Around the Internets it seems to be conventional wisdom that novel writing and query letter writing require two different skill sets, and an author who is good at one may not (or even need not) be good at the other.
Personally, I disagree with this premise entirely and believe that anyone who can write a good novel can write a good query letter.
But. For the sake of this discussion, let’s say that writing a novel and writing a query does require different skill sets and one may not necessarily go with the other.
Well… you need both skill sets.
International bestselling author Jeff Abbott was kind enough to send me just a few of the instances when he has had to distill his work into cogent summaries without the help of anyone:
- My publisher once asked me to write a letter to the sales force, talking about myself and my book. It wasn’t something a copywriter could do. I had to do it. And you want to make a good impression on the sales force–you live and die by sales. That letter is something they can then use in closing more orders for your books.
- Most publishers ask you to fill out a marketing questionnaire, so the publicists can use that in shaping their press pitches. A lot of that involves summaries of your book to different audiences: press, readers, booksellers, etc. Yes, the publicist has read the book. But they want to know what YOU want to stress before they start throwing ideas at you. You have to be part of that conversation.
- Writers are sometimes involved in jacket copy. Not often. But if the copywriter is stuck or having trouble, it’s not unusual for the author to take a stab at a rewrite. The few times I’ve heard of this happening, it’s because the copywriter missed on the major stakes of the book for the main character or emphasized a minor point to the exclusion of the focus of the book. Copywriters aren’t perfect. No one can know your book better than you do.
- You get a call from a film studio, interested in you writing a treatment or a script for your book. This might come from your agent or they may have read the book. They want you do to a pitch on how you’d do the adaptation. And they want it tomorrow, via conference call. That’s a verbal form of a query letter.
- At the Southeast Booksellers Association, they do an event called Moveable Feast–ten booksellers at a table, one empty chair for an author, a few dozen tables. You sit at each table and talk about your book to the booksellers for ten minutes, then move to the next table. Guess what? Your publicist isn’t sitting next to you, whispering cues in your ear.
- At a cocktail party in London, me and 25 booksellers met for drinks and dinner. I had to mingle, meet everyone. At that point, the booksellers knew I’d had one successful book in the UK; they wanted to know about the next one. And they want to hear it in your words, not the press kit. They want to make that connection with you. You have to be able to talk about your work, your vision, what makes you you in a brief and interesting way.
- Any number of times, just out socializing, someone finds out I’m a writer and asks what I write or what’s my new book about. They want something short and snappy and memorable. I want them to be interested in the book.”
Annnnnnd so on.
So the message for the school of “I’m Just a Novelist” — successful summarizing doesn’t end with the query. If you feel like you can’t do it, forcing yourself to write a good query is a great way to start.
Need some help summarizing? Here are some posts that might help:
Need help with your pitch? I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and consultations! And if you like this post, check out my guide to writing a novel.
Art: Die Dorfpolitiker by Friedrich Friedländer