iQuery: The Query Letter, the writer’s fast ball

Written by Brendan O’Meara

Today’s post deals with the ever-important query letter. It is the fundamental document of any freelance writer looking to make a living. It irons out what your pitch is about and who you are and why editors/agents should take a chance on YOU.

Here’s what got me into Vegetarian Times’s Vegging Out blog:

I opt for very quick and easy to read letters. One, editors are short on time. Two, they’re reading on a computer screen and most people want to read short pieces on a screen.

First, I called Vegetarian Times and asked for the name of the editor I should pitch to. Next, my opening paragraph is the hook and why the story will be interesting to Vegetarian Times readers (important, not what’s important to ME, but what’s important to THEM. Sometimes you have to alter—as in cater—your voice. Nothing wrong with this.)

Then I jump into my credentials so the editor doesn’t think I’m some yahoo (which will be totally discredited when they see I wrote a book on horse racing, but that’s neither here nor there). I also tag a page on my website where the editor can click and find clips of my work. If they want hard copies, I’ll send them, but in two clicks, the editor will have a broad sample of my writing capability.

Ultimately, my approach comes down to two things:

1. Get in, get out
2. Take Your Time with the Query (this applies more to book queries)

The letter needs to be read quickly and have some semblance of voice and a tightness of language that will be indicative of a longer piece of work.

With the second point, it’s important not to rush when querying an agent or a publishing house because it’s a painfully long process and sitting on your query for an extra day or week won’t kill it. Rushing will make it sound rushed. Treat it like a piece of art. It needs time. The publishing process is long. I’m as guilty as an when it comes to a trigger finger when sending a query or email. But let the query breathe. Your book won’t be published for at least two years. Hanging out for a few more days will help, not hurt it. Here’s my query for Six Weeks in Saratoga that had a few agents biting and sold SUNY Press.

This is a tad long, but it grabbed the attention of enough people to be moderately effective.

Undoubtedly my queries will get better as I learn more about them. As I learn more and experiment with what works and what doesn’t, I’ll be sure to share that information and samples. I may even try to get a friend or two to write a guest post about the subject.

(This is a great query blog post by the ever-valuable Nathan Bransford. RSS his blog. Just do it.)

How have your query letters been received? Where do you need to improve?

Applying Immutable Laws to Writing

Written by Brendan O’Meara

I read “The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing: Violate Them at Your Own Risk!” by Al Ries and Jack Trout. It’s a short book with short chapters that deal with marketing if you have a product the likes of Pepsi. Many of the laws help two-horse and three-horse industries. How does this effect what we do as writers? Before that, I’ll lay out what the laws are and bold the ones I feel can be applied to the writing life.

The Law of:












Line Extension











It’s important to view your book as a product. Once it’s published, it can be exchanged for money. Brilliant insight! Glad I clicked on the link! Thanks for sharing! Bear with me. Once you’ve honed the manuscript and crafted it into what you deem is a nice piece of art, it becomes a competitor against everything else on those book shelves. It’s a competitor for entertainment, food, gas, etc. When your book is on the shelf that’s one less spot “Fifty Shades of Gray” can occupy. So, yes, it’s in competition.

Okay, let’s look at how the three laws I bolded above can help you promote your work.

1. The Law of Focus

“A company can become incredibly successful if it can find a way to own a word in the mind of the prospect. Not a complicated word. Not an invented one. The simple words are best, words taken right out of the dictionary.”

FedEx swiped “overnight” or Crest got “cavities”. With laser-like focus you associate a word with your brand. In writing, John Grisham is associated with “law drama” and Steven King “horror”. Tim Ferriss is a “life hacker”. But where is Dave Eggers? He writes nonfiction, fiction, etc. Yet he’s wildly popular.

Focus gives us an area of expertise, an umbrella under which we become associated. Sadly, I’m associated with horse racing. The nichiest of niches. I’m broadening to sports (I’ve been a sports writer since 2005) and that’s a much more encompassing area of focus. I also want to do some true crime, but is that smart? Do Erik Larson and Mike Capuzzo own it? Is that their focus?

