Category Archives: Query Letters

And They Persisted

As an aspiring author, getting to read the success stories of others – about what it’s like to get the out-of-the-blue (and life-changing) call from an agent or editor that says “yes” – was like candy. They gave me hope.

Except after years of reading those stories and believing success was right around the corner (only to find that it wasn’t), I started to need a different kind of story. I needed stories about persistence. So, to all of those who are persisting in the querying and submission trenches, this is for you.

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The first manuscript I wrote was cringe-worthy. It was short – just 28,000 words – but I had written it one-handed while my baby boy nursed, so it was pretty darn long considering. I wrote it having no idea whether I could write a novel and no idea how you actually publish one (like knowing an appropriate word count for a MG novel.) But it made me realize that I COULD write a novel. Of course, once I immersed myself in figuring out the process for getting published, it quickly became clear that this manuscript wasn’t going to cut it. I started writing manuscript #2.

Manuscript #2 had a snazzy title (SWIMMING WITH TCHAIKOVSKY – it makes you pause, right?) and a good concept. Out of the 100+ queries I sent to agents, I got 30 requests to read the full manuscript. But none of those requests turned into an offer. Looking back I can understand it more clearly now why: the main character was too passive, the plot was complex in certain ways, but too thin in others. I had more work to do as a writer.

I promised myself that I wouldn’t query Manuscript #3 too soon. This time, I would make sure the meat of the story was as good as its concept—an all-girl science club (Sciencetastic Supergirls) that basically has to save the world. Plus, by this point my time in the querying trenches meant I had developed wonderful friendships with other aspiring MG authors who had become invaluable critique partners. And this time, everything came together. To test the querying waters, I entered my first page one of Miss Snarks First Victim’s Secret Agent Contest (http://misssnarksfirstvictim.blogspot.com/) and not only did I love the agent’s feedback on each of the entries, and not only did she end up choosing mine as the winner and requested a full manuscript BUT she was Tricia Lawrence, an agent at the Erin Murphy Literary Agency. This was an agency

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I even have my very own Emu that sits prominently in our living room. Hence, the extra longing.

I had been pinning after since the beginning. A month later she wrote me an email that used the word “love” SEVERAL times. My growing son had been waiting for me to go for a walk in the woods when the e-mail came in. Then, he had to wait more and it started to rain. But then, I was ready and we ran together through the woods with the rain on our faces, and he didn’t quite get why his mama was screaming with happiness, but it sure made for a fun time.

The supergirl manuscript went on submission, and over the course of a year it got a request from an editor to revise and resubmit, but it didn’t end up leading to an offer. But in the meantime, I had learned from my previous manuscripts that the only way to stay sane when submitting work is to be starting something new. As my next manuscript (#4) took shape I could see that it was far bolder than anything I had written before. In part this came from the amazing, intangible benefit of having an agent who believed in me, and in part because in another area of my life I was becoming the leader of the gun violence prevention movement in Vermont, a role that was teaching me I was far stronger than I originally thought. I decided I want to stop submitting Manuscript #3 and focus instead on the new stories I was writing (Manuscript #5 was similar in that dove deep into issues people didn’t necessarily want to talk about – but needed to).

But…. neither of Manuscript #4 nor #5 found a home. Even though they both got very close to big deals – and I was on the edge of my seat, eating absurd amount of chocolate for months expecting to hear the good news any day and even showing up at social events holding a ROCK in one hand because I needed to squeeze something to keep myself from exploding—it didn’t happen.

Thankfully, before I hit that emotional roller-coaster, I found the space to start writing Manuscript #6. When I started it not only did I have an agent who believed in me, but I was fully convinced that I would have an editor by the time it was done. I was sure that this would be my second book and that it didn’t need any shiny jazz hands to grab someone’s attention. Instead, it could just be honest.

I bet you can see where this is going.

A year later I had spent a whole lot of time building up a protective wall around my emotions when it came to the submissions process. I had read the wise Tamara Ellis Smith’s words about longing and how to sit beside it rather than letting it consume you. But still, the best I could do at the time (if I wanted to keep my sanity intact) was to try to sit on top of it. When Tricia told me she was sending out this novel on sub, I had no reaction. Those were just words. The e-mails would go out. Rejection and silence would come back.

