All of my debut sales started with a query letter, and I still read each new query hoping to be excited and intrigued by a new author.
What works on me is most likely not very different than what works on all agents - a well written letter about a book I’d want to read. I can’t think of a better way to actually show what works on me, than to follow some other agent's blogs and to share some of the letters that did work on me.
What I want to highlight in the following letters is the description of the book. This is what I want to know about most, obviously — and is often overlooked in favor of a lot of unnecessary information about the writer of the letter, such as they have been writing since they were five and love Harry Potter and their grandchildren love their work. Especially when you have not won literary awards or had a book published before, the description has to grab me for me to want to see more. I have asked to see novels that have descriptions that I might think are too long, and too short — so its not so much about length to me. In a perfect world, I’d love all descriptions to be contained in a paragraph— because I have a lot of queries to read, but as you can see from the below, longer can work too, as long as the description stays focused and I do not get bored or confused by reading it.
Dear Ms. Crowe:
(She got my name right— but I am not too picky about this. About 50% of the time I am addressed as Ms. Harvey. I do appreciate that is is addressed to me, and is not a mass email where 40 other agents are copied.)
I am impressed at your track record in placing Young Adult books, and I was glad to read in Publishers Marketplace that you are actively seeking new clients. I would like to invite you to consider representing my young adult novel Just Like Mama Cass. (Short and clear introduction- with some flattery, which also serves to show that she has done her research.)
Once Dara Cohen was Little Miss Maine. Now she is an overweight seventeen year old who has to take a leave of absence from her prep school because an English assignment was grossly misinterpreted. She goes to live with Rachel, the sister she never knew, on a goat farm in Western Massachusetts. Jezebel Goat Farm has long been a home for outsiders. Now its residents include Belinda, the silent matriarch, and Owen, a striking teenage boy kicked out of his home for being gay. And of course there is Rachel, who lets Dara in, but keeps a wall around herself. When Owen enters Dara in the local beauty pageant, the whole farm rallies around her to help her succeed. Just Like Mama Cass (63,900 words) tells the story of Dara's summer spent preparing for the pageant in between feeding the goats, going to mandatory therapy sessions, and reading stacks of anonymous typewritten pages she finds in her closet. Over the summer she tries to figure out why her parents kept her from Rachel -- and why she wants to win Miss October Grove so badly.
(This is a complex plot, but Megan manages to describe it succinctly. The first two sentences work especially well to set up Dara’s conflict and to draw me in.)
I was in the first class to complete the Undergraduate Creative Writing Certificate Program at Columbia University. There I studied with Jill Ciment, Phyllis Raphael, and Siegred Nunez amongst others. I was accepted into the Senior Honors Fiction Workshop with Dani Shapiro. My own fiction has been published in several online magazines. Professionally, I am a high school librarian -- which fuels my love of YA literature and the teens who read it.
(This is a great example of a bio paragraph-- includes only information that is relevant and useful, and I liked the way she ties her work into her writing.)
Thank you for taking the time to consider my query. I would be happy to send you a full or partial manuscript. I look forward to hearing your response. (professional exit)
Megan’s first novel, now titled SECRETS OF TRUTH AND BEAUTY will by published in July ‘09 by Hyperion.
Dear Ms. Crowe:
As you may recall, we corresponded this summer regarding my first novel WAITING FOR TOM COREY. You invited me to contact you again with future manuscripts. I am writing to inquire if you would be interested in reading my 70,000 word YA novel, ON THE VERGE.
(Holly reminds me of our past correspondence in a direct and effective way. I did remember her first novel fondly, and was so grateful that I was getting a second chance)
18-year-old Lainey Pike can tell you everything you need to know about the people in her family just by telling you how they died. Her reckless stepfather drove his motorcycle off the highway and caused the biggest traffic jam in years. Her long-suffering grandmother lived through cancer and a heart attack before finally succumbing to a stroke. And Lainey's mother, still hung up over her husband's death, hung herself in the basement just days after Lainey's high school graduation. Now Lainey's five-year-old brother is an orphan and her estranged older sister moves back home to act as his guardian. Dealing with her brother has always been a struggle, but sharing the responsibility with her sister is proving to be just as challenging.
Lainey knows that this is all her mother's fault, and she also knows that she eventually has to move out of the "anger" phase of the grieving process. What she can't figure out, though, is how to make peace with a dead woman. But as she tries to pull away from everything familiar, she meets an intriguing young man with an unexpected connection to her mother.
(Holly's description is also very good- it manages to tell me that this is not your ordinary problem novel by giving me a hint of Lainey's dark sense of humor. I LOVE when a letter manages to convey the tone and voice of the book.)
I have pasted the first page below for your review. ( I think this is a smart thing to do in an email query) The full manuscript is available immediately upon request. Thanks for your consideration.
Holly Nicole Hoxter
Holly’s debut ON THE VERGE will be published by Balzer & Bray in 2010.
Dear Ms. Crowe:
Rhonda Lee is your everyday, overweight, African-American math genius. (Great opening!) finds comfort in the basic pleasures in life (geometry, calculus, and strawberry ice cream). She hasn't had a boyfriend since ninth grade (as she calls it - the Year of Hell). Now a senior, she spends most of her free time tutoring math at the local community center. Her short terms goals are simple- to get a scholarship to Georgia Tech, and to avoid the "in-crowd" as much as possible. (Varian has told us a lot about Rhonda Lee— but has also got us wondering what happened her freshman year)
Her last goal is put in serious jeopardy when Sarah Gamble, Senior Class Goddess, waltzes into the West Columbia Community Center. Rhonda hates popular, preppy, stuck-up teenagers like Sarah (and like Christopher, Rhonda's ex-boyfriend). Grudgingly, Rhonda agrees to tutor Sarah, and as much as Rhonda wants to hate the girl, she finds herself actually starting to like her.
Rhonda soon learns that trigonometry isn't Sarah's only problem when she discovers that Sarah is pregnant. Rhonda had been in the same situation three years before, and it destroyed her faith in herself and her father. Rhonda wants to make sure that it is Sarah that decides what to do about the pregnancy. Rhonda had that right taken away from her by her father, and she has never forgiven him or herself for it. ( I like that we did not find this out about Rhoda in the first paragraph— and it tells me that the focus of the novel is broader than her abortion)
As Rhonda helps Sarah deal with the new life growing inside of her, Sarah helps Rhonda to reclaim the life that she has allowed to slip by. After the Year of Hell, Rhonda rededicated herself to her studies. Boys were not to be trusted (or rather, she wasn't to be trusted around boys). However, with the help of Sarah's twin brother, David, that all changes, whether Rhonda wants that change or not. In the process of connecting with David, Rhonda begins to reconnect with her father. Come the end of the school year, Rhonda has a boyfriend, a pregnant best friend, a stronger relationship with her father, and a new and improved outlook on life. If only she had started tutoring popular, pretty, stuck-up girls sooner....
Dividing By Zero is a novel about second chances. Throughout the course of the novel, Rhonda deals with all of her issues with humor, emotion, and sheer determination. The manuscript is approximately 68,000 words, and features a multicultural cast.
Thank you for considering this manuscript; I look forward to hearing from you. My first novel, Red Polka Dot In A World Full of Plaid, was published in November 2005 (Genesis Press), and recently made the Essence Magazine Best Seller list for the month of March. I am also a member of SCBWI. ( He could have put this publication info up front— but as his first novel was not published as a YA — it makes sense to have saved it for last)
This novel was published as MY LIFE AS A RHOMBUS by Flux in 2007. Varian’s new young adult novel, SAVING MADDIE will be published by Delacorte next year.