Query Letters for Both Screenplays and Novels

(This article is a reprint from March, 2011)

There are some basic similarities in writing queries for screenplays and novels, but there are also some fundamental differences. You need to figure out who to query and how to tailor your query letter for a literary agent, Hollywood agent, producer, or publisher.

Literary Agents: A literary agent, or perhaps an assistant, generally reads every query that arrives in their mailbox or inbox.

Find Agents here  

Hollywood Agents: If your hair catches fire, a Hollywood agent will not pour their Evian water on your head without first checking your pockets to see if you already have a screenplay deal on the table. That may be a slight exaggeration. Slight. Hollywood agents are, as a rule, not interested in new writers. Even if they will consider newbies, they are usually referred by other industry professionals who can vouch for them.

Find Hollywood agents at the  Writer’s Guild of America (WGA) Agent List  Good luck….

You cannot get a producer to read your screenplay without an agent and you cannot get an agent unless you have signed a deal with a producer. That’s the conventional, “Catch 22” mentality in Hollywood. Except it’s not entirely true. 

Hollywood Producers – You *can* get a producer to read your screenplay. It’s just a lot harder when you don’t have a Hollywood agent to submit your work on your behalf. If you write a well-composed query letter that clearly outlines the script you are trying to sell, you may get a producer, or an assistant, to read your screenplay. Please do not delude yourself into thinking you can get Jerry Bruckheimer or Steven Spielberg to read your script. Be reasonable. Send only to producers who are willing to read unsolicited queries or at least do not have a stated policy of no unsolicited queries. I’ve gotten two of my screenplays optioned this way.

Book Publishers – For your novel, you can try to send query letters to publishing companies directly but it is likely a waste of time. If you go to their website for their submission policy (and shame, shame, on you if don’t do this first!) you can find out whether or not the publisher is willing to look at material from unagented writers. More and more, publishers have stopped accepting unsolicited submissions and instead will work only through trusted agents. Your querying time is likely much better spent trying to land an agent than going to the publisher directly.

**As a general rule – If you’re shopping a screenplay, query producers. If you’re shopping a novel or nonfiction book, query literary agents.**

Tips for Queries for Both Screenplays and Novels

* Get to the main idea of your story quickly. You can even dive right into it in the first paragraph before you introduce yourself. You are trying to convince the reader that your story will SELL. Grab their interest right away. Describe in clear, powerful language who your main characters are and what they are battling. What do they want? What is the story about? Where is the conflict?

* Query only one project at a time. If you’ve written other books or screenplays, you can mention them in your brief bio paragraph but don’t talk them up here. You’re trying to sell your current project.

* Just describe the story itself, don’t praise it. You may think your story is “hilarious, entertaining, action-packed, or a tearjerker,” but that’s up to the reader to decide. If it’s not clear from your brief synopsis that your novel or screenplay is a comedy or a heavy drama, your query letter – or worse, your story – is not ready for submission.

* Include a brief biography of yourself. If you’ve won writing awards or placed in contests, mention those accomplishments here. If you are a professional writer as a day job (journalist, copywriter, technical writer), then say so. Don’t sweat it if you don’t have any writing credentials yet. If your story grabs the reader’s interest, you will get a request to read your manuscript or screenplay. If you have experience or a special background that qualifies you to write this particular story, describe it. If you wrote a story about World War II, then it’s relevant to explain that your grandparents were concentration camp survivors. If you’re an attorney and you’ve written a legal thriller, it can only help to mention your day job.

 Tips for Book  Queries

Write a professional query letter that shows that you take your career seriously. Unless they have specifically stated that they do not accept unsolicited query letters or will only consider submissions by referral only, they will read your query letter. No need to dress it up to grab their attention. Make your story grab their attention. 

* You can be creative, within reason. Some choose to write some or all of the query letter in their character’s voice. Do this only if you can do this effectively. 

* If you’re querying about a novel, include the word count.

 * You can mention whether or not a completed manuscript is ready for review. If it’s a nonfiction book, normally you prepare only a proposal and not the whole book. For a novel, you should have a complete manuscript ready to go.

 How To Write a Query Letter (advice from Literary Agent Rachelle Gardner)

Query Dos and Don’ts  

Query Rant  

Some suggest you just ignore all the rules  

Tips for Screenplay Queries

* Write a logline. This is usually a one or two sentence description of your story. The logline is in addition to the brief synopsis of your story that you will include (just like in a fiction query).

