Monday, March 2, 2009

Guest Author ~ Wendy Burt-Thomas, author of The Writer's Digest Guide to Query Letters

Please welcome my guest author of the day, Wendy Burt-Thomas. She is a full-time freelance writer, editor and copywriter with more than 1,000 published pieces. Her third book, "The Writer's Digest Guide to Query Letters" hit stores in January 2009.

1. Q: Can you tell us about your book?

The book was a great fit for me because I'd been teaching "Breaking Into Freelance Writing" for about eight years. In the workshop, I covered a lot of what is in this book: writing query letters to get articles in magazines, to land an agent, or to get a book deal with a publisher. Since I'm a full-time freelance magazine writer and editor with two previous books, this was incredibly fun to write because it didn't require tons of research. I was lucky enough to receive lots of great sample query letters from writers and authors that I use as "good" examples in the book. I wrote all the "bad" examples myself because I didn't dare ask for contributions that I knew I'd be ripping apart!

In addition to the ins and outs of what makes a good query, the book covers things like why (or why not) to get an agent, where to find one and how to choose one; writing a synopsis or proposal; selling different rights to your work; other forms of correspondence; and what editors and agents look for in new writers.

It was really important to me that the book not be a dry, boring reference book, but rather an entertaining read (while still being chock full of information). I was thrilled that Writer's Digest let me keep all the humor.

2. Q: Why are query letters so important?

Breaking into the publishing world is hard enough right now. Unless you have a serious "in" of some kind, you really need a great query letter to impress an agent or acquisitions editor. Essentially, your query letter is your first impression. If they like your idea (and voice and writing style and background), they'll either request a proposal, sample chapters, or the entire manuscript. If they don't like your query letter, you've got to pitch it to another agency/publisher. Unlike a manuscript, which can be edited or reworked if an editor thinks it has promise, you only get one shot with your query. Make it count!

I see a lot of authors who spend months (or years) finishing their book, only to rush through the process of crafting a good, solid query letter. What a waste! If agents/editors turn you down based on a bad query letter, you've blown your chance of getting them to read your manuscript. It could be the next bestseller, but they'll never see it. My advice is to put as much effort into your query as you did your book. If it's not fabulous, don't send it until it is.

3. Q: You're also a magazine editor. What is your biggest gripe regarding queries?

Queries that show that the writer obviously hasn't read our publication. I'll admit that I did this when I was a new writer too – submitted blindly to any publication whose name sounded even remotely related to my topic. One of the examples I use was when I submitted a parenting article to a magazine for senior citizens. Oops! A well-written query pitching an article that's not a match for the magazine isn't going to get you any further than a poorly written query.

4. Q: There's an entire chapter in the book about agents. Do you think all new writers should get agents?

Probably 99% of new writers should get an agent. There are lots of reasons, but my top three are: 1) Many of the larger publishing houses won't even look at unagented submissions now; 2) Agents can negotiate better rights and more money on your behalf; 3) Agents know the industry trends, changes and staff better than you ever could.

5. Q: You've been a mentor, coach or editor for many writers. What do you think is the most common reason that good writers don't get published?

Poor marketing skills. I see so many writers that are either too afraid, too uniformed, or frankly, too lazy, to market their work. They think their job is done when the write "the end" but writing is only half of the process. I've always told people who took my class that there are tons of great writers in the world who will never get published. I'd rather be a good writer who eats lobster than a great writer who eats hot dogs. I make a living as a writer because I spend as much time marketing as I do writing.

6. Q: What are some of the biggest misconceptions that writers have about getting a book deal?

That they'll be rich overnight, that they don't need to promote their book once it's published, that publishing houses will send them on world book tours, that people will recognize them at the airport. Still, you can make great money as an author if you're prepared to put in the effort. If it wasn't possible, there wouldn't be so many full-time writers.

7. Q: What must-read books do you recommend to new writers?

Christina Katz (author of "Writer Mama") has a new book out called "Get Known Before the Book Deal" - which is fabulous. Also, Stephen King's "On Writing" and David Morrell's "Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing." Anything by Anne Lamott or my Dad, Steve Burt.

