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Hello, It’s Me

 

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I hate to bring this up again, but query letters have gone off the fuckin’ rails of late. First, crazy over-familiarity. Just because you may read this blog doesn’t mean that you know me or more important know me as an agent. It doesn’t mean I love expletives even though I use them, and they certainly have no place in a query letter. It doesn’t mean that you can call me dude, man, or Hey Betsy! It’s Dear Betsy. End of conversation. It doesn’t matter what you read here, writing a query letter is a formal gesture meant to introduce an agent or editor to your work. Short and sweet. Lead with your best foot: credentials, idea, research, story, sources, etc.  Have  a great title. Be polite. And winning.

If you dare, post your query letter and we’ll see what everyone thinks, including me.

 

 

 

41 Responses

  1. No comprendo! I never sent you a query letter?

    And by the way, here’s a typo in your post “what everyone things,”

  2. What’s with that? I’ve never understood it how one can misinterpret a query letter is a business letter. It’s the first formal interaction between a writer and the possible agent who take a look at their work. <– it says "work." Meaning, a business relationship.

    It's discouraging, I'm sure. And now, no one's posted their query letter. I thought the floodgates would have opened with that invite.

    No. There's only other rather rude reply above, hiding behind the curtains like Oz.

    Interesting.

  3. Wish I had a current query for the novel but I don’t. Just a super boring cover letter for my stories, to journals that nobody reads.
    Dear Fiction Editor:
    Blah, blah, blah…
    Best to you,
    november
    I get some nice rejections, though.

  4. A query letter is about all I’ve got, along with 50,000 or so more words to revise.

    Pssst, wanna buy a poetry manuscript?

  5. I’ll bite.
    _____
    Dear [carefully researched agent]

    One of four siblings who grew up abused, I spent six weeks in a St. Louis jail at fourteen (an “incorrigible” runaway), where I was repeatedly raped with the collusion of corrupt guards. After jail (1970) I joined a radical therapy community and learned to express my feelings, to communicate effectively—and to hide the truth of my rape, and waylaid sexual identity. From an early age I knew I was gay, but the aftershocks of sexual assault, and the obligation to my young daughter, kept me in the closet for decades.

    At twenty, after my first wife succumbed to severe mental illness, I raised my daughter Molly for eight years as a single father. I went from homeless in Montana to a successful career in New York City and, thanks to the example of a loving, literate grandmother, I became a successful father to three daughters.

    My memoir evokes the darkness and hope of the Sixties and my lost years as a teen runaway on drugs, without guidance or protection. It is an unsentimental look at being a single father, and ultimately uplifts, without compromising on the effects of severe, untreated trauma. A gritty, at times lyrical, and literary work.

    I’ve written about my experiences for Salon, The Good Men Project, and for anthologies: Vanguard Voices of the Hudson Valley, Wallkill Valley Writers I and II, and the CAPS Poetry 2016 Anthology. Despite a diagnosis of Parkinsons in 2012, I’ve won TMIdol slam competitions, and read as featured writer and poet throughout the Hudson Valley, Manhattan, and New Orleans. I’ve channeled my PTSD and hypomania as art (won a CLIO, illustrated for The New Yorker) and science (engineered the Yale Climate Institute’s scientific collaboration system and site).

    I was accepted for the CUNY Writing Institute 2017-18.

    I seek representation for Near Goodland, complete at 114,000 words.

    Thank you.

    Greg Correll

    __________________________
    Here are the first fifteen pages, followed by an informal note about the marketplace for memoirs about single fatherhood and trauma.

    • As to the style of your query, very professional, but given your credentials, this isn’t a surprise. You’ve done a lot in the world of writing, and have much to be proud of already.

      As to the query, I think the one important part of it you might want to address – why should anyone care about your story? I know nothing of memoir writing – but I have heard this from a very reputable source (i.e. another agent). I think there are (supposed to be) two things that would make a memoir stand out among the rest. It’s that question (why should anyone care?) and what makes it unique? What is it about your story that differentiates it from any other sexual abuse story?

