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    Bridge Ladies When I set out to learn about my mother's bridge club, the Jewish octogenarians behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, their gen, and the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
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You Are Everything And Everything Is You

I think I’ve mentioned that I have always looked at my own slush. Most agents give the slush to assistants, interns, night watchmen, and cleaning crews to go through. We used to have pizza parties at Doubleday and all the assistants would gather in the conference once a month or so and tear through the slush. Good times. THe reason I look at all my slush is twofold: First:  I love opening mail. Love it. Ever since I was a kid, getting mail was the best fucking thing. Second: I’ve never trusted anyone to determine whether I would be interested in a project. This week, my slush produced a grand slam — three projects I wanted to see more of.

The first one interested me because of its title. You all know I’m a sucker for a good title. The letter was okay, the topic difficult to sell, but for me the title is like a key that unlocks the essence of a book. That sounds really douchy but you know what I mean.

The second one had a near perfect pitch letter. Just the right amount of information. The right tone. A concise description of the book. An impressive but non-braggy bio. Even though I don’t take on much fiction, I wanted to read this novel out of sheer respect for the letter.

The last was a well written letter about a topic that interests me. Someone did her homework.

Query letters:  is your query letter working for you? Have you cracked the code? What letter worked? If you feel like it, post your letter and see what the folks think.

98 Responses

  1. As is the case with many writers, effective queries are difficult for me to craft. I put long hours of study in on Query Shark and it’s still difficult because the essential truth I want to tell in a query is, “Just read the damn book and let’s not waste our time on the bullshit song and dance.”

    It should go without saying but in case it doesn’t, that is not the query I use. Here’s the email query that went to the publisher who accepted HIGH STREET:

    Dear Mr. Schirmer,

    My name is Tetman Callis. I am a writer, mostly of short fiction, living and working in Albuquerque, New Mexico. My stories and poems have appeared in various publications, including The New York Tyrant, Neon, Ontario Review, Denver Quarterly, and Cutthroat. Many of these published works are available on my website at http://www.tetmancallis.com. I have a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, with high honors, from the University of Texas at El Paso, studied creative writing with Gordon Lish in New York City and at the MFA program at the University of New Mexico, and make my living as a legal assistant.

    From 1994 to 2006, I lived in a house on High Street in an inner-city neighborhood in Albuquerque. I worked as a criminal defense paralegal, radio show host, and marijuana legalization activist, among other things, while I raised my teenaged son, ducked when I heard gunfire, and wrote. In 2010 and 2011 I fashioned a book of creative nonfiction, HIGH STREET, out of these writings. Earlier this autumn, I posted HIGH STREET in installments on my website, where I believe it had approximately one reader.

    HIGH STREET is 76,500 words long and is attached in a PDF file for your consideration. Thank you for your time.

    Sincerely yours,
    Tetman Callis
    [contact information]

  2. Is my query working? Well, I’m about to find out. Wait, is this Friday the 13th? Well, shit.

  3. I sent some out. About twenty. I went KDP when I got the auto reply from the guy in Seattle with some of the blanks not filled in and poor spelling and grammar. Judge me? Reviews have washed that bitter taste away, but I seem to get more positive feedback from the blog. I am in a weird place with the whole writing and “acceptance” thing. I’m all about me in it and that might not be right. Works for me for now and there is no tomorrow.

  4. I don’t think my query is working, since you mention it. Writing this damn letter has been harder than writing the book. Here’s my latest rendition:

    Haven is a dark coming-of-age story about a teenage girl growing up in Youngstown, Ohio during the late ’70s/early ’80s. She is regularly hit and humiliated by her father, whom she witnessed beat her mother to death as a small child and of whom she is completely terrified. She finds herself on the payroll of Youngstown’s most successful crime lord, a man she knows her father abhors, and develops an unlikely friendship with him, hoping he’ll help her find a way out of her rotten home. Think Sleepers wherein the drama occurs at home instead of a juvenile prison.

    At fifteen, Maria Santaro is trapped and hopeless. Her only refuge comes in the company of her friends, two girls whose home lives also leave a gaping hole. Maria is hungry for any knowledge of her dead mother and seeks it from Vincent Compalla, the criminal who keeps her from starvation, a dangerous man who loved her mother long ago. Her employment by him and the unusual bond that forms between them pushes her father to the brink of madness, awakening in him a rage Maria has never seen. His violence escalates to new heights and Maria’s worst fear – that he’ll do to her what he did to her mother – seems an inevitable end. She knows her only choices are to buckle beneath him or somehow fight back.

    Haven is set amidst the collapse of the steel industry in late 1970s Northeast Ohio and though it is not autobiographical, I do have deep roots in Youngstown and its notorious mafia. Because we live in uncertain economic times and the structure of family is ever changing, this book will resonate with a wide range of readers. I’ve pasted the first 10 pages below. I’m happy to send along the complete manuscript, if you’re interested.

    Any thoughts? As I’m sure you’ve discerned, I could use some constructive feedback.

    • It sounds like an interesting story and I like the setting and time period. The part I had a hard time with was if Maria saw her father beat her mother to death, why is she surprised by his rage? Also, mention her name earlier in the query. Is it YA? There’s some good stuff in there, ravingmadscientists!

    • Way too long. Agents move their mouths when they read.

      “At fifteen, Maria Santaro finds herself on the payroll of Youngstown, Ohio’s most powerful crime lord, a man her abusive father abhors. When an unlikely friendship develops between Maria and the crime lord, her father is driven to the brink of madness. Now Maria must choose between buckling under and fighting back.

      HAVEN is set during the collapse of the steel industry in late 1970s Northeast Ohio. While it’s not autobiographical, I have deep roots in Youngstown and its notorious mafia, and my favorite uncle is currently serving time Chillicothe.”