8. Q: What's the biggest lesson you've learned as a full-time writer?

Seize every opportunity - especially when you first start writing. I remember telling someone about a really high-paying writing gig I got and he said, "Wow. You have the best luck!" I thought, "Luck has nothing to do with it! I've worked hard to get where I am." Later that week I read this great quote: "Luck is when preparation meets opportunity." It's absolutely true. And writing queries is only about luck in this sense. If you're prepared with a good query and/or manuscript, when the opportunity comes along you'll be successful.

9. What did you enjoy most about writing this book?
Writing the "bad" query letters. I've read – and written! – so many horrible ones over the years that it was a little too easy to craft them. But misery loves company and we ALL love to read really bad query letters, right?

10. Q: What do you want readers to learn from your book?

I want them to understand that while writing a good query letter is important, it doesn't have to be overwhelming. You can break it down into parts, learn from any first-round rejections, and read other good queries to help understand what works. I also want them to remember that writing is fun. Sometimes new writers get so caught up in the procedures that they lose their original voice in a query. Don't bury your style under formalities and to-the-letter formatting.

To learn more about Wendy or her three books, visit If you have a writing-related question, you can also post it on


  1. Great interview and important information for those of us trying to get published. Thanks, and I will be getting the book because that is one of my weaknesses is the dreaded query letter.


  2. Excellent interview ladies. Working in book promotion, I agree that some authors don't know exactly what to do after they've written their book. It can be very intimidating.

    Wendy, I've read King's "On Writing" and refer to it often. I'll have to look into the other books you suggested.

    One of the challenges when I write query letters for manuscripts is that I don't have published fiction credits. My articles for Writer2Writer are all about time management and organization, but my ficiton is for children. Do you have any suggestions?

    Thanks. I appreciate your time.


  3. Terri,
    You're not alone! I just wrote a piece on why it's important to figure out how to put the fun in queries (or you'll lose money in your pocketbook). It's here:

  4. Thank you for sharing this valuable information. I'm getting ready to send an article and appreciate the assistance.

    Danielle Simone

  5. Cheryl,
    Are you talking about when you write a full proposal for a novel? Or are you writing queries for fiction (short stories) in magazines?

  6. This was a really great interview, Donna. Certainly on task, and I learned a lot. I've certainly slaved over query letters, along with sweating some bullets.

    Good job.

  7. Cheryl,
    I'll attempt to answer your question based on the assumption that you're talking about a query or proposal for a novel.

    While published credits in the same genre (adult novel vs. children's fiction) are ideal, there are two major components that book publishers are looking for: your ability to write (in general) and your ability to market your book. Marketing plays an even larger role today than it did 10 years ago. Publishers do very little to promote your book unless you're an established author with a following. I would put a lot of focus on the fact that you are a professional freelance writer with published credits (in the query). When you get to the proposal part, you can talk about marketing efforts. The buzz word now is "platform" - do you have a newsletter? A fan base? An email list? Public speaking experience? Teaching? Blogs? Are you familiar with social media? That should all go in your proposal.

    But for the query, focus on writing a great pitch for the novel, then just use one paragraph to talk about your credentials. ("Cheryl Smith is a professional freelance writer with countless published pieces and several children's stories..."

  8. I should mention - winning or placing in contests is always helpful. Enter as many contests (I post free/cheap ones on my blog) as possible. Editors like to see that you've impressed someone in the industry.

  9. Terrific interview. Thorougly enjoyed it and no matter how many query books I have there's always room for more. Is this available in ebook and via Paypal?

  10. "That they'll be rich overnight, that they don't need to promote their book once it's published, that publishing houses will send them on world book tours, that people will recognize them at the airport."

    This should be written on the biggest billboard known to man and in order for a writer to be indoctrinated officially into "author" land, they must stand in front of it and read it. You'll be amazed at how many authors do it for the money.

    I hope this doesn't show up twice..I'm having trouble with the comment thingee.

  11. Thanks for the information, Wendy. I was referring to children's picture books. Sorry I didn't make that clear in my original inquiry.

    Now, since marketing is such an important aspect, should I also mention in my query letter that I am a virtual book tour coordinator for Pump Up Your Book Promotion? It seems like that would be important if publishers want to know if you have the ablility to promote your book.

    I don't have a newsletter. I have a website, three blogs, and I belong to a variety of social networks.

