• Bridge Ladies

    Bridge Ladies Sometimes I think a meteor could strike the earth and wipe out mankind with the exception of my mother’s Bridge club — Roz, Bea, Bette, Rhoda, and Jackie — five Jewish octogenarians who continue to gather for lunch and Bridge on Mondays as they have for over fifty years. When I set out to learn about the women behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, and most of all the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
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Let’s Play Twister, Let’s Play Risk

If you want excellent advice on how to write a pitch letter, go to Nathan Bransford’s blog, or to Janet Reid’s check list, or Rachelle Gardener’s guidelines. OR, come, sit back, and watch me light myself on fire. I’m going to write a mock query letter for a project I’ve abandoned as a way to describe the kinds of things I look for in a letter.

Salutation: Dear FIRST AND LAST NAME. (I don’t like too familiar and I don’t like too formal.)

The one sentence pitch: I hope you might be interested in my memoir, The Potter’s Apprentice, which describes a year of pottery lessons between an octogenarian teacher and his last student: me.

Alternatives: I met you last year at Breadloaf where we spoke briefly about my project, The Potter’s Apprentice. OR, I am a great fan of your clients X and Y, and hope my work might be of interest to you. OR, I read your blog religiously and, perhaps magically, imagine that you might take to my work.

The body: It had been nearly thirty years since I studied pottery and I didn’t miss it. But one afternoon, down a quiet side street in New Haven’s East Rock neighborhood, a sign caught my eye: Pottery Lessons. What followed was a year of classes with a master potter, an 82 year old whose craft dazzled me. Between fending off his advances, listening to his tales of the Blitz and mutliple marriages, and letting myself put the blackberry down for two hours and take in the clay, the darling garden, and the wheezing of an old hound, an unlikely friendship developed between the old potter and me. The book is also a meditation on marriage, on love, and on clay. Done right, I hope it will appeal to readers of (we need two good examples here).

The bio: As for me, I received an MFA from Columbia. I was the recipient of (fill in the blanks). My writing has appeared in x,y,z. You can read more about me on my website xxxo.

Many thanks for your time,

Betsy Lerner


Be brutal: would you request the manuscript if you were an agent? What worked for you and what didn’t? How could it be improved upon?

39 Responses

  1. If I were an agent and got a query from Betsy Lerner, I’d skip all the in between junk and go right to the contract. Then I’d start looking at Jaguars and apartments at the Pierre.

  2. Had requests from Janet and Nathan, so I guess my “old style” worked for them. Still, I liked the form of your letter and will definitely keep it in mind if I write another query. Would I request it? Well, I’m not into pottery, but I love your writing; so I’d request it based on that. I’d cut the word, “darling” — too precious for me. [Remember that editor from the waxing room? I swear, one of her books had the word “lovely” on practically every page, sometimes twice. I feel the same way about that word.] Thanks for this, Betsy. I’ve really enjoyed the last few days. This is the hottest place on the web as far as I’m concerned. (well, besides brokestraightboys.com, maybe.)

    • Hey, sorry to interject, but like August, I checked out brokestraightboys, and there’s actually a Kyler there! I PROMISE IT’S NOT ME!

  3. First I would change from Blitz to Korean War- he is 82 and you are in New Haven no England. I don’t mean to be smarty but I can see some young agent/intern read this and ask someone what a Blitz is.

    Second, how about just a few adjectives such as ” his
    playful advances,” or some adj. that gives a hint as to his personality.
    “and letting myself put the blackberry down for two hours” is awkward. Maybe…putting my social calendar on hold” or “turning off my IPad.”

    hope it will appeal to readers of Gilead and Tinkers.

    Now, these are both Pulitzer winners, so you might think it is presumptuous. However, unless there is an event or revelation that shakes you and the potter to the core, you are writing a meditation of sorts. Perhaps you are as good as it gets, as good as Gilead. Therefore, do not abandon.

