A lot of writers struggle with query letters. They’re not easy to write, but they are very valuable. They are the first chance a prospective agent has to see your writing, and your only chance to describe the story correctly. Agent Kristin Nelson has been dissecting some of her clients’ queries on her blog. I thought I’d show you mine.
Below is my query letter for Secret Society Girl to my agent. I sent it in April of 2005. It’s almost identical (except for the personal parts about our past connections and her agency’s current needs) to the queries I sent to other agents and/or cover letters to agents/editors who requested the book as a result of Marley’s excellent networking. (As regular blog readers know, my critique partner Marley Gibson first pitched this book to a variety of agents and editors at a conference that I was not attending. The only thing she knew about it at the time was that it was “a story about a girl who joins a secret society at Yale.”)
I thought it would be fun to dissect the query letter with 20/20 hindsight, and to that end, I have not done any retrofitting of the letter. It appears as I sent it, warts and all. My comments are in italic purple, and my agent Deidre Knight’s are in bold red. At times we have a little she said/she said action.
A couple of spoiler warnings in effect here. Though the story changed a lot in the writing and revision process, cover your eyes in the plot description if you don’t want to hear anything.
DIANA SAYS: I call her “Deidre” here because by this point, we’ve already exchanged about a dozen emails (I’d previously sent her another project, she was currently looking at a full of yet another, and we’d partied at a conference). If this were my first (or near-first) contact with her I’d be calling her “Ms. Knight.” I know Miss Snark goes on and on about how she hates being called “Ms.” when it’s actually “Miss” but until agent listings specify honorariums, I’m going with my safe option. I don’t know all the details of their personal lives! Usually, in business relationships like this, I let the other party lead the way when it comes to informal address. If they write back and sign “Deidre” then I’ll write back to Deidre, etc.
DEIDRE SAYS: Truthfully, if someone addresses me as Ms. Knight after our first email interchange, I begin to feel uncomfortable. I’m an approachable person, and I’m not sixty years old either. Although I appreciate the show of respect, it’s much more important to me to feel as if we’re on at least a somewhat relaxed footing.
I know you probably haven’t had a chance to look at my February submission yet, but I wanted to keep you updated on what is going on at my end.
Immediately I appreciated Diana’s sympathetic appraisal of my reading schedule. Many authors don’t realize that the “reading stack” is a source of great guilt for most of us in publishing. Having her acknowledge that, yes, I obviously hadn’t read it, but that she understood—and was simply sending me an update—immediately captured my respect and attention.
I’m writing today because my recent work-in-progress has garnered some attention from publishers. (Agent sits up slightly, listens more attentively. Often authors will toss this claim around in a meaningless way, but the smooth way in which Diana segued into the next sentence had my ear.) Last weekend, one of my critique partners mentioned it off hand at a conference, and now “whatever I have” has been requested by St. Martins Press as well as a few agents. I recently heard that you were looking to acquire some YA projects, so I thought it only fair to let you know that this is my latest.
At this particular time I was, in the immortal words of Duran, Duran, “Hungry like the wolf” for both YA, and also really looking for a few new clients. That she had a project that had already attracted publisher interest, and that it was in a genre I was looking for definitely had me sitting up even taller in my virtual seat. Another thing? She’d done her homework; she knew what I was looking for. When an author approaches me and has had her ear to the ground about what our agency, or what I’m personally doing, is always a good thing.
Looking back, I find this query really apologetic. At the time, I was very stressed about the idea of sending in another project when the agent in question hadn’t yet given me an answer about the manuscript she was looking at! Note all of the commentary suporting my concern.
Funny, but it never struck me as apologetic, just respectful, excited, and relaying pertinent facts. Beware the “haughty” update that seems to indicate the whole publishing world is already at your feet. This approach is amateurish. Diana seemed to be a personable, pleasant person who was also aware that her work was gaining some value in the marketplace, even though no deals had been inked.
I probably could have left it out or been more aggressive, but agents hate hearing “I’ve got this extraordinary novel!” so that concerned me, too. I wasn’t sure how to get across “the only reason I’m writing you when you haven’t gotten back to me yet is that this thing is about to pop!” Also, note that even in my self-aggrandizment, I leave room to point out that I do know what the agency is looking for and I think I’ve got it.