      If you’ve got deep roots, make them explicit. (Briefly.) Don’t paste shit. If you paste, you’ll never know if it’s your query that sucks or your pages. And MikeD’s question is good. Is it dark YA? It should be. If you toy with the margins in a fauxetic fashion, it sounds like the kind of thing Ellen Hopkins would blurb.

      • Do, DO listen to August. He carved out a query like this for me and it worked like a dream.

      • It is dark YA, which I neglected to note here but do include in my actual query along with a word count.

        Do you paste pages if the agent specifically requests it on their agency’s website? I always thought you should stick closely to the specific preferences as described on their sites.

        Thank you so much for the feedback!

  5. Posting this is about the scariest writing I have put out there. This query has gotten zero attention. Okay kids the robe is off, have a look.

    Dear Betsy,

    Vera steps into her shower; she steps out determined to change her life. Is it something in the water, no, it is the lack of something in her life. With no friends to miss her, no lover to long for her, and no mother to worry about her, she throws her pillowcase luggage in the backseat of her car and heads west.

    As winter begins its cross country trek the twenty-eight year old faces it, and her decision to leave, head-on, traveling from Connecticut to Wyoming the day before Thanksgiving. Her aim, to discover the one place she knew that for a short while, her mother had been happy.
    During the journey, or is it a quest, she wonders, Vera takes over the shoulder glimpses to her past to make sense of the triumphs and hurts which have formed her: A car fire at the age of five which leaves her scarred, being the Scrabble champion of her middle school, yet she leaves the tournament alone, and being a ‘sound-witness’ to the murder/suicide of her next door neighbors. The Clearys, married over sixty years, and that unspeakable act taught Vera that ending the suffering of someone you love makes living without them impossible.

    During her drive west, while stranded in a snowstorm, Vera loses her virginity to a nineteen year old Nebraska farm-boy, and a day later, rescues an abducted girl half her age; a brave act which sets in motion a financial rescue saving the educational future of hundreds of Native American children. When Vera reaches Wyoming she discovers, a father, a family, and a future, she never knew existed. Though she has shed her dismal past it follows her in the form of Henry, the abusive alcoholic stepfather who helped mold her miserable childhood. Though she has redefined herself Henry’s presence stirs in her old feelings of confrontation and incompetency.

    TO WALK AMONG STRANGERS, a work of women’s fiction, at 82,000 words and complete, is about realizing that change is always a choice and discovery, limitless. Sometimes we have to travel a millennium of experience before we realize that home is only inches beyond our grasp.

    I am an essayist, published many times in The Hartford Courant, The Day in New London, CT, Northeast Magazine and Country Living Magazine. I currently write the weekly column, Enough Said for the Shoreline Times in Connecticut.

    As a first attempt at fiction five years ago, I set this book aside, my understanding being that first novels be held in abeyance. After finishing a second novel, I decided to revisit this first love. Time away from it allowed me to discover the characters and the story more as a reader; I guess what I’m trying to say is that five years ago, during a very difficult time in my life, I wrote the book I wanted to read, the book I needed to read. Who wouldn’t want to head-out when stressful obligation glues your heart to home?

    Thank you for taking the time to read this. I hope to hear from you.

    • Wry,

      I think it’s not helpful to start the letter smack dab in story — I know some people begin queries that way, but when I began reading yours, I felt like I needed a moment to dip my toe into the water before diving in. Personally, I found Tetman’s letter above nearly perfect. Why don’t you print it out and follow its template? The main thing you need to work on is distilling your story’s plot down to one manageable paragraph. It’s wicked hard and I hate doing it, so I’m not trying to say it’s easy. I also feel like you buried your writing experience. Yes, it’s mentioned, but quickly, and then you follow with the longer paragraph about how you were called to write the novel, which I don’t believe is as important as your top-notch publications.

      You ARE brave and I salute you!


      • You know it’s funny really, (and Betsy help us out here), I have written a ba-zillon of these things. Start with the story, they say, no tell me why you want ME for your agent first. Give us your backstory but not to much. Log line first, no don’t use a log line, get to the point, elude, tell me, show me, fuck me with your credentials, I don’t care what you have done, it’s the story babe, the story.
        What astounds me is that I’m a damn good essayist, give me a subject and i can whip out a thousand words and piss you off, make you laugh, cry, or want to live when dying is what you want to do. And yet…I have written so many queries THEY DON’T MAKE SENSE ANYMORE.

        Sometimes I just want to write:

        Dear whatever the fuck your name is,
        Will ya just read my god-damned book.

        And sometimes:

        Dear who the hell do you think you are,
        Read my book. I’ll make us both rich,


        Dear I’ll love ’til the day I die,
        Please read my poor pitiful novel. Mommy liked it a lot.
        Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

        and then there’s the always successful:

        Dear Betsy,
        Take pity on my soul and save me. I know I don’t deserve your time but help me. I am an unworthy wretch with a house full of words and a closet full of dreams.
        Thank you for your time.
        PS I promise this is the last time I whine about my novels.
        PPS I never should have posted today.

    • HI Wry, my only definite thought is that you don’t need the paragraph at the end that starts with “As a first attempt… ” It doesn’t add anything to my knowledge of you personally as a writer or what a passionate story you might tell. Other less concrete reasons.

    • wry, it’s too long. i think you need to take four days to distill it down into two paragraphs. this is HARD work but worth it because, through the painful process, you see the project for what it is.

      i agree with the last paragraph removal because it’s too personal and best discussed in person, not in a business letter and a query is a business letter.

      btw. what stuck out for me was the term “pillowcase luggage”.

      • Thanks rea, Ruth and threekings.
        Threekings, did the link, haven’t had time to really dig but what I’ve read seems very helpful. Thanks guys for taking the time.

