Monday, January 24, 2011

Why Your Novel Won't Get Published (Ten Reasons)

That is the title of a post by Chuck Wendig at his blog Terrible Minds. The post is very funny as well as being very useful. Please read it, if only for entertainment:

The Shatzkin Files

'All publishers are global now. All book retailers are global now. The publishers and retailers who embrace that reality soonest will have the best chance to be around the longest.'

So says Mike Shatzkin in his latest edition of 'The Shatzkin Files'. If you are interested in what's changing in the publishing industry and you do not yet know of his blog/e-newsletter, click immediately on this link and sign up (there's a 'subscribe' box on the left-hand nav):

Friday, January 21, 2011

Random thoughts about the future of publishing

Rather than attempting a narrative, I'm just going to jot down what's in my brain about digital publishing and the future of the publishing industry. (These are just my opinions - I have not made a scientific study.)

1 - E-books and e-readers
In the thinking and talking about how to price e-books and why people may want e-readers instead of or in addition to print books, there are a couple more things to take into consideration. Namely, that there are some of us who love, love, love print books who are also concerned about the dead-trees aspect of print books and look on e-books as a tree-friendly alternative. Also, when you buy a print book that's the total cost of that print book. When you buy an e-reader the initial cost per e-book is high because it's measured against the cost of your e-reader - if you buy a Kindle for $189 and your first e-book is $20, you're essentially paying $209 to buy that e-book. Obviously the cost of the e-reader is amortised over time. But those who are setting the prices should realise that part of the squawking about the cost of e-books is to do with the fact that readers are paying for e-readers and they don't then want to pay a lot for e-books on top of that.

2 - Authors and covers
Once all the publishers' backlists are digitised and there are thousands and thousands and thousands of e-books available, will covers for each individual book matter any more? Perhaps not. Rather, the author's brand may have more significance as a visual cue. Just like the old wax seal on an envelope, the author's personal brand will identify their e-books as a product of their (electronic) pen, so if you're an author you may wish to think about developing a visual brand - a logo or something like that. This brand can be applied to your e-book covers or could be used as a template that can be modified slightly for each e-book, thus providing an instant visual identification for your e-books. Or maybe I'm just trying to create work for graphic designers.

3 - The future is now
I often feel like there are quite a few folks in publishing who are collectively like a person who's been told the winning Lotto numbers and failed to submit an entry in time, and is about to complain long and loudly about their loss. We've had years to watch the music industry go through this; we can't say we weren't warned. Radiohead's little experiment with In Rainbows should be noted - and noted hard - as an example of what a big-selling author may decide to do some day soon. If blockbuster authors go it alone there will possibly be a period of calibration during which new authors won't even get a look-in at publishing companies, because there just won't be the money around to invest in them, but eventually we'll all need new stories from new people. If for no other reason than, to be blunt, people die (and I'm thinking of the industry in twenty years' time, not necessarily next month or next year).

4 - We have failed our teenage readers
There are so many excellent books for young adults - there have been for years. If the publishing industry (that includes me, by the way - I am not standing on the outside looking in) had looked at teenagers purely as customers and thought about how to retain them, I wonder how differently we'd have done things. I don't actually think we publish books that carry our teenage readers through to their thirties and forties and beyond (given that many non-genre novels are published for those latter age groups) but I'd be happy for someone to give me evidence that I'm wrong. It just seems that once YA readers are in their twenties they're on their own, and many of them stop reading - the rapture of their teenage years has gone. It's no wonder speculative fiction captures so many young readers - because it provides the rapture - but in the general fiction world I'm struggling to think of a concerted effort to publish stories for young people once they're over the age of eighteen. These are the very people whose worlds are now mostly digital - these are not people who are going to want print books in ten years' time. And as Clay Shirky said, 'No medium has ever survived the indifference of 25-year-olds.' Today's 15-year-olds will be 25 in a decade. Think about the teenagers you know and how they interact with culture - it's mostly digital, isn't it? That's what's coming; these are the readers we need to be thinking about and planning for right now.

5 - And finally

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Query letter #22: non-fiction

Agent Sydney:

The battle for gay equality wages [unfortunate choice of verb - when I'm reading a lot of these letters on the trot, I'm reading quickly, and 'gay' + 'equality' + 'wages' first made me think you had a poorly constructed clause about a branch of trade unionism], yet most people are under the incorrect assumption that the battle for equality is all about gay marriage. It is so much more than marriage. It is about the right to exist and be accepted unconditionally as human beings with feelings, desires, and ambitions. It is a fight for the civil rights that have not been extended to the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender communities. The past 10 years have been a tumultuous time for the LGBTQ community as steps have been taken both forward and backward. [This sounds a little like lecturing - you can presume that people in the publishing industry are fairly well read and are aware of social and political issues. Some of them even engage with these issues.]

My book, working title The Chronicles of Equality, examines the major arguments for and against gay equality and the advances made in the past decade. It is separated into three parts: Part 1 examines the major arguments of the equality fight including whether there is or is not a scientific basis for homosexuality, gay marriage and its effect on society, and the parallels gay rights draws to the fight for black civil rights; Part 2 provides a concise, yet detailed, year-by-year summary of the past decade; and Part 3 summarizes various outlooks and agendas of the major players in the fight for and against gay equality. There is a significant gap of non-fiction Gay and Lesbian literature that The Chronicles of Equality will address. Most of the literature examines gay rights history before the 21st century and is significantly outdated. [This sounds comprehensive but I don't know who you want your reader to be - as opposed to who your reader is likely to be. Your reader is likely to be someone who is already aware of the issues - those who are ignorant of the issues and wish to remain so aren't going to read it. So what's your intention in writing it - who is your ideal reader?]

In May 2011 I will hold a Master of Arts in National Security Studies and plan to study for my PhD in Conflict Analysis and Resolution immediately after. Throughout my undergraduate and graduate studies I have concentrated on subsets of national populations and their effects on domestic and foreign politics. This academic experience gives me the knowledge and research skills necessary to accomplish the goals of this book in a reader engaging rhetoric. [It also makes me think it's going to be an academic work, so you need to make it clear if you're writing for a trade/commercial audience or an academic one.] The catalyst for me writing this book was suffering workplace discrimination and harassment because of my sexual orientation, which brought me even closer to the already personal fight for equality.

Thank you for your time and consideration. If you wish to see the proposal for The Chronicles of Equality, please email me at


Author AGL

Overall: a fairly dense but competent letter. Try breaking up the first two paragraphs into smaller chunks - I'm being serious when I say we read a lot of these on the trot; it can get hard on the eyes when there's a large paragraph with lots of information.

What you haven't mentioned: word count and whether or not it's actually finished.

Query letter #21: fiction

Dear Agent Sydney

The Hive: [why use a colon when 'is a' would have worked much better?] a community of psionicists in contemporary London. They’ve lived in hiding for hundreds of years, fearful of persecution. Now they’re locked in an underground war against Silencers - vicious Psi-consuming parasites that take over unsuspecting Norms.

Lysander, the Hive’s visionary leader, has a solution that will eradicate the Silencers in one fell swoop. By coincidence, his proposal will also raise London’s ten thousand dormant telepaths to maturity. All he needs is the approval of the Hive’s communal mind to proceed, and the Silencers conveniently assist by harrying at every opportunity. The Hive might be reluctant to interfere in Norm affairs, but there’s no other choice if it is to survive.

