The Same, but Different

If you’ve ever read an interview with an agent or editor, and someone asks “what are you looking for?” you’ll notice they often say things like “we’re always looking for a good story” or “I want to see more stories like (whatever’s popular).”

They may say they want something new and groundbreaking, but the form rejection letters you’re getting seem to belie that point.

So what is it they want?

To put it bluntly: they’re looking for stuff that sells. That’s their job, after all. As much as they may love literature, they’re not in this for art.

Your goal as an author: give them something sellable and different.

That’s the trick, isn’t it?

What makes a novel sellable?  There isn’t a defined formula. It’s more alchemy than physics. That said, there are a few tips and tricks that you need to be aware of to at least get your foot in the door.

The same… but different.

You’ve probably heard this old chestnut, too. “Publishers are looking for the same… but different.”

What the heck does that mean?

Is it just the usual double-speak, so editors don’t have to say “listen, I have no idea what I want, but I’ll know it when I see it?”

Is it an agent’s dodge?

Actually, no. At least, not exactly.

The same: GENRE.

Knowing what genre you’re writing in is an enormous step towards making your novel sellable. Why? Because categories help readers find authors. They also establish reader expectations.

If you’re writing a mystery, there had better be a dead body or two in there and a puzzle to solve.

If you’re writing a romance, there had better be a love story with a happy ending. Even if it’s only happy-for-now.

If you’re writing science fiction, but it takes place on present day earth with no extra-terrestrials, no strange or supernatural phenomenon, and not a lot of sci-fi accoutrement… well. You get the idea.

If you’re writing a Western, but it takes place in Paris? Good luck with that.

The different: VOICE.

Voice is what you bring to the table.

It’s when you take the established reader expectations of genre, and bring your own spin to the story.

This can either be through your writing style, or through your interpretation of how to build the story itself. 

For example, think of the thousands of different re-tellings of the Cinderella story. Or Romeo and Juliet. There are a million variations… as Shakespeare says, there’s nothing new under the sun.

If you think of some of the most unique reads out there, you can break it down into expected elements and then identify the twist.

Example #1: romance.

One of my favorite reads last year was Red, White, and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston. It’s a classic romance, in a lot of ways: uses the enemies to lovers trope, has royalty, has a happy ending.  The twist? The son of the President of the United States falls in love… with the Prince of Wales. (It is adorable. I highly recommend it.) The writing is fresh, the dialogue and description pop, the characters are well delineated and unique. It’s the same, but different.

Example #2: mystery.

Nothing exemplifies “the same, but different” as well as cozy mysteries. They literally follow the same playbook, over and over.  Sleuth is established, crime is committed, suspects are lined up. Another body may enter the mix, usually a primary suspect cleared off the board. All evidence is presented for reader delectation. Sleuth then reveals the solution, and justice is served.

If you haven’t watched the movie Knives Out, it is a masterclass in mystery construction, with a few true twists (as well as an absolutely banana-pants set of characters.) To talk too much about the plot would be to spoil it, and it’s truly something that shouldn’t be spoiled. But it turns the genre on its head. There’s murder, there are suspects, there’s a “gentleman sleuth” that is so scenery-chewing over-the-top he’s hilarious, there are tweaks and winks and callbacks to the mystery genre itself. Best of all, every single detail that is referenced in terms of mystery is tied up by the end, no simple red herrings or throwaway clues. It is the same, but very, very different.

What about cross-genre?

Ah, cross-genre. The problem with cross-genre is determining who it would most appeal to, and how to sell it. Saying that something will “appeal to a variety of audiences” doesn’t actually mean it’s so. You’re going to have to work twice as hard to get it to seamless, so it fulfills the expectations of more than one genre.

What if I don’t know my story’s genre?

Admittedly, it’s easier to come up with a “same but different” story in the premise stage, building it right into the foundation. But what if you’ve written a story of your heart, and now you’re trying to think of how to market it?

Your first step is probably figuring out your book’s genre (and I’ve written a whole blog post to help you do that, just follow the link. Or, you can purchase my ebook on this whole subject, Genre & Voice.) Once you’ve got that pinned down, it will be easier to categorize, especially if you’re pursuing traditional publishing. It will also make it easier to find comparable titles.

