Sunday, April 06, 2008


The Art of the Query Letter

by LuAnn Womach

For freelance writers, the query letter is the element that either opens the door to the publishing world or slams the door shut without any warning. Writing a query is, in a sense, a balancing act between selling an idea without giving away too many details and selling yourself as a writer.

When I started taking my writing career seriously about 10 years ago, I think I subscribed to every writing newsletter I could get my hands on. I read them thoroughly and gleaned pertinent information that I believed was helping me with my queries. Sure, I'd land a few stories every now and then, but I wasn't establishing any consistency in bigger markets. Yes, I had a steady stream of assignments for regional magazines and newspapers, but something seemed amiss.

Last May, I took a leap of faith and left a full-time teaching career for the freelancer's life. I spent the first two months sending out three or four queries a week. Personally, I like Hope Clark's advice about keeping 13 queries in play. It's been pretty successful for me, too.

What really made the difference was a writing book I bought after reading a review. The book : The Renegade Writer's Query Letters That Rock by Linda Formichelli and Diana Burrell. I studied each letter and compared those queries that hooked an editor to the letters I had been writing. Now, I'm not saying the letters I was writing were bad, but they were lacking in passion for the subject.

Since reading the book, I've developed my own query style. And, it must be working. I've landed assignments in two national magazines. And hopefully, I'll land more!

As you write a query letter, remember that you need to show that you are insightful and have a genuine interest in the topic. Making personal connections should help you make a sale!

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Thursday, January 10, 2008


You never know where you'll find an audience

I grew up in a family of educators. My dad was my high school English teacher. I must have inherited the grammar gene from him. My mom was my Kindergarten teacher and by the time I was ready to go to college, she'd taken over as the elementary media specialist. I'm positive I inherited the love-to-read gene from her. From both, the gene that controls creativity was passed on. Several extended family members were educators also, covering a variety of disciplines. Unfortunately, none of them passed on the mathematics gene!

These people were my first audience. They would listen to me read, would listen (or at least hear) the made-up stories that I would spin. They were my encouragers, always telling me that I could do anything I set my mind to, that I should follow my dreams.

Once you grow up and go to college - or off on your own, for that matter - you tend to lose touch with that audience. Or maybe you simply don't experience the encouragement as often as you did in the past.

When I graduated from high school, my godfather handed me journal and said, "Tell your story." I wasn't sure I wanted to write private thoughts in the book; what if someone else read it? I didn't realize that I was my own audience until I started college and a composition teacher told us that even if nobody else reads your work, you read it and you are the audience.

I wrote off and on, filling five journals during a twenty-year period. No feedback except from myself. And I was OK with that.

Then, my work started getting published. It was an interesting curiosity to me when I'd open my email program and receive letters from people who had ready my work and offered kind words. Sure, some of them were from family members, but most were from strangers. A new audience to write for!!

Now, I blog daily about my opinions, my writing career, and life on the dairy farm (city girl goes country). It replaced my hardbound journal, but I sent the link to a few family members - those early encouragers - and they would comment.

But I wondered how many people read my ramblings. Was I simply writing for myself? I found a program which tracked visitor paths. Yesterday, alone, I had hits from spots all around the world: Texas, France, Nebraska, New Jersey, Brazil, Spain, New York, Thailand, Canada.
And the interesting thing about the counter: many of those visitors had previously read my blog.

A world-wide audience! Wow! I'm still in awe that someone in Spain would stumble upon my blog and read, and read, and read. But it certainly opens up the possibilities for topics.

My parents are retired now, but they still encourage and support my writing habit. My dad is my clip master. He gathers extra newspapers or magazines and cuts my clips for me. And my mom volunteers at the local library and spearheads the 'Friends of the Library' committee. Recently, she invited me to speak about freelancing and read a few selections for a "Brown Bag at the Library" lunch program. I wasn't sure what to expect, but about 15 people (the town has 800 citizens) showed up and listened, and talked about writing wishes they had.

I offered encouragement.

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Sunday, December 16, 2007


Handling rejection

I've been trying to break into a magazine for a while now, and they finally liked one of my ideas and wanted to see clips. I picked out two feature stories to share - stories that I've received positive feedback for - and sent those, along with two examples of different types of writing that I'm experienced with.

Then came the rejection. "The clips don't do it." What exactly does that mean?

At first I was upset. I believe I'm a good writer, a strong writer, and I know I'm capable of writing a quality feature for the magazine. I talked with another editor I write for and was reassured that I have the talent.

