The Writing Life

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What’s in a Query? Everything and Nothing.

paper with who what why when how written on it is on the desk with a cup of coffee and a ball pen aside.When I tell people that I’ve never written a query that didn’t result in a request for pages, they can’t believe it. When I tell them I only ever sent out three (or six if you count the random assignments I was given to pitch to at conferences) queries, they are shocked.

But here’s the thing: I researched before I sent out my original set of queries. I looked not only at who represented what (which you can generally find on websites) but who sold what (which you can find out on Publishers Marketplace). I don’t care if an agent loves thrillers, if every sale she’s ever made is a cozy, she is probably not going to have the right set of contacts for thriller writers.

Because I belong to RWA, MWA, HWA and ITW, I am involved in a lot of discussions about queries. And I can also say that any query I’ve ever edited for someone has also resulted in a request for pages.

Your query is an enormously important piece of writing. If you’re looking for an agent or editor, it may be the only piece of writing the people you want to take you on ever see. If you’re self-publishing, think of it as your cover copy—it’s the thing that’s going to make readers pick up your book.

A query letter has some basic pieces, but the one most people get wrong is the part that is like cover copy, the part that hooks an agent or editor and makes them want to find out more. Because that’s the trick—it’s not a synopsis that gives away everything in your book, it’s just a taste, a tease, a tempt.

Here's a look at the cover copy for Every Dead Thing, which would make a perfect query:

Former NYPD detective Charlie "Bird" Parker is on the verge of madness. Tortured by the unsolved slayings of his wife and young daughter, he is a man consumed by guilt, regret, and the desire for revenge. When his former partner asks him to track down a missing girl, Parker finds himself drawn into a world beyond his imagining: a world where thirty-year-old killings remain shrouded in fear and lies, a world where the ghosts of the dead torment the living, a world haunted by the murderer responsible for the deaths in his family—a serial killer who uses the human body to create works of art and takes faces as his prize. But the search awakens buried instincts in Parker: instincts for survival, for compassion, for love, and, ultimately, for killing.

Aided by a beautiful young psychologist and a pair of bickering career criminals, Parker becomes the bait in a trap set in the humid bayous of Louisiana, a trap that threatens the lives of everyone in its reach. Driven by visions of the dead and the voice of an old black psychic who met a terrible end, Parker must seek a final, brutal confrontation with a murderer who has moved beyond all notions of humanity, who has set out to create a hell on earth: the serial killer known only as the Traveling Man.

The cover copy answers the three essential questions of a mystery or thriller query. (Different genres have different questions.)

    1. 1. Who is the protagonist? What drives him?
    2. 2. What's the conflict? How does he get sucked into something he can't deal with (and, of course, what is it that he's sucked into)?
    3. 3. What's the setting and mood?

Your query should show the mood of the book—you can tell me it's a humorous cozy, but your query should also be written in that voice. Setting is also important because in your book, setting should be a character (major or minor role, it's up to you, but it's there). You can see from the "bickering career criminals" that there will probably be some black humor and from the language — "shrouded", "fear", "torment"—that it will be grim. That's part of what an agent or editor is looking for. Not only what your story is about, but also that you're the right person to write it.

So take the time, polish your query over and over. Think it over. Send it to friends in a writing group who know nothing about your story. That's important because people who do know will fill in the blanks. Editors and agents don't have time to fill in the blanks. They need you to make it as simple and perfect as you can.

Laura K Curtis Laura K. Curtis gave up a life writing dry academic papers for writing decidedly less dry short crime stories and novel-length romantic suspense and contemporary romance. A member of RWA, MWA, ITW, and Sisters in Crime, she has trouble settling into one genre.

Conference Tiffs and the Polite Lie

Networking name tag

This month's MWA meeting was about conferences. I personally think that if you can afford conferences, you should go, because nothing else works quite so well to get your name out there and allow you to meet people you might want to work with in the future. That said, I have a few thoughts on the topic of things that can—and do—go wrong.

Every year, I hear about someone who is no longer speaking to someone else because person 2 insulted person 1—or possibly insulted person 3 who is a friend of person 1—or because person 2 felt as if person 1 ignored them in favor of a more “important” author or editor.

“She looked right at me, and pretended she didn’t know me,” said one of my friends of another.