    • I agree with the other comments here too. There seems to be a lot of story here. While in my mind that makes for an interesting novel, it is too much for the query – I try to think of the back blurb of book – you don’t need to tell all the themes or main events, pick a couple (or one). Anyway, I know that is so easy to say, and so nearly impossible to do!! (I certainly haven’t gotten it right yet)

      Also, i would delete the last bit about writing other novels etc – your credentials are great, no need to reveal the sausage making!
      Good Luck!

  6. My query’s not working. The writing feels stiff and forced, not conveying the voice and rhythm of my book at all. An editor who critiqued it felt I gave more of a synopsis than a description of the book. I respect her opinion, but the changes she suggested made the letter feel like it wasn’t written by me, although her advice of writing in the present tense to draw the reader into the story was pretty sound. I still have a ways to go.

    • queries take time. they really do. keep going. you’ll figure it out. maybe you could write it like a response in this blog? like you were talking to people who knew/understood you?

    • The only thing harder for me than writing the query was coming up with a title. I kind of hate the title I eventually gave it (Haven) but I guess it’s better than “untitled YA project.”

      If you want one random stranger’s feedback, feel free to email me your query. Sometimes it helps to have the perspective of someone who knows nothing about the project.

      Good luck!

      • Thank you for the offer — I would appreciate the feedback, but I’m not sure about posting email addresses on this site. Damn, I should have just set my query out there and let the chips fall where they may.

        • Oh, if you go to my blog, ravingmadscientists.wordpress.com, I think you can see my public email address. If you’re interested. If not, no worries. I find query-writing tedious and difficult and appreciate all the help I can get!

  7. I work part-time at a non-profit urban writing center where we award fellowships to emerging writers. I read a ton of submissions and, while I hate to admit it, it all comes down to a concise submission, and the all-important first page. I just don’t have time to slog though a long winded submission. Not with the pile of stuff I have to read. This goes for fiction, memoir & poetry. Shorter is better. Don’t beg. Don’t say cutsie or embarrassing things about yourself. Respect my time with a professional submission, and I’ll respect what you’ve put in front of me.

    My own query letters aren’t perfect, though I’ve had some modest success. I’m waiting on one, who wanted more, right now.

    Hope some of this helps.

    • Good luck, November. And thanks for your perspective.

      I think I’m about 6 months away from writing my first query letter and I’m so dreading it.

    • fuck ya, on the submissions.

      one page and there’s a feeling you get when you read it–is it certainty? confidence without bragging? a professional tone?

      • Yes, to all of the above. (Except the fuck me on the submissions.)

        We usually receive a project description page, a short author bio and about 10 pages of manuscript. There are “Yes, Maybe & No” piles.You really have to mess it up with a shoddy application to go directly to the No pile. The rest, we review again & again.

        As far knowing by the first page… well, shoot me. It’s magic. Or whatever.

      • i meant to type fuck, yah! typing fast. there are times when an edit button would be great.

  8. I’m sorry, Wry, if I wasn’t helpful above and I’ve just fulfilled this Friday, the thirteenth kind of day for you.

    Anyway, here’s a blog post I just came across with more suggestions I liked about queries: http://sierragodfrey.blogspot.com/2012/06/4-query-resources.html

    I’m going to shut up now.

    • Hey Threekings it isn’t you. I read queries that people post and I think, ah crap, or hey that’s great. It’s like a recipe. Ingredients listed, plop them in the bowl, sometimes in a certain order, bake them and wah la, mmmmm. But to make the dish really special so that everybody loves it…follow the recipe but add your own ‘whatever’ to make it special.

      No matter how long you’ve been cookin’ the chef still has to go back to the recipe once in a while.

  9. Cracking the query code? I’m having better luck learning the Cyrillic alphabet. Although, I did attend a workshop on writing queries and the instructor claimed I had a good format. Too bad she wasn’t an agent – perhaps I should quote her in my next attempt. (just joking)

  10. No, my query isn’t working! Formletter formletter formletter …. Here is my query.

  11. Whoops! Double post. Sorry.

    Dear Ms. Lerner,
    Stuart Blake works at a pawn shop during the day and studies criminal justice at Night. He has no issues with his neighbors except the pair next door, an old man named Ferguson and his dog, Spider.
    A young woman from his neighborhood disappears. Her mother has money, the only such person west of downtown. The police aren’t interested in a missing black woman. The mother offers Stuart fifty grand to drop out of school and find her child. She makes only one stipulation. Because of her doubts about Stuart’s ability to negotiate Birmingham’s west side, she insists he take Ferguson along. Rather than team with Ferguson and his dog, Stuart is ready to walk away, but the girl’s gorgeous best friend offers to help.
    The team must overcome crooked police, errant guidance from one of Stuart’s instructors, and a bomb meant for Stuart. They locate the girl. But there is little time. In a few hours, she will be shipped to the West Coast and forced into prostitution. To rescue her they must face the meanest man in Birmingham. Stuart will need Ferguson, the girl’s gorgeous friend, some of his wacky class mates, and even Spider.
    Night School is a thriller, complete at 75,000 words. My short fiction has been published in Linda Busby Parker’s Christmas is a Season! 2009 and in Nuvein Magazine. I felt you might have an interest in mystery/thrillers with a different voice. I hope you consider representing Night School. Thank you for reading my query.

    J.D. Frost

    • I love this kind of story and would so read it. The beginning of the query is little confusing though, but only after I finished reading the entire query.

      “Stuart Blake works at a pawn shop during the day and studies criminal justice at Night. He has no issues with his neighbors except the pair next door, an old man named Ferguson [is Ferguson black? A long time resident? Is that why the mother thinks Stuart needs his help? Does that make Stuart white and/or just out of his element? What issues?] and his dog, Spider.”

      I know it’s hard to put all that in at the beginning, but a little clarification might be helpful.