Critical to Lysander’s proposal is Luke, a rebellious nineteen year old [So is this for young adults or not?] with unique – but dormant - psionic abilities. Falling under the older man’s wing, Luke soon finds himself embroiled in the Hive’s political intrigues. As if that wasn’t enough, the uncomfortably-good-looking Lysander’s sexual advances soon have Luke questioning his sexuality.

When Luke discovers there’s a traitor feeding information to the Silencers, he doesn’t know who to trust. Lysander’s revelation that he intends to use the ten thousand telepaths to bring about a golden age for mankind only complicates matters. The Silencers suddenly seem like the perfect justification for his ambitions.

But Lysander wouldn’t betray the Hive to its ancient nemesis just to get what he wants, would he? And if he had, does Luke have what it takes to stop his new lover before it is too late? [This is a lot of dense detail to this point - tighten it up.]

HIVE is a cross genre [ah, yes, but which genres? I can pick at least three] science fiction novel for adults complete at approximately 100k words. I am seeking representation. [I guessed that.] Thank you for your consideration.

Overall: a fairly good letter but the story description needs some tightening and you should identify the genres you're crossing.

What you haven't mentioned: you. Why are you writing in this genre? What do you love about it? Given that you have a potentially hard-to-market gay subplot, why have you included it? These are the things I'm wondering.

Query letter #20: children's sci fi

Dear Agent Sydney:

Hunter has always believed in aliens. Melody thinks he's crazy. But when their teacher disappears in the middle of the desert, the two kids must learn to trust each other as they race to rescue her from the sinister forces holding her captive. [Good hook, well expressed.]

And the closer they get to the truth, the more questions they uncover. Was Miss Pepper really abducted by a flying saucer? [Aren't flying saucers a bit 1977?] Why are they being chased by commandos and black helicopters? What does Mr Burgundy, the sinister government agent, know about the disappearance of Hunter's father four years ago? And how come aliens never wear pants? [Nicely paced, and it hooks me into the story - I want to know about the pants now!]

ENCOUNTER AT SHADOW ROCK is the first in the Hunter Black series of science fiction adventures for independent readers aged 8 to 12, and is complete at 22,500 words.

With an action and mystery vibe that's like "Spy Kids" meets "The X-Files" [important you said it's 'like' these things not that it 'is' these things - the first word gives us content, but using the second would have be worrying that you're thinking only of the film deal], the series will see Hunter and Melody investigate a variety of strange and eerie cases, as the mystery surrounding Hunter's father and his involvement in the global alien conspiracy gradually unfolds.

I have seven years of experience as a technical writer and publications manager, and my short story "The Boy Who Believed in Dragons" was published in AUREALIS magazine. [Why have you decided to write for children?]

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Author D

Overall: a very good letter. As the story is 22 500 words long, you don't have to give as much detail for the story, so this is an appropriate amount of words to get an agent/publisher intrigued.

What you haven't mentioned: why you're writing for children. As previously mentioned, children's publishing is its own little world and you will need to establish some bona fides - maybe refer to some titles you've read that you really like and that are in the same genre.

Query letter #19: fiction

Dear Mr. Sydney, [I'm a Ms, but whatevs]

When a bad batch of flu shots hits the streets this winter and people who aren’t people anymore begin pounding on Paul’s front door, he knows it’s time to hit the road. Thanks to his experience with apocalyptic movies and video games, his wife, Sophia, knows he is their only hope. [That's amusing - okay, I'm reading on.] With the power out, he gets them guns, a siphon-kit and a plan to head south, because if the walking corpses don’t get ‘em, the freezing Iowa temps will. [Snappy - good.]

STRAPPED is a realistic, 80,000 word Christian Paranormal novel [I have no familiarity with this genre, so I'm not going to be able to say whether or not you're conforming to the rules - I'll take it on, um, faith], which examines what happens when the resurrection of the dead becomes a ghastly reality, leading Paul Thomas from the unemployment line to the front line in a battle against darkness. It is here where he finally finds his calling as a gifted leader, but his swelling confidence quickly propels him towards tragedy. Losing Sophia, the one he wanted to protect the most, the adventure turns into a nightmare, putting his faith in God to the ultimate test while the fate of another hangs in the balance. [You've built tension well - pace is just as important as word choice in conveying a setting or emotion in text.]

Like Paul, I also have a Minor in Religion from The University of Iowa, a knack for setbacks and am my girlfriend’s best chance of surviving a zombie outbreak. [Nicely expressed mini-bio.] STRAPPED will cause the reader to ask themselves if they are shuffling through life like a self-absorbed zombie and will appeal to fans of A.P Fuchs, Tim LaHayes and Jerry Jenkins.[Good to make the references.] My completed manuscript is ready to be sent at your request and I thank you for your consideration.

Author STF

Overall: a very good letter. You've given the right amount of story detail and written it in such a way that I have a sense of how you would write the story - what the pace would be like, what sort of momentum it would have. You haven't belaboured details.

What you haven't mentioned: the word count and your background as a writer - it's quite okay to say it's your first novel if it is, and if you've written anything before or you're writing something else now, mention it.

Query letter #18: children's


My name is Author TS and I'm writing to query about a toddlers' book I'd like to write. [A book you'd like to write? Is that as far as you've gone in this process? NB to US/UK readers: I am taking the Australian view of things, which is that you need to have a bloody good reason why you don't have sample material for a non-fiction submission.]

I'm a science communicator by trade, have been for the last fifteen years or so - working giving shows to all ages, leading interpretive walks and writing everything from press releases to tv show fact sheets to information signs. I'm currently on a mostly-break from work raising a toddler or two - and I'm finding that there's a dearth of useful and interesting science-y books for the 2-5 age range. So too are my nerdy parent friends. Everything's at the level of "junior science fact books" and that type of thing, which is immensely boring to a child who can't
themselves read yet but still wants an endless "Why?" of questions answered. [Okay, you've established your scientific (but not children's writing) credentials and the reason why you think it would be on a good project, but I'm still stuck on the fact that this is a nebulous project.]

So what I'd like to write is a simple short story (could be a one-off, could easily be one of a series if there was sufficient interest) that uses, relies on and very simply explains some science principle - a kind of detective or mystery story, if you like, where the science is what
solves the puzzle. Relatively simple language and broken up text, to suit illustrations on each page. The thing that would make this book particularly good is that at the back I'd put one or two "parents' pages", that explain the science principle in a straight-forward way that adults
can understand and then use to answer their kids' questions about it. Even if the adults in question haven't slept properly for more than a year :-). The parents' page/s would also include some possible things to try at home, simple ideas that let parents and kids try out some of the science for themselves without having to spend a lot of money on buying stuff. [Interesting ideas but, again, nebulous.]

I look forward to hearing from you as to whether this fits with any of the sorts of projects you are looking for. [Sorry, but you haven't given me anything that I can send to a publisher and unless you're already my client and/or have a well-established profile in this field, I simply don't have the time to shepherd you through the writing process, especially as you've never written for children before.]


