• 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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I’ll Send You All My Love Every Day in a Letter


Ye olde query letter do’s and don’ts.

Don’t: be too familiar, don’t be cute or funny, don’t be stiff and too formal, don’t tell the whole plot, don’t compare your book to massive bestsellers or prize winners, don’t talk about your process, don’t sent it in with a so-so title.

Do: be courteous and professional, find the right tone/voice that shows you’re a writer (this isn’t a grant application), address the agent as Dear Betsy Lerner, have a great title (the same way a book in a store speaks to you – the title has to do that work). Try to describe a novel in terms of its themes and characters and any other distinguishing features (unusual setting, written from the POV of Cordelia). Reading about plot is deadly, like listening to someone else’s dream. For non-fiction, describe the project. Do include your credentials. Lead with your strong suit (did you win a writing prize, do you have 100,000 tiktok followers, do you work in a bookstore, is your profession interesting/relevant to the book, i.e. are you an expert? Do you have an MFA in writing or a PhD in Medieval studies. Include a comp title or two if you have a good one. Keep it to one page. (for my money, the shorter the better).

My pet peeve at writers’ conferences is when people say: Why do I need a great title if they’re probably going to change it? I’m terrible at query letters. My answer: get credentials, get a good title, get good at querying. These things are completely different than developing your craft as a writer, but this is the business side of things and it requires that you bring your A game. You can’t say, I’m not good at foreplay but I’m a great lay.

If you want to leave your query (or part of it) in the comments, I’ll be happy to give you feedback.

7 Responses

  1. Absolutely this. It’s the business end of the industry. You have to learn how to write an outstanding query letter. Luckily there is a ton of advice and many good templates available online. It’s a formula you have to learn. When I finally got my agent (second round of querying, first time my MS was definitely not ready) via the slush pile, she commented my query letter was v good. That was no accident. It was probably draft number eleventy billion. I’d still way rather write a query letter than a synopsis though!

  2. Would being an editor be considered a strong suit?

  3. Hi Betsy. I read your book The Forest for the Trees decades
    ago when I was first beginning to foray seriously into writing and publishing. I am a reader and responder to your blog and enjoy your prompts. Though you say you do not represent fiction (and I believe you!), I am accepting the offer on your blog to take a look at an excerpt of a query letter for my novel, BECOMING MAIMIE.
    I have had some positive responses from both agents and publishers after sending some of them samples of the manuscript. However, none of these encouraging responses have resulted in a contract. Any help you can offer would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.

    Dear Betsy Lerner:

    The story for BECOMING MAIMIE, my debut novel, is inspired by the life of Maimie Pinzer (pseudonym), author of The Maimie Papers: Letters from an Ex-Prostitute, eds. Ruth Rosen and Susan B. Davidson, Feminist Press, 1997. The manuscript is complete at 77,594 words.

    MAIMIE’s mother threatens to kick her out because she suspects Maimie is flirting with her live-in boyfriend. Maimie works at a department store and, desperate, meets Dora
    who offers her a good-paying job. Though Maimie suspects the work is prostitution, when she meets Izzy, a pimp, she cannot refuse the allure of a fancy life of perceived wealth. Confused and lonely, Maimie becomes embroiled with Izzy who promises marriage to all of his “girls.” Maimie learns not only that Izzy has impregnated Dora, now her close friend, but that Maimie has been infected with syphillis. Maimie learns this when Izzy and his wife go on trial for being white slavers. In the end, after both suffer various illnesses and hospitalizations, Maimie and Dora establish a successful halfway house for other homeless girls.

    Some historical references used are: Lost Sisterhood (Prostitution in America 1900-1918) by Ruth Rosen, Sin in the Second City by Karen Abbott, Bodies and Souls by Isabel Vincent, and Prostitution and Prejudice by Edward J. Bristow. BECOMING MAIMIE could be shelved beside Third Daughter by Talia Carner , The Flower Boat Girl by Larry Feign, and The Lives of Diamond Bessie by Jody Hadlock (2022).