Well, yeah, that’s possible. It’s equally possible my other friend was simply on conference overload with a buzzing head and tired eyes, thinking about how much her feet hurt. Or, like me, she barely recognizes people even while fully awake and not thinking about a dozen things at once.

And then there are the room-mate dilemmas. “OMG,” one of my friends bemoaned in an instant message, “so-and-so asked me if I have a room-mate for RT and I don’t, but I sure as hell don’t want to room with her. What am I supposed to say?”

Well, under normal circumstances, honesty is the best policy. But there are also appropriate times for the polite lie, and this is one of them.

“You tell her yes, you already have one,” I advised.

“And what if she finds out I don’t?”

Well, if so-and-so finds out at the conference that you don’t have a room-mate and confronts you, you have two choices. First, say your roomie fell through (which happens all the time) or you can tell her the truth. Chances are, however, that even if she does find out, she won’t say anything to you. Most people aren’t that confrontational.

And if you’re on the receiving end of “sorry, I already have a room-mate” and then later finding out that person is alone in her room? My advice is to leave it alone and assume her roomie fell through. And if you think someone’s ignoring you in favor of a more popular author or a better agent or bigger editor or whatever…make a decision about how important that is to you. I’ve been ignored numerous times at conferences. I’m a nobody. I basically expect it. I understand that people are there to network and I cannot do help their careers in any way. The ones who want to chat with me because we are actually friends will seek me out. And if my friends are networking with someone else for a few minutes, well, they’ll find me later or they won’t.

Let me put this another way: RWA, ITW and Sleuthfest (and to a certain extent even fan cons like RT and Bouchercon) are professional conferences. People are there to do business. If you treat it as a business conference, you’re a lot less likely to get hurt than if you treat it as a social gathering. Remember that even while people are drinking and dressing up in costumes, they’re also there trying to get ahead in their careers. You may not approve of the way they do it, and that may mean cutting them out of your life, but don’t assume that just because they look past you in their search for someone at a con that they don’t like you or care about you. They’re simply wearing a business hat and not good at blending the business and social.


Laura K Curtis Laura K. Curtis gave up a life writing dry academic papers for writing decidedly less dry short crime stories and novel-length romantic suspense and contemporary romance. A member of RWA, MWA, ITW, and Sisters in Crime, she has trouble settling into one genre.

Timelines and Series Bibles

Binder view of a Scrivener outlineWhen I got a two-book contract after having written only a single book in my romantic suspense series, I found myself presented with several problems. First: a deadline. After all, I'd taken forever to write the first book, and I couldn't do that with the second. And second, I had to remember everything from the first book so that I didn't contradict it in the second.

I slid through that by the skin of my teeth, but with the next contract it became clear that I needed a more comprehensive setup. Here are the two tools I rely on:

• Scrivener

• Aeon Timeline

For every scene of a Scrivener manuscript, I annotate the day and date. This gives me a visual overview of the timeline when I am outlining or roughing in scenes. (If you're not a scrivener user, you can do this by turning on commenting in Word and giving yourself comments in the margins that say things like "Sunday July 14, 8am" or whatever. Then you can skim down the margin to make sure all days are accounted for.)

Of course, Scrivener does more than time tracking for me. I also have a full series "Bible" where all my characters in the series are described, their backgrounds, likes, dislikes, scars and tattoos all enumerated. The character sketches contain images of actors or models who remind me of the characters so that when I am trying to figure out how someone with certain features might smile, I can check it. Forget eye color? Easy check. Where's that eagle tattoo? Oh, wait, it's not an eagle, is it?

And then there's the timeline. Before Aeon, I wasted a LOT of time plotting things on long pieces of paper. I have a tendency to write things rooted in the distant past, so I need to know several generations worth of history. This is some of the stuff that happened before the first book in my romantic suspense Aeon format (click to enlarge):

Most of my romantic suspense books feature an organization called Harp Security. If you look at the timeline, you'll see that there's a Harp column at the far right. Harp was founded in 2007. You'll also see that 9/11 is a featured date. I wanted Nash Harper to buy the property in TriBeCa that houses Harp Security long before the company is founded, and I know what that area was like after 9/11. So I put in 9/11/01, and Aeon automatically calculated how long before the founding that would be (-5y on the chart). That sounded about right. If I change the founding date, all the other dates linked to Harp security will change, too.

