Thursday, May 28, 2009

The published author's query letter

Before I start posting the query letters I received for the purposes of close scrutiny, I'm going to show you a query letter from an author who's about to get published - JJ Cooper, the author of THE INTERROGATOR. JJ tells me that this is the letter that got him an agent and I can see why: it's pretty much perfect. I'll tell you why in bold comments throughout - with many thanks to JJ for offering it up. Now buy his book!

Dear Agent,

I am seeking your representation for my completed 80,000 word thriller, THE INTERROGATOR.
[Good - in very few words he's told me that he's finished, the novel, how long it is, the genre and the title - you'd be surprised how often this information is NOT given or, if given, is buried in the letter.]

According to Greek Mythology, Aphrodite had a wayward eye and a loyal son. When Eros gave Harpocrates a rose to keep quiet about his mother’s little indiscretions, the rose became a symbol for secrecy. This is a story Jay Ryan has never heard — until his hand is nailed to a table and a red rose tattooed onto his wrist.
[Dramatic hook - HAND NAILED TO A TABLE! INVOLUNTARY TATTOOING! I want to see where this is going.]

Jay is an interrogator with a dark past and a tortured soul; he’s also the keeper of secrets Israeli spies will kill to get their hands upon. Renowned for his skills, he is used to commanding a certain level of respect amongst his peers. Then one day Jay is drugged, tortured, tattooed and accused of rape. He is forced to reveal information that could further destabilise fragile Middle East relations and plunge the entire region into war. They are secrets he has struggled to keep hidden for four years — proof that the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ knew Israeli Mossad agents removed chemical weapons from Iraq before the launch of the 2003 invasion.
[This paragraph has the pace of a thriller, so the author is simultaneously telling me about the novel AND giving me a taste of what the reading experience will be. He's told me a lot just in this one paragraph, and he's done it by mostly leaving out the adjectives - this is a whole lot of nouns and verbs and that's all I need at this stage. If I want purple prose, I'll ask for it.]

After escaping his captors, Jay discovers that he is wanted for crimes he didn’t commit and that his father has been kidnapped by his own intelligence agency. No-nonsense secret agent Sarah Evans and lively retired security guard William ‘Bill’ Hunter join Jay on a quest to get his father back alive and avoid Israeli spies hell-bent on eliminating them all. Together they uncover the truth behind two spy agencies playing a high-stakes game of espionage with a ‘winner take all’ mindset. After Sarah goes missing, Jay must choose between hunting his father’s kidnappers or saving Sarah and exposing Israel’s involvement in the removal of chemical weapons from Iraq.
[Second paragraph on the storyline - and then he stops. Two paragraphs is all you need, if that. If you need more space than this to describe the story, there's a good chance you're not sure what the story is.]

THE INTERROGATOR is a story of betrayal and nightmarish conspiracy firmly rooted in the highest levels of government across international alliances. The story rockets toward a shattering finale that will leave the survivors changed forever. Thriller fans will enjoy the colourful characters, twisting, turning plots and fast action. The authentic military details gives the story a chillingly real context, drawing the reader into Jay’s world and not letting us go until the very end.
[Here's the pitch - and here's where the adjectives come in. This is the right place for them, as the pitch is where you want to seduce someone into reading the manuscript. Stronger language is needed - and he uses it well: 'shattering finale', 'colourful characters', 'authentic military details', 'chillingly real context'. The pitch would not have been better placed earlier in the letter as I didn't know the story at that point - thus it wouldn't have had any impact.]

I spent the last seven years of a seventeen-year Military career as an Intelligence Operator, specialising in interrogation (as a practitioner and instructor). My ability to communicate in-depth knowledge of interrogation methods, techniques and procedures, coupled with my experiences in Iraq in 2003 and two tours of East Timor adds value to the idiosyncrasies and depth of the characters within my novel.
[If I had doubts about reading it, they're gone now: he's just established his bona fides. He's being clear without being boastful - and, best of all, he hasn't told me that he's the next Dan Brown.]

Thank you for your time. As requested I have attached a short synopsis of THE INTERROGATOR and the first 2500 words. I look forward to hearing from you.
[He's finished as he started: here is all the information I need to know. It's a short, sharp ending.]
So, punters, study this letter well. JJ gets an A+ - or, to borrow the grade scale of the Tiny Art Director, this query letter is APPROVED. (I will probably use the TAD's scale throughout, thus letters will be APPROVED or REJECTED with some shades in between.)

1 comment:

Christopher said...

the essential thing one learns by 'winning' examples is not really how to write a query letter, but that agents are among the most persnickety, annoying beasts known to mankind. this same letter would fail with, not only 9 out of 10 other agents, but with the very agent that here sings so warbly its praises, on any other day but the one she decided it was good on. fickle and completely devoid of real method to certifiable madness is the word.