Thursday, May 28, 2009

Query letter #1: Christine N

Dear Agent,

THE UNICORN TAMER is Greek mythology meets Pokémon, a middle-grade fantasy that will appeal to fans of Carl Hiaasen's HOOT and Brandon Mull’s FABLEHAVEN.
[Hmmm ... if I don't know those two titles I'm going to feel like a dumby and I'll immediately think that I won't understand this manuscript. Better to not refer to specific titles - stick to genres. You've said it's middle-grade fantasy - that's all I need to know.]

13-year-old Emma Brown knows that sphinxes like to eat people. [Good - catchy, clear - I know the protagonist is 13, I know her name, and I know that this story is going to be a bit unusual. This line stands alone in the letter I received - ideally, run it on to the following paragraph.]

She knows that leprechauns live in a city made of gold, that a selkie is a girl in seal's clothing, and that you can fall in love with a pixie even if he just looks at you. Emma knows all this because her mom read to her when she was a little girl. [Her mom read what to her? The author needs to tell me that the mother read her stories, otherwise I think we've gone into some general thing about her being read to as a child and then I start wondering what that has to do with the selkie ... and now I'm confused. See how easy it is? When I'm reading lots of queries at once, it doesn't take much to confuse me. I don't think I'm the only agent who gets confused so easily, either. ]

What Emma didn't know is that the stories her mom told her weren't make-believe. Her mom was secretly trying to prepare Emma for the ultimate sacrifice - merging a human's life with that of an endangered animal's to save it. [Ewwww! But she has my attention. This is the point at which I'd decide if it's my kind of story or not.]

When her parents mysteriously disappear, Emma is catapulted back to her birthplace - an older, steampunk [What is this word? The author is American so I'll let it go, but be careful about using culturally specific words if you're querying overseas.] version of our dimension. In the wonderland called Drualtys, teenagers study to become Tamers - people who form unique bonds with legendary creatures to protect them from extinction. Through this bond, Tamers absorb the creatures' majick [Why is this word never spelt the old-fashioned way any more?], special powers ranging from the ability to control lightening, run on water, or see through skin. [Overall a good paragraph.]

Emma embraces her taming lessons to rescue her parents from the Hunters, a ruthless clan of humans determined to prove that man is the most powerful beast of all. Their mission: murder the creatures of Drualtys and steal their majickal abilities. The prize: a unicorn's cloak of invisibility. Together with her newfound friends, including a half-pixie who's too pretty for his own good and a whimsical boy who can talk to animals, Emma must stay one step ahead of the Hunters, save her parents, and the unicorns - before she is hunted herself. [I'm a bit confused by all the new names, but fantasy isn't my strong suit - from a query letter point of view, this paragraph is solid.]

THE UNICORN TAMER is complete at approximately 96,000 words and is the first in a trilogy. Upon your request, I'd be more than happy to send you the manuscript. [This paragraph should come last.]

I graduated from Santa Clara University with a Major in Communications and a Minor in Creative Writing. I worked on my university's literary magazine as well as a Children's Storyteller at Barnes and Noble. I also used to contribute to the Google Video Blog. [This paragraph should come second last. I don't need to know about the Google Video Blog, but otherwise all the information was good and not belaboured. Again, no comparison to a big author - JK Rowling would have been the obvious one here - and that's a good thing. ]

Thank you for taking the time to consider representing my work.
[Leave out the 'representing' because at this stage I'm only considering the work, not considering representation.]

Sincerely, Christine N
Status: PROVISIONALLY APPROVED (pending some changes)

16 comments:

stuntsmile said...

Hi

Do you guys really look at this stuff in order to decide what to print and what not to print? I have to admit, these days, I don't even look at the covers, I simply look at the quality of the writing. Don't you simply want to look at the quality of the writing? If I was in publishing, I'd want it sent to me by email. It would take one minute to look at the quality of the writing, maybe two, and if I didn't like it, another thirty seconds to say no - and reply, with no envelope and nothing more than an email to write. I'm always amazed that everyone asks for everything on paper. Why? Then you've got to send a letter. If it was all by electronic media, boom, thirty second reply, you don't even need to lick the stamp. I wouldn't even look at the sales job on the front page - simply at the quality of the writing. But then, I'm not in publishing, and I'm always shocked by the number of people who state 'I simply loved the front cover...' Seriously, I'm always amazed at these blogs at the importance placed on the sales job and that it be on paper. Maybe these people did write a proper introduction, but I don't see any quality in the writing, all I see is marketing. Is there any difference in fiction? Maybe that's why I rarely read novels anymore...