    Will the focus be on the potter’s life or your life. Who, in the end, benefits the most from the relationship? Is pottery a metaphor for growth? Do you learn how to shape a life from the potter?

    See….this would also make a great script like for a Lifetime or Hallmark Movie. Go for it!

    I have lots more questions about the book, but enough from me.

    • I see some good advice in this response, but this bit jumped out at me as symptomatic of the worst kind of mistake people make in queries (and online dating):

      “First I would change from Blitz to Korean War . . . I can see some young agent/intern read this and ask someone what a Blitz is.”

      The problem: Changing who you are (or what your story is) to appeal to the wrong person.

      The book is about a Blitz vet. It’s going to be imbued with the Blitz. If some young agent or intern is going to be turned off by that, good, run away from them. They are the last people you want representing you.

      Meanwhile, there are people out there dying to read about this particular generation that lived through the Blitz, and you’re steering them away from your project, so you’ll never hook up with them.

      Make the query appealing, but make it appeal to the right audience.

  4. The setup is strong, but I don’t see the payoff. The details read like placeholders, the darling garden and the wheezing hound. I’d narrow the focus and try to -show- a little:

    It had been nearly thirty years since I studied pottery and I didn’t miss it. But one afternoon, down a quiet side street in New Haven, a sign caught my eye: Pottery Lessons. What followed was a year of classes with an 82-year-old master potter whose craft dazzled me and cockeyed wisdom surprised me.
    When I told him about my suicide attempt, he smoothed a chunk of terracotta gold on the wheel and said, “The potter hasn’t been born who can say, of two pots, which is the cracked and which the whole. That is basic. You’d best welcome all comers, and let pot clink against pot.”
    I closed my eyes in thought, and he tried to slide his clay-crusted palm up my skirt again.

    Well, that’s the general idea, at least. ‘Cockeyed wisdom’ makes me want to drown myself. (Dialogue stolen from EB White, and mangled.)

  5. This sentence really jumped out at me: “The book is also a meditation on marriage, on love, and on clay.” It’s unexpected and, therefore, very interesting. I’d tap into this idea and bring it more to the forefront.

    On an aside, is it most appropriate to pitch a memoir when it’s complete?

  6. What are your comparison titles? I’m really curious, because this is such a hard thing to do. Marriage, love, clay? This goes someplace. Where?

  7. Me tell you what works in a pitch letter–not hardly. I do know what makes me want to read something–physical and emotional consequence–sometimes referred to in the olden days as drama. Don’t like it in my life; love it in literature.

  8. Sounds like a good comp title would be The Violin-Maker by John Marchese.

    I agree with August about the payoff, though. I didn’t get a sense of the “shape” of the story as much as I did a sense of the flavor and atmosphere.

  9. Unless I knew HOW this experience changed (or started to change) the author’s life, I wouldn’t want to read more. I think memoirs can be self-indulgent unless it’s obvious what the reader will get out of it. Good stories are a good thing, but if this experience led to a better marriage and life, I’d want a hint of why and how. Is this a little like Tuesdays with Morrie? If so, that would be a great comparison. (And when I read the query , that’s sort of what I get out of it.)

  10. My snap reaction: I wonder whether this adds up to “heartwarming lessons about life, love, and pottery,” which doesn’t personally appeal to me. (It might if “heartwarming” weren’t a part of it; “gritty lessons” or “quirky lessons” or just “lessons.”) But personal appeal isn’t the same as salability, i.e., general appeal. I think I’d ask for the manuscript, to answer Betsy’s question.

    I more or less agree with August’s response and like part of his suggestion: “an 82-year-old master potter whose craft dazzled me and cockeyed wisdom surprised me.” (Though “cockeyed wisdom,” which August disavowed, sounds old-fashioned.) I also echo CJ’s comment about drama; I’m not sure she was asking for more of it in this pitch, but I’d like a little more sense of it. What’s at stake? What’s gained? Where does the story take the potter, and the student, and the reader?

