Query Letters: Part II

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Let me start with the standard MW axiom of “there is no one right way to do this” and proceed from there; if you Google “query letters,” you will find all sorts of advice.

Having said that, the two letters that follow are my first (failed) attempt, and my later, more successful one. The first one isn’t the first draft of my query letter—it’s probably the thirteenth—but it’s the one I ultimately felt good enough about to send out. It got (as I mentioned last week) 3 requests for the manuscript out of about 60 queries sent, which was all very sad and depressing until one day, after about six months of futility, it dawned on me that all these agents and editors weren’t rejecting my novel—none of them had so much as seen my novel. They must, therefore, have been rejecting the query letter. The query simply wasn’t doing its job (which is to entice the reader to want to read more).

So I set about crafting a new, leaner letter.

The second letter did much better, garnering 13 requests out of about 30 sent (including a couple of agents who had passed on it the first time). I honestly think the biggest difference between the two is that the second one is considerably more concise. In the first letter I was trying to squeeze in everything possible—every detail, every nuance, every plot twist—and it was simply too much. The difference between three fat paragraphs and two lean ones was enormous.

The second thing I think made a difference is that in the second letter, I started out with the meat of the description, opening with a story-related bang, instead of with more pedestrian background and a comparison of my novel to other novels (as I did in the first letter). Many knowledgeable people will tell you to compare your book to other current works in the market, and while I agree that it can be an effective way to convey the essence of your story, I think it’s the wrong thing to open with.

So here are the two query letters for you to read for yourself. Take my dirty, which I’ve hung out for the world to see, and learn from my mistakes as best you can so that you can make some nice new ones all your own. 😉

I should also mention (again) that my two-paragraph description in the second letter is what the publisher used (almost verbatim) on the back of the book, as well as on Amazon and their own website for product description when the book was published. That and the fact that I’ve heard the same story from numerous other authors is why I always tell people that the best way to learn how to write effective query letters is to study the back-cover text of paperback.

 

#1

Dear Mr. ,

In August 2004, The Writer’s Post Journal published the first chapter of my novel, Dreaming Creek. It is with regard to that novel that I am writing to you today.  In the spirit of national bestseller The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger, Dreaming Creek uses the fantastic without dwelling on it – focusing instead on the way surreal events impact characters and their relationships.

On the vacation of a lifetime in the Canadian Rocky Mountains, Danny Wakeman gets a fresh perspective on the world in a way he never could have imagined.  At the mystic waters of Dreaming Creek, Danny and his girlfriend, Sara McBride, sip from the stream and find themselves on an astounding journey when they swap bodies and become stuck that way when Danny later gets pregnant.  Trapped in each others’ bodies until the baby is born, Danny and Sara have no choice but to return home to the small town of Bedford Heights, VA and assume each others’ lives as best they can.

At home, though, Danny is ambushed with a multi-million dollar lawsuit which will cost him the 200-acre of lakeside farm he inherited from his recently deceased parents.  Ultimately the suit proves to be a plot to defraud him conceived by someone Danny thought of as his oldest friend, Marcus Gaines.

Still pregnant and trapped in Sara’s body, Danny finally learns the truth and goes to confront Marcus, who has been trying to sleep with Sara for some time.  When Marcus tries to rape him, the only way Danny can think of to end the assault is to reveal the truth that he and Sara traded bodies.  But unbeknownst to Danny, Marcus has killed once before when his homophobic buttons were pushed, and he’ll do so again to protect that secret.

A graduate of Orson Scott Card’s Writer’s Boot Camp, I have had over twenty short stories and five essays published during the past two years.  “Unfathomed,” also won first prize in Lynx Eye’s Eighth Annual ‘Captivating Beginnings’ Contest, and “Reality Check On Register Two” was on StorySouth’s list of Notable Stories of 2004.

I am currently looking for an appropriate showcase for this 83,000-word novel.  If you are interested in reading more of my manuscript, please contact me as your earliest convenience.  A SASE is enclosed for your reply.

I look forward to hearing from you; thank you for your time.

Edmund R. Schubert

 

#2

Dear Ms. ,

In my mystery/suspense novel, Dreaming Creek, high school teacher Danny Wakeman has spent sixteen years incorrectly believing that his childhood friend, Marcus Gaines, saved his life after a farming accident. But Danny’s perspective on the world gets turned inside-out when he and the woman he wants to marry, Sara McBride, drink from the mystical waters of Dreaming Creek, trade bodies and get stuck that way.

Trapped in each others’ bodies, struggling to fit in to each others’ lives, Danny and Sara will have to pull together to overcome a perplexing lawsuit, a plot to defraud Danny out of his recently deceased parent’s farm, and an attempted rape—all of which ultimately prove to bear Marcus’s fingerprints. And before it’s over, Danny will discover that this pattern of treachery and violence goes all the back to his supposed farm accident, which Marcus designed to cover up an even blacker secret.

About me: In the past four years I’ve had over thirty short stories published in a variety of genres. In 2004 one of those stories won first prize in Lynx Eye’s Eighth Annual ‘Captivating Beginnings’ Contest, and another was nominated to StorySouth’s list of Notable Stories. In 2005 The Writer’s Post Journal included me in their annual Year’s Best issue. Recent publications include the 20th anniversary issue of Hardboiled Mystery magazine, and as a featured author in the May/June 2006 issue of Futures Mystery Anthology.

