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Everything Has Got To Be Just Like You Want It To

If you don’t have a referral, a newly minted writing prize like the Whiting, or a story in the New Yorker, you need to introduce yourself and your work to editors and agents. Query letters come in all shapes and sizes and sadly most of them fail to accomplish what they most desperately need to do: spark interest. That’s all you really have to do: spark interest. You can do this with your title, your credentials, the one or two sentences that sum up your project. Mostly, you need to do this with the writing. Writers know how to write, how to manipulate, seduce, win friends and influence people. My advice: keep it simple. No bells, no bows, no bending over. Don’t over promise. Don’t make something out of nothing. Don’t try something stupid, whacky, quirky or attention getting.  This is first and foremost a professional gambit.
I’m sure other agents vary on this, but I’m not a fan of the letter that begins with story about the character. Betsy had many reasons to feel fortunate, but she was mired in self-loathing. 
I think these openers also feel forced because they presuppose that the character exists outside the context of the book.
Dear Betsy Lerner:
I am sending my novel, The Resignation of Rochelle Epstein, for your consideration. I’ve published work in The New York Times, Poets and Writer, The Minetta Review, The Quarterly, Columbia Magazine, and Publishing Perspectives. I studied writing at New York University and Columbia University where I received an MFA in Poetry.  This is my first novel.
Thank you for your time,
These are the two first lines that sparked my interest.

Pelt and Other Stories’ is a collection of characters (some interlinked) living in Africa and Europe, whose lives all undergo surprising and even unwilling evolution: two English snowboarders challenge the savagery of mountain weather in the Dolomites; a pregnant Ghanaian woman strokes across a hotel pool in the tropics; Celeste visits her suicidal brother and his lover in Berlin and realises she will never see them again.

This works for me because I love the title PELT. Then, I like the brief descriptions that zoom all over the world from snowboarding, pregnant swim strokes to a suicidal brother in Berlin. I’m in and I don’t like stories.

I knew my father for only a very short time as an adult, and I associate two things with him: science and loss.

I like this a lot. It’s simple. Science and loss. Again, what comes next is critical. You might be tempted to explain, but I think the simplicity should speak for itself.

If Independent Clause and Catherine would like to send their letters to me at askbetsylerner@gmail.com, I will critique the letters for you. Let me know if I can post the letter for feedback from everyone. Either way is fine. Thanks to everyone for participating. If you have more questions about the query letter, please ask. I want your letters to get you through the door. If the manuscript sucks, well, it sucks. But I want to help you get through that fucking door.

24 Responses

  1. As one still gently tapping on that Door, your perspective is most helpful. Yet, I’ve also heard agents claim that they want a real lead-up to “the hook”, not just a salutation and a launch into the plot. Gee, now I’m feeling like a teenager on a first date: flowers? no flowers? maybe flours? Also – your opinion on whether a writer should re-submit to an agency if the writer significantly revises their query. Thanks.

    ps: congrats to Catherine & independentclause

  2. I hope someone else posts something while I scribble and erase so I’m not first. I’m happy to see Catherine’s “Pelt and Other Stories” was one of the two recognized. She certainly reeled me in with that opening sentence. I also liked another, one of the last posted, about the British girl Maggie who goes missing while touring Australia, and her Aboriginal friend who’s looking for her in mining country. Both of these would entice me to read further. Great little lesson in query writing. Thanks Betsy.

  3. I really enjoyed reading all the submissions. I just hope Betsy runs this contest again in six months to a year, when I will have something (please, God) to contribute.

  4. The best post query letter summary I’ve seen in a long time.

  5. Thank you, Betsy.

  6. You’re a good egg, Betsy. Even if you never read a manuscript of mine, I’ll still vouch for you.

  7. “This is first and foremost a professional gambit.” So, so one the nose – and surprisingly hard at first to adhere to, making sure the query comes across as clearly and politely as a letter to your bank manager asking for a loan.

  8. Congrats to Independent Clause and Catherine. Excellent openers.

    Your comment that openers such as, “Betsy had many reasons to feel fortunate …” feel forced because they assume the characters exist outside of the book, was helpful to me because that’s exactly what I did!

    What I’m going to do now, is shuffle a lower paragraph higher in the query and check for sincerity. I do believe in the story I’ve written I want to ensure that comes across. So it’s back to the drawing board to create that spark.

    Good post. Thanks.

    .

  9. Betsy had reasons to feel fortunate but she was mired in self-loathing.

    I like her!

  10. Good to know you’ve got our backs.

  11. Thanks for a gentle way of showing us the door. I enjoyed seeing all the lines, the nucleus of works in progress. Good stuff.
    Congratulations to Catherine and independentclause!

  12. This was very helpful. Thank you.

  13. Congrats to Cat and Independentclause. Well done!

  14. Pity the 50 agents about to receive query letters beginning “I am sending my novel, The Pelt of Rochelle Epstein, for your consideration.”

    And with colons.

  15. i can’t do this right now. I’ll try to get back to this at a later time.

  16. Interesting and very helpful, Betsy, thanks. Back to the drawing board for me!

  17. It was great to see everyone’s lines and for this glimpse into how it really works behind the closed door. Thank you! And congrats to Ind Clause and Cat — I hope we get to see the next steps in the critique. I, for one, would love the help.

  18. “spark interest”

    “professional gambit”

    Thanks. And congratulations to Catherine and Independant Clause.

  19. Thanks again, Betsy. I’ve scratched my gimmick and am rewriting the upfront, here it is letter. It’s more my style anyway, so a bit relieved.

    And congratulations to Cat and Independent Clause!

  20. You see, I’m just not completely with everyone. There must be something wrong with me, or not. I like the Pelt title, the word Pelt still confuses me. Is it a pelt or a hide and what is the difference. I want to know. And the difference could be the subtle beauty of the story. One of my neighbors angrily told me the difference between a pelt and a hide once but once he got angry over my ignorance I lost interest. When I was told that there would be interlinking stories, I was a little offended as if I wasn’t smart enough to know that there is such a thing as interdependent stories that crossover into one another and create an even more complex story, as if people haven’t been doing that for centuries. My Only complaint is that you thought that I was stupid, and therefore I wonder about the conclusions you come to in your stories. My first respond would be, let us not, for god’s sake, reinvent the wheel. That is my, compassionate, Betsy Lerner type voice. My true voice would write, do I look like I’m stupid?

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