      Also I might be inclined to start with the most important event – a black girl goes missing and no one give a rat’s ass, etc.

      Would love to comment more, but I must get back to work … going on holidays – a lovely, too short week on Vancouver Island – and my computer screen is bouncing around like the ball-thing on a Mitch Miller singalong.

    • I think you’ve tried to describe too much of the plot here, and for me there are too many characters to keep track of in such a short space. The crux of the matter is that Stuart, a criminal justice student, has been hired to find a missing girl, and must face the meanest man in Birmingham to do it. I’d try to find the most compelling way to say that and then leave it alone.

      August gave me several pieces of advice on query writing, which I will pass on since they worked so well for me:

      1. The point of the query is to get the agent to read your pages. That’s it, that’s all, if they read pages the query has done its job.

      2. Don’t let the query ‘unsell’ your book. For instance, my ms. was short, about 50,000 words. That’s a drawback, so I left it out of the query. And you know what? The agent who signed me never even noticed the work’s length until we started on the revisions. I also left out my two previous crappy novels. Though they’re a publishing credit in that they were picked up by a small e-publisher, they were starter novels and nothing like what I was querying.

      3. Keep it short. Very short. My entire query from intro to Sincerely Yours was about 200 words.

      4. The query should not explain the plot. It should describe the *kind* of book you’ve written. If the agent likes that sort of thing, she’ll ask for pages. And the pages are the point.

      P.S. I got all Augustian with the *s for emphasis. Lead on, daddy-o.

  12. YIKES! Taking the plunge here! I’ve sent this query out, more or less the same–usually with a sentence at the top indicating why the agent I’m querying might be interested or that we have some sort of six degree of separation connection. One incredibly lovely agent asked to see it, gave me feedback, asked for a rewrite and ultimately told me that the story I’d heard her tell about not being currently able to sell mental health related memoirs stayed true.

    Since reading your post, Betsy, about how perhaps the whole damn thing is just not good enough, I’ve set about re-visioning how the whole book is structured as well as the point of it. (I think that post saved my fucking life) I’ve got two sections that I’m excited about so the book isn’t submission ready at this point. But the chance for feedback here seems foolish to pass up. Thank you to anyone who responds!!

    WE ARE A FAMOUS LOVE STORY is a memoir of my first two years with Christi.

    She, Christi: an artist diagnosed with schizophrenia. Me: a writer with major depression and PTSD. What do you get when you mix Naples Yellow with Cadmium Red? Colors, a whole range of them. What do you get when you mix us “crazies”? An extraordinary story that’s unique.

    Our story is not reflected anywhere, not in literature and certainly not in movies. There are no guidelines for our situation, on how to get by, let alone how to thrive with joy. I wrote WE ARE A FAMOUS LOVE STORY to connect us to the larger world and to add our voices to the cultural conversation about love, about healing and about what it means to be “sane”.

    Before this project I have published seven pieces in literary journals Water~Stone, Creative Nonfiction, Chelsea Review, Gulf Coast and others. I now have eighteen finalist commendations on my resume for grants, awards, (just last month a finalist for the Arts & Letters Nonfiction Award and also notably a finalist for the Iowa Review’s Creative Nonfiction Award) and residencies as well as an honorable mention from Gulf Coast, and a second place prize from the GSU Review. Each piece I have published has received at least one such commendation with a few of them receiving several.

    I grew up in Piermont New York, went to the University of Iowa (BA in theater and psychology) moved to Minneapolis and much later got an MFA in creative writing at Hamline University. I have worked in the book world at Consortium Book Sales & Distribution for over a decade now. One of the things I do is make sure bookstores get books on time for events—sometimes this can be an anxiety-ridden creative process—so booksellers rely on me. Because of the relationships I’ve built with them, I believe they will be happy to support me.

    More importantly I think booksellers will celebrate WE ARE A FAMOUS LOVE STORY because it is rare. Christi and I are not often seen as “characters” who love, laugh and create beauty successfully. In a nutshell, the story of our first (tumultuous and dramatic) two years is a great read. I hope you want to read it. Please let me know if you prefer a sample or the full manuscript. Again, I appreciate your time and look forward to hearing from you.

    • Way too long. And you say there’s an extraordinary story, but you don’t say what it is. Crazy love isn’t sufficient. Tumultuous and dramatic how? (And tone down the ‘unique’. Agents don’t want unique, no matter what they claim. The Hose, maybe, excepted.)

      I think the title’s strong.

      What do you get when you mix Naples Yellow with Cadmium Red?
      Christi is a schizophrenic artist. I’m a writer with PTSD. We met at A. We did B. We overcame C. Then we crashed into D.
      I have an MFA in creative writing from Hamline University (if that’s a good thing; I don’t know) and I’ve worked at Consortium Book Sales & distribution for twelve years, where I’ve built strong relationships with booksellers such as X and Y.
      I’m published in Water~Stone, Creative Nonfiction, Chelsea Review, and Gulf Coast. Last month, I was a finalist for the Arts & Letters Nonfiction Award and for the Iowa Review’s Creative Nonfiction Award.
      WE ARE A FAMOUS LOVE STORY is a memoir of 267,000 words. I look forward to hearing from you.”

      A, B, C, and D, should each be only a handful of words.

  13. OMG – my heart is pounding. Here’s the last query I sent. No response, but I didn’t try very hard either because I think I queried too soon. This book is on hold; aging, I suppose, until I can figure out how to fix the parts that suck.

    Just when third-generation archeologist Grace Cushman’s life settles into the quiet, predictable life of a university professor, Jack Montgomery shows up with evidence to prove that her disgraced, dead father was right: that once upon a time there was a race of humans who could fly like birds, but without wings, and swim like fish, but without fins.