Sarahlynn said...

Agent Sydney, thank you for doing these! I'm really enjoying the exercise, and it's fun to note the differences in style between what at least some US agents want vs. what you want/what might be accepted practice in Australia. (For example, I've heard from U.S. agents that white space is critical, paragraphs of more than a few sentences in e-queries awful, novel title/length a waste of top-of-the-page real estate, etc.)

One note about this query: 96,000 words for a middle grade novel?!! Tough sell.

Stuntsmile, publishing is a fascinating industry, and a LOT goes into publishing and marketing decisions. I recommend poking around a bit and learning about the business if you're interested. For example, a query letter (combined with sample pages from the novel) is how an agent might decide - yes, in just a couple of minutes - if she wants to see more of an author's work. If she really loves the work and takes on the author as a client, she would then try to sell the novel to a publishing house. No one decides to publish a novel based solely on a query letter. (And much of the business is conducted electronically these days, from queries to submissions to editing and even publishing itself.)

stuntsmile said...

Hi

I wasn't intending to bring down an entire industry or question the blog. But, if Pride and Prejudice was reduced to a query, then it would come across as the most boring book ever written. And what would Jane Austen say to sell herself? 'Hi, I'm a spinster of many years...' How could Alice in Wonderland be reduced to a query? Would anyone want a children's book written by a mathematics professor? All I'm suggesting is that it's difficult to tell anything about a book unless you can actually see the text. I also realise that the query doesn't mean the book is accepted, but simply gets the person into stage two. But the point I'm making is how would Jane Austen or Charles Dodgson get to stage two? I can imagine quite a few classics that wouldn't get anywhere through this method, that's all. Does it matter if Agatha Christie spent fifteen years as a spy or is a thirty year old mother? I suppose it does, if you're not looking at the text...

Sarahlynn said...

There's one big thing you're missing. Jane Austen and Charles Dodgson/Lewis Carroll could write. They were professionals who knew their business and did it very well. I have no doubt that both of them could craft query letters in the same appealing voices that have made their novels so distinctive.

Query letters do show writing style and ability (or lack thereof). They also show whether or not an author has taken his/job seriously enough to find out how the business works.

And if you've been paying attention, here, Agent Sydney has explained that she looks at the first few pages of manuscript as well as the query letter.

Christine said...

Dear Agent Sydney -

Thank you so much for reviewing my query. This is the 6th letter I've drafted and I'm still trying to hone my query writing skills. Your honest feedback was greatly appreciated!

Thank you again for your time.

Christine

stuntsmile said...

Wow, for people who spend a lot of time rejecting other people's work, you guys are pretty sensitive.

Sarahlynn says:

"And if you've been paying attention, here, Agent Sydney has explained that she looks at the first few pages of manuscript as well as the query letter."

Great, then why isn't the blogger commenting on those pages? That's what I would expect, a critique of the quality of the text. Further, Sarahlynn, are you serious in suggesting that Dodgson could write a great query, and therefore that's the proper way to judge someone's work? Isn't that like suggesting Beethoven could write a great advertising jingle, so that's a good way of deciding whether it's worth listening to his symphonies? Yes, perhaps Beethoven could, but I'd rather look at the symphony than an advertising jingle. As for 'how the business works', this is fiction. Isn't the business originality?

Don't people in the industry wonder how Harry Potter was rejected 20-plus times? Personally, I think I'm starting to get a pretty good idea. In a query, Harry Potter would sound like just another tedious book about wizards written by some sad single mother.

If I was in the music industry, I'd just want a cd or mp3. If I was in the publishing industry I'd just want the text. If you can't tell good music from bad, why would you be in the music industry? The same would have to be true for publishing, I would have thought.

If I was thinking of writing fiction, I wouldn't have a lot of confidence that my work could be properly judged by this query process.

These are simply observations. If you were in science, you would have to stand up in front of all your colleagues, present a year's worth of research, and watch them pull it to pieces. It's brutal, but effective.

I would have thought these comments are fairly obvious ones. I suppose I'm making them because I see a lot of generic books these days, and not too many that have that je ne sais quoi. And isn't that the point of fiction? Isn't that what publishers are meant to be looking for, or is that for the fairies? In other words, I'm making these comments because I enjoy great literature, not to undermine anyone's status.

Sarahlynn said...

"I see a lot of generic books these days, and not too many that have that je ne sais quoi. And isn't that the point of fiction? Isn't that what publishers are meant to be looking for?"

Debatable. Publishing is a business. Booksellers, distributors, publishers, and agents are in to it . . . make a living. (Presumably, many of them love books, too.)

If you're looking for new "great literature," you might start with academic presses and see if some of the more literary - and less commercial - novels fit your taste.

Many feel that the "point of fiction" is entertainment, and apparently a great many people find entertainment in relatively predictable forms where readers know basically what to expect, especially in genre fiction e.g. a happy ending with a romance novel, not too much sex or violence in a cozy mystery, etc.

The point here is that it's not the primary job responsibility of agents and editors to define the canon; it's their job to recognize what the market wants.

Many agents receive hundreds of queries a week. Obviously, they don't have time to read hundreds of books a week. So they might look at a letter describing the novel and the first couple of pages.

From that sample, it might be clear that a writer simply . . . doesn't have mastery of the language or might not be effective as telling a story on the page (many spelling, punctuation, and grammar mistakes, for example, would be a huge warning sign).

It's obvious from many query letters that authors don't have a good grasp on the market for their books, and maybe not even on their own stories. (You don't know your own main character well enough to tell me something unique and interesting about her in under 300 pages? Really?)

There is, perhaps, a distinction here between "art" and "commercial." If what you're interested in producing is high art (or, as you say, "great literature") that might not appeal to those picking up paperbacks at the airport but will be taken seriously by professors of literature, then why are you querying agents and large commercial publishing houses? Why not look instead at smaller, academic presses?

If you're thinking about mass market appeal, then it's very helpful to know something about that market.

I used to think that being a physician would involve a black leather bag, occasional house calls, and plenty of free time after dosing Timmy with penicillin for his mild earache. Then I realized that was a fiction.

So is the idea that an author works in a vacuum, creating art. In reality, an author must be involved in the marketing and selling of her book, to some extent. She needs to be able to talk about it in interesting, brief, and convincing ways, to describe it at book signings and in interviews (virtual or face-to-face).

It's lovely to think of authors hunched over typewriters in garrets, polishing off prose, mailing pages in to editors, then getting right back to work on the next book without doing any marketing, promotion, press, or selling for the novels they've produced. But that's not the current reality of the business. Query letters are the least of it.

Besides, you really think that a good writer couldn't make Harry Potter sound interesting in 200 words or less?

stuntsmile said...

I don't think you understand what I'm saying. You cannot tell the difference between Agatha Christie and landfill without reading the text. I don't mean the whole novel, I mean one or two pages!

Furthermore, how do you know who wrote the query? They could have paid someone to write it. (And I'm guessing that's the best thing to do.)

My point is not art versus entertainment. Take Agatha Christie, what makes her the biggest selling novelist of all time is not the plot or who did it, but her wit, and her powers of human observation. How would you pick up any of that from the query? Or take Raymond Chandler, many of his novels barely have a plot. What makes great fiction is not 'this happens, then this happens, then this happens' it's everything else. You cannot detect that without reading the text. That's true for entertainment or art.

Seriously, in my opinion, if you can't tell the difference between Agatha Christie and landfill from reading a couple of pages of the text - which should take five minutes at the most, and, from what I've seen, many wouldn't last thirty seconds - you should not be in publishing.

What on earth would you read a query for? You don't even know who wrote it! Let alone write a line-by-line critique of each query!

I appreciate that people in the industry get sent a tonne of rubbish and have to hit sales quotas, but seriously, as soon as the whole thing is simply reduced to an exercise in marketing, then it's garbage. It's a lot easier to sell quality material than garbage that fits into a marketing strategy. And I'm talking Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. I appreciate that no sane person today would publish Ulysses - although sane people did seventy years ago.

If anything, I would have thought that query process would be of a previous age, when sending a novel meant paper and a back ache. These days you can send the novel by email. It can be rejected in one minute.

It should also be noted that the industry in Australia is subsidised by the partial prevention of foreign imports. This is in the name of culture. This is what I'm subsidising, a marketing exercise that has been relabelled culture.

To suggest that anyone pointing out that maybe, even at the first stage, the text is more important than the marketing strategy is living in outer space is nuts. Rock music doesn't follow this agenda, it's based on the quality of the music (at least to some degree), and that's hardly Beethoven.

Oh well, all this has done is confirmed why I rarely read novels anymore. It seems like the publishing industry simply chases its own tale. And defends this method. It looks like not merely would Herman Melville not stand a chance (not necessarily surprising, though), but neither would J.D. Salinger or Raymond Chandler.

One question though, do the people in non-fiction follow the same method? If so, God help us all. Perhaps the blogger could tell us if there is any difference in the method of getting to first base between fiction and non-fiction. I get the feeling that non-fiction process basically involves the agent or publisher looking at the author's name and credentials. If they don't fit into the pigeon hole, then it's landfill. Or do they actually look at the argument of the work? I have written a non-fiction text, but, I'm not a university professor specialising in that area (though it's really multidisciplinary). I increasingly get the feeling that I'm looking at self-publishing, no matter how interesting it might be. Although, judging form the fact that I can directly write to a university publisher, this might not be the case. This discussion gives me a queasy feeling, I have to say. I get the feeling that Charles Darwin wouldn't get to first base, and everyone would tell him his books wouldn't sell. (Yes, another extreme example, I agree.)

stuntsmile said...

Hang on, alright. This is the way I choose books. I want the whole book. I'll open it to any page and read a couple of paragraphs. Most books in bookshops don't pass this test, but I'm reading for me, if I was an agent or publisher, I'd lower my expectations. Then I'll flip to another part of the book and read a few paragraphs. By this stage, I've got some idea of the quality of the book. I'd do the same thing for Agatha Christie.

Now a good book should be good the whole way through. You should never read the first few pages, the best place to look is in the middle, when average authors lose momentum. A good example of this is Sue Miller's "The Good Mother". Now, there's a book that if I read the sales pitch, I wouldn't touch it. But the quality of the writing is first class, from the beginning to the end. If you can't tell this from reading a few paragraphs here and there, then you shouldn't be in publishing. Why would you read the query? It's twitter.

Sarahlynn said...

I've heard an agent say that she can reject about 90% of the queries she receives based on query alone, without looking at pages, because based on the query she knows it's either:
a) not a genre she represents (erotica, children's picture book, medical textbook, whatever) or
b) not something she can sell for another reason (too similar to something she already represents, a novel featuring someone else's characters/fictional universe, etc.).

It would simply not be practical or an efficient use of time to 1000 pages a week (5 for every query, if the agents receives a couple hundred queries a week) when such a large percentage them are not possibilities for a given agent.

Rather, a system in which an agent gets a brief cover letter explaining what the book is (genre, word count, a sense of the writer's voice) plus a few pages to show the writing makes much more sense.

Some people do use services or have others write their queries. This might NOT be the best idea, actually. Agents say that queries from services tend to sound alike, and, therefore, boring/formulaic/unoriginal.

"What makes great fiction is not 'this happens, then this happens, then this happens' it's everything else."

We call this voice and it's exactly what the agent is looking for - both in the query and in the sample pages.

"do the people in non-fiction follow the same method?"

It's "worse" in nonfiction. Before topic and writing, saleability relies heavily on PLATFORM. Platform can certainly be achieved without being a university professor, and there are lots of blogs that discuss how.

It's interesting that you blame agents for this whole system. Agents are successful only if they represent authors whose books editors want to buy. And editors/publishing houses are only successful if they publish books that the public will purchase. It's the public, those of us who buy books, who really determine what's published in the end.

If people didn't buy books by celebrities, didn't pick authors with "platform" over those without (regardless of how clever the books themselves might be) then agents and editors would sign authors accordingly.

Here in the States, it's common for people to self-publish. It's also common for authors with major houses to complain that they get little advertising and marketing help from the publisher. So why do traditionally published books still tend to sell far better than self-published books?

Agents and editors make a living knowing what the market wants - and supplying it.

Brendan said...

I am surprised that 'Steampunk' is considered an Americanism. I thought it was a genre term like cyberpunk but perhaps not as quire well known.

Here said...

I agree with the vast majority of these query letter critiques. However, there are two in this post that I'm ambivalent about.

The first is questioning the lack of a comma at the end of the salutation. I feel as though this is a bit of a grey area, because the current edition of the Style Manual recommends omitting the comma. As long as the salutation and signoff are consistent in their comma approach, I usually give more weight to other aspects of the query. (That might just be me, though.)

The second regards 'steampunk', because I see this as a genre-specific, rather than a cultural, term. I see it used just as frequently within Australian speculative fiction communities as in their British and American counterparts. But from what I have read of this blog, I don't think Agent Sydney represents much fantasy. So, I would recommend tailoring each query to ensure its appeal to a specific agent if s/he has a stated preference for mainstream or genre manuscripts.

(Also, 'tailor your query' is such ubiquitous, obvious advice that I feel safe saying it!)

Thanks for posting these critiques, Agent Sydney.

stuntsmile said...

I don't blame the agents. I appreciate that the culture chooses itself.

I was simply talking about the selection process - which is being aimed, in this blog, at the queries alone.

That's all I was commenting on. I understand the realities, at least to some degree.

I can understand getting an outline and if it says erotica then immediately saying no. But beyond that, once the industry takes queries so seriously that they are being given a line-by- line critique on a blog, that's when I get disturbed. That's what I'm criticising and why I responded initially.

Yes, I can understand wanting an outline so it can be refused because it's not the correct category. And to get an outline of the plot. But to take queries so seriously that they are given a line-by-line critique, that's what makes me disturbed. If the sales pitch's were about celebrity biographies, then it would be more understandable.

It's the method, and it does make me wonder how it affects what ends up in the bookstores.

And, let's face it, I suspect if most people were in it for the money, they'd be lawyers instead.

Oh well. I still don't disagree with my viewpoint. I mean, if people need help writing a basic outline of their book, then they shouldn't be a novelist. On the other hand, if agents take the queries so seriously that they're willing to give a line-by-line critique, then... Well, there's something wrong somewhere.

Sarahlynn, you said

"Besides, you really think that a good writer couldn't make Harry Potter sound interesting in 200 words or less?"

But why would you take the risk? Would you really want to pass on it, because you only read the query? Because your only thought was 'wizards aren't "in" right now'? It might be apocyphral, but there also might be 20 publishers or agents out there wishing they'd read a little more.

The whole thing does not inspire me with confidence. I mean, really, why on earth would you write a line-by-line critique of a sales pitch...? And why wouldn't you want the whole book at the first instance? And why wouldn't you just look at the text... Oh well.

stuntsmile said...

A couple of other points. I don't think agents can absolve themselves of any guilt for what ends up on the shelves, since every publisher these days seems to say that fiction is only accepted via agents.

Also, the industry can be wrong. The television show Seinfeld should never have happened, since nobody would have allowed Larry David's misanthropic humour near a camera. Instead it went number one. And the only reason it got on to television in the first place was because Seinfeld's agents were pushing the network.

Once an industry chooses a low level and excuses itself of all pretension to quality then it can also end up lower than its audience.

And I still don't believe that you can tell Knut Hamsun from landfill without looking at the text, and that you need the whole text, not just a few pages. But then, I guess you guys would simply tell me that Hamsun wouldn't sell, that you have to make money, and that I'm not your audience. That today, a book like Hunger wouldn't exist. And that's the audience's fault, and if not their fault, then it's the publishers fault, even though they say the only accept books represented by agents...

Oh well. He did get published once. And I think he won a Nobel Prize. How times change. But no, that's not your fault. I guess. But then, maybe you're also the people that would tell Larry David he has no future in the entertainment industry. That nobody wants misanthropic humour, and that this is the audience's fault. Or the network/publisher's fault.

Nothing written in this discussion changes my view. If you're not looking for quality and you're trying to second guess the market all you will ever do is chase the market's tail. And I still don't think you can tell the difference between Knut Hamsun and landfill from a sales pitch and a couple of pages. But then, I guess he wouldn't get published anyway, so what's the point of talking about it. And that's the publisher's fault, or it's the audience's fault, or...

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