In the query letters you’ve reviewed you talk about including credits and the need to assert yourself as a ‘bona fide’. So my question is what if you don’t have any writing credits? Would you consider a first time author who had nothing else to hang their hat on but a passion for their craft? Is being a good writer enough? Also I write romance/ contemporary chick lit – so how do I prove I’m qualified to write in this genre? It’s not like you can do a PhD in broken hearts, there’s no Romance 101 taught in any legitimate learning facility that I’m aware of. To some simply being a woman whose experienced her fair share of love and heart break might be enough to make me a ‘bona fide’ for this style of writing but I more interested in what the industry standard is. If you’re a first time writer, other then writing a good novel what else can one do to improve their chances of getting published?
This is a very good point and, again, makes me examine my own query letter–reading mindset.
In JJ Cooper's letter he says that his novel is a thriller about a military interrogator - this is quite a specialised area, so it's great if he has some knowledge about it, which he says he does - that is, he's established his credentials in this specialised field of knowledge. Likewise, if someone's writing non-fiction about, say, the life cycle of the bee, it's best if the writer is an apiarist or bee scientist. So the 'bona fides' really matters when you're writing the sort of book that people will notice a lack of real detail: novels about the military or the police, for example, even about championship tennis - it's hard to write about a culture if you're completely outside of it. The Devil Wears Prada wouldn't have worked if the author knew nothing about the fashion industry.
If you write chick lit, you're correct: you don't need the same kind of background knowledge.
However, regardless of what you're writing, the manuscript needs to be excellent. And most manuscripts don't get to be excellent if the author has not put a lot of work into them. So when I'm looking for writing 'credits' I'm not necessarily looking for a degree in creative writing - in fact, that qualification can sometimes make me run screaming away from the submission - but I am looking for some evidence that you haven't sent me your first draft. That may mean that you say 'I've been writing for five years and have started two novels, but this is the first I've seen to fruition. I've spent a fair bit of time with it, and this is the third draft.' And that, as far as I'm concerned (I can't speak for others), is writing credit. You've done time in the trenches. You haven't just dashed off something in five days and decided to submit it just to see how it goes. A lot of writers won't mention previous (unpublished) novels or stories but I think they should - it's part of their own story. And your own story is what makes you different from the twenty other chick lit writers whose submissions I may be reading on the same day.