Monday, February 25, 2013

Query letter #10: Mitch H

A monastic trained orphan with a talent for Sorcery, Caldan's entire world dissolves when he learns his family was murdered, almost kills his friend's brother, and is exiled from the only life he has known. Adrift and confused he begins to build a new life in a strange city, developing his Sorcerous talent while hunting for information on his parents enigmatic past. When a power hungry nation invades, for reasons both personal and nefarious, Caldan must embrace forbidden Sorcery in order to survive risking becoming the very thing he has vowed to defeat, and condemning himself in the process. In the chaos of the invasion he unearths a Sorcerous secret his parents had been hiding, with stunning implications that will change the face of Sorcery forever. [This is a very dense opening paragraph - bear in mind that people who read these letters see a lot of them. Our eyes do get tired and there is a not-yet-officially-recognised condition called Manuscript Fatigue. So break it up a bit if you can. Try reading it aloud the way it's written here - that will help you work out where the breaks should fall.]

I am seeking representation for my epic fantasy novel, A Broken Silence, which is complete at 188,000 words and the first book of a planned trilogy. [Perhaps put this first.]

Currently I am a full time freelance writer of speculative fiction living in Sydney, Australia, and a member of the NSW Writers Center. At the moment I am working on the second book of my series and developing a website. [Are you online anywhere else? If so, include the URL.]
Thank you for your time and consideration, and I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Overall feedback: Again, there was no pressing reason to want to read more. You gave me a description but not a reason. We don't expect that you'll write the equivalent of a back-cover blurb (which can take weeks to perfect and are often argued over) but those blurbs are a good guide as to how to construct your query letter: you catch the reader's attention and then tell them what the story is. It's a tired old chestnut, but the 'elevator pitch' principle applies: you need to be able to tell me what your story is about and why it's great in the time it would take to ride an elevator a few floors. When readers go into a bookshop or read a description online, they're not going to give your story any more time than that either, so consider your query letter practice for that back-cover blurb that needs to impress a potential book buyer.

Query letter #9: Benjamin S

Rift is a 75,000 word thriller novel about the murder of sixteen year old girl in the Victorian coastal town of Wheeler's Cove. The novel is unique [even if it is, don't say this - a lot of authors say their story is unique, so the term has lost its power] as the protagonists simultaneously investigate the murder both before and after it happens. [interesting premise]

Jamie Webster is a struggling writer who moves to Wheeler's Cove to escape the mounting expectations on his second novel. Alice Jackson has returned to her father's house to wait out her husband's death from lung cancer in their home town. Fate brings them together over the washed up body of a sixteen year old school girl. She's been shot twice; once in the head and once in the stomach.

The next day the girl turns up at the local police station, very much alive.

Alice and Jamie figure out that the headland is a place that exists simultaneously three months apart. [Consider putting this information in the opening paragraph - it's a key element and sets the story apart] Jamie is from the past, Alice from the future. Using clues both before and after the murder, they must piece together the mystery before the past catches up to the present, and the girl dies for good.

But old towns have old secrets. As Alice and Jamie delve further into the death, they find that this may not be the first homicide in their quiet town. And, if they're not careful, it may not be the last.

Protect the past. Fear the future. [This line doesn't seem to belong to anything - if you're going to use it, put it first in the letter so it seems like a hook.]

I am an award winning and nationally televised stand-up comedian. I have an English degree and have written for newspapers and comedy festivals in the past. This is my first novel. [Contrary to what many first-time novelists think, saying it's your first novel is not a disincentive for agents or publishers to read it] Other novelists I enjoy reading in this genre are Peter Temple, for his realism, and Stephen King, for his higher concept thrillers.

I also have an Engineering Honours Degree, which I know has no credence with novel writing, but mentioning it makes me feel like I didn't waste five years of my life. [Humour is good!]

Overall feedback: This letter lacks that essential grunt - you haven't give me a reason to want to read it. Yes, you've described the story in enough detail for me to be intrigued, but what I really want to feel is that must-read-it-now sensation. Open with your hook: 'The body of a sixteen-year-old girl is washed up on a beach in Wheeler's Cove, a small Victorian coastal town. She's been shot twice - once in the head, once in the stomach. And the next day she turns up at the police station - very much alive ...' That would get anyone's attention. 