* Be creative. Unlike literary agents, Hollywood agents and producers don’t necessarily read query letters. You need to make your letter stand out. If you’re marketing a comedy, feel free to make your query letter humorous. I put warning labels on the outside of my query letter and I submit a pre-rejected postcard where people can circle the reason they’re brushing me off (and a place where they can circle YES, I want to read your screenplay). Several producers told me it was the best query they’d ever received.  Another producer called me to request the screenplay instead of sending back my rejection postcard because she thought it was clever and wanted to keep it! It’s tough out there in Hollywood – you’re at the bottom of the barrel if you don’t live in L.A. like me and don’t know anyone out there. You’ve got to work to be noticed. But it can be done. Show off your writing ability any way you can.

* Be original, but not gimmicky. Using colored paper, drawings, writing your query letter in crayon just for funsies is amateur and foolish.

How To Write a Screenplay Query that Will Make Producers Drool

For both novel and screenplay query letters, it all really comes down to the story. If your story is compelling and fresh with characters an audience can really care about, people will want to read it. As you review your query letter, ask yourself – can I sell this story? That’s exactly what any producer, publisher, or agent will be thinking. Make sure the answer is YES

Field Trip to a Gay Bar

I have several scenes in my new novel that take place at a gay bar/club type place so I figured it would make sense to actually visit one. I saw a drag show once when I was in Las Vegas and I’ve been to a Gay Pride Parade before (both were fabulous) but I hadn’t done the bar thing yet.

My partner in crime on this super secret inside mission (Ha! It was hardly a secret. I posted where I was going on Facebook and provided status updates and photos throughout the night. It’s just more fun to pretend we were on a secret mission, okay? Get off my case.) was Zann, sister extraordinaire who also happens to be the webmistress of Wannabe Pride.

We arrived at the Club Hippo in Baltimore pretty early for club standards. It was about 8pm. The bar was smaller than I pictured, but it was nice with a very pleasant atmosphere.  There were mostly men sitting at the bar (like a lot of bars) with a number of adorable couples. There was also a man and woman sitting together. Hard to tell if they were a couple, or if maybe one of them was gay.

We were happy to see there were two open pool tables. Well, there were two pool tables total and neither were in use. Told you we were there early. Zann and I were grateful to have something to do while we were there, rather than sit around staring and observing. Besides, she’s not really a drinker anyway. Don’t worry – I drank enough for both of us.

Pretty soon, some karaoke started up in the other room. I wanted to go sit in there and observe, but my sister and I hadn’t played pool in a long time so we stayed where we were for a while. I checked in on the karaoke room from time to time and was soon grateful that we had decided to stick to pool….

A lovely lesbian (I hate hate hate that word. Sorry – I just think it’s a harsh sounding word. You know how some words just don’t seem to fit what they describe? That’s one of them. So is penis.  Penis is a dumb, dumb sounding word.) couple started playing pool next to us and soon asked if we wanted to play with them. So we did and it was a lot of fun. We switched teams (no pun intended, so do stop your chuckling) and I played with Trina, while my sister played on Shay’s team. We played twice and Trina and I won both times. Wahoo!

An adorable drag queen named Tina or Talia or something to that effect was walking around selling jello shots, which my sister kindly purchased for me. I asked the lovely Tina/Talia if I could get a photo with her and she kindly obliged. It was dark, and the photo didn’t turn out as well as I would like, but that didn’t stop me from uploading it to Facebook.

For most of the night, I had been drinking a delicious German beer called Spaten that was recommended to me by the gay bartender, an adorable older gentleman. I had also downed several shots of Peach Shnapps. Yes I *know* Peach Schnapps is not meant to be used a shot, but rather as a mixer in lots of fruity drinks, some of which are so vulgar as to not be named in this article.  Go on,Google it. You know you want to. Never mind, I’ll save you the trouble. Click HERE.

Peach Schnapps is what my main character drinks, so I had to try it and I had to toast him.The Baltimore Screenwriter’s Competition described the screenplay version of QUEEN HENRY as a “funny, thought-provoking story that combines baseball, homosexuality, and Peach Schnapps.” So here’s to Henry Vaughn, Jr. and everything I’m about to put him through! Shay made fun of me for drinking a Schnapps shot, but she still bought me one anyway. Here’s to Shay! (For what it’s worth, she’s a lesbian who drank a  shot called Blow Job and she mocked me??)