    It’s easy at first to dismiss Jack as just another quack, but then the dreams start. And then she finds herself flipping back and forth between the world of the ancient flyers and her present-day world. Grace is much too pragmatic to believe in dreams and visions; on the other hand, it all seems so real …

    Grace has to decide whether to boot Jack Montgomery back to wherever the hell he came from and stay in her safe, cloistered world, or risk her reputation, her sanity, possibly her heart, and maybe her life to follow him half way around the world and find out the truth.

    THE FLYERS, THE SWIMMERS, AND THE WALKERS is fantasy and is complete at 90,000 words.

    My writing background includes ten years as a newspaper reporter and editor, and magazine feature writer and editor.

    Thank you for your consideration.

    • Fantasy is not my genre, but I like this. Not crazy about the title. The rest of it seems good to me. If I read that on the flap I would thumb through the book.

      • The problem I have with my query is that it doesn’t really get to the essence of the story, which is really the danger/tragedy of family secrets. Then there’s this huge ol’ theme about how sad it is that this race of people who fly are just erased from the earth without any evidence that they ever lived. How do I put that in a query? Or should I not even try?

        The title is a bit cumbersome – I have alternatives.

    • Look above and tell me how fucked up mine is.

    • this is quite good–short and professional. your title is long and, you know, it’d be hard to say out loud at the reading. that’s my test for a title. could you boil it down to fly, swim, walk? i dunno.

      also, with regards to your title, you should include the title higher up in the letter. the title is kinda like the handshake in your greeting–best done up front.

    • I wouldn’t worry about hitting every theme, etc., It’s like you’re giving the agent a little taste, a dab on the tongue, as enticement. I agree the title is unfortunate. I thought the premise/story sounded fascinating. I would try and make the description even shorter. Also too many “And then, and then….”

      • Here’s the query I didn’t use:

        College professor Grace Cushman is living a perfectly ordinary life. Then she starts having these dreams/visions/hallucinations/god-knows-what about ancient men who fly without wings. She’s certain she’s going crazy – until she gives birth to a child who can fly.

      • I kind of like this new query. It really sounds good.

    • I love the concept of your story but agree the title seems cumbersome.

      Ron McLarty wrote a book called MEMORY OF RUNNING, he’s the actor in POSTMAN, who is the burnt out radio man, anyway, the title, and even the picture on the cover, were at odds. The book is about the a bike ride, cross country by a fat guy. Not much about running, but the title really explained the book. Great story by the way, loved it.

      I’m not going to give you any query advice because mine sucks but I’m pretty good at titles. It’s hard to explain but go one word up or down from the meaning of the actual word you are using then say them outloud, in a different order, sing them, until they SOUND right, ’til they evoke what you are trying to say.

      • Thought you couldn’t sing …

        Guess I’ve used this title for so long it seems natural to my tone-deaf ear. Too bad Shades of Grey is taken.

        Thank you all for the input. This has been fun and interesting, and I have enjoyed reading everyone’s offerings, along with the comments. This really is a very special group. You is smart …

        Betsy – could we do something like this for openings? First sentences scare me as much, if not more, than queries.

      • Anon. is me. I moved to a different computer.

      • heidi,
        Ahhhhhhhhhhhh… me singing, I told you I sucked.
        First five sentences, great idea. I love it.
        Are we going to have to pay for this, I mean this is classy and in depth edge-are-cation.

    • I agree with the other comments – I don’t read fantasy, but I thought the premise sounded interesting. But the query you didn’t use – with giving birth to a child that could fly – that got me right away – i think you should include that for sure.

      I have a hard time with the title as well (I can’t get past a Disney book i used to read to my kids “Walk, Float and Fly”) – I think something a little more mystical would help.
      Good Luck!

  14. I got my magazine gig without a query letter as such, and that was almost nine years ago. Other stuff is afinger, and when that work is done, the query letters will be the next job.

    The other stuff is a collection called READ MY SHORTS, with characters like Riff Rafferty, Noodles Jefferson, Joe Garbanzo, and Orfice Tick, the lawyer.

    More other stuff is a nonfiction work with a guy who has done several books, including some that spent some time on the NYT bestsellers list. That one is about 16 months out, but we’re on the job and underway. The query letters for that one are way out there, but will come.

  15. I want to read it! Fantastic title, sounds like an incredible story. I didn’t know where you were going with the stuff about your job, and then the penny dropped. SURELY that would make an agent happy?! Can you cut to the chase quicker in that paragraph? Great pitch, I thought – maybe it really is about ‘mental health memoir’ saturation of the damned market. How’s the market for lesbian memoir? Any better? Emphasise that in your pitch? Good luck!

    • Sorry, the post beginning: ‘I want to read it!’ was meant to be a reply to Ruth, but maybe that’s obvious from the content…

      • I’m so excited someone replied, thank you!! It is true that the mental health memoir market (love the alliteration, don’t you?) is over the top saturated. That said being one I ALWAYS find crazy people fascinating and want to read more of their stories. As for the lesbian market, well fuck. I think there is one real gay bookstore left in the country and less than a handful of feminist ones. That GLBT ghetto is great for a party but little else. I’ll spare you any further soapboxing. Again, thank you!

    • Great point on the job paragraph. Will do.

  16. It’s so interesting reading these. Congratulations to everyone brave enough to post. One thing I realized for the first time is how quickly the letter has to engage me(since I’m scrolling through the posts and have a busy day. I did go back and slow down and read every one carefully and I’d be interested in reading all of them. Truly. But on my first pass, the only one that made me stop was Ruth’s. In trying to figure out why, I think it’s because the uniqueness of the story was apparent immediately. It says “I’m not like all the rest”. (Even before she uses the unique word.) The first line and paragraph (and title) are all that mattered.

    Great job, Ruth, and thanks to all who posted.

