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Psst: Novelists – Steal These Screenwriting Secrets! Part 3 Query Letters

In part 3 of "steal these screenwriting secrets," we delve into marketing and query letters. In other words, these are screenwriting secrets to steal after you write and specifically related to crafting killer query letters.

In part 3 of "steal these screenwriting secrets," we delve into marketing and query letters. In other words, these are screenwriting secrets to steal after you write and specifically related to crafting killer query letters.

In my Writer’s Digest article, Novelists Steal These Screenwriting Secrets Before You Write, I quoted the legendary William Goldman. In Part Two, Steal These Screenwriting Secrets While You Write, I turned to multi-hyphenate, Steve Martin, for inspiration.

This month, we’re exploring Screenwriting Secrets to Steal After You Write. That means we’re delving into marketing your material and yourself.

Selling yourself is never fun. It’s often painful. It probably has little to do with what drew you to being a storyteller and not much in common with the skills you’ve developed and honed as a novelist. It forces you to wear yet another hat.

Marketing sounds scary, so let’s think of it as advertising. Perhaps that makes it a touch more palatable by giving you a bit of emotional distance. You’ve got “a product;” now it’s time to advertise it.

When it comes to advertising, I think of the iconic Leo Burnett. At the height of the Great Depression, Leo mortgaged his house and borrowed against his life insurance to open an advertising agency with a handful of employees and just three clients.

On the first day, Leo set out a welcoming bowl of apples. A newspaper columnist quipped that rather than giving them away, it wouldn’t be long before Burnett would be selling apples on the street.

Leo’s agency went on to create some of advertising’s best-known campaigns and characters of the 20thCentury, bringing us The Jolly Green Giant, The Pillsbury Dough Boy, Tony the Tiger, The Marlboro Man and, my favorite, Charlie the Tuna. Today, Leo Burnett is the largest ad agency based in the US, with 85 offices in 69 countries and more than 9,000 employees. And every office features a bowl of apples.

Dubbed “The Sultan of Sell” in Time magazine’s Top 100 People of the 20th Century, here’s Leo’s advice on advertising:

"Advertising says to people, 'Here's what we've got. Here's what it will do for you. Here's how to get it.'"

With those words of wisdom, let’s jump in.

Steal These Screenwriting Secrets AFTER You’ve Written

Once your novel is written, your next challenge is to get it read – the first step toward achieving your goal of getting your book published.

Query letters are the traditional way of getting an agent to read your work. The primary job of the query is to convey your story in a way that makes someone eager to read it.

Many of my query letter consultation clients turn to me because they’re frustrated from struggling to sum up a screenplay or novel in a single page that convinces the reader to ask for their material.

First, master the query letter format.

I recently gave feedback on a four-page (four!) query that included facts and figures, and cited research statistics, plus added marketing and product placement suggestions! And that was before getting down to the fundamentals – what the story is about – which is what we really want to know. This was far more akin to a business proposal.

I also just worked with a writer on a query that had the fundamentals down, but felt very stiff and boilerplate. A quick online search turned up the template they had copied almost word for word. Working with the writer, we were able to transform the letter to make it distinctive to them and to their project.

I’ve outlined the fundamentals of writing a query letter here.

There is much excellent advice available on querying book agents. I personally love the column, Writer’s Digest Successful Queries. It features successful queries paired with comments from the agent who responded to the letter, read the manuscript and sold the book. The agents explain how and why the query letter worked. The series, by Chuck Sambuchino, is inspirational and informative, packed with real world examples and insights.

Screenwriting Secret: Here’s what we’ve got.

Perhaps the most important function of your query letter is to convey "what you've got." To define that, it is essential to cover these two points.

1) What you are selling:

  • Title
  • Genre
  • Word count

I believe in conveying this vital information first. It puts us in the right frame of mind for what follows, by keying us into the audience. I never let a writer pitch a story without first telling us the genre, so we can correctly interpret what follows. Remember the old saying, “There’s a fine line between comedy and tragedy”? That’s because it’s true. Which is why we need genre first.