  4. Betsy, you are offering to give advice, and only a fool would pass up that offer. What follows below is the text (minus appropriate redactions) of a query letter I drafted and used not quite six months ago. I was surprised to find it. I thought I had given up several years before that. This was a query to a small press publisher, who did accept the MSS for review, but declined it about three months ago. It is much the same query I think I would use for an agent.
    Dear [agent],

    “The Year of Least Resistance” is a 96,000-word novel. It’s the 1970s in America, and things are changing rapidly. Old constraints on behavior and social roles are falling away. Jeff Chorus and Kitty Davidson are two teenagers in this disorienting world. Students at the same high school in far west Texas, they become friends and then lovers. Kitty gets pregnant and names Jeff as the father. He’s the most likely suspect. Kitty has the baby, a girl whom she and Jeff give up for adoption. They try to carry on as lovers in the wake of this, but nothing was ever going to be the same again.

    Tetman Callis was born in the Northeast and raised in the Southwest, his father a soldier and his mother a homemaker. He holds a degree in philosophy from the University of Texas at El Paso. His short fictions have appeared in such publications as NOON, New York Tyrant, Best Microfiction 2019, Atticus Review, and The Writing Disorder. He is the author of two published books — the memoir “High Street: Lawyers, Guns & Money in a Stoner’s New Mexico” (2012, Outpost 19), and the children’s chapter-book “Franny & Toby” (2015, Silky Oak Press). He lives in Chicago with his wife and their two cats, and makes his living as a paralegal.


    Tetman Callis
    [contact information]

  5. Ugly Puggly is just under 100 000 words. It’s Tartan Noir and takes place mostly in Clydebank. A rough draft was published online. I’m a volunteer editor at ABCtales, and serialised chapters were selected for story of the week and month.
    When Did We Grow Young? non-fiction, which we used to call factual, follows a similar first-draft pattern. A eulogy for family and friends. The word count keeps growing.
    I was lucky enough to be sponsored by Scottish Book Trust and mentored by Carl MacDougall for Beastie (which was formerly called The Cruelty Man). Spellbound Books will publish this novel in Spring 2023. I’ve had a crowd-funded novel published with Unbound, Lily Poole, which was a novel of the week in West Dunbartonshire libraries in 2016, but little read outside of Glasgow.
    Cheers, Jack.

  6. I dd format but it disappeared in the copy and paste. sorry.

  7. Hi Betsy,

    I went to college with your sister Gail, so I have long been aware of your work, and I read two of your books. I’m seeking representation for a novel, and I would love any feedback you might offer on my query. (I realize I’m late to the party! Please forgive me.)

    Dear Betsy Lerner,

    My novel The Offering tells the story of how one woman makes a film. When Judith Stone gets a grant from PBS to make a short, her life begins to unravel. She has a good job in a teeming city, friendships, and a husband. Regardless, she sets off to make her movie in a coastal town destroyed by a massive hurricane. In the end, she will risk even her sanity in order to realize her project. Darkly humorous like Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, nomadic like Teju Cole’s Open City, and bleakly hopeful like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, The Offering, told in close 3rd person, asks, what should an artist have to sacrifice to make a work of art?

    My writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Evergreen Chronicles, Blithe House Quarterly, and other literary magazines—and I earned a Yaddo fellowship. I have an MFA in Fiction Writing from Sarah Lawrence, where my teachers included Joan Silber and Peter Cameron. The fashion system plays only a minor role in my story, but Judith Stone is like many people I write about as the chief storyteller for the Fashion Institute of Technology.

    The book received critiques in exclusive workshops led by Lore Segal and Cathleen Schine, as well as a group with Denne Michele Norris, now editor-in-chief of Electric Literature. Editors Nancy Rawlinson and Kate Stephenson, among others, also gave feedback.

    Please let me know if you would like to see a short excerpt.

    Alex Joseph

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