    • Thank you Mary! You know I struggle with using words like unique and passionate or intense–part of me feels like these should never be self-referential–but a friend made the point I didn’t want my thesaurus efforts showing in a letter any more than I’d want bra straps visible in an interview and why the hell not just say what I was hoping they’d think, that the story was unique.

  17. Cut it to 100,000 words and listen to August.

  18. How much hate mail will I get if I said I didn’t have to do a query? I acquired an agent based on a short synopsis (which could have been a query, I suppose, if I’d added in “Dear Agent” at the beginning and “I look forward to hearing from you” at the end…) But…it was what I’m sharing below that made the agent want to read the ms.

    In 1969 Dixie Dupree is eleven years old and living in the Deep South of rural Alabama. Her mother, Evie, who is originally from New Hampshire, yearns to return to the Northeast, and takes out her frustration on Dixie in the form of violent abuse. And, Dixie learns to lie and pretend she has fallen or suffered an accident rather than betray her mother and expose the beatings.

    Despite her mother’s cruelty, Dixie still longs for a better relationship, even though her mother remains secretive and elusive about her desire to leave Alabama. But then, a far worse kind of abuse arrives in the form of Evie’s brother, Dixie’s Uncle Ray, and Dixie feels certain that because she has always lied in the past, no one will believe her if she tries to seek help.

    THE EDUCATION OF DIXIE DUPREE is complete at 92,000 words. Dixie’s voice is funny and wry and the novel is as much about a child’s prevailing spirit and resilience as it is about her abuse.

    Now, having said THAT, when I was asked to do the long synopsis for the submission pkg – talk about a total F-up. I think it may be why the damn book hasn’t sold. IF editors are reading that to get the basics of the story – aye yi yi.

    • Glad to see you are brave enough to post. I think your query is good. I feel a little uncomfortable with the sentence after 92,000 words. I don’t know if it seems out of place to me or if it’s the describing of her voice. Anyway, I can see why the agent wanted to read.

      • Thanks J.D…., that part was added in by someone else – but was used when the agent was contacted. I should also say…Betsy said in a earlier blog post (like back in 2008) – do NOT use a synopsis. I think for me, this is one of those “she got lucky.” situations. I feel that way most days – to be sure.

      • Tackle someone else and get them to comment on it.

  19. August, you’re awesome.

  20. The closest thing to a query letter I’ve ever written was a quest for advice from an author through his editor.

    Editor: Robert Loomis
    Author: Jonathan Harr
    c/o Vintage Books
    Division of Random House, Inc.
    201 E. 50th Street
    New York, NY 10022

    Background: My daughter suffered severe brain damage from a Heroin overdose 7 years ago. She was semi-comatose in a nursing home for 3 years when she was raped and impregnated by an employee of the nursing home. The man was identified by DNA, arrested, pled guilty 2 years ago, and is now serving an 11-year sentence in prison. We sued the nursing home for breach of trust, lack of security and patient abuse and settled two cases out of court last year. We are now in the process of a malpractice suit with the doctor whose failure to detect my daughter’s pregnancy, well into the 6th month, may have contributed to the premature birth and difficulties my granddaughter now suffers.

    Project: I want to write my daughter’s story and make suggestions on how to preclude what happened to her from happening to anyone else in nursing homes. As the primary resource of this effort, I am using the detailed journal I started a few months after my daughter’s overdose. My recollections and notes are only one of many sides to this story. I need to interview many participants to get their insights and reasons for what they did, to fill in gaps in my notes, and to clear up misunderstandings that sometimes occurred because of the legal posturing done on both sides. I have specifically not interviewed the major players yet because I knew future litigation would require complete disclosure. I am not an established author nor a journalist, so I could not offer them any confidentiality.

    Problem: As expected, part of the current defendants preparation was a request for all notes, journals, and interviews relating to the case, so I have offered all I have. I may only redact specific conversations with my legal council. Must this project go into limbo for a couple more years while the last case winds its way through the courts? There are many things that should be said about how hospitals, nursing homes, our public institutions, and doctors treat patients that have no bearing on the malpractice suit. But the story will not be complete without the malpractice portion. The longer the wait, the greater the chance I will not be able to obtain the necessary interviews. People move away, change jobs, forget, retire, die, etc.

    Question: How did you avoid this problem? Didn’t you start researching your “A Civil Action” before the trials were over? How did you avoid having your notes reviewed in open court?

    Complications: I am the Plaintiff in the malpractice case. That gives me some protection as it pertains to “Work Product” with my lawyers. It also gives us some powers to depose hostile witnesses as long as it is pertinent to the malpractice case. Some of the players are in all three cases. How do you keep a cooperative posture for some questions to be asked later about a closed case while you attack a witness on the current case?

    My dilemma is that my greatest interest is in telling the story, not necessarily in a money award for the malpractice. Any settlement or award would really only be useful in getting the attention of the healthcare industry and the insurance companies to this problem. My story will offer some solutions. My legal team is mostly interested in the award, as they should be. I must be faithful to my legal team, the law, and the memory of my daughter.

    Any advice how to proceed would be appreciated.

    C. Donald Huntemann

  21. This one got a few requests. My bio has changed (graduated, back into journalism again) but the gist is the same. Criticism welcome if you’d like, although I’m on to the next project now.

    Dear Whoever,

    I would like to introduce you to my novel, THE REAL JOURNAL, a quirky 70,000-word literary novel with commercial appeal.

    When geeky loner Xavier discovers the secret online Journal of a young local bartender, Parker, he realizes that he hasn’t just stumbled upon the dirty details of the life he’s always resented, but rather an instruction manual on how to meet life’s most basic needs as he sees them: get a job that’s not in a toy store; have people other than his parents assigned to speed dial; get laid. The good news, as he lands a job in a local bar and talks to women in full sentences, is that it begins to work. The bad news, however, is that it begins to work.

