Issue 61

Applying Heinlein's Rules

to Queries

By Alex F. Fayle

Copyright © 2011, Alex F. Fayle, All Rights Reserved 


At some point if you want to become an author - a published writer - you will have to write and submit a query letter. It's part of the business of being an author. No matter how much you hate it, no matter how impossible it feels squeezing your complex and beautiful novel into 250 hyper-enticing words, you're going to have to write a query letter.


But how exactly? Look at twenty different books or online resources and you get twenty different pieces of advice. Then let's say you actually get it written. What next? Editing it. Getting it read by fellow writers who will show you the millions of possible interpretations for the short piece you've written and who will have reactions that border on a stalker-fan ("Give me the book now to read - and I'll give you my firstborn in return") to those who question your ability to put together a coherent sentence ("I have no idea whatsover you're trying to say here. Is it even possible to phrase something like that?")


Getting past that minefield, you enter no-man's-land where you send out your query and ninety-nine times out of a hundred don't hear back or get a form rejection. You wonder, is it the book? Is it the query? Should I just stop now and take up something less ego-bruising like army boot camp?


A lot of writers when faced with doubts turn to Robert Heinlein's Rules for Writers. These rules come from a 1947 essay that provides advice to writers getting started in speculative fiction. Most of the article discusses the difference between gadget- and character-based stories but at the end of the piece, Heinlein adds his five rules for writing which he says are all a writer needs to succeed. Although they are easy to understand, they are next to impossible to follow, he explains, which is why there are so many amateur writers and so few professionals.


The rules are:


1. You must write.

2. You must finish what you start.

3. You must refrain from rewriting except to editorial order.

4. You must put it on the market.

5. You must keep it on the market until sold.


What does this mean for query writing? How can we apply these rules to what is for most writers the worst part of being a writer - selling yourself to editors and agents?


Let's look at them one by one:



This one is pretty self-explanatory. If you don't write a query letter, synopsis or whatever other submission-package material the agent or editor requests then your work is just going to stay in a drawer or on your computer and no one will ever read it (unless of course you choose the self-publishing route, which has its own associated fears and obstacles).



Let me emphasize the above point - if you don't send out queries, no one will ever publish your book. Why do all that work writing a novel if no one is ever going to see it? And the only way that will happen is if you sit down and finish your general query, read the submission guidelines for your markets and then create each package exactly as each market requires. Then send it. Don't wait. 



Finding yourself stuck in a rewriting loop is even easier with a query than with a novel. A novel is just too big to worry about getting every word just right. However, the meat of a query is about 200 words - and each word matters, a lot. You will likely have twenty versions of your query letter before you're happy with it, but don't overtweak it. Get feedback sure, but from a limited number of people because for every person who sees your query you will receive a different opinion leading to confusing and contradictory advice when taken all together.


Learn to trust yourself. Trust your voice. Listen to opinions but don't get caught up in a cycle of writing and rewriting until you've sucked all the life out of your query and it reads like a computer-generated summary. The time to edit the query is when you get feedback from the rare editor or agent who tells you why the query doesn't work for him or her, and then only if it feels right for you.



Take a deep breath and send it. By having it sit on your computer, you won't get any rejections, true - but you also won't get any acceptances. You can minimize the fear of rejection by turning it into a game. On the Forward Motion Writers forum there's the "Great Rejection Slip Contest" where members compete with themselves to have the highest score of rejections (and acceptances) each year. Or you could use a trick a former small-business colleague used to play with herself. When she sat down to make cold calls, she would have a sheet covered with the word "no" and every time she received a rejection she would cross off one "no.". Her goal was to get through the entire sheet without a single yes. She never succeeded, always getting a "yes" less than halfway through the page.



Most of the time you'll receive form rejections if your query gets acknowledged at all. With the lack of feedback on it, you will be tempted to start rewriting again, but unless someone in a position to help you (agent/editor) tells you why the query doesn't hook them, trust yourself and keep submitting until as Heinlein says "some editor somewhere, sometime, so unwary or so desperate for copy" buys "the worst old dog you, or I, or anybody else, can throw at him."


And of course, while waiting for that "yes," find something else to work on. You have a drawer full of ideas clamoring for attention. So stop worrying about that novel already written and go write another one!



Heinlein, Robert A. "On the Writing of Speculative Fiction" in Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy (St Martin's Giffin, 1993)