      It could simply be the “voice,” I imagine. The retelling of the same old, same old, yet, the voice is compelling.

      Anyway, for what it was worth, that was my two cents. Good luck, Greg!

      • Good feedback, and points to an issue I’ve struggled with: avoiding “lurid” and “too sad.” It is an artificial voice, the voice of a memoir query; it asks us to distance ourselves objectively yet distill the action and make it compelling. I am aware of how stilted this query can seem, emotionally. It’s also a complex, multi-part story (and life), so space is given to making a vivid but complete enough summary of the salient points. This leaves little room for deep emotional connection. But I agree, this is lacking in the current form. Another issue you touch on is “familiarity” of the story. In fact “boys don’t tell” is a given when boys/men are raped, and there are almost no books like mine—but the topics of assault, abuse, and bad families are common to the point of tiresome. Similarly, writing about being a single father is rare, but common enough for people to think they know my story and what to expect (think hapless, Mr. Mom cliches). A query does not provide space to differentiate (We were homeless for a few months, and poor and struggling for most of Molly’s first ten years. It was hard work, not “cute”). And your seeming diffidence about voice is apt. A kind of gritty lyricism is a critical part of my manuscript, but that’s SO hard to convey in a query.

    • Greg, survival and achievement are powerful incentives for your broad audience to plunk down bucks for your memoir.
      After thirty years of writing ‘tiny’ memoirs as a column, the one thing I always, always, always cling to is how I relate my story to others. We all want to know we are not alone and that if someone else makes it through the maze than so can I.
      Good luck writer friend.

    • Greg,
      I think you have a powerful and important story to tell and I wish you all the best. Your list of publications and awards are valid also. Your voice and honesty come through clearly and hopefully that counts for something.

    • Greg,

      I wonder if you might have more than one book here. I’m thinking about Mary Karr and how she wrote three memoirs, each focusing on different periods of her life. You’ve got a lot of story to tell. Can it all be adequately told between the covers of one volume?

      • Tetman, that’s been a consideration all along. The 200,000 word original was edited and polished to 114,000, but I have an alternative that loses about 20,000 of that in a swell foop. The CUNY program lets me use parts of the book and I imagine I will lose a lot to more editing, since the whole program puts us with top NYC editors, not writers per se. While i have several alternative wholesale re-structuring ideas, I will wait for the CUNY faculty’s input to decide. But you have your finger on a vital part of this. Thanks.

    • Dear Greg:
      It’s impossible not to respond to the terrible abuse you suffered. It’s a wonder that you’ve come through it. But I have to tell you that I receive a lot of similar letters and I’m sorry to say that they tend not to distinguish themselves. First you have the issue of overload. Then you have a few stories here. The best memoirs tend to use a particular lens through which to tell a story. It also has to have literary merit, and the letter needs to signal that in the writing. I think you would get closer to achieving that if you kept it simple. It’s important that we understand why this book will appeal to others instead of therapy for yourself. The way to do this is through the writing, getting it so specific that we see and feel. Is there one detail from prison or from your family that is unforgettable. That would hook a reader in. What does the title mean? I hope these tips help. Your credential are very good. I’d stick to the writing creds. Betsy

      • Thanks, Betsy. That is the essential issue I think: overload. There is a recognizable, tightly related set of themes in the work, but my compressed timeline approach obscures the arc of story when summarized in a query. The “particular lens” idea is one I have wrestled with a lot in the last year. I made an end-to-end edit a year ago after reading Stop Time, Frank Conroy’s remarkable memoir, and spending an hour-long call (and long email exchanges) with Tom Jenks, who advised similar. Conroy’s book is a model for using Voice and style as unifying forces that amount to a lens in themselves, but his story is also a simpler one. The literary merit aspect is one I am unable so far to resolve in the query. I’ve yet to write a sentence about the quality of the writing that doesn’t sound like a blurb, or vanity, or glib and ridiculous. I’ve considered quoting some of the notable, exceptional writers who champion the writing (Tom Jenks is one, and CUNY waived all the degree reqs for me based on the program’s director reading a longish excerpt). But quoting them flies in the face of best practices advice about query letters. You are correct about the “therapy for yourself” aspect, too, and I’ve slowly edited that down. I suspect a wholesale re-think on that issue is required, for the query, and will try the detail idea. And will reduce to writing creds. Invaluable advice, Betsy, and I hope my example and the responses here help others with their queries. Thanks!