I am currently seeking representation for Dreaming Creek , an 82,000-word novel best described as an episode of the TV show “Cold Case” driven by a Twilight Zone twist. If you are interested in reading my manuscript, please contact me at your earliest convenience.

Thank you for your time; I look forward to hearing from you.

Edmund R. Schubert

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14 comments to Query Letters: Part II

  • This is enormously helpful, Ed. It’s one thing to have someone describe for you what successful query might look like, but seeing these two examples side by side brings it all into focus. The first letter isn’t bad, but the brevity and focus of the second letter obviously makes it far more effective. Thanks for letting us see this.

  • I can think of things I’d rather put out there for the world to see besides my failures, but I also think there are few better ways to illustrate a point than a side-by-side comparison, so there it is. Glad it’s effective.

  • Really, really helpful! I like the third paragraph–it saves space. For our co-written novel, doing a paragraph rather than a list of our (short list) of pubs will make it possible to do a (slightly) longer query. I also like the two paragraph query. I think that works nicely. It’s easier visually to read two short paragraphs than one long one. Or so I’m told by tech writers. And thanks for putting yourself out there!

  • Always ready to take on for the team, Emily. 😉

    I agree with the tech writers. Sometimes I open a book and see these page-long paragraphs, and it can be quite daunting. It certainly doesn’t inspire anyone to read, that’s for sure, and since agents and editors are looking for any excuse to put your work down and move on to the next one, I think we can all agree it’s not a good idea to give them that excuse.

  • Agreed, Ed. The second letter is much leaner and more compelling. We get the core ideas and tensions without being burdened by plot points. Great illustrations, thanks.

  • That really was very helpful. In the same way that I find Janet Reid’s “Query Shark” website helpful from an agent’s perspective, it’s equally helpful to see how you as a writer came to the realization and used it to effect positive change in your query. I agree with David: side-by-side comparisons are one of the most helpful illustrations.

    In a story with so many plot-points, how did you decide which ones were the most important?

  • Alan Kellogg

    in the varied panels I’ve attended on selling your work to a publisher I keep getting told that if you can sum it up in an elevator pitch, you’ve done half the job of selling it. So can you do an elevator pitch of your favorite works?

  • The query is one of those things I’ve agonized over. I’m usually okay with correspondence, but I think with so much information out there on how to write one and so much conflicting info at times, I never know how much to add and what not to add. I think I’ve changed my letter each time I’ve sent it out, trying to get it to sound better than the last. And then there’s the fear that I changed something that one agent might have wanted to see or didn’t want to see. I’ve been writing and evolving in ability for over 20 years, but I’ve had almost no practice writing queries and synopses. I feel like Bullwinkle every time I send one out, “This time for sure! Nothin’ up my sleeve…Presto!”

  • Tom G

    Thanks for this. Query letters are my weakest link. No editor or agent has ever responded to one of my many queries with a request even a partial. All I get is generic rejections.

  • Edmund,
    Thanks for the posts. I’ve really struggled with query letters or so I believed. Frankly, I’m not sure my problem is my query so much as my story, but that’s another topic altogether.

    How much time did you wait between re-querying agents on the same story. I’ve been told this is a no-no. Was it more a matter of changing the core of the story, or just the query?

    Cheers,
    NGD

  • I agree with everyone else – this was extremely helpful. Thank you!

    What would you suggest if we don’t have many (any) publishing credits to our names? Should I focus on, “We spoke at X conference and as per your request, I am sending you [whatever was requested]”? And do you know if there is a statute of limitations on interest expressed by an agent? (Case in point: one agent expressed interest in my WIP two and a half years ago, when the story wasn’t finished. Another did so last April at Miss Snark’s First Victim, just as I began rewrites. The latter agent told me to get back to her when I was finished, which I almost am, but can or should I even bring up the past meeting to the first one when querying?)

  • Nasty thunderstorms tore through here all weekend and I was without phone or internet for most of that time, so my apologies for the late responses. My brief answers to key questions:

    LSH: Deciding on the key plot points to hit is part of the art of query letters. Which points really cut to the heart of the story? What is it really truly fundamentally about?

    Alan: Elevator pitches are a separate topic; I’m going to have to save that for another day.

    Tom: Sounds like it’s time for a new query letter.

    NGD: All I ever changed was the query letter. The core of the story remained exactly the same. I waited about six to nine months, and counted heavily upon the overwhelming number of queries agents receive to help them forget that they may have seen it before.

    Laura: If you have no publishing credits, skip that part entirely, don’t mention it at all. Just dive right into “We spoke at conference X” and go from there. Definitely DO mention it, especially if they specifically requested it. In fact, if it were me, I would open the letter with the friendly reminder and go from there.

  • Hi Edmund. I am late again — able to read the post, but unable to comment this weekend.

    I *love* think kind of post! This works and this doesn’t. See here? What looked like a failure was not. YES! That is what Our readers need to see. And … hmm. That is my life as a writer in a nutshell! 😀

  • Hi Edmund. I am late again — able to read the post, but unable to comment this weekend.

    I *love* this kind of post! This works and this doesn’t. See here? What looked like a failure was not. YES! That is what Our readers need to see. And … hmm. That is my life as a writer in a nutshell! 😀