up for lost time. However, Paige, now nine, is not nearly as enthusiastic. She's very protective of the life she's made with her mother and not open to the duo becoming a trio. Meanwhile, Rick has very little experience dealing with kids and doesn't know how to handle Paige. This leaves Abby caught between the two people who matter the most to her. What happens when the life you've dreamed of remains just inches from your grasp? (for Pressed Pennies).
PARAGRAPH THREE: YOUR BIO
List your publishing credentials, writing experience and education (if it applies to your work). In either case, keep it short—while being confident but not cocky.
Here’s a trick I’ve used: I’ve had excerpts (of the very work I’m pitching) published in literary journals, magazines—wherever. By doing so, I’ve been able to establish my work ethic to a potential agent or editor, while proving that I’ve already begun to build an audience for the work in consideration.
Here are a few of the bios that have worked for me:
For nine endless years, I walked an unpredictable beat within the concrete jungle of a state prison. From there, I was sent to serve my country—as a squad leader within a US Army Military Police unit—in the sand dunes of Iraq. After six endless months, I returned home deeply scarred but equally committed to share the brutal experience with the world. As a combat veteran, it is my hope to illuminate a human perspective on war, while revealing the true effects of Operation Desert Storm's “Mystery Illness” (for The Unexpected Storm; as an aspiring author with no real writing credits to speak of). I am the author of the #1 bestsellers, The Rockin' Chair and Twelve Months. I am also the author of the critically-acclaimed, award-wining novel, Goodnight, Brian—as well as Pressed Pennies (due out May 2014) and Gooseberry Island (due out January 2015). My work has appeared on NBC's Today Show, CBS's The Early Show, CNN's American Morning and BET's Nightly News. Three of my short stories were selected "101 Best" for Chicken Soup for the Soul series. When not spending time with my beautiful wife, Paula, or our four children, I’m promoting my works or writing. Visit: www.StevenManchester.com (this is my current bio, twenty years after the first).
FINAL PARAGRAPH: YOUR CLOSING
When wrapping up your amazing query letter, make sure you thank the agent or editor for his or her time and consideration. Be sure to mention that you’d be happy to send along sample chapters or the full manuscript upon their request (because you wouldn’t be pitching them the query letter if the manuscript wasn’t completed, right?)
Here are a few of closings to consider:
Sincere thanks for your anticipated time and consideration. The (59,500 word) manuscript is complete and can be immediately submitted upon your request. The Rockin’ Chair has been professionally edited, is complete at 71,300 words and may be immediately submitted upon your request. Many thanks for your time and consideration. I look forward to hearing from you.
Before I write my closing to you, there are a few additional query letter requirements that you’ll need to keep in mind:
Whenever an agent or editor’s submission requirements allow for it, send your query letter via email; this will speed up the process.
When sending your query letter via snail mail, enclose a self-addressed, stamped envelope.
Address your query specifically to an agent or editor (“Dear Agent” will never work).
Be sure to state the title of your book, as well as the word count and genre.
When pitching snail mail, use standard business letter format—including phone number, mailing address, and email address.
Solicit objective parties to proofread your letter for typos; again, there’s no room for a single mistake.
Never mail your query letter requiring a signature; this will not paint you in a favorable light.
Finally, only include sample chapters if an agent or editor's submission guidelines call for it.
If you nail the query letter, your next letter should begin exactly like this:
Per your request, enclosed please find a two-page synopsis, brief author bio, and the complete manuscript for…
Getting books published is a challenging business, for sure, but it’s not an impossible one. Again, sometimes it’s nothing more than being at the right place at the right time under the perfect circumstances—once you’ve prepared yourself with a polished manuscript and a pristine query letter.
Remember, we very rarely get what we wish for but we do get what we work for—and perseverance is one of the greatest attributes in finding success.
About the Author...
Steven Manchester is the author of the #1 bestseller Twelve Months, Goodnight, Brian, The Rockin` Chair, and several other books. His work has appeared on NBC’s Today Show, CBS’s The Early Show, CNN’s American Morning and BET’s Nightly News. Three of Manchester’s short stories were selected “101 Best” for the Chicken Soup for the Soul series.