  6. For your part, Betsy, it would be nice if you responded to each query. One word–“NO”–would suffice to tell the reader that her emailed query did not get caught in your SPAM filter. Assuming we are polite and businesslike in our query, that would be a real act of kindness on your part.

    • I respond to 95% of the letters I receive with polite notes. Unless it’s clear the person has done zero research and is sending something far afield of my interests — then I sometimes delete. Most agents have websites and it’s easy to see what their interests are and what their submission guidelines are. This was not always the case. Anyway, I’ve always looked at all the queries that come to me. Because you never know.

  7. dear Editor,

    I’d like to submit a short story for your consideration. “Hobbled Pony Express” is a story about the US Postal Service trying to find its legs in changing times. My story centers on Bones, a long time postal employee who is forced to relocate to a small rural post office near the Canadian border in order to keep his bloated salary after his IT position in an urban New Jersey Post Office is eliminated. The new position is hundreds of miles from his home and light years from his comfort zone.

    The decline of the postal service is personified by Bones and his numerous health issues. A relief postmaster is hired to temporarily fill in while Bones receives training for self dialysis treatments. Bones is further incapacitated when his leg is amputated due to complications from diabetes and the relief worker finds himself at odds with the illogical, archaic way of doing business as well as the solitary confinement of an office the size of a postage stamp when he’d rather be out walking in the forest or skiing down mountains. When Bones dies after falling down and being run over by a windowless van, the temporary position becomes permanent and the relief worker has to chose between a life of reckless abandon or responsibility to a system on the verge of collapse.

    I am a postmaster in a rural post office that I became in charge of after the postmaster passed away. I’ve had articles published in NY Golf and Adirondack Life magazines. Thank you for your time.

    Sincerely,
    MikeD

    • MikeD, I have time only for a brief comment, but I wanted to say your story idea interests me. (This is not exactly the same as an evaluation of your letter as a proposal, which I’ll leave to others.) It sounds like it’s not only about persons but also about places and an institution. It has the potential to display what might be called social realism—how certain people in a particular place live and work. Good luck with it!

      • Thank you, Jeb — I appreciate your comments. The story is written as a collage, shifting time periods but still maintaining a linear flow. I hadn’t considered the social realism aspect, but it’s something I’m now aware of.

    • The story sounds very interesting. I might cut it at the first paragraph. The second para gets grounded in plot while the first para. sets up the situation. Your bio is very cool. B

    • I like this story idea too, Mike. Where it sort of went off the rails for me was when I thought it was about Bones, and then it became about the relief worker (with no name). Plus, Betsy made an even better observation/point. But, that’s cause she’s Betsy.

      • Thanks, Donna. Good observation about the confusion regarding the structure; the story is pretty much in numerous sections (collage), but three distinct parts: 1)Bones (real name: Anthony “TonyBoner” DiBona), 2)the narrator and 3)love of walking/nature/outdoors vs. stuck inside an office/cave.

  8. Dear Betsy,

    Jeff Chorus and Kitty Davidson are high school students in El Paso, Texas, in the early 1970s, caught up in a vortex of sexual freedom and drug experimentation. But when their affair leads to an unintended pregnancy, they are confronted with the loss of their child and the shattering of their world. “The Years of Least Resistance” is their story, a 96,000-word novel told from Jeff’s point of view many years later, after Kitty has died.

