Friday, November 19, 2010

A tale of a successful query

by Stacey

We have been talking a lot about what our blog readers are looking for and how we might be better able to give it to them. Insights into our selection process seem to be well received, so I thought it might be a nice exercise to share with you (with the author's permission) a query letter for a YA novel I recently signed up from the slush pile. What I'll do is paste the letter below in its entirety and then comment on the letter itself below that to try to describe to our readers why it grabbed my attention and why I think it worked.

Here's the pitch:

Three years ago Lexi Strauss was an ordinary freshman girl at Covington High. She had a dramaholic, boy-crazy best friend that she adored. And her biggest dilemma was figuring out how to get Xander, her older brother’s gorgeous best friend, to see her as more than just “Little Lexi.”

All those normal pieces of her life were stolen from her the night her family was murdered.

Now she has gruesome nightmares every night—reliving the horrific crime that she witnessed. The man in black, all the blood and screams and that metallic wrong smell…. She can’t tell anyone what really happened that night because what she did is almost as bad as what she witnessed.

Those first two years after it happened she lived in constant darkness. Even Aunt Jenny—her inveterately cheerful guardian—couldn’t bring her back into the light. When Lexi reunites with Xander the summer before her senior year, she can feel herself slowly start to heal. But when she returns to her old high school, it seems her family’s murder isn’t the only lingering mystery in Covington Hills.

She should’ve known the healing was too good to be true. No one gets away with murder…for very long, anyway.

The Killing Breed, 69,800 words, is a young adult novel. Thank you for your time and consideration. Pasted below is a brief synopsis and sample chapter. The full manuscript is available upon request.
Here are my comments on the pitch:

Three years ago Lexi Strauss was an ordinary freshman girl at Covington High. She had a dramaholic, boy-crazy best friend that she adored. And her biggest dilemma was figuring out how to get Xander, her older brother’s gorgeous best friend, to see her as more than just “Little Lexi.”
First, let me start by saying that opening line is a grabber. It's filled with descriptive elements without being overwritten or overly wordy. It also has the right tone for a YA query, the same tone that I'd want to see in the book itself, using words and phrases that will resonate with younger readers. The query letter needs to be indicative of what the book will be, and having the right tone is important.

All those normal pieces of her life were stolen from her the night her family was murdered.
Shocking revelation, simply stated. Gets the facts out clearly and concisely, and sets up a big part of the plot. This has all happened in just four sentences. A lot of information in a brief pitch. Brevity is good.

Now she has gruesome nightmares every night—reliving the horrific crime that she witnessed. The man in black, all the blood and screams and that metallic wrong smell…. She can’t tell anyone what really happened that night because what she did is almost as bad as what she witnessed.
Here's some more plot description, and it's intriguing. But more than that it really tells us a great deal about the story, and about the main character. Incredibly descriptive with clear, concise prose.

Those first two years after it happened she lived in constant darkness. Even Aunt Jennyher inveterately cheerful guardiancouldn’t bring her back into the light. When Lexi reunites with Xander the summer before her senior year, she can feel herself slowly start to heal. But when she returns to her old high school, it seems her family’s murder isn’t the only lingering mystery in Covington Hills.
This gives us even more detail about the timeline, about the key relationships in the book, and a bit more, but not too much, about the plot.
She should’ve known the healing was too good to be true. No one gets away with murder…for very long, anyway.
The voice is here again. It reads like what a kid going through this might think or say. Simply and matter of factly. Conversational.
The Killing Breed, 69,800 words, is a young adult novel. Thank you for your time and consideration. Pasted below is a brief synopsis and sample chapter. The full manuscript is available upon request.
Overall, this query works for me because it gives the reader a very clear picture of the tone of the book, and indicates that the voice is age appropriate. It offers enough detail about the plot to make it sound interesting and make the reader wonder what happens next. And it's concise. There's not one word or sentence that doesn't have a pointful purpose. Think about flap copyif you can't pitch your book in the amount of space on the inside of a book jacket, neither can your agent or publisher! If you really feel the need to go into greater detail about the fine points of the plot, you can always include a synopsis, but the initial pitch should grab your attention and give you just enough to make you want more.

One final point on things I like to see in a query that were not included here. It's always helpful to see that an author has researched me and my books, and then indicate that his or her project might suit my list as a result. That type of personal attention goes a long way in making something stand out. Also, it's a good idea if you can come up with a valid comparison to another book or books in the marketplace that might appeal to a similar audience. Finally, a bit of background information about the author's personal life, and any previous writing experience or credentials. All of it should be brief, and professional.

Hope this has been helpful. If you have any questions, ask away and I'll do my best to answer them!