Keep the faith.

It’s easy to get demoralized by the ambiguity in our business. Whether something is “too similar” or “too divergent” is going to be a judgment call on the part of both readers and publishing professionals. The trick is to keep moving, keep striving – and keep writing.

Is Writing Full Time a Viable Option?

Is writing full time a viable option?Note: this originally was run in my newsletter, but given the responses, I thought I’d post it here on the blog as well.

Is writing full time a viable option?

Around 80% of the people I work with have mentioned that, ideally,eventually,  they want to be able to write full time.

At the same time, all over the internet and among the publishing community, they talk about how publishing has to be a labor of love, because nobody’s making money except the old school publishing heavy weights, the six figure debut gambles, and the self-publishing outliers like Bella Andre or Hugh Howey.

Let’s face it: it’s discouraging.

I’ve already blogged about approaching your writing career like a business if you ever hope to make a living.  That said, let’s look at some actual numbers and see what the likelihood is of “making a living.”

*Trigger warning: I will be using math.*

What would it take to make a gross income of $30,000 USD in a year?

Notice I did not pick an opulent “six figure” income.  What would it take to make $30,000?

The traditional route:

The first time advance is, on average, around $5,000 to $15,000.

Since an advance is against earnings, you won’t see another cent until after publication… which, in traditional, can be up to a year or more after you sign the contract.

Then, they need to do accounting  They hold what’s called “reserves against returns”, which means “yeah, you made $1,000, but we’re going to hold onto it, because we have to give some of that money back if copies get returned.”

You don’t generally see any money until the book has been out for a year or so, which could be two years after you’ve signed the contract and gotten that advance.

You also need to “earn out” — meaning you don’t get any more money until you’ve sold enough copies, and made enough royalties, to “pay off” the money they fronted you.

Let’s say you made 7% royalty on a $14.99 trade paperback.  That’s around $1/book.  So you’d need to sell anywhere from 5,000 to 15,000 copies before you saw any additional earnings.

Granted, there’s a higher royalty rate for digital, around 25% at least and as high as 40%, but the cost would (should) be a bit lower, as well. In this case, say $9.99 at 25%. That’s $2.50 a book. You’d only need to sell 6,000 digital copies to earn out a $15,000 advance.

Basically, you’ve been paid $15,000 at the top end of the scale, and you won’t see any more for two more years. If at all.

Oh, and with traditional, you’re probably working with an agent who helped land the deal (and hopefully negotiated for the best advance possible), who will take 15% of the advance and any future earnings.  So that $15,000 advance is really $12,750.  And the $1 per book is only 85 cents.

The other thing — if you don’t earn out in around 12 months from publication, the publisher is going to have serious qualms about offering you another contract. They can’t afford to shell out the up front costs of editorial, publishing and marketing on a low earner.

The self-publishing route:

Compared to the “sad 7” of traditional publishing, you’re making 70% of royalty digitally self-publishing. Even if you’re selling your digital copies for only $2.99 a book, that means $2 per copy — double what you’d be making with a traditional publisher at $14.99 a book.

And you get paid monthly (on a two month lag), not quarterly or twice a year like traditional authors. There’s no wait on returns.  Best of all, you don’t have to worry about earning out to keep publishing. You can publish as often as your heart desires (and your output allows.)

That said, you’re no longer just a writer. You’re a publisher.

That means you’re now responsible for editorial, including developmental editing, line editing, proofreading. You need formatting. You need to get a cover.  You need to create a marketing plan, you need to figure out pricing, you need to write the book description and choose the categories and keywords.

Some average costs:  developmental editing can be anywhere from $3-10 per page, and substantive or line editing is higher (because of the degree of detail and increased time necessary), so $5-25 page.  Formatting, if you outsource it, can cost around $25-50 per book. A cover can cost $100-500, depending.

So for an 85,000 word novel — around 340 pages — the cost at the low end of the scale would be would be:

Developmental editing —  $1,020
Copy editing — $1,700
Formatting — $25
Cover — $100

Total cost:  $2,845

(Before anybody jumps on me and says “that’s ludicrous!”, these are ballpark averages. I’m sure there are plenty cheaper places out there… although many may be overcharging at a cut-rate, if you get what I mean, so be wary.)