    To borrow from something I just said in the previous post, I think what I hope for is not only a sense of what happens (you take pottery lessons, struggle against the BlackBerry, hear the hound and see the garden, etc.) but also what it all means, or at least what the tone is: a revived sense of wonder at what the hands can make, and what people can make?

    Also, this post, like the previous one, is very valuable to me. Thank you, Betsy!

  11. I love it. Sounds a little like The Karate Kid (great movie) for grown ups.

  12. I’d replace “love” with “obsession” in the meditation sentence…because throwing pots (like writing) requires an unhealthy level of obsessiveness, and obsessive people develop self-destructive and bizarre coping mechanisms that people like to read about …in other words, i’d try and work the dark humor you do so well into the query to demonstrate it’s more running with scissors than tuesdays with morrie…

  13. I love this kind of narrative nonfiction, so yes, I would request it. The part about fending off his advances turned me off a bit–I’d like to know that he’s a cool guy, but not a dirty old man.

    I think these books work best if the author is going through some sort of crisis (such as divorce, losing a job) and by taking the class, moving to Paris, becoming a chocolatier etc gets through the crisis, and learns something about herself etc. So I would try to increase the narrative arc a bit. How did taking this class change your life?

  14. Actually re-reading my comment, I realize isn’t narrative nonfiction, it’s a memoir–but it’s a learn-about-something memoir (like the one I read a review of this past week about a woman who learns all about glasshouses and orchids as a way to deal with a crisis), so another suggestion would be to focus on clay, why we love to work with it, the history of it etc–so that it isn’t only focused on your experience with the class (like the memoir about the guy who moves to Paris and learns all about restoring pianos from an old Frenchman and includes a lot of information about this in his book).

  15. It sounds great to me. I’m surprised it’s not done and on it’s way into the film world by now. It’s about time our Betsy gets a Jag and whatever else she wants.

  16. I’d add one or two descriptive words about the potter and the narrator in the pitch. That would be enough to get me to turn to the writing.

    Though I gotta say if I saw a letter that started out Dear FIRST AND LAST NAME, I’d stop right there. Spam alert.

    Off to look at the brokestraightboys.

  17. Throw, Glaze, Fire—the hell with Pray

  18. CJ! what a great title!

  19. Betsy: I liked this sentence, “. The book is also a meditation on marriage, on love, and on clay.” I think you should drop the “also” and move that sentence up to more prominence as it stands out and really hooks the reader.

    Also, Blackberry has a capital B as it’s a brand name.

    I like your query. Great format, saw no ovious errors. I hope you get requests for fulls!

  20. *would you request the manuscript if you were an agent?*

    to me, this post feels a bit like mick jagger asking his audience how to dance.

    you’re the rock star…i’m just here to listen!

  21. ‘describes a year of pottery lessons” or “chronicles”?
    Cliches (= filler): quiet side street/caught my eye
    Dazzled–a dizzying word; stopped this reader
    Is the “wheezy old hound” a hound(dog) or the 82 yr old potter who can’t keep his hands off?
    multiple is misspelled
    Kill “also”
    Marriage/love/clay — doesn’t do a thing for me
    “Done right …” Whoa. That’s not much of a pitch.
    The writing/tone/voice/ all say “No.”

  22. More:

    It’s a memoir. Is it complete and polished? How many words?
    Even if you say The London Blitz, how many young readers will know what that refers to?
    Sorry, it’s still a reject for me.

  23. You wrote: It had been nearly thirty years since I studied pottery and I didn’t miss it. But one afternoon, down a quiet side street in New Haven’s East Rock neighborhood, a sign caught my eye: Pottery Lessons, etc etc
    Maybe more of a hook if you wrote:
    It had been nearly thirty years since I studied pottery and God, how I’d missed it. And then, one afternoon, etc etc.
    This would immediately pose the question: if you’ve missed it so much, why did you stop….was it because of some traumatic event? Something to do with ‘marriage and love’ …and now as you get this ‘call to adventure’ and reluctantly allow yourself to be drawn into working with clay again it could have a healing affect…and underline your ‘meditation on marriage, on love, and on clay’ theme.