CONFESSIONS OF A (SECRET) SOCIETY GIRL is a 60,000 word novel suitable for older teens and college students. It twists conventional “secret society” yarns like THE SKULLS into a chick lit tale of college life, complete with classes, keggers, and… conspiracy theories.
This had me at hello. I have always been intrigued by secret societies and conspiracy theories. The word “keggers” brought back my own college days with just one word.
Boom. Welcome to my high concept. One sentence including title, word count, genre, target audience and premise.
The last thing college junior Amy Haskel expects is to be tapped into Rose & Grave, her Ivy League school’s most prestigious secret society. As far as she can tell, she’s lacking a potential initiate’s two basic requirements: 1) a Y chromosome and 2) the ambition to become the leaderof the free world. Sure, the sassy, independent Amy is an honor student and the editor of the literary magazine, but everyone knows that“Diggers” (as society members are called) only want future industrial kingpins or shadowy government types of the male variety. Not women –not even smart ones.
Absolutely phenomenal pitch. Was nearly frothing with excitement. It was well written, smart, and made me want to read a whole lot more.
I’m really proud of this paragraph. I think it’s funny, smart, and to the point. I hear a lot of writers complaining that they can’t get their voice across in a short query letter, but all it takes is a little quip here or a lush description there to say what kind of writing you’re giving them. It also very subtly gets across major characterization and hints at the conflict. Also, in the very first paragraph of the query, I’m indicating Amy’s list-making habit which is such a strong part of her character. My synopsis has the same paragraph in it. And, lest you think that these things aren’t important, compare to the actual flap copy on the cover of my book:
Elite Eli University junior Amy Haskel never expected to be tapped into Rose & Grave, the country’s most powerful–and notorious–secret society. She isn’t rich, politically connected, or…well, male.
Amy soon learns that much of Rose & Grave’s rep is a combo of Hollywood hocus-pocus and carefully cultivated rumors. After an initiation ceremony that is one part Harry Potter and two parts amusement park thrill-ride, Amy begins to bond with her new brethren, who come from all walks of life, and discovers that the society’s imposing tomb is no more intimidating than your standard frat house. The Diggers are elite, sure, but not in the blue-blood way she always thought.
Compare to the flap copy:
Whisked off into an initiation rite that’s a blend of Harry Potter and Alfred Hitchcock, Amy awakens the next day to a new reality and a whole new set of “friends”–from the gorgeous son of a conservative governor to an Afrocentric lesbian activist whose society name is Thorndike.
After that, the flap copy writers go in a different direction, to appease marketing and avoid spoilers. But I don’t need to be vague in my query. In fact, vagueness is probably a negative. I want to be very upfront about the nature of my book.
But she also learns that some of the more nefarious rumors about Rose & Grave are true. The alumni members exert an enormous influence, and they aren’t afraid to wield it. The society’s prominent “patriarchs” are none too happy that this year’s seniors have gone behind their backs to tap women for the very first time. They threaten to close the tomb and sabotage the future of both the graduates and the “illegal taps.” When Amy’s confirmed summer internship evaporates after speaking out against the patriarchs’ sexism, she begins to fear that they have the power to do just that. Enraged, the new female taps organize against the patriarchs to prove that women, especially Digger women, are a force to be reckoned with. It’s a move that may save their society, but also earns them some very powerful enemies.
Amy has other worries as well. Her best friend (who has been vying for a society tap since the day she first stepped on campus) refuses to share even one detail about her own secret society experiences, though the outlandish hints she drops make the elaborate Rose & Grave rituals look about as hard as a Rocks for Jocks exam. The editor of the campus newspaper seems to have an ax to grind against both Amy and her society “big brother,” and is willing to blackmail them to get an expose on Rose & Grave (Amy knew she shouldn’t have spent the night at his place!). Of course, it doesn’t help that Amy’s “barbarian” (non-society) friend-with-benefits won’t let the Boyfriend Issue go. And then there’s the little matter of final exams.