Author TS

Overall: this sounds like a request for a consultant, not a query letter. While the letter is nicely constructed, you can't send out a query for a project that is nothing more than an idea - well, you can, but don't expect an overwhelming response. At least have a plan that you can send the agent.

What you haven't mentioned: um ... see above.

Query letter #17: fiction

Dear Agent,

Tim Webster [now all I can think of is the Ten Network sports presenter :\] knows certain things. He knows things others don’t, things others can’t. Things others wouldn’t want to know. Tim knows exactly how long certain people have left to live. [Great hook.]

Living his life through ignorance [Meaning? He's ignorant of his skill? Ignorant of something else?], Tim has created for himself an essentially meaningless existence. He works at a local bank as a security guard, has few friends, and only finds solace in the arms of his girlfriend, Katherine Willow. He ignores his visions; happy to let people pass away, he defends, as fate intends.

Until fate finds Katherine.

Racing towards a deadline of only eighty-eight hours, Tim must piece together the mystery behind Katherine's death before it happens. As he delves further into his investigations Tim becomes entangled in a series of grisly murders, and soon realises that his own time may also be rapidly running out. After a life of selfishness, Tim must finally embrace the responsibility of his ability in order to save the woman he loves, discover how much he is willing to sacrifice, and find out whether or not he can change fate.

And, perhaps most frightening of all, in his search for a killer – [misplaced dash - it breaks up the rhythm of the sentence too much] Tim might just find exactly what he’s looking for.

FOREWARNED is Tim’s own recount of his search for a killer [this makes it sound like a true story - better to just not mention who the narrator is]. It is complete, at 70,000 words. Thank you for your time.

Author B

Overall: a great pitch for the story, but a bit thin on other information.

What you haven't mentioned: your writing background, if any, and where you think this fits in the wider world - is it a horror story or a love story or a thriller or a combination? What authors do you read in this genre? Are you writing anything else?

Query letter #16: YA fantasy

Dear Agent Sydney,

Storm Hunter is a YA adventure fantasy novel about a well-meaning thief who avoids trouble on her home island by stowing away on a passing ship. Unfortunately, it’s a pirate ship.

She fights for her place on board, survives shipwreck and first love, and makes her way home again to find trouble still waiting for her. [Good and clear, but you could use the odd adjective to give me a sense of whether or not the story is exciting or romantic etc.]

This is the first book in a trilogy, and it’s 80,000 words long.

As research for Storm Hunter, I read extensively about historical pirates and spent eleven days on board the Young Endeavour sail training vessel (although I admit I wasn’t a stowaway, and no-one tried to kill me [nice personal detail - and good to mention the research]). I’m sick of reading fantasy books set in Britain, so I designed a more original world. [More nice detail - and I applaud use of the informal 'sick'.] Mine has more sunshine and more beaches, so readers will long to visit it over and over again. [I'm starting to forgive your lack of adjectives at the start.] My fantasy world is based on Indonesia, which I have visited eight times. I also have a strong online presence with thousands of followers. [This last sentence should have a separate para and you should explain what that presence is around - your own personal website? Fan fiction? Slash fiction?]

Three of my books have been recommended by three different assessors since I began writing full-time in 2005. [This won't mean much to most agents or publishers. I'd rather hear about why you're writing in this genre and what titles in the genre you like.]

I welcome editing advice. [No need to mention this yet - wait till we get to know each other better. Because at this stage it sounds like you're asking for editorial advice and there's nothing we love more than the emails from authors saying 'What I really want is for you to give me a detailed editorial report on this manuscript that is not really ready for me to show anyone yet'.]

Yours sincerely,

Author F

Overall: pretty good - all the requisite information was there. Try to sound as assured about the story you've written as you do about the reasons why you've not set it in Britain.

What you haven't mentioned: if you've already started writing the second book in the trilogy and, as said above, why you're writing in this genre.

Query letter #15: YA paranormal fiction

Like many homeless teens, Mathias died on the street. Unlike the rest, he came back-- as a vampire. [Leaving aside the inevitable vampire-genre ennui, this is an intriguing hook - if there's actually something about him being a homeless teen in the story and it's not just a device to make him a vampire.]

Transformed by vampires who believe him to be the reincarnation of an ancient king, Mathias learns that his new life is nothing like the legends. He has a new set of rules he must adhere to, and he's lived without rules for awhile. Although he now has the body of a powerful winged predator, he's still just a runaway. Plagued by visions of a past life, he no longer knows who he can trust. And when the revelation of his noble heritage brings him into conflict with the reigning vampire queen, who sees him as a threat to her rule, Mathias will have to grow up fast. Because if he doesn't, his second life may be shorter than his first. [My ennui has gone - this sounds like an interesting story and you've explained it clearly.]

RIDING ON THE TAIL OF THE DEVIL is an 56,000-word YA fantasy. [This could have come at the end of the opening para.]

My short story, “Papap’s Teeth” was published by Dailey Swan Publishing in February of 2010. [That's it? You're not going to tell me anything more about yourself? Like why you're writing a vampire story?]

Thank you for your time and consideration,

Danielle DeVor

Overall: short but mostly effective. I did feel a little shortchanged though.

What you haven't mentioned: how your story is going to fit in the now enormous YA vampire-story genre - when you have this many competitors, you really need to think about how you're different and why an agent/publisher should take a chance on putting you in a very crowded market. Also, where is the story set? In the real world, or a made-up world?

Query letter #14: fiction

[This letter was sent to me with no line breaks and no paragraph indentation. I'm giving the author the benefit of the doubt - the internets could have taken away the line breaks - so I've inserted line breaks. But, author, if you didn't put them in originally, you need to - or you need to indent paragraphs.]

Terra Australis Templar

This completed story is in the style of an archaeological adventure with a hefty splash of mystery, historical speculation and a satirical view of a misplaced Englishman in The Land Down Under. It is the tale of the mis-adventures of Peter Wilks, a modern day remittance man and history student from Britain, who finds himself deeply mired in historical controversy, archaeology and the sordid politics that infests the halls of Australian academia. Especially so at Skaze University [don't use itals for the name of a place] in Queensland, the tropical paradise of the ‘dry continent’. Where Peter has been posted, serving as an exchange lecturer in the Commerce Faculty. A strange placement for someone who’s specialised in medieval history and the crusades and he only took it to avoid sharing the fate of his doctoral supervisor. Poor old Bartleby the former head of the medieval history department at Portlee University upset a competing academic with interesting connections to a research lab and now resides in a ‘secure facility’ with padded rooms and only occasionally thinks he is the ‘Great Rhinoceros’. [This paragraph is incredibly dense. My eyes got tired halfway through. Break it up.]

So Peter finds himself in the land of sun sand and surf, not such a sorry fate you’d think? However Peter’s new vice chancellor thinks he’s a spy for a rival (only partially true), his fellow staff at the commerce faculty treat him with all the regard and friendship of mouse in a room full of cats. As for the students, all the reruns of Aussie soaps like Neighbours and Home and Away on British TV were not enough to warn him of their bizarre behaviour. [You've moved into the realm of recounting the story, when what I need is a pitch - you need to give me a reason to read the story, not tell me everything that happens.]