Focus also applies to platforms for social media. You can’t do them all. Pick the ones that are fun and the ones you’ll come back to.

2. Law of Line Extension

“One day a company is tightly focused on a single product that is highly profitable. The next day the same company is spread thin over many products and is losing money.”

Think Coca-Cola, New Coke, Coca-Cola Classic, Diet Coke, Cherry Coke, Coke Zero.

Dave Eggers, again, is the exception to the rule. He writes what he wants and hits it out of the park. Tracy Kidder writes just nonfiction and a large chunk of that nonfiction is rural “backyard” narratives. John Feinstein writes mainly golf, but he’s a sports writer as he famously wrote “A Season on the Brink” about the Indiana University Hoosiers basketball team.

If you’re going to violate this law, make sure the reporting and the writing is so tight and polished a reader won’t care who you are, just how great the story is. Thank you, Laura Hillenbrand for a book about a horse and a book about a WWII veteran.

This also applies to the social media you choose. You need it. And I’d say three or four is good enough. I blog from my website (2 for 1), Twitter, Facebook, and Goodreads (where I am a part of the Goodreads Author Program. Goodreads is where readers hang out.). I will do no more. If I do more, one of those above must go. Which leads to …

3. The Law of Sacrifice

“The law of sacrifice is the opposite of the law of line extension. If you want to be successful today, you should give something up.”

As it stands, I use four social media platforms. If I were to give one up? Gun to my head, you’re pulling the hammer back on the pistol, the bean drops into the chamber, you better eliminate one right now!!!!!! I guess it would be Twitter (I put in a lot of time on Twitter and I don’t have the followers to show for it. I retweet people, I reply to people, I share my work and others, and I don’t get the reciprocation “social media experts” say I’d get. If you participate and do those things people are supposed to follow you. At least as a courtesy. Maybe I’m not interesting enough.)

Minimalism is a great way to approach the craft. Getting rid of physical clutter gets rid of mental clutter. I love this quote from Bruce Lee, “One does not accumulate but eliminate. It is not daily increase but daily decrease. The height of cultivation always runs to simplicity.”

I got rid of at least 100 books on my shelves by donating them to my library or to friends. I wasn’t going to read those again and they failed to make me look smart so what’s the point? Hey, look at all my books! The important ones are on my shelves now or in my head.

So the law of sacrifice should make you look at what I want to write. After all, what good is it if you write something nobody is going to read? Who would want to read a murder mystery from famed baseball writer Peter Gammons? Not many, we want to read his take on baseball.

Here’s where the novelist has it made. As long as it’s a novel, they can write whatever the f*ck they want. Nonfictionists don’t have this luxury. Why are you an expert in this field? Do you have platform? F*ckin’ platform!

I don’t mean that. Platform is mightily important. Mightily.

I hope these laws help you out and help you find your focus.

What are your thoughts? What is your marketing strategy? Do you find it all overwhelming?

Marketing, marketing, marketing

By Brendan O’Meara

I’ve been reading a lot about marketing lately, books, blogs, and trust me when I say this, it’s more complicated than it sounds, more complicated than it looks, and I guarantee—strike that, Guarantee with a capital G—you’re not doing enough for your book.

Is your book already out? Go back in time at least six months and reevaluate your plan because you didn’t do enough. How do I know? I did a LOT, and when I look back on it, I didn’t do half what I should have done.

Prior to the release of Six Weeks in Saratoga, I contacted all the bookstores I could and set up events. I booked around 30. I had several galleys sent out to newspapers (but only got one review). I did radio and TV, but I didn’t do enough radio and TV.

Know Thy Target: So what can be done to ensure you’re reaching your target audience? The key is target. In the summer of 2011, when the book launched, I thought bookstores would be the best avenue to sell books. The backdrop of my book is horse racing. That’s my audience. If I were smarter in Summer 1, I would have taken heed of this trend:

Barnes and Noble: 2 books

The Book House (Indy Store): 6 books

Monmouth Park (horse track): 62 books

Saratoga Race Course (horse track): 88 books

Perhaps it was because it was my first book and I wanted to be, you know, in bookstores. Bookstores can’t be ignored. I’m glad I did them, but based on the potential to reach the readers who would be interested in my book, my energies would have been better spent at racetracks. Naturally, this summer I went exclusively to racetracks.

