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Want to Be Picked Up by a Professional Publisher? Write This.

Grab your aspirin or ibuprofen, because today’s writing-related Challenge of the Week, as posted on Innovative Editing’s Facebook page, is probably going to be a real pain in the neck.

How’s that for an opening? Just makes you want to forget about reading the rest, I know.

But before you turn away, stop and ask yourself, “Do I want to be published by a professional publishing company?”

If the answer is yes, then keep reading, my writing friend. The following challenge might be tailor-made for you:

Try to summarize your plot in one paragraph. Make sure to include who your story is about, where it starts and how it ends. So essentially, just cover the basics.

This exercise serves two purposes. First, it can help you visualize your story better, allowing you to see the bigger picture in a way that keeps you focused during all the in-between details.

It could also be useful when you start shopping for literary agents and publishing companies.

That last line looks like an afterthought, I know. Which is why I’m going to expand on it much further here by talking about query letters.

Admittedly, I have every intention of writing much more about query letters down the road. But considering how many other topics need to be addressed first, that’s probably not going to happen until 2018.

So let’s touch on the basics a bit today.

A query letter is the initial correspondence you send to a literary agent or publishing company. Its whole purpose is to say, “My book and I exist! We’re awesome! Don’t you want a piece of us?”

The thing is, literary agents and publishing companies are strapped for time, so they want to see something short and sweet from a little nobody like you. Sorry to put it so harshly, but in this kind of situation, they’re the ones playing the tune and it’s your job to dance.

The sooner you realize that, the better your chances of receiving a favorable response become.

A typical query letter is going to be about three-quarters of a Microsoft Word page-long. And we’re talking Times New Roman, size 12 font here. So maybe about 350 words total.

Three hundred and fifty words. That’s how much space you have to make a killer first impression.

On top of that, those 350 words have to include your introduction, your sign-off, your manuscript’s genre and word count, and any above-and-beyond kissing-up you need to do.

That’s why being able to summarize your story in a mere paragraph is such an exceptionally important skill.

It doesn’t matter that you’re a novelist who’s used to telling a story over the space of 90,000 words. When it comes to query letters, you have to get out of your long-winded comfort zone and put your best 350-word foot forward.

Here’s a painstakingly put-together example for your edification based off of that political plot I gave on Tuesday. (And for anyone who’s read The Politician’s Pawn, yes, I know I switched up or left out some details form the actual story. I don’t want to spoil it for any future readers who happen upon this blog post.)

Kayla Jeateski, a professional nurse in Baltimore City is enjoying a quiet evening to herself when a masked man climbs through her apartment window and tells her she’s coming outside with him. Or else. Thinking she has little other choice, she complies, only to find herself in a much worse situation down in D.C. Even though her kidnapping turns out to be a mistake, Kayla finds herself part of an egomaniacal politician’s plan to swing an upcoming vote. A very, very expendable part. Sure enough, in the end, the politician has her murdered despite how hard she fights her fate.

That’s exactly 100 words, a nice, round number I worked pretty hard to achieve. Obviously, it would need to be spruced up a bit to make a suitable query letter. But that’s nonetheless the gist.

Of course, in the actual story – the real Politician’s Pawn – there are other characters and setting details and subplots that come out, some of which went on to spawn two sequels. But a one-paragraph summary doesn’t need to include all of that.

A one-paragraph summary’s job, and therefore yours, is to pick out the most important details while still managing to capture your bigger story.

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