Many authors forgo this, simply because they can’t afford it.  Self-publishing is a bastion of DIY (Do It Yourself) and, alas, it often shows.  Many times, this is due to cost-cutting (“I don’t need an editor, I was a proofreader in college”), rush to publication (“I want to make money now“), as well as a lack of perspective (“my book is brilliant the way it is — why would I pay somebody to tell me to make it different?”)

While I feel it’s definitely been improving, it is a large reason why self publishing still carries a stigma, reasonable or not.

If you’re making $2 per copy, then you would need to sell 15,000 copies to make that goal number of $30,000.  Another often quoted statistic:  93% of all self published books sell less than 100 copies a year, and make less than $500.

At that rate,it would take you 60 years to earn your target amount.

So should we all just pack it in?

In my opinion…. no.

Not if you’ve got an entrepreneurial mindset, and you’re open to risk.  There are authors who are making this humble average, just from writing.  They don’t make headlines, but they are making money.

What we do need to stop doing is idealizing publishing,or maintaining an artist’s mindset to make a financial goal.

If these numbers made you blanch, then really consider what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it.  It’s okay to write out of pure passion, with a more relaxed pace, only because this book must get out or it’ll kill you. In fact, that’s why most of us started writing in the first place.  It’s perfectly acceptable to approach it as a pursuit that might bring you money, but that’s not the reason you’re in it.

If you know this, if you accept it, it will save you heartache. It will also buffer you against the clamoring “but you have to make money!” talking heads that will batter against you with well-meaning but otherwise stressful advice.

But if you do want to make a living, you’re going to have to work your ass off.  That’s a given.  It’s more than just the writing itself. It’s going to be your attitude, learning the business, making strategic decisions.

It means looking at things like series potential. It could mean going for traditional publishing on a multi-book contract.  Right now, publishers are leery of this, so it may take a while for you to earn your keep and prove your credibility.

It means considering “hybrid” publishing — working with a publisher on some titles, self-publishing others.

It means learning all the ins-and-outs of self-publishing.

It means looking seriously at your writing speed: the more books you produce, the more the risk is spread out, and the fewer copies per title you have to sell to hit your target.  It also gives new readers a back list to purchase, making more sales with less effort.

If you write slowly, then it means working with someone to create not just great, but stellar, unusual, and marketable books, and working with a top-line agent who will get you the biggest advances possible.  It also means accepting the fact that you’re playing roulette — you could win big, but the odds are slim.

It also means looking at the long game. It will take years of consistent effort, with little to no pay out, before you create a long-tail back list that will help generate enough passive income to generate momentum.  Also, you’re going to have some out-and-out failures, and it’ll probably take a while to settle into your groove.

Finally: don’t do it alone.

I’ve been a traditionally published author since 2000, putting out eighteen novels with Big 6 publishers.  I shifted to self-publishing when I started up Rock Your Writing, putting out my own titles, Rock Your Plot, Rock Your Revisions, and Write Every Day, among others.  There was definitely a learning curve.

Now, I’m putting this all to use, self-publishing my own fiction series starting in December.  I’ve spent the past two years building up RYW, and now I’m going to turn my attention back to my own fiction.

That said, I’d love some company on the way, as I experiment with my own work in what I’ve usually only done with other clients.

I’m thinking of opening up a private membership group for writers interested in self-publishing or hybrid publishing, and definitely in writing full time.  I was wondering — would anyone be interested in that?  If you could email me, I’d appreciate it.

Platform: what the heck are we doing?

file0002108341536Platform.  It’s agreed that every author needs a platform.  There are a lot of debates raging, though, regarding when to start, what to do, and why.

First and foremost:  I believe in promotion.  You can have the most wonderful story in existence, but if no one knows about it, or can’t find it, then you’re never going to get read.

That said, I have mixed feelings about the term “platform” simply because I think most of us just don’t get it.

Why are you doing what you’re doing?

I have spent the past few years studying courses from, and the dynamic duo of Naomi Dunford and Dave Navarro.  In their course “Your Next Six Months,” they wrote a fantastic observation :

Let’s look at someone who wants to get serious about music. What might they do to show they were serious?