But then, a month later, I was driving home from a daylong board meeting (during which I hadn’t managed to find time to pee), late for school pick-ups, scrambling to find someone to pick up one of my kids, hightailing it to pick up the other, and oh-my-goodness did I have to pee. And then I saw out of the corner of my eye an e-mail come in on my phone. It was from Tricia and it had the words “offer” and “love.” Even now, my whole body goes numb just remembering it. I was like a zombie picking up my daughter from pre-school. I even ran into a friend who is an aspiring author himself, and when he asked me if I was okay (because I must have look like someone died), I told him that I really needed to pee. And then cautiously I told him about the e-mail. He, in turn, cautiously said (still looking my somebody-died-face), “But that sounds like a really good thing.” I swallowed. “It does, doesn’t it?”

It took me about a month and many conversations with my writer friends for it to sink in that this story rooted in simple honesty was going to become an actual book. THE BENEFITS OF BEING AN OCTOPUS is about a 12-year old girl at the edge of poverty who has to find her voice. There are no bells and whistles. Instead, it is seeped in the realities of the class divide, the gun debate, and complex family relationships. It is about finding hope and pushing forward no matter how much the odds are stacked against you.

And isn’t that what we all need to do?

______________________________________

Version 3

About Ann Braden

Ann Braden writes books about kids struggling to find their voice amidst the realities of life. She founded GunSenseVT, a grassroots group focused on championing the common ground on the issue of guns in Vermont, which successfully got gun violence prevention legislation passed. She also helped found the Local Love Brigade, which now has chapters all over the country sending love postcards to those who are facing hate. She is a former middle school social studies teacher. Ann’s debut novel The Benefits of Being an Octopus comes out in September 2018 from Sky Pony Press. The novel is a close, personal look at life on the edges of society, through the eyes of one girl just trying to find her way forward, recommended for fans of Jason Reynolds’ Ghost. You can connect with her at her website, on Facebook, on Twitter, or on Instagram.

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Filed under Inspiration, Patience, Persistance, Query Letters, Rejection, rejection and success, The Call

The Only Way to Write a Query Letter . . .

I'd be an author by now if it weren't for those danged queries.

I’d be an author by now if it weren’t for those danged query letters.

… or, how I stopped worrying and started liking writing queries.

Some of us writers get really worked up over querying agents and editors. It’s because of that danged query letter you have to write, your pitch, your one chance at impressing those lofty souls in their fancy-pants, luxury New York offices. It can spoil the momentum you felt when you typed The End on your story. Even though you have perhaps just completed a brilliant 300-page manuscript, it’s writing this simple, one-page business letter that keeps you up at night, worrying about what should go in it, in what order, and what can be left out. Gaaaah!

Frankly, sometimes agents and editors don’t make it any easier. Even though they patiently tell us at conferences what they would like those letters to say, sometimes they give us so many rules about what to put in the letter, what not to put in (e.g., glitter); what the email subject line should be; if it’s to be snail mailed, whether the letter should be wrapped around the accompanying SASE or folded separately, whether the two should be paper-clipped together, and on and on.

This was once the beginning of a query letter, abandoned, lo, these many years.

This was once the beginning of a query letter, abandoned, lo, these many years.

There are also templates available to use as a guide for crafting these dreaded (and sometimes dreadful) letters, but it seems to me that if everyone followed those templates to the letter (so to speak) then every query would read the same. Not to mention that a strict following of the rules can result in ridiculousness, like that of a writer I once knew who, learning that the query letter should be only one page long, printed it out on legal-sized paper to make it fit.

So what is the one right way to write a query? Let’s take a look at some query letters that worked and see what they have in common. The examples below were written by EMUs Debuts authors, but I’ve taken the liberty of stripping out the identifying matter so we can just examine the structure, the bones, of the letter. Remember, all of these elicited a positive response.

Example #1

Dear Agent/Editor:

[A 160-word synopsis of a middle grade “tween” novel, written in a sprightly style that reflects the novel’s voice.] [TITLE] is a [WORD COUNT]-word, humorous middle-grade novel about [very brief, less than 25 words, DESCRIPTION of the story]. The novel stands alone but has series potential.

I graduated from [UNIVERSITY AND DEGREE] and have a [PREVIOUS RELATED PROFESSIONAL WORK] published in [PUBLICATION]. My work has garnered [AWARDS AND RECOGNITION], which are detailed on my website, [URL].

I would be happy to send my complete manuscript upon your request and have pasted the first [#] pages below. Thank you so much for your consideration.

Sincerely,

[AUTHOR]

Example #2

Dear Editor:

[Twenty-seven word DESCRIPTION of the plot of an ecology/science-based picture book]. May I send you [TITLE], a funny [WORD COUNT]-word story for ages four to eight? The tale begins:

[“FIRST FEW LINES of the manuscript–54 words.”]