2) What your story is about:

  • Who is the protagonist?
  • What characteristics make them unique?
  • What conflict do they face?
  • What’s at stake if they fail?

All the successful query examples answer these questions within their short – emphasis on short – synopsis. The best ones capture the tone of the story and the voice of the author with two to three brief but enticing paragraphs.

Screenwriting Secret: Tell them what it will do for them.

This is business. It is transactional. Ask not just what an agent can do for you, but what you can do for the agent.

Both sides want to know how the relationship will benefit them. Be on the look out for how the successful queries that lead to sales incorporated the second part of Leo Burnett’s approach:

  • They define the audience.
  • The material matches the agent’s interests.
  • They convince us that the writer can write.

Prove there is an audience.

If there’s no market, there’s no point in trying to sell it. Publishing and film are big business. There has to be an identifiable audience for us to consider moving forward. While you can tell us the genre, tone is a great way to help the reader hone in on the audience. Weave tone through every sentence about your story.

What it will do for them does not mean going over the top. By all means, offer up a comparable title, but don’t take it too far. J.K. Rowling’s story is incredible. And rare. I would be very reticent to use the Harry Potter franchise as a comp. Focus comps on financially successful and critically acclaimed works that are match for your story’s genre and audience.

When the top people working in the field can’t predict how a book will perform, overpromising screams "amateur!"

As Leo says:

"If you don't get noticed, you don't have anything. You just have to be noticed, but the art is in getting noticed naturally, without screaming or without tricks."

I’ve read script queries that promised their film would attract the biggest movie stars and launch a movie franchise, comic books, and TV series! It’s the very definition of over the top. Think for a moment, if an ad for a single product that helped you loses 10 pounds, get thicker, fuller hair and find the love of your life, would make you eager to buy or more skeptical of its claims.

Swipe these Screenwriting Secrets for creating an outstanding query – not one that stands out for all the wrong reasons. What to avoid so your query gets results.

Be selling what they want.

Here’s where I think screenwriters envy novelists. In my experience, book agents are far more upfront about what they want than agents in film and TV. You can readily find their clients list, their specific genre preferences and exactly how they want to be queried, for instance, “Include the first ten pages, double spaced, in the body of the letter.”

Screenwriters would kill for this kind of readily available information. Film agents are not nearly as transparent.

Convince us you have "chops."

If you have already published a book, this should be in your first sentence. It’s a guarantee that they will keep reading. If not, you can still prove you’ve got some writing chops. There are really two choices here. First, if you’ve been paid to write before, even in another medium, be sure to include this. Nothing convinces us more quickly and effectively that you can write than knowing someone else so thought so – enough to put their money where their mouth is.

What if you’ve never been paid to write? Yet!

There are still options to show us that you have writing chops.

The most powerful ways are again, validation that others think you can write. If your writing has received recognition through prestigious contests or awards, say so. Or, if based on your writing, you were invited to participate in a respected workshop or writing retreat.

Failing that, education at a highly regarded institution might help you score some points on this count.

Never, ever forget that your query is a writing sample.

It’s the fastest way to prove you can write and the quickest way to convince us you can’t. You would be astonished by the volume of typos we see in queries from poor punctuation to mis-spelling the recipient’s name.

You’ve poured your time and energy into your novel. Doesn’t your query deserve some hard work?

The best queries quickly engage us with the story. Often the most powerful way to draw us into the story is through your hero. We are inherently drawn to compelling characters. Engage us right off the bat; then weave the feel and flavor of the story throughout your short, compelling synopsis. Two to three paragraphs – tops.

My advice is to never include a full synopsis. You’re offering the reader a quick and easy way to reject your book without every reading a single word. Not to mention that synopses are incredibly challenging to write, much less be truly engaging to read. Your number one goal is to motivate the agent to want to read the book.

Screenwriting Secret: Here’s how to get it.

Please, I implore you, keep this short and sweet. Chances are, you are sending an email, and we can just hit “reply.” Contact information can go below your signature. Don’t go on thanking us for our time because, frankly, that’s wasting our time.

