Skip to the good stuff (aka, How to write a query letter)

Okay, really, I should have titled this post, “How I wrote a query letter.” Because I’m not an expert on writing queries. You can find fantastic advice at Query Shark or Evil Editor, or even on some writer sites like Absolute Write. Many, many agents have done posts on writing the perfect query letter (like Nathan Bransford). Start there, then come back here.

But I also know that it’s tremendously helpful to read queries that worked (i.e., got requests), and I’ll try to break down what I think worked and where I could have improved.

I’m going to lead off with my first novel, Wicked Sensibility. The novel never made it to representation, but I got a lot of requests based on my query letter. Here it is, in its unedited glory. (Oh, all right, I did change the characters’ names.)

Dear Ms. Agent:
I am currently seeking representation for my novel, WICKED SENSIBILITY, an urban fantasy with romantic elements, complete at 125,000 words. I found you via AgentQuery, and after reading a few of your guest blog appearances, I think you sound like a lot of fun! After seeing the types of novels you like to read, I think this may be a good fit for your list. I hope you feel the same. 
Still single at twenty-seven, Allison is starting to think strong and independent are code words for lonely. That is, until she meets Sam and his brothers. Finding romance with Sam means learning his family’s secrets–and learning that she is one of the few humans with whom they can share their hidden powers: the ability to manipulate emotion through touch. 

Not everyone is happy with their relationship. As the youngest, Sam is struggling for independence while wanting to remain loyal to his family. After living undetected among humans for centuries, his brothers are wary of an outsider knowing the truth, and they sure aren’t subtle about it.  But when a powerful adversary starts attacking them in a bid for their territory, the brothers must put their differences aside just to stay alive.

When their attacker turns his sights on her, Allison finds herself fighting for her life with powers she doesn’t yet understand. But emotions are tricky things, especially when others can alter them. When the real reason behind the attacks is revealed, Allison discovers that maybe she doesn’t know the truth about Sam at all. With her life at stake, she’ll be forced to make some hard decisions about who can be trusted, who’s really in danger, and who the true villain is.

WICKED SENSIBILITY is my first novel. (Well, the first one fit for public viewing.) The full manuscript is available upon request. I have attached the first few pages for your review, as per your requirements on AgentQuery. 

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

Okay, so the word count was a killer. This was three years ago, and I’ve learned a lot since then. But the core elements in the query still work.

Here are some of my recommendations for query-writing. (And remember, I’m just a writer. I’m not an agent, and I’m not an editor. Individual results may vary. Do not use this product while driving. May cause drowsiness. Consult a physician if you have an erection lasting more than four…oh, wait.)

1) Be yourself.

I’m a laid-back person. I also work in a professional, corporate atmosphere. I know how to be professional, yet also let a few shreds of personality shine through. While my first paragraph may be a bit chatty, I wasn’t afraid to be a bit friendly. Keep in mind, however, friendly does not equal stalker. I remember reading one agent’s blog on her birthday, and I almost said something about that in my query letter to her. (Like, “I hope you had a happy birthday!”) Then I realized that might make me sound like a freak hiding in the bushes with a bottle of chloroform and a wad of gauze. Err on the side of professional.

2) Don’t worry about getting every detail of your story into your query. 

The only goal of your query letter is to get the agent or editor to be interested in your story enough to read your pages. That’s IT. The query won’t sell your whole book for you. Pick the key points of your novel and go with those. Look at the query above: I clearly have a big cast of characters, but there are three main people in the query. Allison, Sam, and the mysterious villain.

3) Make sure you show the CONFLICT. (More about this in my post on plotting.)
That’s the core of your story. It’s a decision, a choice, a turning point. If there’s not a choice in your query, you’re probably missing the plot of your book. Look for words like “must” and “or.” If you’re missing those two words, chances are your query isn’t complete.

Ready for more? Here’s the next query, and this one garnered far more requests, and this book actually landed me an agent.

Dear Ms. Agent:
Twenty-five year old Sarah Parrish doesn’t know what’s more frightening: that there’s a swordsman killing people in downtown Baltimore—or that she’s the only one who sees him and his victims.
Talented musician Jack Smithson is the last person she should confide in: he has a frightening past, a razor sharp tongue, and enough anger to make Sarah wonder if she can trust him at all. He’s also the only person who believes her—and he should: his wife was killed by a vanishing swordsman five years ago.
Sarah falls hard for Jack, drawn by his fantastic talent and the wicked mystery surrounding his life. But then the swordsman comes for her—and instead of taking her life, he leaves her with a clear warning that the man she loves has been lying from the start. When Sarah’s mother and her best friend disappear—with clear signs that Jack was involved—Sarah has to decide who’s telling the truth, who’s lying, and who the real villain is.
ALWAYS MUSIC is an urban fantasy complete at 120,000 words. I have lived in Baltimore for my entire adult life, and the city’s vast history and rich culture have always made it seem like the type of place where gods would play.
Thank you for your time and consideration. The first pages have been pasted below for your review. I’d be delighted to send you sample chapters or the full manuscript at your request.
Sincerely,

All right, so clearly I liked the “decision” line from my first query, because I used a variation here. I also tightened up the query and led off with the story, saving things like the title and word count for the end. (Don’t get excited when you see that I had this word count and still landed an agent. Tamar had me cut it down to 100,000 words before we started submitting to editors, and thank god she did. If you need some help cutting words, please see my posts on revisions. All three are in the sidebar to your right.)

