The Query Letter, Part 1: How to Write a Query for a Short Story

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So you have written a short story – a story between 2,000 and 17,500 words. You have polished it, checked to make sure the characters are in their proper places, that the setting is right, and are otherwise certain this is the story you want to tell. Now you and your tale are ready and raring to go into the world. But how are the two of you going to get there?

There is the option of self-publishing. Although this can and has worked out well for some, it may take a while for beginning authors to reap a return on the investment of time and money. Contrary to the popular image, a person cannot just write a story, slap it up on Amazon’s Kindle store, and have it become a best-seller overnight. The quality of the story itself has little to do with its success or failure in the self-publishing market; in a world where people can release their own works on the Internet any time they wish, the market is literally awash in fiction.

Finding a good story in this arena is about as easy as scouring the dollar DVD bins at Wal-Mart in search of a favorite film. A customer can find treasure if he does enough digging and if he is willing to take risks, but attracting people to the bin is a hassle for store owners. Unless they can get a handful of people poking around in the bin, most shoppers are not going to pay it much mind. Or, if they do, they will skim the surface of the pile without burrowing deeper to see what lies below the surface.

This is why independent authors who self-publish on various platforms are always hawking their wares and/or asking for reviews. If they want to reduce the effort their potential customers expend to find their fiction, they have to push their book(s) to the top of the pile. And then, if they are lucky, word of mouth will spread. This will lead to higher sales which will boost them into a better selling range, if not the much-coveted best-seller lists.

One of the methods that authors may use to spread word of their work to a greater number of people is to sell short stories to magazines or anthologies – the more well-known the brand, the better. And so you will find beginning authors scanning for open calls for submissions from various magazines and anthologies in the hopes that they can send their short stories to them. Not only will a percentage of these publications pay for their works, either on acceptance or with royalties, but they will put these writers’ tales before fresh eyes. It might convince some of those new eyes to look up the author to purchase something.

It is not a guarantee of success, but it certainly does not hurt one’s career. This leads a beginning author to the quintessential question: What does a query letter look like? And how should I write mine?

This is very, very important. A query letter is an introduction, much like a resume. It tells the publisher the writer’s background and delivers a concise picture of the tale the author is submitting. Good query letters are not guaranteed to win a writer a place in a given magazine or anthology, but they are likely to make an impression on the editor wading through the slush pile, increasing that author’s chances of being accepted either in this submission call or at a later date.

So what does a proper query letter look like? If you are an avid adherent of Writer’s Digest*, then you may have seen one or more articles dedicated to discussing this topic. Failing that, one of their Writer’s Market* books may have an example for you to emulate. My copy of Writer’s Market has this template for a magazine/anthology query letter:

Marcus West

88 Piano Drive

Lexington, KY 00000

 

August 8, 2011

 

Jeanette Curic

Wonder Stories

45 Noodle Street

Portland, OR 00000

 

Dear Ms. Curic,

Please consider the following, 1,200-word story, “Turning to the Melon,” a quirky coming of age story with a little magical realism thrown in the mix.

After reading Wonder Stories for years, I think I’ve finally written something that would fit with your audience. My previous short story credits include Stunned Fiction Quarterly and Faulty Mindbomb.

Thank you in advance for considering “Turning to the Melon.”

Sincerely,

Marcus West

(123) 456-7890

Marcusw87452@email.com

http://www.webaddress.com

 

At first glance, this looks like too little for a query letter. Compared to the ones this author has submitted, it is rather short. Nevertheless, it hits the critical points: word count, title, and a description for the story. With regard to the author, it lists his previous accomplishments, while adding that he himself enjoys the publication to which he has sent his tale. Thus he has some idea of what they are looking for based on the fact that he has extensive experience with the magazine they put out.

Before continuing, it is important to note that this template is quite flexible. If you are sending a query letter off with a ten thousand word short story, this model inquiry will work just fine. You may expand the description of your story to one or three paragraphs in order to attract the editor’s attention (and let them know what to expect) rather than leave the account one sentence in length.

This can help your submission peek out from the slush pile, which may include poor query letters like this fictional case, also from Writer’s Market:

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To: curic@wonderstories808.com

Subject: A Towering Epic Fantasy

Hello there.

I’ve written a great epic novel short story of about 25,000 words that may be included in your magazine if you so desire.

More than 20 years, I’ve spent chained to my desk in a basement writing out the greatest story of our modern time. And it can be yours if you so desire to have it.

Just say the word and I’ll ship it over to you. We can talk money and movie rights after your acceptance. I have big plans for this story, and you can be part of the success.

Yours forever (if you so desire),

Harold

(or Harry for friends)

 

Forget, for a moment, the repetitive pomposity of this example and focus on what it lacks. It does not consider the fact that Wonder Stories is a magazine with a word limit of less than 25,000 words. The writer does not offer his credentials or, at the very least, a blurb for his submission. He makes allusions to “great plans” and offers to grant the editor favors he cannot possibly deliver at this time – if ever. He then casually insists the editor refer to him in a rather intimate manner (“Harry” rather than “Henry”), as if he were brokering a deal with a partner.