    Thanks again for your help.


  12. Cheryl,
    While you want to save the bulk of the marketing info for the proposal (queries should ideally be one page - two at most), you can certain use the last paragraph to mention a few relevant credentials like position as book tour promoter, your Web site and your blogs. You can also put some of that in your signature - like this:
    Wendy Burt-Thomas, author
    "Oh, Solo Mia! The Hip Chick's Guide to Fun for One" (McGraw-Hill)
    "Work It, Girl! 101 Tips for the Hip Working Chick" (McGraw-Hill)
    "The Writer's Digest Guide to Query Letters" (January 2009, Writer's Digest Books)
    BLOG: Ask Wendy - The Query Queen:

  13. Hi Lea,
    I'm waiting to hear back from my publishers (Writers Digest) about the ebook version.

    I was checking Amazon and to see if either accept PayPal. doesn't, but you can pay by any credit card or check. Some of Amazon's sub-sellers may accept PayPal - and they're often cheaper than Amazon. Just click on "buy new" and see some of the rates.

    Thanks for asking!

  14. This is a wonderful interview, Donna.

    Wendy, thank you for all the valuable information.

    What should be the word count of the 'perfect' query letter?

    Should I list my titles in the bio, along with the publisher and publishing date, or just keep in general, like, 'I'm the author of several children's books'?


  15. Mayra,
    Ideally a query should be one page - two at most. If you go to Amazon and type in "Wendy Burt" you can skim through the book and see some great sample queries (for books, agents and magazines). I have found that it's very difficult to find samples of great query letters on the Web so I was thrilled to get so many real examples for my book.

    As for listing the published books, you can list them by title, date and publisher. I hate to say it, but if they're self-published you might be best saying "I am the author of several children's books including..." and then name them but don't put the name of the publisher (like Lulu, which is part of Border's self-publishing company). Major houses are still a bit snobbish about self-published authors. I think it's ridiculous (which is why I feature self-published authors right along with Random House authors on my blog), but that's still the way it is.

  16. Want to see what I mean about the bias toward self-publishing? Read this Q & A on Robin Mizell's blog with my dad, Steve Burt. Scroll down to the third question about "Is it true you're the first self-published author in history to win the Bram Stoker Award?" He talks about how even though he won the BIGGEST award in horror (They call my dad "The Sinister Minister"), they still won't let him be a voting member of the Horror Writers Association. Ridiculous!

  17. Oops! The link:

  18. This is fun!
    FYI, you can read author interviews on my blog:

    I also list contests, advice, tips, etc.

  19. Thanks again for your help Wendy.


  20. What a wonderful and informative interview! This is one to print off and keep for future reference!

  21. Thanks April. How nice of you to say! I get so frustrated when I read interviews that are fluffy; I like tangible info, you know? I wish more writers/authors would talk about money - what to expect, what you REALLY make, where the money is in writing. I'm not sure why it's so hush hush. If I had known more when I started I would have changed direction in terms of how to make a living as a writer. I started with poems!

  22. Super interview, Donna. Thanks, Wendy for your tips on writing queries. To me, they're harder than writing the book. :)

    Rebel in Blue Jeans

  23. There's an art to writing a winning query, yet too many writers don't want to spend time learning this art, which is too bad because they never break in with the magazine markets.

    Great info. Nice interview, Donna!

    Suzanne Lieurance
    The Working Writer's Coach

  24. Unfortunately, a lot of great work (articles, essays, novels, nonfiction books) never see the light of day because the query isn't strong enough for the editor/agent to request the manuscript.

    I've always told participants in my workshop ("Breaking Into Freelance Writing") that I'm a good writer, but not great. Still, I can market the heck out of my work, which is what makes me a successful writer. I said in another interview that I'd rather be a good writer eating lobster than a great writer eating hot dogs.

    Hint hint: write a good query so your manuscript gets read!

  25. Hello One and All...thank you for your great comments and questions. It has been a banner day at Write What Inspires You!

    Wendy...your timely responses to is terrific and it has been a pleasure having you as my guest today.

    Best wishes to all,
    Donna McDine

  26. Great topic! And love your cover. WD does a great job.

    Carolyn Howard-Johnson
    Blogging at Writer's Digest 101 Best Website pick,


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