    Just as things are looking up Parker’s journal entries begin to reveal an emotional downward spiral, causing Xavier to question the new path he’s chosen as well as what to do about being the only one who knows Parker is entertaining thoughts of suicide. Things become more complicated after Xavier catches the eye of Alyssa, a co-worker who begins to fall for him before he’s fully honed his newly acquired skills. As their relationship grows, so does Xavier’s confidence to live a Parker-inspired life, leaving him to figure out not only which version of him Alyssa is falling in love with, but which version he really is.

    I think readers who enjoy the self-deprecating protagonists of writers such as Nick Hornby and Dave Eggers would enjoy this novel.

    I worked through the last rounds of revisions of this book with novelist REDACTED, who offered to continue working with me after we met at a writers conference in 2010. I am currently finishing my master’s degree in English at the REDACTED, where I also tutor in the campus’s writing center and am editor of the university’s literary journal. One of my short stories recently won an award at the Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature Conference and will be published in the forthcoming MidAmerica. Before entering graduate school I was a staff writer for the REDACTED where I won awards for my columns and feature writing.

    Thank you for your consideration,

    Scott Atkinson

  22. Dear Blah, I got your name from Blah di blah, etc. I am a big fan of (work agent represents) and since my work is similar to it in such and such ways, I thought you might be interested in my novel BLAH.

    It is (super succinct description of type of book, not plot, but whatever makes it interesting). I am (brief bit about me).


    (I hate, hate, hate reading plot summaries, so why would I write one?)

  23. Wow – there are some great queries up here! I find it is really helpful reading through to see what works and what doesn’t – almost gives you a taste what it is like to have a stack of queries to sort through.
    OK – for what it is worth, mine is below – have gotten some very nice rejection letters so far. Any words of wisdom from this amazing group would be much appreciated!

    Dear X:

    I understand you are seeking literary fiction, and I hope you will consider representing my literary historical novel Dance of the Paper Lanterns. The manuscript is complete at 88,000 words.

    In 1851, seventeen-year-old Catherine Harrington is headstrong and defiant when her father inherits a trading company and uproots the family from their London home to travel to Hong Kong. Against the backdrop of the start of the Second Opium War, Catherine develops a secret friendship with a Chinese woman named Ming Li and eventually falls in love with Li’s brother Tai. Social mingling of the races is not accepted in either society, and when Li becomes the third wife to an abusive husband, and then gives birth to a baby of mixed race just before she commits suicide, Catherine makes a choice that will alter the course of her life.

    Dance of the Paper Lanterns explores cross-cultural themes of the treatment of women and racial prejudice. It should appeal to readers of historical fiction with a literary bent such as the works of Lisa See or Tracy Chevalier. I am submitting simultaneous queries to five other agents.

    My writing experience includes non-fiction publications for an environmental group, for which I handled national press conferences, radio and TV news bits. I lived and worked in China before graduate school and have spent time in both Hong Kong and the mainland. Dance of the Paper Lanterns is my first novel.

    I appreciate your time and attention, and look forward to hearing from you.

    • I liked the entire query but the one sentence that seemed “awkward” to me is the one that begins with “Social mingling of the races….” There is so much in that one sentence I had to read it a couple of times, but it was still like trying to force a huge bite of peanut butter sandwich down without any milk.

      Is there a way to make it more crisp? I don’t know that it’s all that important to explain all of what Li is doing/has done since the story is about Catherine – no? Does anyone else agree? Even if you keep a tidbit in about Li, maybe you say ….”social mingling of races is not accepted in either society, and when Li gives birth to a baby of mixed race, Catherine makes a choice that will alter the course of her life.”


      good luck!

      • Thanks so much – I see what you mean. I hadn’t realized that sentence was such a mouthful before! I can definately tweak that – thanks!!

    • What trips me up here: “I understand you are seeking,” “I hope you will consider representing,” “manuscript is complete at” — pretty obsequious, passive-sounding language. How about: “Please consider my historical novel”?

      I would also be wary of the phrase “headstrong and defiant,” which strikes me as a cliche. Not that the character can’t be these things, but to sum up a character this way is not interesting or original.

      And for whatever reason, I would put the word count near the end rather than the beginning. Fixation on word count comes across as amateurish.

  24. Ya know, I’d love to know, I mean really, I’m impressed…August?

  25. Guh, I’m still editing the last couple chapters, and I really don’t know the final word count yet, but here’s the query I have so far.

    Dear Ms./Mr. Agent,

    Judith Thompson, ex-con, ex-security specialist, is content with her new life as a small-town librarian. Most days, it isn’t as exciting as running jobs for the Blaine Company, but after leading her last retrieval team into a killbox, she finds quiet retirement both penance and relief.

    Until David McRae, rehabilitated grifter extraordinaire, shows up with bad news: James Blaine, the legendary reformed huckster who gave Judith and countless others a second chance, needs a bone marrow transplant. His best bet is a donation from a close relative, but for his own reasons, he prefers the long odds of the donor registration—odds that are getting longer every day.

    In order to save their boss and mentor, Judith, David, and a small team of the Company’s best must use their best tricks to dig past Blaine’s aliases, secrets, and crimes and track down his estranged family and convince them to help—whether he wants them to or not.

    No sweat—except an old rival of Judith has appeared with an agenda of her own, leads are reneging, disappearing, or dying, and a disgruntled ex-employee just shot one of the team.

    Judith and David know more than Murphy’s Law is dogging this job—someone close to them doesn’t believe in second chances.

    Pigeon Drop is a 90,000-word mystery.

    I am a small town librarian who has never been indicted.

    Thank you for your time,

    Contact info, etc.