Befriend Bloggers: My other mistake? Not taking advantage of bloggers. Bloggers who have 2,000, 5,000, 10,000 followers are your generals in command of an army of like-minded readers. If a blogger gives you an endorsement, a chunk of their followers will buy up your book. It takes one galley. I only got 10 copies in my contract. I have since purchased 400 books (many I have sold by hand, many I have donated to silent auctions [karma], many I have given to reviewers). If $14 can translate into 100 book sales, I think that’s a worthy investment.

What else? Well, I’m voraciously reading marketing books and marketing blogs (I’m a big fan of Tim Ferriss’s 4hourblog. He’s a marketing guru and a wizard of self-promotion.)

I’ll be sharing more as I learn and test out stuff. And you’ll get on TV just like I did.

What are you doing to market your book prior to publication? After publication? Do you find it overwhelming? Let me know!

The Sound Upstairs: a lesson in brevity from a 13 year old

By Brendan O’Meara

I was cleaning out some of my shelves, getting rid of come books I’ll never read again, shredding old bank statements, trying to de-clutter my hoarding of paper ANYTHING, when I came across a short story I wrote when I was 13.

In those days as my body was changing and girls cast this weird spell on me, I was reading a lot of R.L. Stine (I had finally graduated from Roald Dhal). He wrote teen horror books, suspenseful, bloody, I liked them more than girls because these books liked me back!

The story I’m about to re-type below is 315 words. That’s it. I read it and felt stronger about this piece I wrote back in 1993 than I do half the time I write anything these days. Maybe what that means is I shouldn’t think so hard about what I write and just write the damn story. This story is a word-for-word transcription. Any bad grammar or misspelled words must be read with a collective [sic]. Ready? No, that wasn’t good enough! Are YOU F*CKIN’ ready!? I thought so. Let me know what you think.

The Sound Upstairs

The house was near the beach. It was a big old place where nobody had lived for years. From time to time somebody would force open a window or a door and spend the night there. But never longer.

Three fishermen caught in a storm took shelter there one night. With some dry wood they found inside, they made a fire in the fireplace. They laid down on the floor and tried to get some sleep, but none of them slept that night.

First they heard footsteps upstairs. It sounded like there were several people moving back and forth, back and forth. When one of the fishermen called, “Who’s up there?” the footsteps stopped. Then they heard a woman scream. The scream turned into a groan and died away. Blood began to drip from the ceiling into the room where the fishermen huddle. A small red pool formed on the floor and soaked into the wood.

A door upstairs crashed shut, and again the woman screamed. “Not me!” she cried. It sounded as if she was running, her high heels tapped wildly down the hall. “I’ll get you!” a man shouted, and the floor shaked as he chased her.

Then silence. There wasn’t a sound until the man who had shouted began to laugh. Long peals of horrible laughter filled the house. It went on and on until the fishermen think they would go mad.

When finally it stops, the fishermen heard someone coming down the stairs dragging something heavy that bumped on each step. They heard him drag it through the front hall and out the front door. The door opened: then it slammed shut. Again, silence.

Suddenly a flash of lightning filled the house with a green blaze of light. A ghastly face stared at the fishermen from the hallway. Then came a crash of thunder. Terrified, they ran out into the storm.


Yeah. I got an A+.

Re-reading this my 13-year-old self taught me a thing or two. This story was only 315 words, which to a seventh grader must’ve felt agonizingly long. I had baseball or soccer practice to tend to. I needed to fantasize about the girls in my grade with their new-fangled boobs. I read this ghost story and realized it doesn’t have to be longer, or more gruesome, or with better character development. To me it’s suspenseful and spooky and, quite honestly, better than anything I’ve written in a long time.

Maybe I’m being too hard on my 32-year-old self, but the next time I feel like I need to write something long, I’m going to pressure the writing to be uber tight, like, Olympian tight, like gymnast tight.