They’re going to find Middle C on a piano. They’re going to figure out the correct way to hold a French horn.  They’re going to learn how to moisten the reed on a clarinet without getting a tongue splinter.  They’re going to pick up a biography of Beethoven on the Kindle.

Looking at these people from the outside, what’s the first word you think of when you look at their behavior?  Is it serious?  Or is it scattered?

Applied to music, or sports, or home decorating, this approach is insane.
Applied to business, it somehow seems not only reasonable, but the only responsible thing to do.

How authors apply this insanity.

I can’t tell you how many authors I’ve spoken with who say “well, I’ve got to get my platform going, because I’m going to be querying soon.  So I have got to get a website.  And I’m starting my Facebook page, and get a Twitter profile.  Oh!  And I’ve been hearing good things about Pinterest.  And maybe Tumblr.  And I need to start a street team.  And I really have to figure out how to spend more time on blogging.  I hear that’s really good for SEO.”

Right there, that’s essentially presenting a similar approach to the scattered music analogy.  They’re going to do a little bit of everything.  But it’s not going to necessarily tie up coherently.

If you ask them what the purpose of this “platform” is, they will look at you like you’re crazy, and say, “to sell books, obviously!”

But it’s as if they’re following a recipe: have these elements, mix vigorously, and sales will result.  That’s essentially like someone throwing eggs, butter, flour, and sugar in a bowl, and then hoping like hell a cake comes out when they take it out of the oven.

What might work better.

There’s a method behind the madness.  Here are some example elements, and how they work:

1.  Website. 

Who goes there:  people who want to find out more about you and/or your books.

How they got there:  either because they saw a guest post and found you interesting; they saw your title in a search, and they want to know more before they invest in your books; or they read your title, liked it, and want to know what else you have and when your next title will be available, especially if there’s a series.  They either Google search your name or click on a link, again from a guest post bio, or Goodreads, or social media.

What it should do: 

  • offer information about you in a way that’s compelling to your Right Readers, reassuring them that they’re in the right place.
  • Offer ways to purchase your books and information that might sway an on-the-fence reader.
  • Offer a clear overview of the series order if you write series
  • Provide a way for readers to be notified about future titles, perhaps even with a signing incentive, in your newsletter.

2.  Social Media:  Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, etc.

Who visits your social media:  Different types of people use different types of social media for different purposes.  They go to see interesting things, find things to share with other people, and to feel connected. Almost none of these people go to these places to be actively sold to.

How they get to your social media:  Generally, you get “followed” by fans on social media after they find a book and enjoy it, or because they’ve seen you interacting with other mutual friends, and they feel they connect with you on a personal level.  They like what you share, what you “say,” and generally your social media personality.  Or, they are signing up to support you, because they like your work and want to feel closer to you.

What social media should do:

  • Should be primarily social.  It’s hard to connect with a continually ongoing ad.
  • Even if it’s promoting work, there is an element of “we” to it… “You guys got this book to #3 on the bestseller list!” reads a lot differently than “I hit #3 on the bestseller list!”
  • Should be focused on your Right Reader almost exclusively.  That way, you’re cementing your relationship with those people who will be the most connected to you, and the most vehement about helping you promote.

3.  Guest posting/blog tours

Who goes there:  people who are “fans” and followers of the book blog.  Making sure you’re a right fit for the book blog is a good first step.

How they get there:  They follow social media links or simply visit the blog regularly.

What guest posting should do: 

  • In some cases, it will result in either a sale, or at least an “add” of interest on Goodreads, both good things.
  • In some cases, it will simply promote interest — they aren’t ready to buy or add, yet, but they might research a bit more.  Links to your website would probably be a good thing, especially if it comes with a bribe to subscribe or extended excerpt.
  • In other cases, they may not be interested in the book, but they will respond to your tone and decide to follow your social media, giving you opportunity to connect and possibly sell a book they find more to their liking down the road.
  • Finally, if nothing else, it increases visibility of your title.  Every blog tends to promote their guest posts and reviews on all their social media — which then gets cross promoted and retweeted, etc. by many of their followers and friends. So people start seeing your title and name in their social media feeds, and when they finally click on a link, they’ll think “man, I’ve been hearing about this book everywhere.”