    • Sarah, I like it — especially the last line — but I think your plot description needs to be half the length. You’re not hitting the high points of the plot; you’re teasing the potential reader with what their experience of the book will be. Zillions have said it, but it bears saying again: write a one-paragraph intro that’s like what you’d read on its published book jacket.


    • This is so well written and full of personality that I can’t bear to pick it apart. That last line is a keeper for sure. Maybe August has some ideas for how to shorten it, but I actually think it will get requests for pages just the way it is.

    • Expert that I am at this, yuck yuck, I would remove the cliche, Murphy’s law as written and switch it up so it doesn’t sound so trite (hey, trite I know about). Example…Judith and David know more than Mr. Murphy and his law is dogging the job –
      Love love love the last line

    • I don’t feel worthy to comment because I suck at queries, but I like it Sarah. A lot.

    • Thanks, everyone.

      I’ll give it another serious look once my edits are done, but at least I know to save that last line!

  26. It’s a hell of a lot more fun to write fiction than to pitch it. I must say I appreciate a fast response, even if it’s “No.”

  27. Does it bother anyone else when a book is introduced with a character’s full name? For instance, “Wendy Wimple is a radical nun in Depression era Minneapolis,” or “When Kevin Pastrami opens his mailbox to find a misdirected acceptance to clown college, hijinks ensue.”

    There’s just something about this usage that bugs me. I can’t really put my finger on it. I think it’s that the character’s name, oh-so-preciously chosen by the author, doesn’t really matter. Or maybe it’s that most novel characters have fake-sounding names. (So many Kates and Lilys, so few Cheryls or Bevs).

    • re: character names. i think a memorable name is a memorable name. Annie Proulx pulls her character names from a combination of the phone book and local newspapers and they are completely bizarre. and memorable.

      Ms. Proulx says she uses “distinctive names as a mnemonic device for readers” (Paris Review).

      here are some famous literary characters off the top of my head. Atticus Finch; Ignatius O’Reilly; Philip Pirrup (Pip); Joseph K; Harriet M. Welsch; Toad; Humbert Humbert; Dick Diver; Bertie Wooster; Leopold Bloom; Yossarian.

      these are contrived names. fiction is contrived.

      signed, a contrived writer

      • Perhaps what I mean is that so many character names actually aren’t odd enough — they’re too likeable, too lovable.

    I wrote in caps because I wanted to get your attention. I cut it in half, I like it a lot and I’m sitting on it a few days before I start ALL OVER AGAIN. I’m also quieting my knee-jerk reactions…wait a minute I feel one coming on – Betsy – the check is in the mail for this.

  29. Hope this query works…

    Dear Agent,

    A Soul’s Calling is a memoir that tells the story of a man who listened to his heart rather than reason.

    Scott, a forty-something attorney, is average in every way except one. He has a connection to the Other Side. He speaks to Spirit and Spirit speaks to him. He sees, hears, and interacts with an invisible realm that is beyond ordinary human perception. When his soul becomes spiritually compromised, he takes off on the journey of a lifetime to the ancient kingdom of Nepal to win it back. There, accompanied by a porter and guide, he carries a mysterious bundle—a shaman’s mesa—and a stick laden with prayers from Luminous Beings to come face to face with the greatest mountain on earth: Mount Everest. As his journey unfolds, Scott is called upon to battle his fear of heights, the thin air, and a dark entity bent on preventing him from reaching his goal. When Scott reaches the foot of Mount Everest the power of his mesa is unleashed and the mountain is healed of an eons old wound.

    A Soul’s Calling is an inspiring modern day adventure that weaves the timeless themes of good versus evil, living an authentic life, the consequences of power, and what a man would do for unrequited love. The book is set in the rugged but enchanting Himalaya where mountains speak and nature is imbued with a special kind of magic. Powerful, sweeping, and deeply moving, readers will laugh and cry and search their hearts as the book draws to a stunning conclusion. A work of narrative nonfiction, this memoir is complete at 108,000 words long and has the capacity to change the way we see and live in the world.

    I was born and raised in northern New Jersey, earned a Juris Doctor from Syracuse University, and passed the New York State Bar in 1998. I currently reside in northern New Jersey. And though I technically still practice law, the past year has been devoted to reaching Mount Everest and writing this book.

    • You only query fiction. Nonfiction–and I think memoir is included in this–requires a proposal. Do a little searching on how to prepare a book proposal.

    • It didn’t take much research (indeed, one search) to find that I am wrong. Queries are used for memoir! That said, I am not expert enough to edit a query, but I think I would drop the sentence “Powerful, sweeping, and deeply . . . .” You certainly hope if will have that impression on the readers, but I don’t think it helps to tell the agent that.

  30. This is inspiring. It made me re-think the novel my agent almost sold (ha) five years ago. And how the issue in so many ways is marketing, not art. Here’s the query:

    Dear x,

    Paul O’Shea doesn’t want to be a god anymore. It hits him in the cereal aisle, during one of his clandestine trips to the A & P. There he meets Laurel – the mortal of his dreams. But there’s no pawnshop for souls in Hollywood. The only way to achieve mortality might just be the hard way…

    Hollywood novels usually take place on the road to fame. APOLLO AT SUNSET is a novel about something a lot murkier – how to shake it. The Greek gods and goddesses were always disguising themselves to play among the mortals, but they didn’t fight a 24/7 news cycle. Today every mortal carries a mobile device that can blow your cover in the twitch of a thumb. Hollywood is our Olympus, but without a decent exit strategy.

    Just ask Michael. Diana. Whitney. Or TomKat.

    The manuscript runs about 350 pages. Please let me know if you’d like to read more. Thanks, and All best, etc.

  31. […] writers genuinely do fear success.  Recently, a post on Betsy Lerner’s blog (she’s addictive, and I highly recommend you follow her) discussed the crafting of queries. […]

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