Friday, March 29, 2013

Query Me This

I'm hosting a publication workshop later this week in Pittsburgh (feel free to come if you're in town), and one of the things I'll be talking about is writing an effective query letter.  I don't know if I'm the world's greatest authority on this, but I did write a letter that got a fair number of agents interested enough to ask for the full manuscript, so I thought I'd offer my two cents.

The first thing I discovered about writing a query letter is that, like the manuscript itself, it's very much a work in progress.  You can (and should) revise, refine, and even completely rework it as you go along, based on the responses it's getting.  This is one reason it's important not to query every agent in the world at once; if you send 100 queries with a letter that's not working, you're left with nowhere else to go.

My first-version query letter, for example, went out to roughly 10 agents, and generated exactly zero interest.  It was the first query letter I'd ever written, and not surprisingly, it wasn't my best.  Looking back at it, I realize it was too formal and formulaic; it didn't sound as if I was excited about my book, so why should anyone else be?  It was long, packed with information, and in consequence dull; it was as if I didn't trust the manuscript itself, so I tried to tell the whole story in the query.  It also had a totally unnecessary introductory paragraph, one that began: "I am seeking representation for my Young Adult novel...."  There's no reason to include that; why else would you be sending a letter to an agent's query inbox?  The point of the query is to hook the agent, to get the agent excited about the story, not about the fact that Unknown Writer #20,000 is writing to them today.

So I did a little online research, found some good advice and some good models, and rewrote my query from scratch.  In my new approach, I followed two pieces of advice that all writers know:

1. Begin in the middle
2. Less is more

So in the new query, I plunged right into the story with an opening sentence that I hoped would intrigue the reader enough that s/he would read on.  And I trimmed the letter down to its bare bones, eliminating unnecessary sentences and modifiers, planting hints but not giving away too much, resulting in a descriptive paragraph that's fewer than 10 lines long.  I felt that this query was much zippier and catchier than the first; in the manner of a back-cover blurb, it sold my story, leaving the reader tantalized, rather than trying to tell the whole thing.  I sent it out to another 10 agents feeling much more confident in its success.

And sure enough, the day after I sent it out, the first request for the full manuscript arrived.  Other requests followed.  A month later, I had representation.  (There's a much longer story behind that, which I'll tell in another post.)  Maybe I just got lucky, but I think it was the new query that did the trick.

So here, for your enjoyment and/or edification, is my query for Survival Colony Nine.  Again, I make no claims for its greatness.  All I know is it achieved its objective.


Dear [name of agent]:

In a near-future world of dust and ruin, fourteen-year-old Querry Genn struggles to recover the lost memory that might save the human race.

His story is Survival Colony Nine, a futuristic Young Adult novel that follows a small band of refugees as they fight for existence in this hostile land.  The narrator, Querry Genn, suffers from traumatic memory loss induced by an encounter with the Skaldi, alien antagonists that swarm the wasted planet's surface.  Unable to recall his past or his identity, Querry is both protected and tormented by the colony's authoritarian commander, his father Laman Genn.  But there is a secret in Querry's past, one that makes him at once a target of the Skaldi's wrath and a key to the colony's future.  The discoveries Querry makes about himself, his father, and his family will change his life--and the fate of humanity--forever.

Survival Colony Nine is currently complete at 74,000 words.  I have begun drafting a second installment in a possible three-book series.  The story told in Survival Colony Nine, however, stands on its own.

I am the author of the book Framing Monsters (2005), a survey of classic and contemporary fantasy and science fiction film.  In addition, I have published numerous short stories in the fantasy and science fiction genres; these appear in such publications as A cappella Zoo, Niteblade, Farspace 2, and Cover of Darkness.

I have included a synopsis and the first ten pages of Survival Colony Nine.  Thank you for your consideration, and I look forward to hearing from you.




So there you have it.  I hope this model is useful to others, and I'd love to hear your thoughts and impressions.

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