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Thursday, October 9, 2008

StoryLink Ezine: Query Letters

Hello Wavers! Sorry I'm late to the table today - it being Yom Kippur and all, I've been busy atoning. No, not really. I don't do that anymore. I just skip lunch, watch ATONEMENT and call it a day. No, kidding again, I just had a really late night. But - I am posting herewith my latest "ask the expert" article for the StoryLink Ezine:

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Question:
"I've sent out tons of query letters and have gotten no responses. How do I grab a reader's attention?"

Answer:
Well, you have two issues here: One is whether the query letters you are sending are effective in and of themselves. The other is whether your logline is effective and, more than that, original.

A good query letter should be brief and to the point. Remember, executives, managers, and their assistants are deluged with incoming emails and phone calls all day. They don’t have a whole lot of time to review your query letter. They are looking for the quick upshot. So the information you want to provide is pretty simple: your name and contact information, a BRIEF introduction of yourself, if you have any significant creds (major competition wins or prior options, etc.) and then just get straight to the point: “I have a romantic comedy entitled WHO’S THAT QUERY and here’s the logline. Period. Thanks for your time. I look forward to hearing back from you.” Many writers think that including a synopsis, or a paragraph or two describing why they wrote the script and even music samples might convey your passion for the story. But it won’t. It will annoy the recipient. Get in and get out quickly. Deliver the upshot.

Now, about that logline. Make sure to indicate the genre and make sure your logline is as descriptive as possible of the conflict inherent in the story. For example: Four college buddies in danger of failing out of college are wooed by an army recruiter. This is doesn’t really sell the script. What is the genre? Drama? What’s at stake? Of all the piles and piles of scripts and queries on my desk, why on earth would I ask to read this? But, if the logline read more like: When four na├»ve college buddies in danger of failing out of college are wooed by an army recruiter, the answer seems clear until they discover the recruiter is a dangerous sociopath obsessed with filling his quota. And he won’t take no for an answer. Yes, this could be a whole lot pithier, but suddenly this logline, which is clearly a thriller, is more interesting, isn’t it? Sociopathic army recruiter? Whoa. This just might be an interesting script. You need to pique the interest of the recipient of your query.

Make sure your logline indicates your genre and includes: your main character, his or her flaw, the antagonist and the crux of the conflict. Using the words “when,” “but,” or “until” somewhere in your logline is a way of amping up your expression of your conflict. If you can indicate the ticking clock and what’s at stake, you’re golden.

So: while A rancher agrees to escort a dangerous criminal to the train station is not a bad logline, it could also be expressed as: A desperate rancher must get a dangerous outlaw to the train station on time before the outlaw’s gang catches up to him and seeks revenge. Ohhhh, now we have a ticking clock, we have noted the rancher is desperate, we see what’s at stake because the outlaw’s gang is hot on his heels. It’s the same story as 3:10 to Yuma, but the second logline--admittedly written off the cuff in this moment--adds details that are provocative. Now you’ve got me curious. But, mind you, you could still fail with this query because maybe I’m not looking for period westerns. And that’s not your fault. But be smart and research who you are querying too. Querying the producer of Legally Blonde with a slasher script probably won’t get you very far. Aim your queries as strategically as you can. Invest in a copy of the Hollywood Creative Directory and do your homework.

If you’ve sent out query after query and had no bites, take a look at your query letter and at your logline. It is possible that your logline is not expressing the genre, conflict, excitement, and unique qualities of your script. It is also possible that you are over-describing your script. It is possible that your logline is just not sounding original at all--and it might not be. Newer writers often over-estimate the originality of their work. Go back to the drawing board, making an examination of the efficacy of your logline your number one goal. And you may have to take steps beyond that to make sure that your script really is as original as you thought. Do your research and aim your queries well. Querying the wrong company will result in an automatic “no.”

Getting attention on your query letter is as simple as writing a short, straightforward, professional letter, containing a brief, provocative, unique logline, which effectively expresses the conflict inherent in the story you’ve written.

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7 comments:

Anonymous said...

make sure you send the query to the right place, otherwise you're just wasting paper. executives can't receive unsolicited submissions due to legal concerns and most agencies don't either. there are some that do, and i think most management companies do, but it's important to research where and to whom letters should (and shouldn't) be sent. i've had to throw away a number of query letters simply because we could not accept them period.

Julie Gray said...

Thank you, Anonymous - excellent point. Falls under the "do your homework" thing. What a shame for a query to get tossed from the get-go. I do think this one reason why writers who send out queries and get zilch become so frustrated. They are blanketing the town without being selective and focused in their queries. Big mistake. Waste of time and postage.

Luzid said...

@ Julie:

What are your thoughts on querying managers and agents first, as opposed to prodcos?

I've been leaning toward doing the former when I start the process, and wonder what you'd recommend as the best approach.

Anthony Peterson said...

Ive never fully understood why companies automatically throw out unsolicited scripts for legal reasons.

Other forms of intellectual property (such patents and trade marks etc) are available for all to see on a public register.

If such a register existed for scripts, it could add tremendous value by minimizing legal action, and allowing scripts to circulate on their merit.

I think that was the intention of TriggerStreet.com

Anonymous said...

Julie,

I know you will scream about this marketing query style of mine.

I got some good replies when I send a bottle of premium wine and liquor to top managers and agents. I attach a very simple query letter around the bottle (with a bow and string).

They did request my script via personal emails with hotmail/yahoo/gmail etc accounts but they did not reveal their full name or the agency they work for.

Once a year I send them a bottle.


Best,
kn

Julie Gray said...

You can send ME a bottle of booze anytime you want, darling. :)

Anonymous said...

Julie,

Heyyy, thatt (hic!) is a brilliant idea. Giving agents bottle of wine as query letters.

Yesh, brilliant idea!

Just curious, if Ottis or Deputy Barney Fife had to write a funny query letter, what would that letter look like?

Some agents like funny query letters, now that's an idea : make them laugh and they will read your script.

Have a nice weekend.