Plot summary, and again, note the little inroads I’m making into revealing the voice of the manuscript. Not overwhelming, just a hint here and there. This is probably a lot more plot summary than I needed (I feel like I throw everything by the kitchen sink into it!) and if I were doing it again, I’d probably pare down.
One thing that I made sure to do was highlight the weird world I was taking people into, with the society jargon like “patriarchs,” “barbarian,” and “Diggers.” This seems as if it goes against what some of you have heard me advising in reagrads to fantasy queries, to keep the weird language and stuff out of it as much as possible. But this isn’t a fantasy book, so I have some leeway. The trick in fantasy is making it seem real, and if you’ve invented a world, people are already going to have some adjustment period getting used to your world without trying to get all the jargon in. My book is the real world. I wanted to show how bizarre this real world was and cement the insider status by slinging some of their strange jargon.
Again, as before, Diana intrigued me to the extreme. Please remember how many queries an agent sees every day. I can honestly say that Diana’s was wholly unique and very fresh. She’d pitched a book that I’d want to pick up in the store and buy—I couldn’t wait to “dig” in (sorry for the pun, Diana!)
As you may remember, I graduated from Yale University in 2001 so I’m extremely familiar with the culture of campus secret societies. Though the story is fictional, many of Amy’s adventures are based on the experiences of my friends and fellow students, as well as the true history of societies like Scroll and Key, St. Anthony Hall, and of course, the notorious Skull and Bones.
Yes, Diana called forth a mutual acquaintance and our previous interchanges here with this paragraph. Plus, she absolutely highlighted that she was THE person to write this book.
The “as you may remember” part was just for Deidre’s benefit, since we already knew one another, but you can bet I highlighted my platform on every query I sent out, as Bantam Dell has been for my marketing campaign (the radio ad describes me as “Yale grad Diana Peterfreund”).
Given the current fervor over secret-society books like THE DA VINCI CODE and the success of Yale-set stories like CHLOE DOES YALE and THE GILMORE GIRLS, I feel CONFESSIONS OF A (SECRET) SOCIETY GIRL is a very marketable concept with series potential.
This part is an example of how to reference other books without saying something like, “I write just like Nora!” I’m not saying my books are like any of these things (indeed, at the time, I’d only read Chloe). But I do know that those things are popular, so maybe now is a good time for my book.
Please note, everyone: Agents find queries that claim to be the next “anything” both vaguely insulting and amateurish. However, helping an agent see where a project could fit into the market is always good—it expands our five second impression and takeaway from the query, allowing us to immediately picture selling the book. Even the editors we might approach.
Also note the very casual way I throw in “series potential.” If you are writing a series and you are currently unpublished, this is the best way to handle it. Make the first standalone and say the book has series potential. Don’t say, “first in a tetralogy” or whatever. Keep it flexible, especially in the query. You can play hardball once you have an offer.
I am in the process of completing the manuscript right now and expect to be done within the next two months. However, the partial is complete, and I have attached it to this email. I know I keep throwing unfinished projects at you, and I apologize, as I had no intention of trying to market this book before it was done. But because of our personal connection, I didn’t want to keep you in the dark.
Lie. Lie, lie, lie. (This para was just for Deidre, by the way, since we’d exchanged probably more than a dozen emails by this point, and had met in person and talked about our lives, there was a personal connection and informality here I would not have used in other queries.) I have since learned so much more about my process and luckily, Deidre saw right through me and set my deadline at the end of August. I finished the book in five months. And again with the me apologizing. But it was because I’d broken all the “rules.” I knew it was wrong to query on an unfinished project, but I “had a feeling,” based on the kind of rabid interest Marley had garnered, and the current market climate. Turns out I was right. I don’t recommend it though. Nine hundred and ninety-nine times out of a thousand, you’re just going to piss people off. More on that later.
So it wasn’t perfect, but I think the good parts (i.e., the description of the story and the reason behind its timeliness) were so good that not only did this query get requests, it got quick reviews once I sent the pages. Some parts were even used on my eventual flap copy. As you can see from this as well as Kristin’s examples, often the needs of queries and marketing flap copy are decidedly different.
This query got results. My timing was right, and I’d captured her attention. She read the partial that afternoon and offered me representation within the hour. I’ve been counting my blessing ever since.