17 comments:

  1. I LOVE the title. The Killing Breed. I want to read this one!

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  2. Thanks for this! This will help me soon...

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  3. Thanks for this informative post. I feel like I am getting insider secrets!

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  4. I have to ask -- the grammar mistakes aren't a problem? I counted at least two sentence fragments in the query. I mean, granted, the response uses the word "pointful," but I don't understand why this is acceptable in a query or from a literary agent.

    I spend so much time trying to make sure my grammar is pristine in my query. Why is that being completely overlooked here?

    I'm sorry to post this anonymously, but I think the reason for that is apparent...

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  5. Great post, Stacey. *wink, wink* ;)

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  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  7. Nice post, and nice query!

    @Anon, Sentence fragments? No...not unless you are going with the rule that you can't begin a sentence with a conjunction, which is probably a bit old-school for this query's style, or unless you don't like the ellipses, which are also more of a stylistic choice, I would argue. Barring of course glaring mistakes, which this query doesn't have, it seems to me that the level of syntactic formality is a matter of voice.

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  8. Thanks! I always love posts like this because I am getting closer to this part of the process. It's nice to read a query that worked rather than one that doesn't and have people rip it apart.

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  9. Great post. You've really explained why this query works. I can't wait to read the book. The last sentence is such a great hook.

    And it helps that the awesome author is one of my critique partners. I'm so happy for her.

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  10. I am referring to the conjunctions beginning sentences in part. This also jumped out at me as being a fragment:

    "The man in black, all the blood and screams and that metallic wrong smell…."

    Don't get me wrong, I think the story sounds interesting, it's just that I've read so many posts about queries talking about how grammar can be a deciding factor for so many agents. The fragments jumped right out at me, and I would wonder if the whole book was like that based on the query.

    I'm really not trying to be mean or anything, I just don't understand why this is being held as an exemplar when, at least to me, the grammatical problems are so blatant.

    Again, I think the STORY does sound really interesting.

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  11. Wanted to respond to the very worthwhile responses to my query letter. Speaking to the “pointful” comment, I do (and did) know it’s not a word, but it should be. And while it illustrated what I was trying to say, it’s true, I probably should have chosen another word that’s actually a word, so sorry about that.

    As for the grammatical complaints, I’m not a copy editor, and don’t claim to be the most grammatically graceful voice at the agency. That said, I don’t want to in any way suggest that writers shouldn’t bother checking their queries to make sure they are well written and well edited, but in this case the grammar quibbles were minor and didn’t affect my response to the pitch. For me, it’s less about sentence structure, which can always be fixed, and more about eliciting an emotional response to the pitch (the title of the post talks about a successful query, not a perfect one!). I also think there’s more leeway for commercial versus literary fiction to be a little more casual in the pitch, which is what I think the author was intending here. There’s an informal approach to the query, and the tone, that might be (arguably) grammatically incorrect, but it did tell me enough about the story, the voice, and the tone to make me want to read more. Perhaps another agent would have been turned off by the sentence fragments, but they didn’t bother me in the context of the query. I’m quite sure there’s more to say on this subject, but it’s late and time to sign off for now! Thanks again for the feedback, and let me know if you have any other questions.

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  12. Interesting - thank you for your response. I appreciate the time you took answering me!

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  13. Connie McQuade21/11/10 8:40 AM

    I think the general public, who this YA book is intended, will be hooked by the plot and overlook any syntactic issues that people trying to write seem to dwell so heavily on. This query is well written, catches your attention and upon publication, if the jacket cover is snazy enough, will be pulled off the shelf and read. I'm looking forward to reading it myself.

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  14. Not to be nitpicky, okay I am being nitpicky, but when you say, "....that opening line is a grabber." you did mean to say the opening paragraph, did you not? I mean, "Three years ago Lexi Strauss was an ordinary freshman girl at Covington High." is simply that - ordinary. I will say, however, that the first paragraph is "filled with descriptive elements" and I would be the first to agree that the query has accomplished what it set out to do. My interest has been piqued and I want to know what happens next, who killed her family, and most of all, what did she do that was almost as bad! I don't read YA, but I would read The Killing Breed.

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  15. Hi again. You are right, anonymous, I was referring to the first paragraph, and not the first line. Thanks for pointing that out. Will you be my editor? I clearly need one! Happy Thanksgiving to all.

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  16. I would have flagged down the first para:
    ---
    Three years ago Lexi Strauss was an ordinary freshman girl at Covington High. She had a dramaholic, boy-crazy best friend that she adored. And her biggest dilemma was figuring out how to get Xander, her older brother’s gorgeous best friend, to see her as more than just “Little Lexi.”
    ---
    Now, are "the best friend" and Xander the same person?

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  17. Description is cool.. Like the way you work it..

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