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

I'll show you mine if you show me yours

Most agents' websites are useless. Half the time they are not updated. No one has heard of most of the writers on agents lists. As a writer, I want to know their current and past track records in successful placements. Who considers an IPO without doing the number crunching on a company's performance? How many agents make money? What's the average income of a mom and pop agent? What's the salary of a senior in-house agent? How much does Sophie Hamlyn [NB: this is not the name of an Australian agent but she'll be touched to learn that your spelling was close], Jenny Darling, Margaret Kennedy, Lyn Tranter or Rick Raftos make a year? I want to see the agents' association publish earnings and sales records. Individual sales and breakdown of genres. Who's the best forming agent in Australia in money terms?

Instead of a breakdown of genres, let's break down your message.

First: the 'P' part of 'IPO' stands for 'public' - the last time I checked, all Australian agencies were private companies or businesses. Which means that their business and financial information is, y'know, private. Why don't you trot off to a privately held Australian publishing company and ask if they'll show you their P&L statements before you decide to publish with them? And do let me know how you get on. While you're at it, ask the Australian Publishers' Association to give you a list of all of their members' earnings and sales records and see if they'll give them to you. Because if you're going to require this information, you should also require it of publishers. And booksellers too - so please do contact the Australian Booksellers' Association.

Second: 'mom' and 'pop' are American spellings, so I lack confidence in your ability to turn in a manuscript that suits an Australian market, given that you are clearly using an American version of Microsoft Word. Also, you should have an apostrophe (known as the s pos in this case) after 'agents' in 'agents lists'. Agents do notice that pesky punctuation stuff and a lack of it can also dent your chances. 

Third: updating websites is a matter for individual businesses. In an ideal world every business's website would be up to date. Keeping things up to date requires having someone around to do it. Most agencies are very lean operations and the agents already work long hours. That's the only explanation I have.

Fourth: if you haven't heard of most of the writers on the agents' lists, it's because you're not reading their books. This is not the agents' fault.

Fifth: I'll show you mine if you show me yours. So, unpublished writer, before I decide to take you on as a client - investing many, many hours in working on your manuscript, writing a pitch document, talking to publishers about you, talking to you, seeing you through the inevitable rejections, patiently waiting until some smart publisher realises your worth - why don't you tell me how much money you have made on your writing. What's that? Nothing? Sorry, please go away - you are not a sound investment. And if you're a published writer, please answer the same question - oh, I see, $10 000 over five years. Okay, you can go away too because you're never going to earn me the millions of dollars that someone, somewhere, must be earning in this caper - because that's what you're really interested in, right? How likely it is that having an agent is going to be your ticket to millions?

The reason why agents do not require of prospective clients the same sort of financial CV that you find essential for agents is that we take on authors on faith. We have faith in their talent. We have faith that other people will recognise it. We believe passionately in the authors' work. This behaviour is also found in people who work with musicians and actors and dancers and composers and screenwriters ... It's true of everyone in the arts. Faith and passion are not a good business plan but they're what we have. If you would like to attempt to measure their worth, then you can see our balance sheets. 

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Query letter #8: Luciano C

I am writing to you regarding my completed novel, The Legacy of about 101,000 words. The story is a historical fantasy based on Greek mythology. The Moirai [Who are these Moirai - a tribe? A race? Elf-like creatures hiding in Herodotus' robe?] foresee a future where the Olympian Gods will fade from immortal existence and are replaced by a single entity [watch the grammar - you mixed future and present tenses]. To prevent this from happening, the sacred relics of the Mother Goddess, whose power is supreme, must be restored [restored to where -  a temple? A town?] to avert the extinguishing power of the gods [watch the grammar here]. Poseidon's children, the Atlanteans, have been chosen to seek out the relics or face extinction.

My target audience would be readers of George R.R. Martin and Kate Mosse [whoa there, cowboy - you haven't convinced me to read your story yet, so it's a bit early to tell me whose readers you think would like it], although my story differs from the traditional telling of historical novels. My story draws on ancient history and mythology to tell a provocative yet epic tale of intrigue, betrayal, a loss of belief and the everlasting impact it has on the characters. [This is a good sentence - move it up to the first paragraph so it comes after the sentence ending 'Greek mythology' and then start a new para to tell me about the story itself.] This is my first work of fiction which is part of a series, the second book is completed and I have begun writing the third.