    I live in Chicago, where I work as a paralegal and take photographs and write. I am the author of the memoir, “High Street: Lawyers, Guns & Money in a Stoner’s New Mexico” (Outpost 19, 2012), the children’s book, “Franny & Toby” (Silky Oak Press, 2015), and dozens of published short stories and poems. I have a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the University of Texas at El Paso and a certificate in paralegal studies from Loyola University Chicago. I studied creative writing and fine art at the University of New Mexico, and creative writing with Gordon Lish in New York City.

    Thank you for your consideration.

    Sincerely yours,
    Tetman Callis

  9. Really good letter. No need to mention the word count. I’d also cut the first line of the bio. Where are the short stories publishes? Worth mentioning? I’d drop the paralegal. Question: is the book commercial or literary? Maybe a comparison title or two would help position it.
    I think the title would sound better as the Year instead of Year. But I like it. Betsy

  10. query letters are so hard.

  11. Dear [editor or agent],

    Rebecca Leigh Barnes is the teenage daughter of the captain of a luxurious cruise ship carrying imperious Americans through the solar system. Villegas and don Vicente are enterprising Mexican smugglers piloting a dilapidated spacecraft. An accident brings them all together, and the result is “The Scheherezade Incident,” a coming-of-age story, a satire of two cultures, and a raffish tale that also features a ghost, terrorists, and a character from Stendhal.

    A friend of mine wrote it in the early 80s, when he was living in Mexico, before he was (apparently) murdered by a vengeful former lover who was (apparently) a member of a crime family. He grew up in Texas, tinkered with cars and antique firearms, and studied Spanish and philosophy in college. I have the text of his novel and the rights to it.

    [The above is an impromptu query for a project that wouldn’t be in Betsy’s ballpark, but I’d welcome comments.]

    • Wow, Jeb — this is a pretty remarkable story behind the story. I think the foreword itself explaining the circumstances of helping this tale see the light of day would be mighty compelling. I also think you do a really good job illustrating the plot in just one paragraph. As for the story itself, it seems Star Wars oriented and I’m wondering how it would fly as a screenplay vs. a sci-fi novel????

      • Thanks for the comments, MikeD. I’ll keep the screenplay possibility in mind, but it’s hard enough selling a novel, and lots of those are published every year. Regardless, the novel is my focus for now.

    • Jeb, kudos on this query letter! I am no expert by any means, but it seems to me that you’ve nailed the hook and the themes quite succinctly in the first paragraph. And the story behind the story is equally appealing (though I’m sorry for the loss of your friend). Do you follow (YA author and former lit agent) Nathan Bransford? This strikes me as something that might be up his alley, and I think he sometimes offers free query critiques on his blog.

  12. I drafted this query for the book I am working on. It is romantic fiction. It is called Venus Figurines.

    Venus Figurines is a love story written as a modern myth. It’s about Anya and James whose struggle with love becomes obsessive, ritualistic, and self-defining.

    James is a wealthy 28 year old heir who lives in the Marina in San Francisco. Having no reason to work he finds his biggest challenge in life is to escape ennui, ennui he curses it each day. He has a business/hobby – trading rare guitars, which he acquires at auctions and then resells on-line and at trade shows. He photographs and catalogs each guitar in detail before selling it. The business takes only a few hours per week and leaving him with a lot of time to kill.

    He meets Anya, a 24 year old who tutors for a living, grew up in a small town in California(Buelton) on a ranch, moved to San Francisco to go to college, and lives with two gay men in San Francisco.

    The meet and fall in love. Along the way, James photographs Anya, passionately, almost manically, with a much greater intensity than with the guitars. He wants to photograph her naked, but she refuses, and in fact, has trouble being seen nude, because of a childhood trauma. He meditates with her and cures her of her phobia. This allows her to feel comfortable nude, in front of him, and he goes crazy over it. His craziness is expressed thru the creation of statuettes of her, clothed only, because of her inhibition. He uses paper mache to make them.

