Nailing the Query Letter


Welcome to The Fine Art of Submission: How to Properly & Professionally Prepare, Package and Present Your Work To Markets.

Okay, so what the hell does that long-ass subtitle really mean? It means that we’re going to look at all the steps you need to take in order to send your stories out into the real world of publishing, from nailing your query letter to remembering deadlines to keeping track of your submissions. All while (hopefully) step-siding some of the most common faux pas.

First up? Making a fantastic first impression by…

Nailing the Query Letter

If there’s one thing I’ve learned during my years of writing and editing erotic fiction (well, I’ve learned a lot of things, but most of them don’t pertain to this topic and they can be summed up in one phrase: “5 and a half inches”), it’s that query letters, like orgasms, are a strictly personal thing. Editors are all different, and they all want different things. I recently read an essay from an editor who said that if an author listed such-and-such a market in their cover letter bio, then the editor would instantly turn the story down without reading it because they hate such-and-such a market and all the writing that such-and-such a market publishes. Which to me, feels incredibly unfair to the writer, but doesn’t surprise me all that much.

Editors are busy people, with their own specific set of idiosyncrasies and tics. You may befriend an editor for life by accidentally mentioning that you’ve been published in their secret favorite magazine or you may make a quick and eternal enemy by mentioning that you won the Sexiest Story Is Hot Award, which unbeknownst to you is a contest run by their ex-husband’s former lover, who they hate with a passion.

Cover letters are a mine field, truly. A mine field that’s best navigated by feel, instinct, planning and a hell of a luck of luck.

So what should you put in a cover letter? Perhaps a better question is what shouldn’t you put in a cover letter?

Five Don’ts From the Editor’s Desk:

To many of you, these are going to seem either redundant or ridiculous. And in truth, they are. But you’d be surprised how often I receive cover letters with these simple (and really infuriating) mistakes.

Don’t Assume I’m Male: I receive a lot of letters that want to change my gender, ala, Dear Mister Germain. Back when I edited a feminist woman’s magazine, I can’t even begin to tell you the number of times I received a submission that began with Dear Sirs. Granted, in today’s world gender is no longer a simple concept—there are as many shades of gender as there are of sexuality—but if you don’t know or don’t want to guess, just use first and last name without the Mr., Miss, Ms., or Mrs.

Don’t Misspell My Name: I’ll be the first to admit that I have an odd name. I’ve been called Shannon, Shawn, Shanista, Ray (an odd stand-up of my middle name), Jermain, Germaine and German. I’m ashamed to admit I’ve also committed this crime myself, most recently by calling the fabulous Cecilia Tan by the name Celia. She was gracious about it, but then again it wasn’t a query letter I was writing but a thank you letter. Get the name right. Get it right. If you don’t know it, go generic: Dear editors works just fine in most cases.

You Are Neither a Rock God Nor a Peon: I’m sure you have a coffee mug that says World’s Best Writer, but that doesn’t mean it’s true. And I’m sure some rejection letter told you that you were the world’s worst writer, but that doesn’t mean it’s true either. Don’t tell me EVERYTHING you’ve ever been published in and go on about how you’re the best thing I’ve ever seen. On the other hand, don’t tell me how your writing sucks and you’d gosh sure be grateful if I’d be willing to have a look at the little ole’ thing. Go professional: Have confidence without being obnoxious about it.

You Are Not Five: Do not, I repeat, do not, use cutesy stationary, weird fonts, pink backgrounds, smiley faces or anything that smacks of IM-speak or anything that smells funny (this is true of both snail mail and email submissions). White paper, black ink and Times New Roman in 12-point font is perfect. Also, you will get a serious F if you fail to put your name and contact information on your cover letter (except in the case of contests, which are sometimes specific about where you list identifying information).

Don’t Over Expose: Your cover letter should be short, brief and professional. Do not tell me that this story is true and your ex-lover is going to hate that you’ve written about that time when he exposed his small cock to the world. Don’t tell me that you want to fuck me because you saw a picture of me in the back of some anthology. Don’t tell me that you have six dogs and four cats and twenty-two children. I. Don’t. Care. What I care about is a. Whether or not you can write and b. Whether or not you’re psychotic.

Sample Letter

This is the query/submission letter that I use for short stories. I keep a template of it as both a Word document and as an email draft.



Dear [Editor],

[Attached as a Word document/pasted in the body of the email ], please find my [poem/short story/novel excerpt], “[Title]” ([xx] words) for submission to [Publication/Publisher]. Per your guidelines, I’ve also included a [short bio/resume/synopsis]. I hope it’s something that will work for you.

By way of introduction, I’m a writer, editor and teacher who specializes in genre fiction. My work has appeared in places like [5 most pertinent publications to this particular market].

Thank you for your time and for the opportunity to submit to [Publication/Publisher]. I look forward to hearing from you.

Shanna Germain
Writing as [Pen Name, if applicable]

What do you notice about this template? It’s pretty darn short, isn’t it? Short and concise helps you navigate that minefield I mentioned earlier. The less you put in it, the less likely you are to step on toes, blow your editor’s mind (in the bad way) or get yourself on some publisher’s shit list.

As I mentioned, the above email is just a template. Thus, I tweak it according to how well I know the editor or the publisher, what type of writing they’re looking for and what their guidelines specifically ask for.

Here are some additional add-ons you may want to consider:

  • If I know the editor or publisher, I tend to go slightly less formal. I use their first name, I ask how they are, I mention something we’ve worked together on in the past.
  • If I’ve worked with someone a lot, I go even more informal. I don’t list my credentials — I just say, “Hey, how are you? Here’s a story that I thought might work for [publication]. etc. etc.”
  • If I found the guidelines somewhere (like, ahem, ERWA), I often mention that too. This does dual duty — it lets a publisher know where you heard about them, and it also lets them know that you’ve probably (hopefully) actually read the guidelines.
  • If I love what they do, or what they’ve done, or what they’re going to do, then I say that as well, often in the PS. “PS — I just read your [novel/collection/magazine/issue] and I really loved the way you captured the erotic elements of BDSM.” But I only do this if I really did a. read the piece and b. love it. Otherwise, it’s just so much kissing up.
  • Some guidelines ask for a synopsis or an excerpt from your story in the cover letter. If they ask, include it. If they don’t ask, don’t include it.

Once, I had a writing teacher who, when talking about dialogue, said, “Just use ‘he said, she said’ because the reader’s eye skips right over it after a while.” I didn’t really believe him, and then I started to realize it was true—I barely noticed the “saids” when I was reading.

To me, cover letters should be like those “saids.” They are necessary to avoid confusion and to make sure your potential editor or publisher knows who’s speaking, but in truth, most editors skim, just like readers skim “said” tags. Unless, of course, you throw in “hollered, whispered, cajoled, groaned and hissed,” (aka the five don’ts listed above), all of which increase the chance that the editor will really notice your cover letter, and not in a good way. And then they may never get around to reading the thing that really matters: Your story.

What’s on the easel for next month’s Art of Submission? I’ll show you how to build the kind of bio that will knock your potential editor’s panties off.

Shanna Germain
April 2010

“The Fine Art of Submission” © 2010 Shanna Germain. All rights reserved.

Pin It on Pinterest