• Bridge Ladies

    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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So Take a Letter, Maria


I’m sorry, but it’s time to go back to basics. I have been receiving the most cuckoo for cocoa puffs query letters lately. It’s like watching a person shoot himself in the head instead of pitching his book. I can see the blood spatter on the wall.

I’ve said a zillion times: the letter has to be professional, but should give a sense of the writer’s style or sensibility. The letter should be three paragraphs: 1) introduce the project; 2) expand on it in an interesting way via the themes or good comps or most salient details  (no plot points please!);  and 3) your credentials. Writers often ask me, what if I don’t have any credentials? I always answer: get some! What if we can’t, they cry? It’s strange to think that you can sell a book before you’ve ever sold a story or an article. THough stranger things have happened. Nothing is impossible, but you will look a lot more attractive with some writing credentials. Remember too: We’re not best friends, this isn’t a grant proposal,  and I’m not your therapist. In other words, don’t act too chummy, don’t be flat, and don’t tell me your life story. Less is more when query letters are concerned. Oh, and have a memorable and selling title — this goes a long ways.

If you want to send in a query letter, I’ll critique it. And I will be brutal. 😉

19 Responses

  1. Dear Ed… I mean, Age… I mean, umm, me ol’ mate Besty Learner,

    I writ this book, and it’s a good’un alright, and it’s called “How to Suck Seed at Self Publishing,” and, altho I’ve been told, by people who reckon they know it all, that it’s twaddle and tripe with its share of stultiloquence, and frequently filled with long run-on sentences that make less sense than a duck with no helmet racing a bicycle at Indianapolis, I firmly and strongly and absolutely believe, as I’m sure you will too, that all it needs is a very little editing, not too much, mind, as you wouldn’t want to ruin my uneek voice, but I’m open to other types of editing, like typos and stuff, altho you’d best be careful, cos some of the typos I done on purpose, like the word uneek for instance, or altho, or uneek is another I occasionally use, altho do you think maybe we should sometimes change the word for to fer, cos it sounds more like my uneek voice, and might help to give the book what I call the EX-Factor, cos that’s one of the chapters in the book, or do you think it might be best left like what it sounds now?

    Just to expand on this, in an interesting way, as I read once on a blog I was reading at the time, the name of which currently escapes me, is a useful way of getting agentsies and editers intrested in book, I writ a chapter in it called THe EX-FActor, which is all about how annoying my EX is, and how she drove me to desperation when she divorced me, and how, one day, you too, and by you i don’t mean you (insert agentsies name here) Besty, but the reader, the perspective purchaser of the book, might also use there EX’es hatred of them to inspire them too to self publish, it’s a good chapter, don’t you think, although admittedly, the sentences could be longer, but that’d be your job as editering agent, or maybe your assistant, although i’d be more happier if you did it yourself.

    I have high credentials for writting this book, and when people see them, they’ll just know they want to buy it and lern my teckneeks, and BTW, i know teckneek’s not spelt in that manner, it’s from another chapter, Lern Sum Teckneeks, but as I was saying, my credentials are higher and higher every week, but not this week, cos this week nun of my self published books sold one, but most weeks they did, so i’m your (yer) man if you wanna Suck Seed at Self Publishing.

  2. Take it from someone who has been there. When Betsy says brutal she means brutal. Just because you have an on line relationship with an agent does not mean you can be any less professional than utterly professional. Just because you believe you have a deeper understanding of what makes an agent tick (because she lets her into her foible-filled mind) allows you to skirt the guidelines.
    A few years back, Betsy set ME straight and I will always be grateful for that. Like she said, she may be brutal, but she is the best.
    Thanks Betsy.
    BTW I love Bridge Ladies. Ya done good babe, ya done good.

  3. I’m flip flopping. Which posts do I like best? Agent Betsy’s or Author Betsy’s. It’s a toss up.

    “It’s strange to think that you can sell a book before you’ve ever sold a story or an article. Though stranger things have happened. Nothing is impossible…”


    • As I said below, that is a horrible comment for a first-time author to read. Unfortunately, the agent’s jaded rant was tweeted – no telling how many will be discouraged, to the point of taking up another craft. It appears the only problem here is the agent’s – perhaps she needs some time away from her career…

      • As a first time author, I beg to differ. Unless you can handle hearing the truth, it’s possible writing the book, querying the book, and hearing that truth -even if painful – isn’t the path some should choose. I’d rather know something I wrote was horrible, than to have it painted pink, or made fluffy so I could handle it. It would only serve to make me more determined to get it right.

      • It seems, Hendry2, that you’ve taken something completely out of context. Not knowing exactly what the tweet said, I don’t know what that was.

        However, I can promise you this — any “author,” first time or not, who allows ANYTHING to discourage them to the point of not writing again, wasn’t an author in the first place. And they were certainly never a writer. Writers write.

  4. Dear Betsy,

    I’d like you to consider representing my memoir, “Free to a Good Home”, a story about finding a family.