    Eventually he realizes that his attempt to express his passion for her is childish, insipid, and like a third grade art project. He sinks into depression, until he realizes that what he really wants is a marble statue of Anya, a nude, that will be a work of art, that captures their feelings for each other, that will stand in museums for millennia and will last for eternity. He feels that if he achieves this he will have finally completed his life.

    But there are problems. James doesn’t know how to sculpt and Anya is extremely inhibited. James tries to persuade her to pose nude while another man sculpts her, but she won’t pose nude for anyone who can see her.

    James stumbles upon a blind sculpture, a Mexican American named Feo, who went blind at the age of 10 while living in a barrio in Los Angeles. The local Catholic Church took him in, taught him braille and how to take care of himself. He discovered that he can make Day of the Dead Figurines and becomes well known. He goes on from there to become a sculptor.

    James proposes to Anya that she pose for Feo, the blind sculptor. Because he is blind, he can’t see her. She points out that this means that Feo must touch her, which, is a much greater violation of her privacy. Eventually she comes to terms with this and agrees to pose.

    In the first Chapter of my book, the reader is presented with Feo touching Anya’s foot and lower leg, and we don’t know why. She is very uncomfortable at being felt out and James is very jealous at watching his love being touched by another man. Feo and James begin to negotiate over the price James would pay Feo for a commissioned work of art, the nude statue of Anya, but the reader doesn’t know that. They are left to their imaginations. The truth of their story is not fully revealed until the final chapter.

    The underlying theme of my story is how love drives the creation of art, particularly the art of venerating woman – Venus Art. Venus Art is very old. Some ancient examples are statuettes of women carved from mammoth ivory, by Neolithic people, thousands of years ago. Archaeologists call these artifacts Venus Figurines. Although we can only speculate about what motivated these ancient sculptors, I believe they were inspired by love and beauty, as are the myths, paintings and sculptures of Venus that came later.

    • Roy, my first response is that, while the situation you’re describing is intriguing, there’s too much detail. I don’t work in this field, but I’d think an initial query like the one Tetman Callis submitted is more appropriate. As the performers of vaudeville used to say, “Leave ’em wanting more.”

  13. Dear [carefully researched agent],

    From childhood through his waning years, the respect that Jeremiah Gerstler craves is elusive, despite a loving family and professional success as a political scientist. Tightly interwoven with the Jewish experience in 20th-century America, The Book of Jeremiah is a novel-in-stories spanning eight decades of the Gerstler family.

    A boy’s tomfoolery threatens to unravel the achievements and marital accord of his immigrant parents; in post-war Paris, a quasi-shiva call takes an unexpected turn; a would-be undercover agent is left out of his cousin’s clandestine operation; a Nixon supporter and a hippie history teacher form an unlikely alliance.

    From the Depression to a present-day college town in New England, Jeremiah’s irrational sensitivities and fumbling impulsiveness confound those closest to him – his parents, his wife Molly and their children, and his colleagues. Whether acting cantankerous or jovial, rash or deliberate, Jeremiah grapples in public and at home with his need for acceptance and love. When external events wreak havoc on the Gerstler family, Jeremiah must learn to handle the interplay between personal and political and overcome his feelings of inadequacy lest he jeopardize everything dear to him.

    Ten out of the 13 stories in this collection have been published in literary journals, including Salt Hill, The MacGuffin, and Sixfold, among others.

    Although I was born, raised and educated in the United States, for the last 20 years, I have lived and worked in Israel as a marketing executive for high technology companies. I hold a BA in political science from Barnard College and an MA in international relations from Columbia University. I recently attended the VCFA Postgraduate Writers’ Conference.

    I’m querying because you represent [author1] and [author2], whose works I admire. Most recently I read and enjoyed [book title].

    I would be happy to send you a partial or full manuscript for your consideration. Thanks, and I look forward to hearing from you about The Book of Jeremiah.

    Sincerely,
    Julie Zuckerman

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