  24. Wow. I’ve never seen so much bad advice in one place.

    And come on: you think Betsy doesn’t know that blackberry is a proper noun?


    • What good advice would you offer? The query’s a set-up. Pick it apart. Have fun.

      • I think it’s a really good query — smart, to-the-point, tasteful, funny, not self-aggrandizing. I’d ask to read the book. People are totally over-thinking this thing. The purpose of a query is to accurately represent your manuscript so that an editor who is interested in the subject — and sympatico — will see it and say, Hey, maybe, let’s take a look.

        All that minor stuff you pointed out, Marc, is totally beside the point. If an editor gets caught up in that minutiae, he’s not going to like her book, so sending it to him would be a waste of everyone’s time, anyway.

  25. I thought the purpose of a query was to hook an agent at first, not an editor. We disagree on funny/smart and more. As Betsy wrote this, it doesn’t even rise to the level of a legitimate query. Sending it to anyone as it is (look at some submission guidelines–would Janet Reid even bother with this? Would Colleen Lindsay? Would Betsy?) All that “minor stuff” is exactly what will sink this thing, whether an agent is sympatico or not.

    In terms of a manuscript: is it complete and polished?
    How many words? Does “done right” mean it isn’t yet done right? This query doesn’t “accurately represent a manuscript.” I mean, what actually happens in the book? Where’s the pitch? Again: is the wheezy hound a dog or a guy? Two thumbs down. 🙂

    • Whatev, guy! Let me tell you: I’ve read many queries over the years, and they never, ever sink or swim because the writer uses “describes” instead of “chronicles.” There are usually much bigger issues.

      You don’t have to like B’s query — it’s clearly not your thang. But you’re totally off-base if you think agents are out there thinking, “She used DAZZLED??? Fuggedabout it. I’d love to read this, but not if she uses DAZZLED!! The noive!”

      I feel like I have a good sense of what this book could be like. I think it could appeal to women at a certain point in their lives: they’re basically comfortable and accomplished, but then their past comes back to haunt. What if I’d done pottery instead of poetry? What if I cut loose and have sex with this old dude? It could be a quiet, funny, insightful book.

      I’d be delighted to take a look at it, if I were an editor/agent who does memoirs.

  26. The above discussion is a perfect example of why we query widely. I’ve heard completely opposite opinions on both my query and my manuscript. Like, did I actually send them the same thing?

    • Query widely. Yes. A friend sent out queries for her memoir and received three requests for fulls. Agent ‘A’ said the book was too personal. Agent ‘B’ said it wasn’t personal enough. Agent “C” thought it was compelling and well-written but saw no market for it.

  27. Betsy —

    Looking forward to your comments about the comments. 🙂 Thanks for the topic and the discussion.

  28. I’m on the side of RE regarding the entire thread above. All this endless caressing of queries is total fucking bullshit. Either an agent is intrigued and interested to read more or not. And if they’re not it doesn’t mean that the query was “bad” or the project not worthwhile, etc. Carry on people and don’t bother trying to get an A+ on you query. It’s a fool’s errand.

    • From what I’ve seen, the endless caressing of queries (nice phrase–really) is exactly what it takes to get agents–given the way they look at the world–intrigued. For many writers, it does indeed become a fool’s errand; for some, it works and they’re off to the races. Some agents are thick as bricks and more than a few appear to be neurotic little brats–ditto many would-be writers.
      There is, always, self-publishing and folks like J.A. Konrath.
      But . . . Betsy did ask what people thought of her posted pseudo- query, not what we think of each other’s opinions. If you think queries are bullshit, opt out.

  29. Send me your completed book proposal, and we’ll talk.

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