This is far and away one of the worst types of letters to send to a publisher, but it is more egregious for short story writers. An author – especially a beginning author – has a very small window of opportunity in which to impress the editor of a particular publication. The editor has the power to deny or accept the writer’s story, and he is perfectly within his rights to toss the query letter and/or attached story into the trash if said correspondence lacks at least an honest attempt at professionalism.

Editors are tasked with finding new material for a publication within a given time frame. And like all other people on the planet, the editor’s time is valuable. He cannot afford to waste time he could be spending with his family because he is trying to parse the meaning of a particular submission letter. It is your job, as the writer, to respect this fact and accommodate the editor as much as possible in this area.

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Not all magazines and anthologies include the publisher’s physical address on their submissions’ page. In cases such as this, it is perfectly acceptable to simply list the editor’s name, the name of the magazine or anthology publisher, and their web address before stating one’s own physical address or starting off “Dear Mr./Ms. Editor.” If you do not have the editor’s name or know which one your story may go to, just put “The Editor(s)” above the publisher’s address and in the salutation. While not necessarily preferable, it is acceptable etiquette in a query letter.

Yes, even in an email, an author can and should put the publisher’s address in the upper left hand corner. He should also include his own address after his name, if not below the publisher’s address and above the salutation. Adhering to this format is not just a simple courtesy; by stating one’s address in the email as well as the manuscript a writer is proving that this is his true contact information. While editors will occasionally ask for extra verification, repeating one’s physical address in the query letter and at the head of the manuscript helps confirm to the editor that the author is being honest. In this day of easy hoaxes and scams that is no small thing, future writers.

Putting one’s physical address below one’s signature even after including it above the salutation is advisable for this same reason. When dealing with money and legalities, something publishers have to do on a regular basis, one cannot check that the i’s have been dotted and t’s crossed too often. Having a submittee’s address confirmed twice or thrice is a good way to set minds at ease.

Before anyone protests, you can simply put your address below your signature and skip setting it above the salutation, if you wish. This format is rather old-school, and while there is nothing wrong with that, it can be a hassle to repeat oneself too often. Shaving off a little extra effort can make submitting a story to a publisher easier on the writer.

Of course, while all this is helpful some of you may have a lingering question: “What if I do not have any previously published works to mention? Won’t they just reject me because I haven’t been published before? What should I do about this?”

Simply put, future authors, if you have no prior publishing credits and/or have never read the publication before, then do not say anything about yourself. Let your work speak for you. You can round out the letter by stating that you have done your best to follow the guidelines, or you can just say “Thank you for considering (story title). I look forward to hearing from you soon.”

That is, truly, all you need to say. You do not have to brag about your day job or schooling – unless you think that might help – or mention that you are a beginning author. Just let the description of your piece stand on its own merits before signing off so the editor(s) can weigh the tale you sent them.

As stated above, this query letter model is not a guarantee of acceptance. It will help someone achieve acceptance, but it does not secure it. Maintaining a professional approach to submission querying means an author already stands out from the crowd in the slush pile. With that done, he competes on a better footing with established writers for a slot in the magazine/anthology.

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Since both these venues have limited space, it is inevitable that a writer will be turned down from one or more publishers during his attempts to “make it” in this business. Even relatively well-known authors do not always land in the magazines or anthologies to which they send their submissions. It is the editor’s prerogative to sift through the competition and decide who is to be published where and when.

The only thing a beginning author can do to better their chances is – you guessed it – be professional. That means being courteous, to the point, and honest. Do not share your dreams or make promises you cannot keep. As the old saw says, time is money. It is also the measure by which we pass through this world. Wasting time will not only harm the editor, but you as well. Only fools or worse believe that time is worthless to themselves, let alone everyone else.

Do not waste your time or the editor’s, readers. Play it straight, keep it short, and make it simple. The editors will thank you for that. And sooner or later, they will pay you for it, too. 😉

If you liked this article, friend Caroline Furlong on Facebook or follow her here at www.carolinefurlong.wordpress.com. Her stories have been published in Cirsova’s Summer Special and Unbound III: Goodbye, Earth, while her poetry appeared in Organic Ink, Vol. 2. She has also had stories published in Planetary Anthologies Luna and Uranus. Another story was released in Cirsova Magazine’s Summer Issue. Her most recent piece is available in Planetary Anthology: Sol. Order them today!

*These are Amazon affiliate links. When you purchase something through it, this author receives a commission from Amazon at no extra charge to you, the buyer. Looking to improve your writing skills? Then check out Bryce Beattie’s Pulp Era Writing Tips*. Filled with advice from SF/F writers who made their living in the heyday of the pulp era, you won’t find a more comprehensive list of advice from these giants of the genre anywhere else. Order it today and find out just what you need for your own stories!

2 thoughts on “The Query Letter, Part 1: How to Write a Query for a Short Story

  1. Pingback: The Query Letter, Part 2: How to a Write Query Letter for a Nonfiction Article | A Song of Joy by Caroline Furlong

  2. Pingback: The Query Letter, Part 3: How to Write a Query Letter for a Novel | A Song of Joy by Caroline Furlong

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