But the more the situation weighed on my mind, the more questions popped into my head, leaving unanswered questions. Did I send the wrong kind of clips? Do I not possess the voice or tone the magazine desires? No, I didn't send the wrong kind of clips. Clips show what you have accomplished and fit the style of the publication you were writing for. And yes, I do possess the voice, the narrative look of the landscape that can tell a vivid story. Yet, I was still disappointed that I hadn't landed the assignment.

The next day I was reading the August issue of Writer's Digest. And there was the pep talk I needed to hear - an article entitled "Try, Try, Try Again" by Jodi Picoult. Jodi explains her journey through the publishing world and how she experienced rejection early in her career. Two points in the article spoke directly to me:

  • The writers who succeed are the ones who refuse to buckle under the failures that are heaped upon them; who reject the notion that they aren't as mediocre as industry professionals say they are.
  • After landing a book on The New York Times bestseller list, an influential agent from NYC wanted to talk to Jodi. She declined, explaining that she was happy with her current agent and did not plan to switch. Picoult says, "I'm quite sure that this New York City bigwig doesn't remember that she was the very first agent to reject me, but I never forgot."

I refuse to buckle under the failure heaped upon me. I know I am not a mediocre writer. And although this wasn't the first piece I've had rejected, it hurt the most. Why? Because the publication is one I respect and enjoy reading. I know I would be a good fit.

So now what? There are literally thousands of other article ideas and publications I'm ready to tackle. In fact, I have several in the works. And like Picoult says, "That's the loveliest thing about failure. Without it, you'd never know how delicious success tastes."

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Wednesday, December 12, 2007


Keep A Work Journal to Stay On Track

Every day, I start with the best intentions. I devise a 'to-do' list, and after checking email and sipping a cup of brewed tea, I start writing.

And that's when the trouble begins.

"LuAnn, can you run to town for tractor parts?"

"LuAnn, the heifers are out. Yup, all 200 of them. I need your help rounding them up."

"Hon, can you whip up some pancakes and coffee? I'm starved."

Or if it isn't farm and family associated interruptions, it's the ringing phone, the "you've got mail" sound effect, or a restless mind bouncing what seems like a million ideas off each other.

After encountering these interferences, I've learned to restructure my 'to-do' list. Actually, my list is written inside a green journal with wild flowers on the cover. The pages are a crisp honeydew green, and within its pages is tangible proof of my writing career. I learned this technique in Advanced Comp and Creative Writing in college some 20 (or more) years ago. And this simple daily goal listing has helped my productivity and attention span.

I make five entries for each day. First, I write the date and time. By looking at previous entries, I can determine if my schedule is consistent. For the most part - except the days I substitute teach - I begin by 7:30 A.M.

Next, I organize my day and structure my writing time. I read email at specific times: 7:30, 1:30, and 6:30. If the phone rings, I check caller ID to see if answering it is a necessity. This strategy also lets me check voice mail when I need a break or when I check email.

Living on a dairy farm means that there are farm-life parameters I need to follow. Having lunch on the table at noon makes my farmer happy. So I know I need at least 45 minutes to prepare a meal.

What does that leave? It leaves from approximately 8:00 - 11:15 for researching, interviewing, blogging, querying, and editing.

I resume office hours around 1:30 and write for three hours, at a minimum. I spend time editing and re-writing, if necessary.

Then I pen specific goals for the day. Generic statements like "work on character development" don't cut it for me. Instead, my list looks something like this: research how cinnamon improves health, query AARP re: cinnamon research, edit article for The Denver Post, write effective lead for the turkey industry article.

I try to stick to my list of goals, but sometimes my writing genius kicks into overdrive and I realize I have a good idea for the structure of an article, so I follow my instincts and fine tune that area.

The key: be flexible while accomplishing a goal.

After that, I reflect on the day, although a writer's day never ends, does it? I note what I've completed or started or stalled on throughout the day. If I don't get everything done, I list reasons that held me back. Maybe I'm battling a cold and cough and I just couldn't focus on the computer screen. Or maybe there were 15 calls from the dairy barn, and after call number three, I knew I needed to answer the phone. Every time. Or maybe today turned into an idea-only day after I started researching, and now those ideas for possible articles or stories are scattered across my desk.

But no matter what I do or don't complete, this journal forces me to be accountable for my writing.

Finally, I take note of tomorrow's schedule and list when I plan to begin writing and a general notation of what I will work on. It's a daily date with my planner; a reminder that yes, I have to write tomorrow.

Twenty years ago, an old college prof told me that writers lead a double life: they possess a creative side and they run a business. You need to handle both to experience success. That's when he taught us this technique, hoping we would realize that writing isn't always a glamorous life.

I've found that I have more of a sense of responsibility to my writing and my career. There's more of a structure to this business, which can change with a phone call, an email, or a husband who is hungry and wants some homemade cookies for a mid-afternoon snack.

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