Although this story is fiction, I’ve gathered scads of facts about [RELATED SCIENTIFIC INFORMATION], thus providing an option for sidebars or notes at the end. ([EXAMPLE given of a question that might be used for these notes])

I am a member of [A RELATED PROFESSIONAL ORGANIZATION, for which I volunteer]. I’ve sold stories, poems, and activities to [MAGAZINE TITLES related to the genre], and my personal essay “[TITLE]” appeared in [PROFESSIONAL PUBLICATION]. I’m also a[n amateur in the scientific field from which the book comes].

Please contact me if you’d like to see [TITLE]. I look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely,

[AUTHOR]

Example #3

Dear [Agent’s first name, NOTE: This author had already met the agent in person and established a more casual relationship, hence the familiarity, usually a no-no.]

I know you represent nonfiction and picture books, which is an all-too-rare thing these days. I love [AN AUTHOR THIS AGENT REPRESENTS and one of THAT AUTHOR’S TITLES], and I’m also a huge fan of [ANOTHER WELL-KNOWN AUTHOR THE AGENT REPRESENTS]. Plus, you just seem totally cool! 🙂

I hope my [WORD COUNT]-word picture-book biography, [TITLE], will be a good match for you. [150-WORD SYNOPSIS OF THE BOOK, INCLUDING THE SUBJECT’S BACKSTORY].

I have published more than [#] articles for children and parents in [RELATED MAGAZINES AND OTHER PUBLICATIONS]. I have been a member of [PROFESSIONAL ORGANIZATION] for five years, and as you know, I’m now [A VOLUNTEER LEADER FOR THAT ORGANIZATION].

I became interested in this particular story [HOW I LEARNED OF THE BIOGRAPHY’S SUBJECT]. [I HAVE INTERVIEWED THE SUBJECT FIRSTHAND]. Please let me know if you are interested in seeing more. Thank you very much for your time.

Sincerely,

[AUTHOR]

Example #4

Dear [Ms./Mr. X]

[Personalization if applicable]

[115-word SYNOPSIS/description of a young adult fantasy novel].

[TITLE] is an [WORD COUNT] word YA urban fantasy, an excerpt from which won [WELL-KNOWN WRITERS’ CONTEST AND LINK TO ITS WEBSITE). I am the author of [TITLE], a short story in [A GENRE-RELATED ANTHOLOGY], and this is my first novel. I’ve included the first chapter inline.

Thank you for your time and consideration,

[AUTHOR]

[contact info]

What can we make of these queries? They have similarities, but they’re not boilerplate, by any means. What I conclude when I look at them is this: The only right way to write a query letter is to write it like a writer. You are unique and talented, your project is unique (we hope) and so your cover letter, naturally, ought to reflect that.

You can do it! We’re supposed to be good at this communicating-through-words stuff, right? So gather up all the things you want to communicate and set them down on paper, using your own voice. Make it professional, but not stuffy.

What we have here is your typical agent or editor, as we sometimes picture them.

What we have here is your typical agent or editor, as we sometimes picture them.

Think about your audience, too. Keep in mind that these editors and agents really aren’t snobs and don’t usually work in plush offices; they are regular people who probably wear threadbare PJs once in a while (rarely to work, though, I suspect). They leave crumbs by the sink and have to grocery shop and do laundry, just like most of us. Don’t let them intimidate you! Write the agent/editor a business letter that shows them you can interact with people like a normal, fully functioning human being. If they take your project on, they’ll be stuck with you for a long while, so they might like to know beforehand that you’ll be professional, collaborative, and easy to work with. Which you are, right?

Write your query as only a talented writer can, with style, and with the guiding principle that you intend to communicate information that may be of interest to the reader. It’s really all about confidence in your writing skills and, you know, I hope you have some because you’ll need that confidence later when it’s time to work with that agent/editor on revisions.

Golly, I had no idea!

Golly, I had no idea!

I just ran across this quote by historical fiction author Hilary Mantel. Although she was referring to writing her memoir, I think it applies to how one should approach writing a query, too:

“I will just go for it, I think to myself, I’ll hold out my hands and say, c’est moi, get used to it.”

C’est moi. This is me. This is my work. I like it and I hope you will, too. See? Not hard at all. Nothing to get worked up about. Now go write that query!

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Filed under Advice, Agents, Editor, Query Letters