So [second para in a row to begin with 'So'] in this Stalinist atmosphere Peter is understandably wary when Vice Chancellor Adams gives him the task of checking out a development site for any ‘archaeological’ significance in the wilds of the Sunshine Coast hinterland. What ever is he to do? What does he know about the aboriginals or colonial Australia? They didn’t cover any of that in his undergrad classes about the Middle Ages. Thank flipping heck for a convenient phone call from a dubious old Aussie friend Sid who has him heading off to the farthest corner of the Australian continent. Sid needs help sorting a problematic archaeological excavation on the rugged coast of the Kimberleys, and gives an iron clad guarantee of surf sand and bikinis!

Peter arrives to find that the claims of Sid though substantially true are also completely misleading. While his site surveyor Yvette Lampie is blonde and unbelievably attractive in that tanned Aussie way [you've just lost most of your potential female readers], she has no intention of donning a bikini and going swimming, well not yet anyway. Then there is the local wild life, a myriad of fanged, clawed, venomous and sharp toothed Kimberley creatures are really keen to make his acquaintance. If that were his only problem it could almost be bearable for the spectacular Kimberley scenery or the delights of its seafood. However the more he uncovers on the site the more perplexing the evidence becomes and the stranger Sid behaves towards his old ‘mate’. To add to the difficulties of an increasingly perplexing excavation, that may throw into question the date of the first Europeans in Australia, Peter has to contend with an escalating series of crises; important finds go missing, a voyage journal in latin [you italicised a previous proper noun but didn't put a capital letter on this one?] exists where it shouldn’t, not to mention a treasure trove load of possible fakes that can’t be, disreputable scavengers, nosy government officials and a conveniently available wealthy benefactor. All these serve to create the strangest excavation Peter has ever been on. When hints of a hidden castle and tomb arise Peter has only the dubious loyalty of a disgruntled Lampie to depend upon as he races to solve the mystery of Father Joachim’s journal before its secret is seized, pillaged and lost forever. To succeed all Peter and Lampie have to do is trek through a hundred miles of the roughest terrain on the continent, avoiding crocodiles, snakes and gun toting goons, then win the second siege of Mt Gibraltar. [I am overwhelmed by detail now, and still have no idea what this story is really about.]

The basis for this story is the continuing controversy surrounding who could have landed in Australia before the Dutch or Captain Cook. Then the story supposes that a historically recorded pillaging expedition of the Crusaders along the Red Sea in 1183 AD, could have if given the right circumstances and incentives, made it across the Indian Ocean and landed on the north western coast of Australia. [What does this have to do with the story you just described?]

I would be happy to send you a selection of the chapters or the completed manuscript

Regards Author G

(Please note this book is finished, edited, and is 165,000 words in total)

Overall: fail. That was not a query letter, that was a synopsis with a 'Regards' at the end. And it was a confusing synopsis at that. There is just far too much detail here. If you need to take this many words to tell me what your story is, you don't know what your story is - and that's one reason why writing a query letter can actually help your storytelling, because it forces you to think about what your story really is and who it's for.

What you haven't mentioned: who's your reader? What, actually, is the genre? And the word count should have come in the body of the letter.

Query letter #13: paranormal thriller

Dear Ms ---------
I'm seeking representation for my completed 82,500 word paranormal thriller 'ALL YOU WHO ENTER HERE'.
In ALL YOU WHO ENTER HERE [first thing I noticed was that you used quote marks around the title the first time and then didn't use them here - yes, we notice things like that because we're all anal retentives, so proofread your letter before you send it off] an Australian factory worker inherits wealth beyond his wildest dreams, and a house beyond his worst nightmares. [Good hook]
Chris Paterson knows nothing about his deceased father except that he was English, so when a letter arrives requesting his presence at the reading of a will he is intrigued. Chris discovers he is the sole heir of a grandfather he never knew and is now the owner of vast wealth and property. There's just one small condition; [I'm thinking of holding a colon/semi-colon workshop - this should be a COLON!] he must live for a specified time at Trellwoods House, his grandfather's old home in Shropshire, England. The newly-rich Patersons [Did he clone himself? No? Don't assume that we'll know what you mean by 'Patersons'] fly to England and move into the isolated mansion. But there's something about Trellwoods House Chris hasn't been told. Then there's 'The Society' , thirteen old men with evil intentions, unlimited wealth and power, and an unhealthy interest in the Paterson family. Then there's [don't use 'Then there's' again] the ancestral graveyard. Abandon hope all you who enter here. [This last sentence is overkill - you've referred to this phrase in the title so we don't need to be told again.]
My story 'The Overcoat' gained third place in the 2005 Australian Horror Writers Association short story contest, and an honourable mention in Ellen Datlow's 'Years Best Fantasy and Horror'. I have had several other short stories and articles published and I'm busy with my second novel. My influences are such authors as James Herbert and Ira Levin. [Good para]
Enclosed please find SAE, synopsis and the first three chapters.
Thank you for your time. I look forward to hearing from you.
Yours sincerely.
My name.

Overall: a fairly good letter, if slightly lacklustre. I don't feel like the story is going to be scary - maybe try to convey a sense of what it's like to read the story when you're describing the story. Writing the pitch is hard, as you can see - I'm being really pernickety with everyone. But that's because you only get one chance with each agent/publisher to make the pitch so it needs to be as good as possible.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Query letter #12: fiction

Behind the fa├žade of decent daily living, the spectre of death creeps steadily closer, stealing a wife, a mother, a lover and tearing a family apart. [Well, that certainly sets a mood. My romance fiction high just dived a little. But at least I know what sort of story this is likely to be ... don't I?]

Tessa’s life is in tatters; [I originally said that this should be a colon but a reader has told me I'm an idiot for saying this, so make up your own mind] she is killing herself [literally?] and has no power to arrest the process [I don't understand - if she's killing herself literally can't she stop it?]. On the outside she appears to have it all; [colon alert - again, make up your own mind because apparently I know nothing about spelling and grammar] an adoring husband, two amazing sons, a gorgeous home, but on the inside her soul flat lines. [Hmmm ... okay, but this is also flatlining a little bit - it doesn't sound that different.]

Adrian [who is he?] has watched her from afar for years. An illicit night together brings Tessa’s unmanageable life into focus. Forced to search for a solution, she discovers to her horror that the one thing she has to give up is the only thing which makes her life bearable. [And now I'm confused. How does the night together bring the life into focus? What does she need a solution for? And has this just become a romance novel? What does any of this have to do with the opening line?]

PUSHING UP DAISIES is a completed mss at 100k and is aimed at the fiction / women’s fiction marketplace. [As I'm still not clear what the story is - horror? thriller? romance? - you should give some indication of who you think your reader is.]

I attach the first page of the manuscript. Extracts 1 and 3 on the “Work” page of my website are further extracts from this manuscript. [Where's your URL?]

The full manuscript is available to you upon request.

I live in Auckland, New Zealand and work in a legal office as a Legal Executive. I have been a member of Romance Writers of New Zealand for the last six years. I regularly attend meetings and conferences and place in RWNZ competitions. [Good information to mention.]

Thank you for taking the time to read my submission. I look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely yours,

Author T

Overall: needs work. The description of the story is muddy - I really don't know what's going on, who's dying, who means what to whom et cetera. Accordingly, I can't imagine why I would want to read this story. Give me a reason to want to read your story.

