Back to Basics: The Query Letter

One of our most beloved Story Spot readers sent in a question about query letters that many of you–whatever form your work takes–may find helpful (let us know if you do!) Mote writes:

A friend of mine is thinking about approaching some specialty production companies with a script he’s working on — when it’s finished. I told him, if it were me, I’d include a logline and tell them a little bit about myself, my background, and my writing experience — as well as talk about the script itself. He’s doing some research on production companies, but it would basically be a “cold call” situation. He wants to send query letters to these companies to see if they have any interest in reading his script before sending them an actual copy of it. Do you have any examples of a query letter or do you know of any on the web?

Ah, the query. Ken’s advice to his friend is sound*. For those of you new to the query letter, here’s the deal. A query letter is one standard, industry-accepted method to introduce yourself and your project to a potential development or production partner. Queries are one part of your overall pitch package for your project.

Here are my thoughts gleaned from my days as the screenplay submissions gatekeeper at Alliance Atlantis as well as from submitting successful queries for my own work. In a nutshell:

  • Keep your query letter to one page. Period. Your letter is a commercial for your project;  your audience has limited time and attention and a development slate into which your project that may or may not fit, regardless of merit. A happy benefit is that by honing your written pitch, you’ll also develop an ingrained schpiel, ready for regaling listeners at those mod literary cocktail hours you routinely attend.

A query has 3 distinct parts (and this applies to novels, non-fiction books, screenplays, magazine articles, whatever):

  • Part 1 in which you nattily introduce your work. This paragraph will likely be brief, hitting the key descriptors of your project (form, genre, length, etc.) These are the broad strokes. If you have been referred or otherwise have a personal connection to the recipient of your query, briefly mention it here.
  • Part 2 in which you offer your brief synopsis, i.e. your logline. Your writing here should express the tone of the piece rather than being a formal explanation of the project. This should be the meatiest of the sections.
  • Part 3 in which you summarize your credentials (most crucial for book proposals), public recognition/awards, previous publications, credits, etc. Essentially, anything that will establish you, the author, as a credible, competent expert on the project (subtext: worth calling back, who isn’t going to be a nightmare, who’s a pro, even if they’re new to the game).
  • A query letter is a business proposal, not a cry for validation. It’s great to hear “yes” but “no” doesn’t necessarily mean you stink. Look for patterns in the responses that may guide you towards ways to improve your project and pitch because nobody’s perfect.

That’s it. Get in, state your business, get out. And do it with style. Your style, not someone else’s. Package it properly (no sparkles or pieces of flair), present it properly (forego the singing telegram method of delivery and don’t email if their guidelines request paper), and follow up in a timely and appropriate manner. Would you want anything less from someone approaching you for your time, energy, and potentially, your future professional reputation?

Don’t just take my word for it, there are plenty of resources out there for you. Here’s one. And another. These can be especially good for what not to include in a query, like assurances of how successful your project will be or your entire boxed manuscript. Here’s a tip: never send a full script without first being asked. Not even digitally. Not only is it annoying but most companies have legalities in place that require them to ditch it instantly which leaves a writer in a worse position than if they’re entered in the system with a simple query.

* Except for the part about sending the query before the screenplay is written. Please, please only contact agents, producers, editors, publishers, etc. when you have a proper saleable project. Exceptions where querying ideas is appropriate (in my opinion) include book proposals and feature articles for magazines where substantial research will be needed and the writer will be given specific input on how to proceed with the project. In other words, projects “developed in partnership” rather than “sold”.

Just be considerate. Understand where and to whom you are sending your work and give it your best shot. Good luck!

And a tiny url for your sharing pleasure: http://tinyurl.com/cqe6blw
  1. Hey, I think you just blew my cover. Now everyone on the web will know that I'm that annoying "Mote" guy. ;-)

    Excellent post, Diane. I'm sure there are writers out there who will find it useful.

    Cheers,
    The Annoying Mote Guy

    Mote99 says:

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