I'm Australian and live in Perth, city of Western Australia. I have studied Ancient History [this is an example of pertinent detail - if you're writing about Ancient Greece, I do want to read that you've studied Ancient History], completed a series of writer's workshops at the University of Western Australia and concluded a Proofreading course. I am an affiliate member of the Australian Society of Authors and member of The Katharine Susannah Pritchard's Writers Centre. [All good information.]

Please find attached a synopsis and a sample of my manuscript The Legacy. I have included my e-mail address for a reply. If the manuscript is to your liking, I'd love to send you a larger sample or the entire manuscript.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Overall feedback: You buried the best sentence of your pitch deep in the second paragraph. If you move it up to the first para, you'll see how it will change what detail you want to include after it, because the story you described in the first para didn't seem provocative, or that it contained intrigue, betrayal or a loss of belief. So either that really good sentence doesn't represent your story, or you haven't described the story in a way that fits with the pitch. 

Query letter #7: Gwendolyn C

As a time-traveler, Kale has no future. Every few days he disappears only to return to a house he doesn't like to call home. It's impossible for him to be normal. It's impossible for him to control it. But when Kale starts traveling back to World War II, fighting in a war he was never meant to be in, it becomes harder for him to have two lives when he doesn't think he belongs to either. 

Then after six years of being away, Harper moves back in next door, the girl who has haunted his past with the life he used to have. [Watch the grammar here - I needed to know that Harper was the girl who haunted his past before you told me her name.] They spent countless summers together growing up—swimming in the river and being a nuisance to the neighbors. Now, long after Kale gave up hope of seeing her again, they have their first summer together in years. Maybe not the way he would've imagined it, but more real than he could hope for.

But when everything seems to be getting better—Kale trying to figure out the secret to his time-traveling and making amends with his father who he never got along with—Harper finds something in Kale's past that might tear them apart forever. Because whether or not Kale likes to admit it, the past is Kale's future, and there's no changing it. [This pitch is a paragraph too long. Did I need to know about the summers? Probably not. Find a shorter way to tell me about Kale and Harper's reunion and why it's important to the story. Kale's father also isn't an element I need to know about here. Stick to the time travel and the romance - I'll find out about the father if I want to read the manuscript, but you have to get me to that point first.]

COLD SUMMER is a YA science fiction novel complete at 96,000 words. [The elephant in the room here is The Time-Traveler's Wife - if you have written a time-travel story involving a romance, you have to acknowledge the other novel either as influence or inspiration, otherwise I'll think you're trying to mimic it.]

Thank you for your time and consideration. I look forward to hearing from you soon.

General feedback: This letter has potential - it just needs a bit more polish and focus. It also needs to have the author in it - you told me nothing about yourself. As you are the storyteller, you are just as important as the story. The 'party pitch' mentioned in the last letter is a technique that you've no doubt heard of before - I certainly didn't invent it - and it's a valid one. Being a storyteller also means being able to convince people to hear or read your story. 

Query letter #6: Ian E

I am a 63 year old retiree, having raised a family of two boys with my wife of 30 years. [I don't need to know this - it doesn't have anything to do with your writing.] I have been carrying around this manuscript for 40 years [Saying how long it's taken to write this is not a badge of honour - it just makes me think the manuscript is overcooked], but only now realize what I was trying to say. It is a biography from my past, and all happened before I was 21 [This is actually the salient piece of information], but the ramifications have left my greater family divided all this time.
Ian is 21 [If it's your story, don't switch to third person to describe it, otherwise I'll presume you've written a novel and named the central character after yourself] and running from his past. Leaving behind his Asian girlfriend after having a baby, (not his), and anticipating the return of her husband from prison, he hitchhikes across Canada in the middle of winter [So Canada is the setting of the whole story?], barely returning alive to the family he's ostracized from. [The grammar is clumsy here - it's important to make the spelling and grammar as good as can be] As a younger lad he was in a love triangle which left, one 15 year old pregnant, and broke the family of another 14, year old, after he took nude pics of her and they were found by her father. Unwelcome, and reviled, and looking like hell, barely making the journey he is forcibly committed to a mental institution and declared a schizophrenic. The book parallels his life, as he deals with the loss of his soul and the mind numbing drugs. [Somewhere in here is a storyline - you need to say what the story is about, and 'my life' is not the right answer - if you are a stranger to all your potential readers, you have to give them a reason to want to read this - you have to find the common human thread/s that make your story relevant to others.] It takes us into a place very few people ever go, exposing the soul or the lack of it because in the end, that's what he get on his knees in the hospital chapel, and asks for. That's what, he concludes realizing after repeated attempts [attempts at ...?], made upon him by the hospital, he has nothing to say and even if he did, his tongue, 'cleaving to his mouth', won't let him. [I'm still not sure what the story is.]
30,000 words [This is too small a word count for most publishers to consider.]