What you haven't mentioned: who you think your reader is and what the genre is ('women's fiction' doesn't cut it when you raise horror elements and also mention you're a member of RWNZ).

Query letter #11: romance fiction

Dear (Agent)

I recently completed “A Heat Of The Moment Thing”, an 89,000-word contemporary romance with humour, and I hope you will consider representing me. [Good - title, genre, word count all provided and I can read on with this in mind.]

Becky Jansen doesn’t do relationships. She can barely manage a one-night stand. But put her in a swimming pool, add a close and bloody encounter with the wall and she’s scored herself the hottest guy ever as her hero. [Great hook. 'Close and bloody encounter with the wall' is ambiguous enough to make me think you're writing in some racy subgenre I haven't yet discovered.] On her return to work, there he is. Hot guy. Her new boss. She might have been interested before, but not now. Hell, no. Work and personal just don’t mix; been there, done that, got the scars. But Matt’s confident, he’s got her in his sights, and he’s making it damn hard for her to say “no”.

Becky needs a distraction—fast. Charlie is the perfect solution. Rich, good-looking and a shameless playboy, he’ll keep things simple and that’s just what she needs—or so she thinks. But a Matt-versus-Charlie altercation isn’t her idea of simple. And when her sister gets involved—that’s when things become downright complicated.

[Good, good, all good - you've kept the description short and sweet and loaded it with hooks.]

“A Heat Of The Moment Thing” is my debut novel. It has placed in both US and UK writing competitions. [Again, concise and useful. And if I want more information I'll ask you - I actually don't need all the details of the competitions at this stage.]

Although my CV reads economist-turned-teacher, I currently juggle motherhood, lecturing and freelance writing. However, my career aspirations are in full-length fiction. I am working on my second novel, with concept plans for a further three. [Great - I know that you're writing because you love it and that you have kept on writing - you're not just pinning your hopes on this particular project.]

Many thanks for your time. I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours sincerely

Author K

Overall: gold star. Even if romance isn't the agent's genre, you've provided enough information for an agent/publisher to make up their mind.

Query letter #10: non-fiction - or is it?

[The subject line of this author's email read 'quiry letter' and I can't let that pass without comment - if you make a spelling mistake in the subject line of the email, that's a Very Bad Sign.]


The January 14, 1975 edition of the New Orleans Times Picayune read: “Thirteen dead. Killed by New Orleans Attorney Tom Baker” Word Count 104,552. [Is it fiction or non-fiction? Just because you mention a real newspaper doesn't mean that I can assume it's non-fiction - you need to make it clear. Also, what does the word count have to do with what comes before it?]

Tom Baker attended Tulane University School of Law with the intent of fighting for justice. Having met that goal with a successful law practice in New Orleans, La., and having married into New Orleans society, his family is murdered. Tom has to deal with the murderer who is released on a technicality. Because of how he handled that situation, the Mayor of New Orleans and the Governor secretly employ Tom to head a special task force to solve some serial killings and cold case files. His orders are to bring the guilty parties in dead with a promise of a pardon from the Governor if he is tried and convicted for any of the killings. Tom kills 13 criminals, hence, A BAKER’S DOZEN, and a battle ensues between Tom and the District Attorney (a former law school class mate) who is trying to put Tom in jail. [Somewhere in here there is an interesting story but I lack the will to find it - so would another agent or publisher. We see hundreds, if not thousands, of these letters a year - give me a reason to want to keep reading yours. If you simply make statements I don't know which parts of this letter I'm meant to care about.]

Author SIH, born July XX, 193X, graduated from Tulane University School of Law in 1964. Author of the “Louisiana Notarial Handbook and Study Guide,” “The Louisiana Notarial Form Book,” contributing author of the “Fundamentals of Louisiana Notarial Law and Practice,” distributed by the State of Louisiana. [So you have an academic writing background - it's good to mention it, but it also means you need to work on the paragraph above a bit more, because it reads like it's for an academic title, not a potentially thrilling true crime story.] I retired from the practice of law in 2007. BAKER’S DOZEN is a story I have had in the back of my mind for many years and finally decided to write. [And I still don't know if it's fiction or non-fiction.] I have also written a true short story for the Lake Charles American Press (Our local Newspaper) called THE BEAR WON’T DIE. I have just completed my second Novel ['novel' doesn't need a capital N - the English language long ago shucked off its German roots] dealing with the assassination of the President of the United States, the Vice President, the Secretary of State, the president Pro Tempore and the Speaker of the House all of whom are killed in one night. (A Political thriller).THE COST OF LIBERALISM. [Don't tell me about this novel if it's not the manuscript you want to submit.]

Thank you for your time in considering me as a client.

Author SIH

Overall: fail. I haven't been given a reason to want to read this story other than that it's been on your mind for a while. The facts (if that's what they are) that you have cited sound like they could make an interesting story but there are lots of interesting stories in the world - why should I read yours? Give me a reason. What is it about Tom Baker that fascinates you?

Monday, January 17, 2011

Query letter #9: speculative fiction

HEART OF GEARS is a science fiction, dystopian novel with a bit of steampunk thrown in. It is targeted towards young adults who enjoy stories like the Hunger Games. [This sentence is a bit workmanlike. Where's the hook? I'd leave this para until after the story description.]

Sophie Lane made a promise to herself; [this should be a colon - yes, I'm a pedant] she will protect her sister no matter what. Level Four of the great spherical city, known as the Hive, may not be the ideal place for a widowed mother and a unregistered clockmaker to raise a little girl, but together Sophie and her mother manage to shape Ruthie into something of a model citizen, and, more importantly, keep her safe.

When an old friend re-enters Sophie’s life in need of her help, she realizes that her sister isn’t the only person she loves who needs protecting.

And when it comes to people she loves, Sophie will stop at nothing to keep them safe. [run on this sentence to previous para]

However, up until now she has never participated in a coup to help her friends and families, but she’s done crazier things for the people she loves. Unfortunately for her, her latest attempt to save her loved ones has won her a stay in the Hall of Time, the maximum-security prison that has a most effective torture tactic; [colon alert] time in the Hall is suspended. [You've lost me here - my attention is wandering]

Now a prisoner of time [and now I'm back - perhaps find a way to condense the previous para and get us to the point where she's a prisoner of time, because that's interesting!], Sophie will do anything in her power to continue to protect the people she loves, but will it be enough? Her will will be tested, her love will be tested, and if she fails, she seals the fate of the people she loves the most.

I am in my third year at Phillips (Andover) Academy and my plan, which is subject to change at any point, is to major in Creative Writing. I am also interested in languages, archaeology, fashion, and sports. [I don't need to know this - I'd rather know why you're writing dystopian fiction with steampunk thrown in i.e. what have you been reading in the genre?]

HEART OF GEARS is incomplete at 25k [if you must query before it's finished, don't mention that it's unfinished - you're going to be told to go away and come back when it's done. No one ever wants to see a first draft, especially an unfinished one]. There is a sequel in its future. [How do you know if the first one's not finished?]