    My stepfather, Tom, married my mother a decade after her bitter divorce from my father. Shortly after the marriage, Tom’s company, Otis Elevator, went on strike and he responded to the time off and financial uncertainty by drinking heavily and revealing his racist opinions with nightly after dinner rants. I was a rebellious teenager, he was an asshole and I eventually left home to travel as far from Tom as I could. I returned home briefly for holidays, weddings, funerals and tragedies. Eventually my mother, Maria, delivered an ultimatum to Tom: either quit drinking or become ex-husband number two. To my surprise, Tom stopped drinking and became a devoted husband. Although we were never close, Tom and I became more tolerant of each other. Tom took care of Maria as her health declined following a stroke and complications from diabetes. After her death, my sister and I were the only family he had. When Tom was hospitalized a year later with a mysterious illness that caused paralyses and mimicked a stroke, I found myself in the position of caring for him, although I lived 300 miles away and had a young daughter to raise. Tom’s initial diagnosis was Guillain Barre Syndrome, an autoimmune deficiency, but further complications arose and his condition deteriorated. There were other issues to deal with as well as his illness, including the amount of time he would be eligible for health insurance benefits until the coverage ran out and Tom’s assets, including my sister’s co-op apartment, would be seized to pay the bills. After he died, I was surprised to realize I missed him. I now had my own family to care for and didn’t look back as I drove home to be with them.

    My wife, daughter and I live in a home we built in the woods. My most recently published article appeared in NY Golf magazine. A SASE is enclosed for your convenience. Thank you.


  5. Oh dear.

  6. Reblogged this on Holly's Narrative Dream and commented:
    Query Tips

  7. Betsylemer, your horrible, jaded attitude is the reason bookstores are closing. If a first time author read your credentialing comments, they’d put down their pen, never to type another word. To counter your snobbish comments, I suggest first-time authors read this: http://debbiemacomber.com/about/faq

    • The attitude of one agent is the reason bookstores are closing? No. And if a writer can be induced to put down her pen by hearing the truth about how her query might read on the other end of the email, it’s probably for the best. The query is just a business letter. Imagine how that delicate flower is going to react when a reader bashes the actual book.

    • Hi, Hendry — may I call you Hendry? Thanks — I can’t recall seeing you around these parts before, and welcome. Some of us have been coming here for years, you know. Have you read any other of Betsy’s blog postings? You seem disoriented.

  8. Dear Ms. Lerner,

    While jet lagged and drinking wine, my husband and I impulsively purchased a run-down 15th century apartment building in what the New York Times describes as “the dilapidated southern French town of Perpignan.” We made this decision without seeing the inside, because the owner didn’t want to disturb the gypsy tenants.

    I won’t sugar-coat it. Everything went wrong.

    Our first contractor, a Dutch nudist, took our money but couldn’t finish the job, because shortly after he started the project he went to prison for manslaughter.

    Our second contractor was about halfway done with the renovation when we got bad news. We don’t own the building we’d sunk our life savings into – we own the crappy little building next door.

    While waiting for the title issue to be sorted out, I sold the building we don’t own to a woman who claims to be a princess from Benin. Benin is the small penis-shaped country west of Nigeria. Four years and three lawyers later, we still don’t own the building, and “princess” has become a squatter.

    Obviously, this is not a how-to book.

    Five Hundred And Twenty Seven Miles From Paris, The Road Less Traveled Is That Way For a Reason, could be described as “this is what happens when David Sedaris rewrites A Year In Provence.” My book will be 90,000 words, and there are pictures to go with the words.

    I am a college dropout from Iowa, and my husband is an Ivy League educated trial lawyer. We live in Pasadena, California with a German Shepherd and a cat who still has two or three remaining lives.

    I wrote a story on the Languedoc region of France, and the Orange County Register ran it as a full-page cover story for their Sunday Travel Section.

    Thank you for your time and consideration.

    • I like your opening paragraph: jet lag, drinking and an impulsive decision all sound like a fun set up. But then when you say you aren’t going to sugar coat: everything went wrong: well, we already know this. THen you get into specific exactly when you should find some larger thematic points. Why is your book different than others in the genre? What makes it special. How much time and money did you sink into it. Did it strain your marriage? WHat was at stake? I wouldn’t use Sedaris as a comp; he’s too much of a literary titan. Are you a college drop out from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop? I wouldn’t mention your husband career or your pets’. THe key here, I think, is to keep the humorous set up (from the first para) and find the universal touch stone. So many people fantasize about buying a place in Paris; let us live vicariously.

      Thanks for sharing your letter.

      • Your comments are making me look at how to pitch this a little differently. You weren’t brutal – you were really helpful. Thanks for taking the time to give me some suggestions and guidance.

  9. Dear Ms. Lerner,

    Jeff Chorus is a high school student in El Paso, Texas, in the early 1970s, a time of great and rapid cultural change. An officer cadet, paperboy, and budding journalist, Jeff is caught up in a vortex of sexual freedom and drug experimentation. But when an affair with one of his fellow officer cadets leads to an unintended pregnancy, Jeff is threatened with the loss of his first-born child and the shattering of his world.

    “The Years of Least Resistance” is deeply rooted in my own experiences, but is not autobiography. It is a fictional recreation of a time and a place and the people who were there, in a world that has vanished.

    I am the author of “High Street: Lawyers, Guns & Money in a Stoner’s New Mexico” (Outpost19, 2012), “Franny & Toby” (Silky Oak Press, 2015), and dozens of short stories published in such journals as NOON, Ontario Review, New Orleans Review, Gulf Coast, and New York Tyrant.

    Thank you for your consideration.

    Sincerely yours,
    Tetman Callis

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