3 Query Tips Every Editor Hopes you Forget

Anyone who has submitted a manuscript–from published pro to the first timer–knows the feeling that sets in the second you click “send” on the query letter email. Anxiety takes hold almost immediately. Did I miss a typo? Will she like it? Will she think my letter is too short, or too long? Maybe I should have read it one more time…

Who knows? Every editor’s taste is different. One may prefer YA realism to fantasy. Another may appreciate high-concept middle grade over school tales and picture books. Some editors only publish fiction or non-fiction. But we all agree that a thoughtful pitch is the best way to garner attention no matter the genre.

So as your finger trembles over the SEND button, try to keep these things in mind:

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Ursula Nordstrom was a realist above all else and understood (and likely rejoiced in) the insanity that goes along with the life of a creative professional (authors, illustrators and editors). In January of 1972, to a frazzled Edward Gorey she wrote this hilarious and sympathetic line:

“I think you know that I have His and Her Straitjackets hanging in my office. Come down and slip into one and we can have a good talk.”~Leonard Marcus, Dear Genius

Of course, this brand of craziness is evident in all of humanity’s great risk-takers–not just writers and illustrators and editors of books.


UnMonday: Ursula Nordstrom’s patented brand of tough love for tired writers

Ursula’s relationship with children’s book author Meindert DeJong wasn’t always comfortable. Good editors and wise writers understand it’s what turns a good book into a GREAT book, as was the case between UN and “Mick.”

Their relationship, however, reveals the real emotional investment editors make in their writers. Equal parts champion and critic, Ursula pushed DeJong (and all of her authors and illustrators) to create his very best work, believing that is what young readers deserved from those in the business of making books for them.

Nowhere is this more evident than with the development of The House of Sixty Fathers, by DeJong, which went through multiple drafts.

When UN believed that DeJong could do better, she told him so and accepted no less. It couldn’t have been easy for the struggling writer to hear as he eked out a living as a janitor.

Understanding Mick’s frustration, but unwavering in her belief in his talent, Harper’s venerable editor encouraged DeJong with her patented brand of passion and polite persistence:

It will be good to see you in October and talk over your doubts and qualms with you and maybe shout and swear at you…I know you can do something which is even better than anything you have ever done if you don’t get discouraged and stay the hell with it. I admit it’s a bad time for you in your writing life, but it won‘t last forever…And if it is any help, remember that I’m here in New York convinced of that…

So much hard work by the book’s author and editor paid off in spades.

With illustrations by Sendak, the book went on to win the Josette Frank Award (then named the Children’s Book Award of the Child Study Association) in 1956. In 1957 it was a Newbery Honor Book, received the Hans Christian Andersen Award, and was named an ALA Notable Children’s Book.

What makes writing scary is that it’s all about trust. Trusting oneself to create something good; trusting an editor to say when it’s not quite good enough; trusting the reader with what you both believe is a very good book.

Springtime, Works in Progress, and ee cummings

With spring mercifully upon us after a miserable winter for most of the publishing industry (looking at you Boston and NYC), I can’t help but think about fresh starts. Of course, that’s what every  WIP is, right? A chance to grow an idea into something beautiful and tangible.  Well,  in the very early stages, most of us would be happy to settle for legible. One step at a time.

But you guys, stuff is perilously close to blooming! Isn’t this the  time that metaphors and creative cliches are one hundred percent OKAY to embrace in the name of inspiration? Nine feet of snow fell in Boston. Ya’ll have earned some gauzy Instagram sunset drafts and rhapsodizing about awakenings, okay?

There’s no better time of year to be green. Make the most of your novice status and use these heady days to take some risks. Start a new project outside of your genre.  Ask obvious questions of experienced writer friends like they are park rangers and you’re a first-time visitor to Old Faithful. They are probably looking for an excuse to avoid writing anyway. Everybody wins.

It doesn’t matter what you write, as long as you get the words down on the page. Just look what a little springtime inspiration did for this guy:

[in Just-]

By E. E. Cummings

in Just-
spring          when the world is mud-
luscious the little
lame balloonman
whistles          far          and wee
and eddieandbill come
running from marbles and
piracies and it’s
when the world is puddle-wonderful
the queer
old balloonman whistles
far          and             wee
and bettyandisbel come dancing
from hop-scotch and jump-rope and
balloonMan          whistles