Like a puzzle, a platform has interlocking pieces.

It’s not brain surgery, but a certain amount of strategy does come into play.  If you don’t know what you want a platform “plank” to accomplish, think twice before leaping in.

If you’re interested in developing that strategy…

I’ve put out a book to help with just that.  It’s called Painless Promotion: Strategy. It will give you the interlocking pieces, going into more detail than I’ve done here. Better still, it will help you decide what you need, and why… and how to start putting that plan into place.


Should you use profanity in your novels?

dingdangStrangely, I often see the question “is it okay if I curse in my novels?”

The easy answer is:  it depends.

It depends on the genre.  If you’re writing a mystery-thriller or something with a bunch of Navy Seals in it, cursing probably seems pretty natural.  If you’re writing a Christian romance or a children’s picture book, not so much.

It also depends on the publisher.  Some publishers will balk at pushing past a PG-13 rating, for example.  When I was writing for Harlequin Blaze, they were comfortable with the level of cursing that you’d find on primetime television, but tended to shy away from the word “fuck.”  That said, they had absolutely no problem using the “c” word… the boy c-word, anyway.  They were less enthusiastic about the girl c-word.

(And if you have no idea what either of them are, I’m not typing them.  I had a hard time using them when I was writing erotica, and I try to avoid them since I stopped.)

Bottom line, look at what’s most authentic for your characters and your story, and go for it.  Or don’t.  Whatever fits your novel and your voice.

The harder response:  why are you worried?

The thing that always strikes me about people asking “is it okay…?” is the hesitancy involved.  If someone asks if it’s okay to curse in their writing, the underlying question seems to be:  “will this prevent me from getting published?  Will this somehow stop me from making money?  Will people hate me or judge me if I do this?”

So let’s answer those instead.

Will profanity prevent me from getting published?

Yes.  From certain publishers, anyway.

But honestly — if you feel strongly about your characters or your voice, those are the wrong publishers for you.  It’s better to know that up front, rather than continually curb and second-guess your writing.  If you do, you’ll only dilute it to the point where you offer nothing fresh and original, and you’ll be dropped from their roster for not being able to grow a readership.

Will this somehow stop me from making money?

Yes — from certain readers who will read the profanity, become aghast, and then quickly demand a refund.

But again, if you feel strongly about your characters and your voice, they’re the wrong readers.  You want readers that feel strongly about you one way or the other.  Those that hate you will stop reading.  Those that stick around will love you, because you take chances, you’re authentic, and you’re willing to polarize a bit.  Taking a stand can be controversial, even for something as trivial as a bit of cursing.

Will I be hated and judged?


In fact, in my opinion, you should be.  Not for using for profanity, necessarily.  Just in general.

If you’re not doing something visible enough, and authentic enough, that people can’t take a stand for or against it, then you’re probably not doing anything remarkable — and you’re not doing anything that’s going to develop an authentic Right Reader following.

That doesn’t mean you need to be a trash-talking gangster.  People hate Debbie Macomber and she is one of the sweetest women I’ve ever met.  They hate her sweetness:  her focus on the positive; her small-town, folksy, charming romances.  Hell, people hate the romance genre in general — they just focus on her in particular.

But she knows her audience, she knows herself, and she takes a stand.  That takes bravery.

Profanity is my “red velvet rope.”

If you’ve read any of the Rock Your Writing series of ebooks, you’ll probably notice that there’s a sprinkling of cursing here and there.

If a reader is looking for an academic treatise, the first use of “hell” usually tips them off:  whoa, this isn’t that kind of a book.

In my fiction, I tend to go a bit further.  This isn’t because I curse like a sailor in real life. (I will admit, I probably curse more in my fiction because I try not to let the odd blue word fly in front of my seven-year-old son.  My novels are a bit of a pressure relief valve!)  It does fit with the characters, in my opinion, especially for my novel Temping is Hell.  The character is… well, flawed.  (The “patron saint of fuck ups” is her own term for it.)  But a lot of the humor for that book, and the series, reflects a certain impropriety.

