I've read a couple of postings about query letters in the last couple of weeks. Berger & Burger had an interesting post about it, and Nathan Bransford had a posting of the perfect query letter, along with an interesting conversation at my writer's group about the elusive "pitch." It got me to thinking about the worst query letter that I've ever written.
It was at the ripe age of about 12 when I first spotted the call for poetry in the Sunday comics. (Note to writers: this is probably not the best way to find markets for your writing.) As it happened, at the time I was writing particularly horrible rhyming poetry, and had several Shel Silverstienesque poems freshly printed on looseleaf. The one I selected had a first line that went, "There's a future way past our time, that's filled with green, gooey slime..." It was a striking commentary on the state of our planet. At the time it was one of my best works after a very serious work about the state of my babysitting career.
I had read the sections in the Writer's Market about writing query letters, or at least read the sample letters. (I know this seems odd, but it's true. I spent silent reading hour in class perusing the various publishers who might someday publish my novel. Yes, I was a weird child.) So after having read the instructions, I promptly took out of a fresh sheet of notebook paper, a pencil and began to write.
My name is Jess Stork. I am 12 years old. I have a poem for you to read. It's called, "There's a Future Way Past Our Time." I put it in this envelope.
And yes, I did double space my letter. For extra points, I included one of my school snapshots in the submission. I know this wasn't included in the guidelines in the Writer's Market. I just assumed they had forgotten to mention that.
Strangely enough, I did get an acceptance letter. I brought the letter in to class to show to my two sixth grade teachers. "Read the first paragraph," I told my teacher E who encouraged my writing all the time. I never understood the look on his face until later when I figured out what a vanity publisher was. At the tender age of 12, I didn't understand the concept of vanity publishers, and honestly I was too busy imagining my promising literary future to bother thinking about it. "That's great Jess," E said with this knowing smile.
Ah well, either way, I bring it up to show readers that as much as you think your query and manuscript are swimming in the tempest of the slush pile, remember this: a huge number of submissions have the agent's name spelled incorrectly, or a manuscript from a different genre than they deal with, or even a 12 year old sending in a poem and their school photo. My point is this: Do your homework about the agent/editor you're submitting to. Read their guidelines, and their blog if they have one. Use that information in your query letter, and you'll already be ahead of the game.
Note: For anyone looking for good resources on query letters, I would suggest: