Friday, June 18, 2010

Non-fiction query letter #3

31 May 2010

Dear Agent Sydney,

What makes a novel connect with readers? [Good start - I'm intrigued.] And when a manuscript falls short, what can a writer do to correct the problem?

Writers struggle to read as their own critics, yet there are few resources to help them.

I am seeking feedback [Don't ever ask an agent for feedback: it's not a service we provide and if you expect it we're likely to run away] and representation on a proposed ‘self-help’ book for novelists, which will assist them in creatively revising their own work.

The book (working title, BOOK TITLE TO COME) [NB: I've removed the title as the author is working on it as part of a thesis] would be based upon my PhD submission, which is currently undergoing examination. I am also refining my commercial fiction novel ['Fiction novel' gets used a lot - it's easy to trip up and say it, but don't, because we all notice it. Just say 'novel'], which has attracted the attention of a large publisher. [This sentence about the novel should come later in the letter, as you've just interrupted the flow of information about the non-fiction book, which is the reason for the letter.]

For my PhD, I surveyed more than 60 ‘how-to’ and ‘how-I’ (memoir-style) books on writing and mostly found them to be fast-food for beginners. Rather than encouraging originality, they inadvertently romance a would-be writer into reading (usually set texts) and writing through the prism of someone else’s world-view. Mimicking has its place in writing practice, but not when the aim is to produce an authentic voice. Existing books on revision are helpful with technical aspects of the craft, but again, lack in the area of creative revision. Two published samples of my work reviewing other literature in the field can be seen at and [Good - you've acknowledged the competition, said why your book would be different and offered writing samples that are easily accessible.]

So, what makes a novel connect? My book would argue that (beyond craftsmanship) it is about believability, authenticity and transformation. Using the Novelist’s toolkit, writers may well be brought closer to achieving these goals. The beauty of the toolkit is that it operates as an overarching device which can accommodate any aspect of advice from other sources—it is hence, totally customised by the individual user. The toolkit is applicable to all types of novel writing, regardless of genre or literariness. This is another point of departure from existing resources. Most of the existing works only deal with the first and maybe second stages of the toolkit—basic fact gathering, plot construction, world-building and character design. These are things that are typically described in mechanical ways, largely as information to be conveyed through narration, description and dialogue, etcetera. [You've lost me here - I actually don't need to know this much information because I'm not a novelist myself. The paragraph before was enough to lure me in.]

My Novelist’s toolkit will challenge a writer to consider uncomfortable questions, such as:
• Are you uniquely qualified to tell this story and should you be the one telling it? What do you know? This speaks not only to capability, but believability.
• Are you telling the story’s truth, your truth, or somebody else’s truth? How do you know it? This reveals much about authorial motivation and authenticity.
• What makes your story necessary? Who would care? Why does it matter and to whom? This is where transformation takes place.

[Again, don't need to know this - you've already established what it's about in a general sense. This sort of information could go in a synopsis, but doesn't need to go into the letter.]

The story’s truth moves beyond the author’s world-view and certainly isn’t open to mimicry. Without it, a story doesn’t ‘ring true’ … it lacks authenticity. Ironically, story truth is not transcribed actual truth … actual truth (from facts, experiences, research etc) needs to be transformed into the textual novel-world through the tricky process of “imaginative projection,” which is what the toolkit ultimately plots out. [Again,TMI.]

My Novelist’s toolkit shows how a private concern of an individual author can be processed through the psychology of convincing characters and stories such that they touch readers in the public domain. [By this stage I'm starting to change my mind - I'm not an academic, and if I don't understand what you mean here I'll start to think I'm too stupid to read your manuscript - and that's a reaction potential readers could have.]

Readers, internalising something learned, experienced or felt from reading the novel, re-enter the world anew—transformed—but only if the writer experienced this process (of awe, discovery and seeing things in a fresh way) through the writing first. This can hardly be achieved by swallowing a basic how-to-write book or by following the road already taken by another author who has safely reached the land of milk and memoir. [Cut this too]

My book, unlike many other ‘self-help’ books, intends to respect that everyone makes their own maps through living and writing, and eventually all these maps lead back to their source: ourselves. Writers who understand this simple premise have the greatest chance of producing original work, which is believable, authentic and transformative. [Keep this]

My proposed book, in its PhD submission format, is at 35,000 words, but can easily be adjusted to suit requirements.

I have enclosed a sample chapter and am available to further expand or clarify at your convenience. Should this proposal not suit your current list, I would be most appreciative if you could suggest possible avenues.

Thank you kindly for your consideration.

Yours faithfully,
Theresa L

Verdict: Needs revision. Where's the information about you? You've told me you're writing a novel but you haven't said why you've delved so far into the process that you want to write a whole other book about it. All I know about you is that you're doing a PhD. Don't forget that this letter could be the first step in a business relationship, and that those business relationships sometimes become friendships. We need some getting-to-know-you time. Apart from that, too much information about the content of the book - and this is always a relative thing. If it's a novel, you can give me a couple of paragraphs; if it's something more esoteric and I may not be the target reader but it's my job to identify if there's a target readership, just give me enough information to understand what the book's about. Remember that agents can be reading dozens of these letters every week - short and sharp is goo.


Theresa said...

Thanks very much for this comprehensive feedback, Agent Sydney. I could've gone on for years, making the same mistakes and never knowing (shudder)!

hope chests said...

I read your post. I had a very good time reading it. I wish I can still read the number one and two nonfiction queries.