Honestly, I don't use half the features in either Scrivener or Aeon. But even the few I do use have saved my bacon more times than I can count. So if you find yourself on your third or fourth book in a series, and suddenly freaking out about what you might need to remember for book seven, those are my two recommendations.


Laura K Curtis Laura K. Curtis gave up a life writing dry academic papers for writing decidedly less dry short crime stories and novel-length romantic suspense and contemporary romance. A member of RWA, MWA, ITW, and Sisters in Crime, she has trouble settling into one genre.

Pathways to Publication

bloody bills

We all know that in a mystery the most obvious suspect, the first “person of interest,” isn’t always the culprit. The same is true of pretty much every aspect of publishing.

There’s a lot—and I mean a lot—of debate, acrimony, and bad information out there about what you can or should expect, or what you’ll be doing as an author as well as writing and how much you will—or won’t—make. Don’t expect me to give you the answers. I won’t. I don’t know them. I don’t think anyone does, no matter what they say because every book is different. Every author’s experience will be different.

I have short stories in three anthologies, two published with small presses in both print and e, the other we did as a crowd-sourced charity anthology, so once the original Indiegogo campaign was over, it became available to the public only in e. My four romantic suspense novels were published by  a major publisher—Penguin—but in their e-only imprint, InterMix, so they had no paperbacks. I've also self-published two shorter contemporary romances, as well as re-publishing the Penguin books when I got my rights back. I haven't covered all the publication bases, but I've come close.

And I still don’t have the answers.

Publishing is a business. The decisions you make must be business decisions. The fact that there are so many new pathways opening up has both positive and negative aspects–you have more choice, but you also have more responsibility.

Here are questions I ask for every project before deciding what to do with it…as always, your mileage may vary.

  • • Who will want to read it (and no, you can’t answer “everyone”–the more specific you are, the better)
  • • Where do those people hang out–online and off?
  • • How do those people choose to read? In e or in print or both?
  • • How much do you think those people will be willing to pay for a book, especially if it's by someone they may never have heard of?
  • • Do these people look at covers when they are making choices about what they are reading?
  • • Where do these people find recommendations about what to read next?

Now, let’s say you want to go the traditional route. And let’s say you don’t have an agent you trust, who can help you vet the publishers to query. Publishers aren’t going to come to you, so you have plenty of time to check them out before sending out your query!

  • • Have you heard of any of the other authors on their list?
    (Check out their websites and see if you can find them on social media. Look to see if there are any who appear friendly. Ask them about their experiences—politely.)
  • • What do their covers look like? Would they make you want to buy the books?
  • • How about the cover copy? Check out their books on Amazon or B&N and see whether the copy is well-written and makes you want to buy the book.
  • • What kind of promotions have you seen for the books they publish?
  • • Can you even find a list on their website of the books they’ve published in the last year?
  • • For that matter, is their website filled with information about their authors and books, does it have links to the authors’ own sites? Does it have “buy buttons” for the books?
  • • What do they charge for their paperback books? Is it more than you think your readers would pay? What about their ebooks?

Businesswoman looking through a magnifying glass to contractNow, let’s say the books look good and fit your requirements and they offer you a deal. You’re still not done doing your homework!

  • • EXAMINE THE CONTRACT THEY SEND YOU. This one I cannot stress strongly enough. Be sure you understand every word of that contract. If it says “out of print,” you need to know what that means in a world of print on demand and ebook. You need to know if your royalties are standard. Do they own foreign language rights? What about audio rights?


I am sure there are questions I’ve missed, but I am trying to stress something here: not all publishers are equal, and even if you like your publisher for one project, they may not be right for all your projects. What does your contract say? Do you owe them right of first refusal on your next project even if it’s completely different from the one they bought?

For example, Twisted was bought as part of a two-book deal. That same contract gave me a deadline for the second book, Lost. But it didn’t specify what might happen in the middle. That is, if I had the kind of speed to complete a book/novella in the middle, I could have published it, as long as what I published did not infringe on my Penguin "world."

So those are some of the things I’d consider. As I said, your mileage may vary, and I’d love to hear any thoughts in the comments about other things I’ve forgotten to include in comments!


Laura K Curtis Laura K. Curtis gave up a life writing dry academic papers for writing decidedly less dry short crime stories and novel-length romantic suspense and contemporary romance. A member of RWA, MWA, ITW, and Sisters in Crime, she has trouble settling into one genre.

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