Peach Schnapps

I still wandered over to the karaoke room from time to time and I’m so glad I did.  There is scene in my story (I haven’t written the scene yet, but this novel is based on a screenplay I wrote a few years ago,so I did write the scene for the script) where the main character, Henry, is dressed in drag as a disguise and he gets up to perform. At the last minute, he throws out the Lisa Minelli CD he’s supposed to lip synch to and decides to sing New York, New York for real – and his voice is amazing. As soon as I saw the words to the song were flashing up on the screen, I ran over to the room to hear the guy on stage sing. It’s funny – I heard some pretty terrible singing that night, but this guy? This guy was amazing. He had a really nice, loud, Broadway-type voice. Kinda like I pictured Henry having. He was the only one that sounded like that the whole night (at least from the few songs that I heard).

It was like a scene out of my own story. Moments like what are what a writer lives for. I might not see my novel in print. I might not see my script get made into a movie. But sometimes seeing the scene on your own – whether in your own mind or in a moment like this where it almost seems real – is truly something to experience.

Later on, another guy sang a song that I used while writing my other screenplay, SOLO POWER. He was terrible. But it still made me smile to hear it.

Our last adventure of the evening was the drag show, which was great fun. I’ve never even been to a club before, never mind a gay one. I was excited to get my hand stamped at a club like I always see on TV. Bright lights, loud music. All the things I expected a club to be. And all reminders of why I don’t do clubbing…. Soon the show started – and that kind of loud music I didn’t mind.

The show featured Ms. Gay Maryland 2011, Chi Chi Ray Colby and former Miss Gay America Sabrina White, among others.  I wish I had known that common protocol is to give the performers dollar bills (though, thankfully you don’t have to stuff them anywhere, though some did). Fortunately, my sister had a few dollar bills which she gave to me and I gave them to a few of the performers.

I would have been sorely disappointed if I didn’t get to hear at least ONE Lady Gaga song, and fortunately one of the performers did do BORN THIS WAY. It was cool. Another performer did Rihanna’s S& M – a song that I’m not crazy about, but it really got the place going and it was a lot of fun to see and hear. I also got to hear gay staple IT’S RAINING MEN, which I always envisioned as being the perfect song for the trailer for my script, should it ever get made into a movie.

Which brings me to an important point about events such as these. Even if you write them exactly as they happened some people will bitch and moan that you are stereotyping. I encountered some of this with the script version of this story. Some people complained that the Gay Pride Parade I depicted was clichéd and stereotyped. I had described the scene exactly as it happened, with one exception. I added a drag queen that was made up to look like Divine, the beloved drag queen featured in many John Waters films. I added that detail to add to the Baltimore flavor of the story.

Divine in Pink Flamingos

I wanted to scream at the reviewers who said that- Have you ever BEEN to a pride parade? Well I have and that’s exactly what goes on there, bitches!! Rainbows and flamboyance and drag queens throwing beads and condoms.

This is actually a common problem in storytelling. It doesn’t matter if it did really happen. What matters is, is it believable? Writers run into this kind of trouble all the time, especially when they are writing a true story. If it seems unbelievable, people won’t buy it. Even if it really happened. I remember a couple of reviewers commenting on the film WALK THE LINE concerning the part where Johnny Cash proposed to June onstage. Some said it seemed corny and unbelievable, too “movieish” but apparently, it did really happen.

So the problem with my story is – if I portray public  gay events as they often really do happen, people will whine that it’s stereotyping, even though such events quite frequently include drag shows, high-heeled races, you know, FUN stuff. I have a main character in my story who works in the medical field by day and is a drag queen by night. You know why? Cause it’s fun. Drag queens are fun. I don’t want to write about a gay accountant. I have nothing against gay accountants. I *have* a gay accountant. (contact me for his name and number– I highly recommend him). I’m just not going to write a story about him. At least not about his day job because numbers bore me into a semi-catatonic state.

I’m not trying to say that all gay people are into the drag scene. I’ve probably seen more drag shows than some gay folks who have no interest in them. But face it – effeminate gay guys are more interesting than ones who look and act like everyone else (Who was more fun on Will & Grace? Jack or Will??) However, I did steer clear of effeminate characters in my story. As fun as they are, there is definitely an argument to be made about stereotyping on that one.

All I can really do is write the best, most well-rounded characters that I can and try to balance reality and fiction, and what’s interesting and what’s believable.

Gay or straight, if you’ve never been to a gay bar or club, it really is great fun. My sister remarked that it was actually the least rowdy club she’d ever been to. There was only one bouncer – a lesbian (and what do you think reviews would say if I wrote THAT as a character?) There were very few out-of-control drunks, just a lot of people having a really good time. It’s a very fun, welcoming atmosphere where  nobody cares whether you’re gay or straight.

 If only the rest of the world could be like that.