What I’ve noticed is, people who dislike profanity really, really don’t like the situations my characters tend to get themselves in, and they tend to hate my humor. So I cull the herd right from the jump with a few deliberate curses.  The people who are okay with a bit of strong language are more likely to enjoy the novel, so it works both ways.

You only need to keep your ideal readers happy.

As I’ve mentioned previously, trying to please everyone means ultimately pleasing no one.  Focusing on one niche of “Right Readers” won’t necessarily alienate everyone else, but it will give those Right Readers fuel to generate word of mouth.

It’s hard to be enthusiastic about something wishy-washy.

Long story short: should you use profanity?

As long as you’ve made a conscious choice…  why the hell not? 🙂


Rock Your Query: sample critique, “Dead On Arrival”

I critique a lot of proposal packages for clients who want to improve their query letter and synopsis prior to submitting to agents and editors.  I thought I’d show you guys a peek under the hood of how an actual critique works.

(Note:  this is going to be a regular feature, for both query letters and synopses, and blurbs.  If you’re interested in participating, please email Rebeca, assistant extraordinaire.  Please note, I’ll be limiting it to around twelve or so!)

So our first victim — er, volunteer — is the brave John Birch.

To give you a little background, John’s novel was awarded an honorable mention in the Writer’s Digest annual contest for Best Self-Published Novel in 2002.  Since then, he’s decided to pursue traditional publishing, but he’s been having trouble getting favorable responses.

Here is his original letter:

Dear. Mr.

I’m writing to offer you Dead on Arrival, a finished suspense novel set in Malaysia and Thailand. Most of the book takes place in Kuala Lumpur and Malacca in 1985, when  Malaysia was facing a national Dadah crisis. Dadah is the Malay word for narcotics, and many people were – and still are – regularly hanged there for possession of more than half an ounce of heroin.

The protagonist is Mike Baxter, who until recently was a British Army captain. In his first civilian job he’s sent to Malaysia to investigate the alleged suicide of the chairman’s son, who was the general manager there. His death is  followed by the sudden disappearance there of the dead man’s adult daughter. Baxter’s antagonists are two competing tongs, centuries-old secret societies that mastermind a miscellany of crimes in Southeast Asia. They are exporting heroin to the US and Europe, hidden in life-size, fake antique Buddhist figures.

The book is uniquely authentic because while working in Malaysia for two years I knew Larry Chow, the commissioner of the country’s anti-narcotics police division, who opens doors for me to DEA agents in both Malaysia and Thailand. As a former member of an Army Reserve bomb disposal Regiment, I have a sound knowledge of the weapons and explosives that feature in the book.

About me, I’m a British writer, permanently resident in New York City. Educated at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, I’m a former infantry captain and colonial policeman and, most recently, a senior vice president in what was then the world’s largest PR group. I have published short fiction and non-fiction in newspapers and magazines in the US, UK and Asia, and have worked on assignments in more than 30 countries on four continents. In the past few years I’ve completed three advanced fiction writing courses at New York University and the New School. I’m an experienced public speaker and presenter.

I’m attaching a slightly more detailed synopsis of this 72,000-word book, and have already written the first 12 chapters of a second Mike Baxter series adventure, “A Corpse Called Icarus,” set on the island of Cyprus, where I also lived and worked for four years.

Please let me know if you’d like me to send you the first chapters.

With best wishes,

 John S Birch

My critique of the query letter.

This letter has some good elements, but I think that it focuses a bit too much on minutiae, and not enough on the actual character arc for the protagonist.  Here are some suggestions for how to improve the hook and the format.

1.  Opening paragraph. 

Right now, the opening paragraph goes into detail about Kuala Lumpur and the Dadah crisis there.  While the image of people being “regularly hanged” for more than a half-ounce of heroin is visceral, this is not the place for that.  The opening paragraph should include:

  • Why you chose the editor, so he knows this isn’t a shotgun mass mailing. (Granted, this is a form query, with no one in particular targeted, but it’s still good to remember.)
  • What exactly you’re offering.  In this case, he’s offering Dead on Arrival, a suspense novel, complete at 72,000 words. (Sidenote:  72,000 words feels a little short for traditional suspense genre offerings.)
  • If there’s a comparison novel or author, this is a good place to include it, not because you want to seem like you’re copying anyone (you’re not) but because agents and editors like to get a shorthand grasp of how they’d market it.  It also shows you know what your story’s strengths are.  There’s a difference between the thrill ride of, say, Robert Ludlum, the twists and turns of Dan Brown, and the restrained cloak and dagger of John LeCarre.

