On the Query Letter: 5 Questions for Becka Oliver

Everyone who attends this class will walk away with the bones of a query letter and, I hope, a better understanding of what they’re writing, where it will sit on the bookstore shelves, and how to talk about it in a compelling way. — Becka Oliver

Becka Oliver joined the WLT in 2013 as Executive Director after more than sixteen years of experience working in book publishing both inside major publishing houses and as a literary agent.

On Wednesday, April 10, Becka Oliver is teaching a class for the WLT called “Crafting a Compelling Query Letter.” In this class you’ll learn what it takes to write an effective query letter.

Here’s some advice Becka had to give to fellow writers:

Scribe: Tell us a little bit about yourself. How do you know so much about query letters?

Becka Oliver: Before joining the WLT as Executive Director, I spent my career in book publishing. First, I worked in the Subsidiary Rights departments at two of the big five publishing companies (Macmillan and Hachette Book Group). In those roles, my job was to read a manuscript presented to me by the acquiring editor and figure out how to sell the book to a foreign publisher, a book club, a magazine for excerpt. Basically, I had to come up with compelling reasons for people to pay good money to license the rights. I was doing written pitches or over the phone pitches pretty much every day. When I became a literary agent, I was still doing pitches every day for my clients’ projects, but I was also on the receiving end of countless query letters – I can identify what is working and what isn’t working pretty quickly. I also recognize how important the work writers do to craft a great query letter is – how the choices they make regarding how to talk about the work will carry along through the process.

Scribe: Why do you think query letters are such a challenge for writers?

BO: We make such a big deal about query letters – we assign them such high stakes – it’s no wonder writers who have accomplished the amazing feat of completing a manuscript (something I am truly in awe of) can be struck with fear when it comes to this one page. I’m not going to say that the query letter isn’t extremely important, it is, but writing one doesn’t have to be an awful experience. Quite the opposite – writing a query letter can be a gateway to a deeper understanding of your work and a chance to start trying on the role of “author” and everything that comes with it.

Scribe: Has there been a moment of epiphany in terms of your work, when you thought, “This is it! Now I know what I’m doing?” How long did that feeling last?

BO: In terms of the work I do at the WLT, there is no better feeling than hearing from a writer who took a class or attended an event or scheduled an Open Office Hours appointment who has found success and attributes some part of it to being a member of this community. I teach classes like this one frequently and I see, again and again, how helpful it is for writers to have this process demystified, how freeing it is to learn some basic tips that can take them from a blank page to a solid query in very little time. Being a writer is a solitary endeavor – understanding the business side of writing doesn’t have to be.

Scribe: What piece of advice do you find yourself giving to writers again and again?

BO: When it comes to preparing for writing a query letter, be a voracious reader. Read books in your genre, read books that challenge you, read books with a unique voice or perspective. Read, read, read. And, often and early, ask yourself “what is compelling me forward, what makes me not want to put this book down?” Learning how to articulate that as a reader brings you much closer to articulating it about your own work.

Scribe: What is one thing that people will take away from this class?

BO: This class is going to be hands on, with writing exercises, small group work, and sharing. Everyone who attends will walk away with the bones of a query letter and, I hope, a better understanding of what they’re writing, where it will sit on the bookstore shelves, and how to talk about it in a compelling way.

Thanks, Becka!

Click here to learn more about Becka Oliver’s upcoming class.

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