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It’s Hard to Get By Just Upon a Smile

Let’s go back to basics. Query letters. Here are ten opening lines from letters I’ve received or concocted.

Dear Betsy: I am a huge fan of your blog and The Forest for the Trees, which I recommend to everyone I know.

Dear Ms. Lerner: Your agency website says that you like the hard to categorize.

Dear Betsy Lerner: I have written a fiction novel of 130,000 words called The Lost Letter.

Dear Betsy Lerner: Have you ever been afraid, really afraid?

Dear Betsy Lerner: I am a Harvard graduate and a Buddhist.

Dear Ms. Lerner: I am a survivor.

Dear Betsy (if I may):  I was about to give up writing until I read your book — I am the wicked child.

Dear Miss Lerner: Part memoir, part travelogue, this is the story of my return to Los Angeles.

Dear Betsy: My novel, The Launching of Fawn Roth, is about a young woman a lot like Lena Dunham.

Dear Betsy Lerner: I am writing to you because of  your personal interest in mental illness.

If you were an agent, which one would you respond to?

Anyone want to float their opener?

Either We Lovin’ Or I’ll See You Tomorrow

Dear Betsy Lerner:
I have three short questions:
#1.  If I have sent my entire manuscript, or the required excerpts–Chapter 1, etc., to an agent via email, per his or her request, and I haven’t heard back yet…how long should I wait before sending a followup?
#2.  If I receive a positive rejection via email from an agent who has read my work, should I send them a thank you for having read it?  It feels like that’s just good manners.
#3.  If I sent an email query to my absolute number 1 choice for an agent following his/her instructions to a T, and didn’t hear back, even automatically, should I try again?
Dear Three Questions:  These aren’t really questions so much as matters to midrash as great biblical scholars have done for years not unlike: Can I wear white after Labor Day and if so under what circumstances? If I bring a baby gift to a shower, do I need to send another when the baby is born?  Do I tip the hairdresser if she owns the shop? In other words, these are questions of protocol and what makes them interesting is that they can be endlessly debated. All writers sweat submission protocol as they should–it’s that fraught moment when you are testing your work against the market, albeit the agent market. And unless you’ve been writing for magazines, you are probably new and terrified.  It’s like being fourteen and wondering if you’ll know how to kiss right. Obviously, there are no hard and fast rules,  But since you asked:
1. I would follow up in three weeks.
2. I’m always in favor of good manners, especially if the agent has given you real feedback.
3. Yes, try again. Always try for for what you want.
Your thoughts, advice, experiences??

Tell Me Lies Later, Come and See Me

Last week when I came into the office, I found a query letter on my desk with a post-it note from one of our interns. It said, “I don’t think this is very good, but I’d feel terrible rejecting it.” The letter was from a woman whose daughter was schizophrenic and had been in and out of hospitals her whole life.

I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned this, but I used to be known as the pain and suffering editor. Mental illness? Show it to Lerner? Physical impairment? Show it to Lerner? Death row? Bulimia? Stuttering? Sexual Dysfunction? See what Lerner thinks. Lerner thinks if the writing sucks, no one is going to want to read it.

Dear __________________: I am very sorry to learn about your personal tragedy. It takes great courage to write about it with such candor. That said, I’m not convinced you’ve found the universal chord in your story — at least not yet. I hope others feel they can help you place your memoir. Many thanks for the chance to consider your work. Sincerely, Betsy Lerner

What kind of letter would you write?

Let’s Play Twister, Let’s Play Risk

If you want excellent advice on how to write a pitch letter, go to Nathan Bransford’s blog, or to Janet Reid’s check list, or Rachelle Gardener’s guidelines. OR, come, sit back, and watch me light myself on fire. I’m going to write a mock query letter for a project I’ve abandoned as a way to describe the kinds of things I look for in a letter.

Salutation: Dear FIRST AND LAST NAME. (I don’t like too familiar and I don’t like too formal.)

The one sentence pitch: I hope you might be interested in my memoir, The Potter’s Apprentice, which describes a year of pottery lessons between an octogenarian teacher and his last student: me.

Alternatives: I met you last year at Breadloaf where we spoke briefly about my project, The Potter’s Apprentice. OR, I am a great fan of your clients X and Y, and hope my work might be of interest to you. OR, I read your blog religiously and, perhaps magically, imagine that you might take to my work.

The body: It had been nearly thirty years since I studied pottery and I didn’t miss it. But one afternoon, down a quiet side street in New Haven’s East Rock neighborhood, a sign caught my eye: Pottery Lessons. What followed was a year of classes with a master potter, an 82 year old whose craft dazzled me. Between fending off his advances, listening to his tales of the Blitz and mutliple marriages, and letting myself put the blackberry down for two hours and take in the clay, the darling garden, and the wheezing of an old hound, an unlikely friendship developed between the old potter and me. The book is also a meditation on marriage, on love, and on clay. Done right, I hope it will appeal to readers of (we need two good examples here).

The bio: As for me, I received an MFA from Columbia. I was the recipient of (fill in the blanks). My writing has appeared in x,y,z. You can read more about me on my website xxxo.

Many thanks for your time,

Betsy Lerner


Be brutal: would you request the manuscript if you were an agent? What worked for you and what didn’t? How could it be improved upon?

FAQ-Are Multiple Submissions Kosher?

N.P. from the great state of Long Island asks if it’s okay to make multiple submissions when you are querying agents.

In a word: yes.

Do you have to tell the agents?

In a word: not really. Some writers will divulge that the project is with others. I see this as a courtesy, not a necessity.

What if two or more of the agents are interested? Happy days are here again. At that point you really must inform all of the agents that you have interest. This will accelerate the process, and if possible you should try to meet the interested parties in order to make an informed decision.

Don’t some agents require exclusivity? Sure.

Do I have to honor that? Sort of, but I wouldn’t wait for 4-8 weeks for someone to get back to me. Agents submit almost all of their projects to publishers on multiple submission for a reason. I think writers should enjoy the same benefits: it’s in the interest of time, and could potentially create a competitive situation.

How many agents should a writer go to at one time: I think the magic number is six. If everyone passes, it’s a useful pool from which to draw information. i.e. if you receive all form letters, go back to the drawing board. Close calls mean some tweaking is called for. Invitations to send the material, or see more material, this is a bullseye. Your query letter did the trick. Now, of course, the material has to hold up.

Did I leave anything out? Please ask or let me know where you stand with multiple submissions or your experience with them.