The Top Query Tip Novelists Should Swipe from Screenwriters

Query letters are a long shot, but screenwriters know one big thing to improve the odds and give their work the best chance at getting read. The secret is The Cold Query versus The Warm Query.

The Query goes out blind and naked into the world. To quote some very successful feature writers who mentored me while working my way up the executive ranks, Bruce Evans and Raynold Gideon, (Stand By Me, Starman, Mr. Brooks) the odds are “Like hitting the moon with a BB gun.” Chances are your letter will be lost in a barrage of submissions.

Screenwriting Secrets: Personalized Query Letters Turn Up The Heat

  • Mention one or two of the agent’s clients.
  • Reference a speaking engagement or interview they gave.
  • Congratulate them on a recent sale.

The more specific the better. What aspect of their client’s is work is similar to or inspire yours? Why did something the agent said resonate with you? Based on the recent sale, is the publisher they clearly have a working relationship with known for or, better still, actively seeking material in your genre?

Personalizing is appealing on multiple levels. We can tell right off the bat when we’re reading a generic query. Plugging in the recipient’s name and company into a boilerplate letter is not only obvious, it looks lazy. Secondly, the fact that you’ve taken notice of the agent is flattering. That’s simply human nature. And finally, it proves you are paying attention to the publishing industry. This makes you look savvy and seem like a potentially good client.


I always advise screenwriters that the best way to get an agent, is to look for the agents who are hungry. Don’t go for the Big Dog with the impressive. lengthy list of famous novelists. The people who are hungry are not only easier to approach, they are looking for you! They need you to advance. Look toward the junior agent reading their eyes out in hopes of finding a gem to impress their boss and search out the newly minted agent actively building their client list.

Screenwriting Secrets: Make Your Query Scorching Hot

The best way to ensure your query is noticed is for it to come to the agent through a personal referral. Rather than being “thrown over the transom,” this shoots your query to the top of the metaphorical stack.

Don’t be a stranger. If you’ve met them at a conference and managed to make a personal connection, that’s great! Just be sure to remind them when and where. These are the queries that are guaranteed to not just get a quick skim, but to be read and given consideration.

One of their own clients. This might be the most successful approach. It’s within reach and it is effective. Of course, an agent will pay attention if there’s someone on their list who has read your work and believes in it strongly enough to recommend it to their own agent. If the client forwards the material directly, you’re scorching hot.

From inside the industry. If there’s someone else in the industry that has a professional connection with the agent, such as a film and TV agent they partner with to sell book subrights – industry speak for subsidiary rights for a work based on the original but in a different format – you’ve got the attention of the prospective agent. If the industry pro submits the material directly to the agent, you’re on fire.

Direct submissions carry a tremendous amount of weight. Remember what a big ask this is and the weight it carries. The person recommending you is putting their own reputation on the line.

Heating up your query takes time. Don’t wait until your book is done. Start yesterday.

Attend writing conferences, network with other writers, build relationships, and pay attention to the industry – who is selling what to whom.

As a young development exec, I poured over Publisher’s Weekly for years, looking for upcoming books that could be made into films and gaining invaluable information on who was selling what to whom. It would be five years before my own name appeared there for optioning book rights for a film, but I learned so much along the way.

Screenwriting Secrets: Nab the Killer Query Action Plan

Don’t wait until your novel is done. I’m sure Leo would agree, you should always be working on your advertising campaign!

It takes time to create a Killer Query. Beyond the time you spend writing and honing your letter, the key is the time you devote to laying the groundwork so you can get off to a running start when you’ve finished your manuscript. This means building relationships and attending writing conferences to meet not only agents but other writers. (Hope to see you at the Writer’s Digest Novel Writing Conference in Pasadena, CA, October 22-27, 2019!) Start taking steps now to be ready to successfully move your novel forward later.

Share your biggest query challenge in the comments below for a chance to get a FREE Query Check Up Consultation! Find consult details here.

Next Month Part Four: Flip your process for great results. Build solid relationships. Deal with rejection. Turn a pass into a plus. Recognize an open door and take action.

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