Thank you for taking the time to read my query,

Author K

Overall: interesting story premise but there was a lack of oomph. I got no sense of you as a writer - or reader. Genre fiction like this needs that bona fides because, like children's books, you're entering into an arena with passionate and knowledgeable readers. If it sounds even a teensy bit like you're writing spec fic for cynical reasons, it won't work.

What you haven't mentioned: the word count, because you can't. And, again, your 'credentials' in spec fic - I don't mean previously published work, just your background in the genre as a reader.

Query letter #8: YA fiction

Dear [publisher/agent],

Poppy has a problem and that problem’s name is Sashabella, her big sister. [This sentence is a little awkward] Fashion-mad Sash, a blogger turned designer, has driven Poppy to breaking point with incessant talk of clothes and shoes. Now, Poppy’s out to teach her sister that there’s more to life than looking good. She just needs two large pythons and a little help from Devon, a
famous designer’s daughter; Trina, Poppy’s best friend and a model’s sister; and Max, the cute filmmaker she meets backstage. Together, she and her friends are The SOS Club and they’re going to make sure Sashabella’s debut catwalk show isn’t the sugary pink vision the teenage fashionista had in mind. [Interesting premise for the story, but break up the paragraph a bit - maybe at 'Together ...' Also, what ages are these characters?]

The SOS Club (The Substance Over Style Club) is an 11,694 word story written for [publisher's imprint for older children/adolescents]. [That word count's a bit small for YA] I enclose my entire manuscript [for this was the publisher's instruction].

I wrote this story because I, like Poppy, have an older sister who can be painfully annoying. I remember the battles of childhood and my teenage years vividly. I’m sure readers with siblings will identify with Poppy’s struggles and those of her friends – feeling jealous, angry, petulant, ignored and abandoned are all universal experiences. I’m sure plenty have dreamed of getting revenge in the most spectacular way possible. [Good para]

I also wrote it because I am a fashion journalist who finds people who treat clothes and accessories all too seriously very entertaining. I got the idea for this story after covering Australian Fashion Week for [daily newspaper] taught me that the world of fashion is a funny
place. It was better than being David Attenborough studying an exotic species. The fashionistas in their natural habitat were at once terrifying and hilarious, especially to me, the only female in flat shoes, glasses and not a particle of make-up. [Trim this para a bit]

I have produced short fiction with some success – my story [name goes here] was short-listed and highly commended for last year's ACT Writers Centre Marjorie Graber-McInnis Short Story Award.

I have worked as a [daily newspaper] journalist since finishing my Communications (Journalism) degree at the University of Canberra; before that, I freelanced. Besides writing about fashion, I am a columnist, news reporter and features writer.

Thank you for your time and consideration. I’d love to hear from you. [This last sentence is a good one, and the reason is that it's informal yet enthusiastic - as I've said before, this letter could be the first of many in a business relationship that spans years, and it's good to keep things formally conversational.]

Best regards,

[Author name]

Overall: the tone was very good, and the letter is well composed.

What you haven't mentioned: if you've had any experience writing for children before, or what children's/YA books you love. Children's books are a looping community somewhat bonded by who's read what and who can recommend what and whether or not you liked it ... So some reference points would be good here. (NB: If you don't have any - if you haven't been reading for the age group - you need to before sending out this manuscript.) Also, do you envisage this as a series?

Query letter #7: YA fiction

Dear Agent,

Mishca’s heart is not her own, and then she falls in love. [You have my attention - good opening line.]

After graduating high school and undergoing a life saving heart transplant, Mishca Richardson [If this is YA you need to give us the character's age early on[ hopes that she can finally have a semblance of a normal life. But her new heart appears to have consequences as she is plagued by post operation nightmares and a sudden yearning to find her birthparents, which has never been an issue for her before. [Interesting premise - I want to keep reading]

Mishca’s search for birth parents leads her to Ryder, a fellow adoptee who is unfazed by her health issue and lack of experience with boys. While her romance with Ryder blossoms, other things in her life are not going according to plan as she discovers no-one has ever been able to trace their birthparents with the agency she was adopted through. Then Mishca’s whole world is turned upside down when she goes to university and meets her literature professor Colin Read.

But the gravity of her situation is worse than Mishca realises. She is secretly being watched by a man called Wirth, who is responsible for her dream, knows the truth about her past and has plans for her future.

[A nice amount of detail, and well broken up - I didn't feel like I was being given too much]

Mishca is a YA Speculative Fiction [why is it spec fic? It doesn't sound like it necessarily fits into that genre], complete at 50,500 words. It is designed to be book one of a series. While Mishca and the series are set in Australia, I have undertaken market research on a YA writers’ community, Inkpop, by posting a portion of an early draft the story. I received nearly 700 comments, predominately from American teens, and the feedback shows that Mishca would be commercially successful internationally if published. In June Mishca was actually voted in the top five favourite projects on the site out of more than 25,000 pieces of work by the members. [Good to include this - it's useful information for agent/publisher as it shows you've connected with a potential readership, and connection is a good thing!]

I am looking for an agent who will work with me, through editing and advice, to establish myself as a long-term career author. As per your submission guidelines, I have included the first ten pages of Mishca below.

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

Best Wishes

Author S

Overall: a very good letter. You have an interesting premise for the story and you've let it speak for itself. The only real quibble is with the genre - it sounds like it should be plain old 'young adult fiction' rather than 'YA speculative fiction'.

What you haven't mentioned: the author included some indication of where she would personalise the letter for the agent/publisher it's addressed to, and I removed the references so they didn't interrupt the flow of the letter.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Query letter #6: fiction

I am seeking representation for A Woman Transported, a historical [historical what? novel?] set between London and Australia in the early 1800s. The story is complete at 100,000 words.

A Woman Transported is a tale of pain, struggle, deceit, and ultimately love — and one woman’s fight to find her mother transported across the oceans to Botany Bay — a hell on earth where even the kookaburras mock the convicts with laughter. [This last bit may appeal to overseas readers but would strike a false note with Australians, because we know that kookaburras only laugh at impending rain and the small warm-blooded animals they're about to tear apart.]

London, 1814 – Isabel [who is Isabel? How old is she? Is she a convict?] imagines the land the floating convict prison hulks are destined for, the prison on the other side of the world, but all she can vision is a grey, damp, wet, overcrowded land full of decrepit buildings — a land of evil, depraved people, and the horror her convict mother must be living in Australia. [This para is a bit heavy - try reworking it.]

Isabel, the daughter of a candle and soap maker, [Ah, so this is who she is - why couldn't you tell us in the para above?] dreams of seeing her mother again and escaping the rabbit warrens where even the light seems oppressive. Using a determination known by those who have suffered deeply she overcomes poverty, evades brutal men and fights against an unjust system of justice. She makes her way to Australia, finds her mother near death in the sunburnt land and much more than she expects or is prepared for.

I’m an Australian woman and Isabel’s story comes from my life-long fascination with not only the fragility of human nature, but also the period when around 162,000 men and women were transported to Australia between 1788 and 1868. [Fair enough, but as it's historical you should mention any research you've done. Also, be aware that your competitor title in this vein is the legendary Sara Dane so you need to be able to match that story's appeal and sweep.]

