Blog Tour: Author Wendy Burt-Thomas

querybook-copy1Today I’m hosting a Q & A with 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. To learn more about Wendy or her three books, visit www.GuideToQueryLetters.com.

Post a comment relevant to the topic (before 11:59 PM PST today) for a chance to win your copy of The Writer’s Digest Guide to Query Letters. (US postal addresses only, please.)


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.


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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22 Responses to Blog Tour: Author Wendy Burt-Thomas

  1. Thanks for having me today!

  2. Hi Wendy! I have a question on literary agents. Do you think it’s a good idea to use a friend who happens to be a literary agent for your book (if of course she works with your genre), or is it better to find a literary agent and keep the relationship professional?
    Thanks,
    Mary Jo

  3. jesakalong says:

    Great Q&A, Liz! Wendy, your words are very inspiring and encouraging. A good reminder to keep marketing.

  4. Liz says:

    Wendy,
    Thanks for joining us today! I picked up your book and I’m REALLY enjoying it – wonderful examples and great humor! One of the examples you include is a query for the book, “Writer’s Guide to Keeping Your Day Job”. As a writer with a day job, I’m curious if this was a query for a book you’re actually writing? (I hope so!) What are some tips you have for those of us who are attempting to balance the writing and the day job?
    Liz

  5. Mary Jo,
    I’d be very hesitant to use a friend and here’s why:
    1) If they don’t sell your book, they may feel bad and/or you may feel resentful.
    2) If you end up parting ways and another agent sells your book, your friend may feel bad.
    3) If they don’t maintain (or don’t sell) TV rights, foreign rights, etc. you may be mad at them later.

    I have a ton of business partners that became close friends, but never the other way around. I tried it ONCE and it was a disaster. We folded the company before we got it off the ground.

    I just feel like there’s only one way for your partnership to work out, but 99 ways for it to ruin your friendship.

    Just my opinion though!

  6. Liz,
    Funny story about the proposal for “The Writer’s Guide to Keeping Your Day Job” (the sample proposal that’s in my new book).

    The first agent who took me on as a client tried to get me to change the entire focus – including the title – because she said, “Most people want to QUIT their day job to become a writer.” (Duh!) I tried to explain that although that was true, it was not realistic for 99% of the writing population to quit their job and THEN try to become a writer, but rather to balance both until they made enough money as a writer to quit their day job. We parted ways.

    I got another VERY big agent – (whose name I won’t mention) – who said he liked the idea and would shop it around. Unfortunately, the two times I contacted him to check in, he seemed confused as to who I was and asked me to remind him what proposal he was shopping for me. I decided to hang up the proposal for awhile. But now that this economy is in the toilet, the book seems even more appropriate!…..

  7. Part 2 for Liz:
    Regarding my advice to those who are juggling a job and writing:
    1) If you’re really new to the writing game, take every writing gig that comes along – even if the pay is bad. It’s still SOME money but more importantly, you’re getting published clips. You need to build these to get into bigger, higher-paying magazines and for your platform if you ever try to get a book deal.
    2) Never miss a deadline. Be early if possible. The more an editor knows they can rely on you, the more work they’ll give you.
    3) It’s easier to keep a current writing gig than to get a new one. Don’t be afraid to ask an editor for more assignments, or to pitch them ideas frequently.
    4) Keep track of all your expenses. EVERYTHING. You can write off gas to drive to the post office to buy stamps. Internet. Driving to Office Max to get 10 photocopies. Expenses help keep down your taxable income.
    5) Schedule time to write like you would a dr. appointment. Take advantage of small increments of time at work or home (breaks, lunch, commute time) to write or talk into a recorder.
    6) Start building your online platform with a blog. Get on Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, Ning, etc.
    7) Find ways to write FOR your employer. I started writing marketing material, articles about my employer and content for my employer’s Web page when I was a receptionist. They LOVED the fact that I got them publicity and that they were paying a “copywriter” the wages of a receptionist.
    8) Get support for your writing. You family, a writers group, an online freelancing moms group, writers conference, etc.
    9) Start calling yourself a writer. If you write, you’re a writer.
    10) Spend as much or more time marketing your work as you do writing it. That’s where the publishing – and money – comes in.

  8. Andy P. says:

    What a serendipitous surprise! This morning I was talking with a friend about his new book – self-published – and he shared that so much of what he does as a person, is write.

    At his day-job, his gift’s just being acknowledged as something to be honed and placed at the center of what he does. Yet, he doesn’t know how to market or get the next work to a publisher, etc.

    This might be the helpful resource that supports points A & B being tied together!

  9. Jenni says:

    Hi Wendy,

    I’m just starting out writing articles for pay and I’m trying to do what you’ve said–take every opportunity that arises. I’ve never written a query (I’ve been published so far in smaller, regional publications) but was asked to pitch a specific idea to an editor I worked with on another piece.

    I want it to be good, but I don’t have time to read an entire book or take a class before I need to get this off. I’ve already started reading a book of query letters to get an idea of what I’m doing but I’m feeling rather over my head. Any suggestions for what I can do in the short term?

  10. askwendy says:

    Jenni,
    Go to Amazon and google my new book, “The Writer’s Digest Guide to Query Letters.” You can search inside and skim some of the REAL query letters that landed people (including me) magazine articles. (There are also queries to agents and book editors.)

    If you need keywords to find the queries I’m talking about, there’s one on “pumpkin”s, “Ghost in a jar” and “A Woman’s first home” among others.