2.  Mini-synopsis paragraph.

The second paragraph is usually the mini-synopsis.  If you’ve read Rock Your Query, you’ll probably recognize this.  I advocate including three things in the mini-synopsis:  a description of the protagonist, the story question, and the conflict.

  • Description of the protagonist.  We know that he’s Mike Baxter, who “until recently was a British Army captain.”  He’s now investigating the alleged suicide of the chairman’s son.  The problem here is, I don’t know why his previous experience as a captain is important, and I don’t know what his job is, or why he’s investigating the suicide.  Therefore, I don’t know why it’s going to be crucial for him to figure out what’s going on.  Since this is his first civilian job, is he afraid of not making it in the outside world?  Was he dishonorably discharged, and now trying to prove himself?  Why is this important to him, and why do I, as a reader, care?
  • The story question.  This has been marketed as a suspense novel.  So we’ll want to be clear:  is the novel about Baxter unraveling the truth behind the “suicide” and discovering the drug smuggling and tong warfare?  Or is it about him knowing from relatively early on that the tongs are involved, and then stopping the drug smuggling?
  • The conflict.  Presumably the tongs are going to make him solving the case difficult.  That said, how does it escalate?  Do they make attempts on his life?  Continue killing more people?  I would suggest hinting at the midpoint and third act escalations, to show that Mr. Baxter is about to face truly serious and growing opposition, as well as increasing stakes.

3.  Closing paragraph — writer credentials.

Don’t know about you guys, but John sounds like a fascinating guy to me!  🙂  That said, there’s a lot of detail here, and I would suggest trimming it down a bit, so the focus remains on the story.  I’d also hold off on mentioning the sequel at this point, and get them hooked on this story first.  He can discuss his background as a public speaker and V.P. of a PR firm after the story’s set.  It might seem counter intuitive — after all, promotion is key — all the promotion background in the world isn’t going to help if he doesn’t get the agent to the story.  Promotion details like “I have a 10,000 person newsletter list” or “I have 50,000 followers on Twitter” or “I write a newspaper column that is read by x readers a day” would be more important.  Or, conversely, if you have impressive self-pub sales numbers, here’s the place to add that.  I wouldn’t include the Writer’s Digest thing necessarily, since it’s over 10 years old, but if it is going to be included, it’d be here.

Bonus:  “In my version of your query letter…”

If I were to revise this, I’d suggest it look something like:

Dear ____________,

I recently read in [whatever blog, Writer’s Market, etc.] that you’re looking for suspense novels [set in exotic locales, whatever.]  I think my novel, Dead on Arrival, might fit your interests.  A suspense in the vein of [comparable authors], it is complete at 72,000 words.

Mike Baxter is determined to prove himself in his first civilian position since leaving his captaincy in the British Army.   His first assignment: go to Malaysia, and investigate the suicide of a chairman’s son.  What should be a cut-and-dried case is complicated as Baxter discovers that the dead man’s adult daughter has suddenly gone missing.  As he delves deeper into the mystery, that one suicide leads him to artifact smuggling, heroin trafficking, and two ancient, rival tongs… centuries old secret societies, whose war threatens not only Baxter’s life, but the lives of those around him.

I’m a former infantry captain and colonial policeman. While working in Malaysia, I was able to get first-hand research with DEA agents and the commissioner of the anti-narcotics police.  I have published short fiction in newspapers and magazines in the US, UK, and Asia, and have worked on assignments in more than thirty countries.

Enclosed is a detailed synopsis for Dead on Arrival [plus any partial pages if requested], per your guidelines.  I would be happy to provide the complete manuscript on request.  Thank you for your time and consideration.


John S. Birch

And that’s it.

I hope this look at how a query letter breaks down is helpful.  This is my approach — I’m sure there are millions of others, but I’ve had a good success rate with clients, using this “template.” (And thanks again, John, for agreeing to share your work, and for being an all around good sport!)

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