Both novels are romances at their core, so the final decision is going to be whether the girl can trust the guy she’s come to love. But that same simple conflict can come to play in any genre. Paranormal Thriller: Ben must locate his last living descendant in one of the thousands of Catholic high schools across the country before she’s killed by his enemy — but he’s a vampire and he can’t step on holy ground. Mystery: Joe Schmoe was the only witness to the mayor’s murder — but he has a criminal past, and everyone thinks he’s to blame. Now he must solve the mystery himself, or spend the rest of his life in prison — while the true murderer is free to kill again. Middle Grade: Plain Jane has a chance for the lead at the school’s dance recital, but her mom lost her job, and they can’t afford dance lessons anymore. Jane must find a way to save up for the lessons she wants, before nasty Griselda Murray takes the lead — and Jane’s dreams — away.

Okay, I made all of those up on the spur of the moment, and I’m not gonna lie, there’s a half empty glass of wine right here. So they’re crap. But the point is, you need to show your core conflict. That needs to be the base of your story. That’s the canvas — everything else is the paint.

Most people start with something like a synopsis and try to pare it down. That’s the wrong way to go. Take out the names and start as generically as possible. Boy falls in love with girl. Boy is about to be shipped away on assignment. Boy must decide whether to give up his life dream of traveling with the Navy, or lose the girl forever.

Once you have that, you can turn it into a query:

Devlin was only looking for a quick drink at the bar — not a quick fling. He definitely wasn’t looking for love, but when free-spirited Cameron takes his picture as part of a promo deal for her company, she captures his heart with it.

But Devlin has a ticket in his pocket, one that’s about to send him halfway across the globe on a mission to save humanity from a flesh eating virus released by pirates in the Indian Ocean. He has three days before he’s due to leave. Three days of bliss with Cameron. Three days to decide whether this is just a fling after all.

When the virus hits the States, Devlin knows he’s three days too late. Now me must race the clock to deliver the cure where it can be replicated to save humanity. But that leaves Cameron at risk. Now he must decide whether to save thousands — or risk them all to save one: the woman he loves.

Again, that’s crap (did I mention the wine?), but it’s got the core elements, and I wrote it off the cuff. It was easy because I started with the skeleton and built from there. Don’t start from the outside in.

Does anyone have any query success/failures they want to share?

How not to pitch

I’m going to start this one off with a general caveat: I’ve only ever pitched one editor live. It was at RWA last year, and I caught a pitch appointment on the fly. I felt supremely confident until I stood in line to pitch my novel. Then it all fell apart.

I’d never prepared a pitch; I’d never even considered sitting down with an editor. But damn it, I had a finished novel, there was an open spot, and I was going to take it. I work in sales. I talk to people all day long. What could be easier than talking about my own novel to someone else who loves urban fantasy?

Ha.

You can find all kinds of data on the internet about how to pitch properly. With SCWBI and RWA coming up at the end of July, I’m sure tons of people are already gearing up. But I’m going to share my mistakes so you all don’t make the same ones.

1) Don’t bother being prepared

I didn’t have a written pitch. Hell no. I knew what my book was about, and damn it, I could talk about it until I was blue in the face.

Yeah, I was an idiot. If I’d written down the plot, or at least a few bullet points, I could have strung together a sentence. Heck, if I’d had a copy of my query letter, I could have read that out loud. Instead, I ended up stammering something like, “Well, there’s a girl who, like, sees a man with a sword, and she runs into a music store, and she falls in love with the owner, but his brother is the bad guy, and –“

Her eyes kind of glazed over. Alarms were going off in my head. Abort! Abort!

But I kept right on going.

2) Don’t bother introducing yourself

I think I leapt right into the above pitch. I didn’t tell her my name, I didn’t tell her the word count, heck, I don’t think I even told her the title. I distinctly remember her slowing me down, and saying, “Wait, let’s start with some basics. What genre is this?”

Again, a note card with bullet points would have been tremendously helpful.

3) Forget that the editor/agent is a live human being

For some reason, I got in there and completely forgot that this was another person, another woman, who probably loved books as much as I do. Instead of introducing myself, complimenting her earrings, and settling in to talk about something we both love — books — followed by me mentioning oh-by-the-way I wrote an urban fantasy novel, I started sweating profusely and began yammering about my senseless plot. It felt like an interrogation, and I acted like she’d pulled the light down from the ceiling to stick it in my face.

That was my fault. Not hers.

That person on the other side of the table? A real, live, human being. Pretend you’re stuck in line instead of in a pitch session, and just talk normally.

4) Refuse to reveal the ending

This one threw me, in a big way. She said, “So tell me how it ends.”

I kind of stared at her. “What?”

“Yeah, it’s fine. Tell me how it ends.”

No. No, no, no. I had a colossal twist, a badass ending, and red herrings all over the place. And this woman wanted me to sit in the basement of one of the nicest hotels I’d ever seen and just effing TELL HER THE ENDING? Was she out of her mind? I’m a storyteller. I don’t reveal the ending until the end. That’s why I wrote 99,999 other words — not so I could sell out my characters while sitting at a cheap card table.

But that’s how it works. Be prepared to reveal your ending at the pitch session. Otherwise you’re going to try to reveal a twist that has no setup, or telling an ending that doesn’t match your premise.

Be prepared.

5) Cry

Yes, I did. And I’m not proud of it.

Actually, I’m a little proud of it, because she asked me for a partial manuscript. (Ba dum, bum.) It was vaguely reminiscent of getting pulled over by a police officer when I was 19, and bursting into tears when he asked for my license. No ticket. Yeah, baby.

I’m going to RWA at the end of this month, and I’m not sure I’ll be pitching to anyone. I’m in the middle of a novel, and my agent and I agree that my completed MS can go back on the shelf for a while.

So if I get that itch at the last minute, if I find myself sitting at that card table, I’ll probably be just as un-prepared.

But I guarantee I won’t cry.