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Overall: this letter, while containing a lot of the right information, feels a bit tentative and stiff. You should write it as if you're telling it to someone and let the spoken tone guide you. Agents and publishers see hundreds of query letters a year and anything that seems too formal is going to just seem like the other letters, so you need to stand out - don't be afraid to start pitching straightaway and convey how much you love your story, or have loved writing it. Passion goes a long way in impressing others.

Query letter #5: fiction

Dear Mr/Ms. Sydney,

Psychiatry has never been so dangerous. [At first blush this looks like it would be a good hook, but it's actually not - don't use it. Go straight to the next para.]

Alpha Slip is a novel of paranoia, conspiracy and fractured realities. [Good - concise, clear, descriptive.] In 2065, Detroit is a broken city where the police can be bought and surveillance is omnipresent. The only place left to speak freely is in your head: rebellious youth use hacked psychiatric tools to plug into each other’s minds and share dreams of sex and false enlightenment. [Again, good. Interesting premise, and you've set place and time without any fuss.]

Professor William Vice is the pioneer of this dream-melding technology. He comes out of unhappy retirement to help his old students treat Buckley, a child soldier returned from the civil war on Mars. But when one of his students is found murdered and Vice is accused, he finds himself on the run from the police, Buckley, and his mysterious military backers. [I'd stop the description here and not use the next para - you've left us dangling with this one, and that's all you need.]

To make things worse, Vice is suffering delusions of his own. His greatest talent – his skill in melding and slipping through patient’s dreams – may also be his undoing. The meld implants in his head are old and failing, and picking reality from hallucination may be the greatest challenge of all.

Alpha Slip is [a] completed 110,000 word manuscript, and would appeal to fans of Richard Morgan, William Gibson and Philip. K. Dick. [Good - word count and references.] It is my fourth completed novel [don't say this unless the first three were published], and I sincerely feel it is ready for publication. [Don't say this either - if you don't think it's ready for publication, you shouldn't send it to me, so saying this just makes me think that maybe you're not sure.] I am querying you specifically because of your interest in aggressive and edgy spec fiction - I think Alpha Slip tackles a number of provocative issues, such as the enslavement of child soldiers and the effects of a surveillance state, without losing sight of its classic sci-fi roots. [Good]

Thankyou for your consideration.


Author C

Overall: a very good letter.

What you haven't mentioned: why you're writing this type of story. Because spec fiction has a passionate readership and equally passionate writers, with lots of subgenres, so for this genre - and for romance - it can be good to mention why you've chosen your particular subgenre. It will help the agent/publisher envisage where it fits. But it's a nice-to-have, not a must-have.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Query letter #4: fiction

Dear Agent Sydney:

Disgusted with God’s plan for Judgment Day, Satan has quit his job and left Hell in favor of a quiet retirement in Washington, D.C. [I'm hooked already - great premise, clearly expressed - plus the hilarious prospect of a quiet anything in DC.] But life on Earth is tricky for an ex-angel with a short fuse and no impulse control. [Ha!] When a parking attendant mysteriously bursts into flames and a weight-challenged woman somehow ends up in low-Earth orbit, Satan finds that he has attracted the attention of several meddlesome federal agencies. Even worse, there are signs that the governor of Texas has somehow gone ahead and started up the end of the world. The Prince of Darkness heads for the Lone Star State, where he tangles with a megalomaniacal televangelist, joins the Militant Arm of the American Geriatrics Association, and wields the Flaming Stick of Divine Justice at a guy whose hobbies include invading churches to denounce ritualized cannibalism. Through it all, one thing is clear: Someone has to put a stop to Judgment Day. Now, having spent millennia trying to wreck the place, the Devil may be the world’s only hope. [All very well expressed, but break into two paragraphs - especially if this query is sent by email, the one para looks too dense. Para break should come before 'The Prince of Darkness'.]

WHAT WOULD SATAN DO? is 95,000 words of humorous/satirical general fiction that should appeal to folks who like reading absurdist humor of the sort found in Christopher Moore’s Lamb and Douglas Adams’ The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul. [Good to mention these as it establishes a potential readership - particularly in spec fiction - and also good to not directly compare yourself to them - which is a fine distinction, but an important one.] I'm a member of the Lesser North Texas Writers, the Writers Guild of Texas, and a group called the Writers of Weird Works, but it’s probably only my job as a trial lawyer that qualifies me to make up stories about Satan. [Ha! Nice hook.] I am prepared to send the completed manuscript if you'd like to take a look.

I look forward to hearing any thoughts you might care to offer, and thank you for your time and consideration.

Thank you,

Author A

Overall: excellent. Told me everything I needed to know in a very appealing fashion - even if I thought this story wasn't right for me, I'd still want to read it because I suspect it would be funny and that the author may also be fun to work with.

Query letter #3: fiction

Dear Agent Sydney,

I am seeking representation for my literary [Alert! Only use this descriptor if you are querying an agent who specialises in literary fiction - for anyone else it's going to possibly be a bad thing, since literary fiction is the hardest type of fiction to get published] novel, Red Seagull, complete at 65, 000 words. [Otherwise, good opening sentence - concise, tells me key information.]
Having worked as an arts and music journalist for ten years, my writing has been regularly featured in various print and online publications, including: The Big Issue, Crikey, Time Off, Inpress, Beat, Drum Media, and Rave magazine. Red Seagull is my first novel. [Again, concise, gives relevant information.]

In a moment of shared, drunken desperation, a dying billionaire and a young man in freefall meet and determine to rescue an unravelling world. The people [Which people? The people? Of which country?] will be asked to decide, to burn or save its most treasured work of art, and in doing so will decide their own fate. [The email didn't contain line breaks in this section so I haven't inserted them, but you should include them otherwise the text all runs together.]
In a personal universe of unlimited wealth, Fax can have his every thought turned real except that of escaping his impending death. He finds Huck, a man convinced of our time’s futility, and together they find a joy in this, a freedom, and imagine a plan to carry out “a gesture of impossible and ridiculous liberation.” Red Seagull is a painting the world knows, it is embedded in history, and the population will have thirty days to vote on its salvation or destruction. [This is basically the same as the para above, just with more words = unnecessary duplication.]
Flushed with the novelty of power, will the people embrace this symbol of hope or will they set themselves to flame?
The city’s central square is commandeered as a great stage and becomes a place of celebration and protest. The people come in gushing numbers, to set eyes upon this work of art so deeply set in the common psyche, and to have their vote. Fax sees the outcome as an inevitability – that charged with the prospect of a genuine power, they will choose to exercise it, to have this symbol of achievement and aspiration destroyed. Huck, initially reckless with enthusiasm, is crushed by the reality of this plan they have put to action.
The emotional centre of the story, Gay experiences the fury and ecstasy absent from her partner, Huck. Suddenly abandoned, she finds herself revealed; furious at what she perceives as her lack of strength and a desire to rescue Huck at any cost – to deny the damage he has inflicted and to mother their dismantled relationship. The city grows wild around the vote on Red Seagull.
As the attentions of the globe descend on the scenes of the city’s square, where the enraged and confused masses have come to vote and find their voice, relationships are made and destroyed between the story’s central figures. Love turns to panic and anger, while a new kind of optimism is invented between strangers. Red Seagull is the story of thirty blazing days experienced through the shifting perspectives of Huck and Fax – unhinged comrades, Gay – the witness to her lover’s disintegration, and Amadeo – the apprentice, fighting to claim the fortune and destiny he sees self-destructing. Red Seagull is the story of the days of fear and decision, and the choices people make. [The only bit that interested me in this description was the part from 'Red Seagull is the story ...' to the end of this paragraph - the rest of the description is a bit confusing. Keep it clear, stick to the main thrust of the story and let them find out the details when they read it. This letter should be a pitch, not a synopsis.]