General feedback: Never attempt to do too much in a query letter when telling something simply will do. You gave quite a bit of detail in that second paragraph but I still don't really know what the story is about, or why I should read it. If you are not sure how to pitch your manuscript, pretend that you are meeting someone at a party and they ask you what your story's about - and you only have half a minute to tell them before someone else comes up to talk to you. What would you say in those 3o seconds? Wouldn't you start with, 'It's a story about love, loss and redemption' (if that's what it's about)? Writing a query letter can help you work out what your story's about, but you shouldn't send said query letter to an agent or publisher until you're sure you know. Because if you don't know what your story's about, you need to go back to the manuscript and do some more work.

In contrast to the previous 'stunt letter', you should start your query by telling me what your story is called, that it's a memoir,  and that it's 30 000 words long. You can then tell me that it deals with your life before the age of 21, then go into some detail - but not too much. You still need to pitch it, though - you need to give me a compelling reason to want to read it. Agents and publishers see thousands of submissions a year - we need to be given a reason. Also bare in mind that the reasons for non-fiction are different from those for fiction. In fiction the story, when pitched right, can be the reason. In non-fiction it may be the story or it may be the subject, or both.

Query letter #5: Cassandra P

At seventeen, Isla is the most sensible of her friends—she doesn't believe in ghoulies, ghosties or long-legged beasties. Her plans are simple: finish school, get a job, decide what she wants to do with her life. She only agrees to participate in a Halloween party séance because she wants to impress Dominic, but the séance gives Isla the first hint that her family might have a secret. When they try to contact her dead mother they receive a chilling reply: she is not dead. [This is a good example of how you can start a query letter without saying what the title, the genre and the word count are - with a good pitch. This opening para is snappy, easy to read and tells me enough about the story for me to be intrigued. It is also does tell me the genre - or, at least, the age of the readership - without directly stating it.] 

Isla is reluctant to upset her father by prying into the family history he never discusses; however, events force her hand. And nothing had prepared her for the truth. Her mother is an aosidhe, part of the fae's ruling class: a race known for its arrogance and cruelty. [This gives me a further indication of what the genre is.] Isla is introduced to her mother's world by Jack, an elf-like hob who is eager to help her for his own reasons. When her father is attacked by an unknown aosidhe, Isla must overcome her self-doubt and work with Jack to save him.

ISLA'S INHERITANCE is an 83,000 word urban fantasy set in metropolitan Australia, and is aimed at a young adult audience—particularly teenage girls who enjoy paranormal fiction.

I have a Bachelor of Arts in Communication, with a professional writing specialisation and, since 2007, I have been working as a public service editor. I am a member of the Australian Society of Authors. [Compared to the polished pitch, this feels a bit light - almost like you're trying to run away as quickly as possible. Tell me why you're writing in this genre, because there's nothing in these two lines that gives me an indication that you even like fiction.]

Included below are a synopsis and the first three chapters of the manuscript. The completed document is available on request.

General feedback: This is an example of a 'stunt letter' (my term) - where the author is accomplished enough to lead with a pitch because the pitch is really polished. The author has told me pretty much everything I need to know about her story - and certainly enough for me to decide whether or not I'd like to read it - in those first two paragraphs. By the time she tells me that it's an urban fantasy aimed at a young adult audience, I barely need to read the words. However, the reason why this is a stunt letter is that it's for the brave and confident writer only - you need to feel really sure that your pitch works in order to put it first in the query letter. There is risk there - that if it doesn't work, an agent/publisher is not going to read any further and not going to find out that it's an urban fantasy etc etc. In this letter the risk has paid off. But for other non-stunt writers it is perfectly acceptable to use a more conventional structure of title/genre/word count to start your letter.