  11. askwendy says:

    Jenni,
    If you include the basics of the query, you’ll be fine:
    1. A strong opening hook (1-2 paragraphs)
    2. The supporting details (2-3 paragraphs about word count, who you’ll interview, what you’ll include in the article, etc.)
    3. Your qualifications (1 paragraph)
    4. The thank-you (1 paragraph)

  12. askwendy says:

    Andy,
    I highly advise your friend to get an agent. Reputable agents don’t charge you anything but their commission (15% domestic and 20% on foreign rights typically) so he has nothing to lose and everything to gain in terms of selling his book.

  13. Liz S. says:

    Wendy, thanks for your responses! I hope that you do revisit the book — you have at least one person who will purchase it :)! In the meanwhile, the tips you provided are very helpful.

    Recently I made the leap to calling myself a writer (even though I have another “day job”) and I feel the difference. There’s a lot of affirmation through language.

    I had another question about what you’ve written for greeting cards. It’s clear in the book that you have such a great sense of humor, so I’m wondering if you write greeting card text for humorous cards? Other types? Regardless of the type of card, I’m curious how you sought out those markets.

  14. askwendy says:

    Liz,
    Good timing on your question because I’m currently working on an ebook about greeting cards. I’ll probably sell it on my blog.

    I’ve written for many greeting card companies but definitely prefer to write humor. I’ve also written copy for t-shirts, shot glasses (don’t judge!), plaques, joke candy, etc.

    I will tell you that the money is actually very good per hour (I’ve made as much as $300 for 30 minutes of work) but the work is few and far between in this economy. Many of the companies are cutting back because consumers are cutting back. Plus, there are a lot of free e-card sites now. Still, you can Google “greeting card writer’s guidelines” to find some that still use freelancers. I hope to have the ebook finished in April, but I’m teaching at the Pikes Peak Writer’s Conference, just got another book deal (#4) of sorts, and have full-time clients. (Plus a 1-year-old and 3-year-old!) So don’t hold me to my April deadline! ; )

  15. Brad says:

    After you pitched your idea for this book, how long did it take before it was accepted for publication? And, how long after that before it was on the shelves?

  16. Jenni says:

    Thanks, Wendy! I will absolutely search your book for those winning queries–and purchase it, too.

    Thank you for the quick run-down. Ah. Now it feels do-able. 🙂

  17. askwendy says:

    Brad,
    This is going to seem ironic but I didn’t write a query or proposal for my book (“The Writer’s Digest Guide to Query Letters”)!! They were looking for someone to write it and someone told them I’d be a good match.

    However, with my two previous books, I can tell you a bit of what to expect (or at least, what happened for us):

    1. We pitched about 30 agents. A few showed an interest and we picked one after calling some of her past clients. (Yes, you can CHOOSE your agent!)

    2. The agent shopped it around for a couple months and McGraw-Hill bit. I think it took us (me and a co-author) about 6 months to write it with a month or two of revisions. Then it was about 8 months before it hit shelves. This was back in 2000/2001 so I could be off a bit.

    3. As for this one, I think we finished final edits in April. The book hit the Writer’s Digest warehouse in late December and hit stores January 5, 2009.

    Does that help?

    Also, remember that this was nonfiction, so I had to write the book after the idea was accepted. For fiction, it could be a lot faster because your book has to be finished when you shop it around.

  18. AmyK says:

    Hi, Wendy. Thanks for the great advice so far.

    You mentioned marketing in the Q&A and then fiction in a comment. How does one go about marketing a fiction short story? I know many publications have guidelines written in the small print, usually on the masthead. Is that all? Or, is it better to send a query letter as described in your book, with or without the manuscript? Do you have any suggestions on publications to start with?

    Sorry if there are too many questions here or if they are too amateurish. I’m very much a beginner.

    Thank you for your time and expertise.

  19. askwendy says:

    AmyK,
    For short stories, I’d start with three markets: literary magazines, consumer magazines and contests.

    I’ve listed a bunch of short story contests on my blog. Go to http://askWendy.wordpress.com and on the right sidebar under “CATEGORIES,” scroll down and click on “contests.”

    You can find a ton of literary mags that buy short stories in “The International Guide to Literary Magazines and Small Presses.” I think it’s updated every 2 years. Worth buying since it’s not an annual though.

    As for the consumer mags, most supply writers guidelines on their Web sites now. (There’s an actual link called “writer’s guidelines” or “editorial guidelines” or “submissions” on most online version of the print mag.) Your other option is to get “The 2009 Writer’s Market.” It’s “the bible” of writer’s guidelines (and advice) for writers. Tells you who to send to, what they buy, what they pay, etc. Look under consumer mags (think “The New Yorker”) and women’s mags (“Family Circle”) and others that list “short stories” (like children’s mags or men’s mags or Christian mags).

    You can probably go to Amazon and look inside the book to see what I’m talking about.

    If you send your manuscript, it should only include a simple cover letter with it. A query is what you send BEFORE you send the manuscript, basically asking permission to send the manuscript by pitching your idea in one page. You’ll know which to do by reading the guidelines. “Send query first” or “Send complete manuscript” etc.

  20. Liz says:

    Thanks for sharing your insight and knowledge with all of us today, Wendy. I’ve so enjoyed hosting your blog tour! Thank you to all who participated in the discussion, too! Please check in tomorrow to find out who will receive a copy of Wendy’s book.

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