Thank you for your consideration of this proposal and please let me know if you would like any other information or further samples [what samples have you given me now?] of the manuscript.
Author R.

Overall: okay, but needs improvement. There are some punctuation errors (missing commas, mainly) that need to be fixed and, as mentioned, the description of the story is a bit tangled.

What you haven't mentioned: who you believe would read your novel. The story is fairly esoteric - do you imagine it's going to appeal to art lovers? Readers of 'quality fiction'? When it's not a genre novel the audience is less defined, and it's important that you know who you're writing for, and that you can articulate who that reader is.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Query letter #2: non-fiction

Dear Agent Sydney,

Ever see a beautiful flower arrangement and think, “Man, I wish I could make that!” [While I frequently employ 'man' in everyday life, it does immediately position this book in a certain demographic - the Fonzie demographic. And it's likely that many of those with the time, inclination and cashola to do floral design are in the Mrs Cunningham demographic, so you may as well leave the door open. Please reconsider inclusion of 'man'.] -Maybe not. Why? It can seem too hard and time consuming.

Groundbreaking in methods and untraditional design, The Flower Chef is putting floral design myths (such as flower prep and techniques) to rest, and inspiring a new generation of “Do-It-Yourself” [at this point you could make a quick reference to the popularity of craft and DIY websites and books, to establish a potential readership for the agent/publisher]. For most of the flower recipes in here you can go to your local grocery store, farmer’s market or florist, and buy bunches of flowers or deconstruct a pre-made bouquet to create a professional looking arrangement.

Formatted like a traditional cookbook with prep/cook time and ingredients [Why have you ordered the book like this? It's not an immediately obvious fit with flowers, so you'll need to explain] , it goes in sequential order from beginner arrangements (Appetizers) to advanced (Entrees/Desserts). I’ve also included food recipes for each section because who doesn’t love looking at recipes? [That's not a good enough reason to include them - explain how they fit with your flower theme, because what we take from the title is 'flower' not 'chef', thus the reference is a bit oblique] For the most part they are vegetarian friendly, and simple enough to actually make. At the back you will find party and special occasion ideas, which include ways to mix-and-match the food and flowers.

I’m an ambitious young entrepreneur that started my own floral business after working in non-profit. During college I worked at the top florists in Los Angeles as a sales girl, learning the ropes and teaching myself along the way. My design studio Fxxxx has been featured in Daily Candy, KCRW, MyFoxLA, Wedding Wire, numerous wedding and event blogs, and has donated arrangements to many charities including FEED and Sandpipers. Flour also contributes to editorial photo-shoots and is the official florist of the LA Shoot This! photography group. [good, good, good - credentials established]

Please visit my website at to see my eco-friendly arrangements. [Eco-friendly! Why didn't you say so earlier? This is an important point to make. Ppl luvz the eco.]

The full proposal is complete. Thank you in advance for your time and consideration. It’s much appreciated!! [Never use two exclamation marks when one will do.] Looking forward to hearing from you.

Warmest Regards,
Author C

Overall: a good pitch for an idea that's not necessarily an obvious winner. Your tone is bright and engaging, and I'd want to see the proposal because I think I like you already. Note to Australian readers: this author is in the US, where a proposal for a non-fiction project is still acceptable. Here in the great southern land, we need to have a bit more for submissions.

What you haven't mentioned: Is the book four-colour photographic? How many recipes are you thinking of including? How long would it take you to do a full manuscript? And I'm still not sure who your readers are - can you give an idea of where you think this book fits - in with craft books? In with gorgeous, expensive cookbooks?

Query letter #1: non-fiction

**December was hard yakka. And I got about two days off over the 'break' so, ahem, I'm running really late with these query letters - sorry, folks. This letter was originally sent a while ago, in response to my request for NF queries. All comments in bold.**

Dear Agent,

I am seeking representation for a proposed [use of the word 'proposed' makes me think you haven't written anything yet - in which case, why are you querying?] non-fiction parenting book, The Secret Life of a Baby.

Parents are often confused about how they should be parenting their new babies, and frequently seek answers from books. Many books focus on what our babies should be doing, such as when they should sleep through the night, when they should eat solids, and when they should be reaching developmental milestones. If our babies aren’t doing this, they [you need to define 'they' as 'these books' lest we think it's some other 'they'] generally tell us how to train your baby to fit into your routine as quickly as possible.

However, as a child psychiatrist [this information should have come earlier - it's your credential for writing a book which you've already acknowledged is entering a crowded field], I am concerned that we are ignoring the baby’s needs, potentially to the detriment of the child’s psychological development. Despite being an ‘expert’, I found myself reaching for parenting books when I was tired and vulnerable after the birth of my first baby last year, and was distressed to find that very few books give practical advice while still focussing on a baby’s needs. [This paragraph is sufficient - delete the para above.]

The Secret Life of a Baby will explain to parents of infants how a baby sees the world, and the importance of following the baby’s cues. It will discuss the infant’s psychological development from some of the major theorists in an accessible way, using examples from my own parenting experiences. I have a strong passion to inform parents about what we think – from the major theorists – and what we know – from science – about parenting and childhood development so that they can make the best choices when they are struggling and looking for help.

I am a child and adolescent psychiatrist [you've already told us you're a child psychiatrist so you should rephrase this - 'As a child and adolescent psychiatrist I have worked ...] and have worked extensively with women during their pregnancy and the neonatal period. In 2009 I won the Royal Australia and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists’ Maddison Medallion which is awarded to the new psychiatrist who has performed most meritoriously in their training. As well as this professional experience, I have personal experience as I am the mother of a fourteen month old baby and am pregnant with my second.

I have always loved writing and have done my best to integrate writing into my professional life. This began with writing articles and book reviews for online psychiatric sites. More recently I had a feature article on parenting and mental health published in a magazine, and an article on the links between medicine and writing for a medical writing journal. I have also had an academic article accepted for publication in a peer reviewed psychiatry journal later this year, and I write a blog on my own experiences of being a parent and a psychiatrist. I also enjoy writing fiction and have recently written the first draft of a novel through Queensland Writers’ Centre’s Year of the Novel Course. [delete reference to fiction - this para is already quite long and the reference to fiction will just confuse matters, although I understand why you put it in]

I appreciate that you are extremely busy, and thank you for taking the time to consider my proposal. I am of course happy to provide you with any further information, and I look forward to hearing from you in due course.

Yours Sincerely,


Overall, a good effort. It just needs to be tightened up a little, and perhaps read it again with a view to being more confident about your credentials - by deleting the second para and going straight into your rationale for writing the book, you will sound more confident, and the tone could also be lifted a little.

What you haven't mentioned: word count. If the manuscript isn't finished, give a proposed word count and say when you think you'll finish writing it.