By popular demand, my amazing agent, Michelle Wolfson, agreed to do a guest post discussing my original query letter – the one that caught her eye back in December 2006.
A couple details before we get started:
If you haven’t already read my post on query stats, you might want to check that out for some background on my query process.
Secondly, you should keep in mind that while this query letter prompted offers of representation from four agents, and two of those agents tried to sell it (my first agent, then Michelle) this book never sold.
I repeat, this book never sold.
It makes me a little sad to type that, and it certainly wasn’t for any lack of trying. We had several editors teetering on the brink of buying it, but for whatever reason (The market? Timing? Aliens abducting editors and replacing them with sausages?) it never happened.
That doesn’t mean it won’t happen. I still love this book, and while I’m ecstatic about the three-book deal Michelle recently nabbed for my romantic comedies, I’m still hopeful A TRICKY UNDERTAKING will someday find a home.
The words you see below in blue Arial are Michelle’s. The ones in red courier are taken word-for-word from my original query. I didn’t correct or polish anything before posting it here (much as I might have wanted to). You’ll see a couple small comments from me in bold.
So here we go, dear readers. Take it away, Michelle!
For the record, it’s been nearly four years since Tawna sent me her original query letter. I’ve read a lot of queries since then. So maybe if I were giving advice now (which I suppose is exactly what I’m about to do here), I might suggest a little tweak here or maybe a little style change there. Overall, I have to say I look at this query letter after all these years, and still see the core of everything I loved both then and now about Tawna the writer and Tawna the person.
Before I start, I have to reiterate my oft repeated query advice which is that the query is meant to get an agent’s attention. The goal is to get the agent to request pages. You are writers: you write and you edit. The same should hold true for your query letter. Every sentence should be written and later edited while thinking, is this sentence going to make her want to request pages? If not, cut it out.
Subject: QUERY: "orphaned" author seeks agent for new single-title work
So, Tawna’s subject line is a good exception to the Query: Title rule. Another would be Query from a published author. What Tawna does nicely which many people don’t do, is she explains exactly what she means by “orphaned” author right up front in the 1st paragraph. I don’t want to have to research what you mean.
Dear Ms. Wolfson,
I'm an author who was recently "orphaned" when Silhouette Bombshell announced it was closing the line in January. Since my debut novel was scheduled for release in February, I now have one formerly-contracted Bombshell (my rights have been reverted), two follow-up Bombshell projects that never made it to contract, and a burning desire to cleanse my palate by writing books in which the heroine is not required to blow up a building in the first chapter.
So the first paragraph gives a good, complete description (as complete as I would need for the moment) of Tawna’s history with Harlequin, and a nice introduction to her sense of humor (which is so integral to her writing) with her comment about her burning desire to cleanse her palate. I have said before that you should write your query in the tone of your book, and this is what I mean. Tawna’s books are funny and that was reflected in her query voice.
Allow me to tell you about my new (non-Bombshell) single-title project.
Allow me to tell you about my new project…OK. Those kinds of sentences are transitional and fine. Sometimes as I’m sitting there by myself I’ll shout NO at the computer. But inevitably I keep reading.
Wilma “Willie” Rising has two great desires in life: finding the perfect embalming solution, and finding a man who's not afraid of a woman with a desire to find the perfect embalming solution. As a mortician in Portland's trendy Pearl District, Willie leads a quiet life. But all that changes one afternoon when a police officer asks for help disinterring an urn of cremated remains for a criminal investigation. Suddenly, Willie finds herself in the middle of a murder mystery with a cloud of suspicion hanging over her head and a variety of strange characters looking to buy out her business, ruin her reputation, communicate with her deceased clients, take her to dinner – or some combination of all four.
So the first sentence of the descriptive paragraph is terrific. It paints a picture of Willie as a woman who is maybe a little bizarre – totally devoted to a pretty offbeat job, yet still looking for love. She sounds fun, quirky, and pretty great already. I was probably hooked just on this. The rest of the paragraph to me does a nice job summing up the story, showing that this is a cozy-esque mystery with the heroine in what I consider to be a fabulous new fun setting. It has all the elements that this type of story will need.
A TRICKY UNDERTAKING is a quirky, mainstream novel blended with equal parts dark humor, suspenseful mystery, and a tone I might have called "chick-lit" before people turned up their noses at that term. Given the public's recent fascination with TV series like "Six Feet Under" and "Family Plots," as well as nonfiction books like Mary Roach's "Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers," I believe the market is ripe for a story like mine. Though I haven't seen any fiction works centered around a plucky female undertaker, readers fond of the style of Jennifer Crusie or Janet Evanovich would enjoy A TRICKY UNDERTAKING. This book – which also has series potential – is complete at approximately 75,000 words.
The next paragraph is good, if a drop long. I like to see that an author has taken the market into account. Especially here with a slightly offbeat topic, it was nice that Tawna pointed out some mainstream successes on this topic. I think I would drop the chick-lit part of the sentence. Even though she makes a joke of it, the joke is true – chick-lit really was a death sentence at a certain point – and I think I wouldn’t take a chance that an agent would just turn it down based on that. I think dark humor and suspenseful mystery works well enough. Tawna picked two authors who really were great comparisons both in market and in voice, and her own voice really shone through in the query and in the pages below. She finishes up by mentioning word count and series potential, both useful pieces of information.
I have the battle scars to prove I can sell a book, negotiate a contract, complete revisions, and write two additional follow-up books (which, alas, are also homeless now that Bombshell is dead). Even so, I've now gotten my feet wet writing category books with a decidedly mainstream feel, and I'm hopeful you might consider representing my work as I enter this new phase in my career.
The last paragraph about battle scars is fine. Not necessary but it was fine. I think these days I would start to feel like it’s getting a drop long. I would probably skim over a paragraph like that and get right to the pages.
I'm including the first few pages of TRICKY UNDERTAKING in the text below to give you an idea of the tone of the writing. If you'd like to see more, please don't hesitate to contact me. Thank you for your consideration, and have a great day!
Tawna will probably provide a link to these pages on her website (yes indeed, right here!) and if you haven’t read this excerpt yet, you should go read it now. I have probably read these beginning pages 40 times over the past 4 years and I never get tired of them and I never stop laughing at them. For the record, I think this is the best first sentence I have ever read. I have spent four years laughing every time anyone says “for the record,” and for the record, a lot of people say that. I knew very quickly that I wanted to read the entire book and I wasn’t disappointed.
I edited out my own sob story about how devastated I was that TRICKY didn’t sell, but I will say that like Tawna, I still have high hopes this series will someday be published.
The last thing I will say is that Tawna thought she had battle scars when she wrote this query letter, but unfortunately for her, those proved to be just flesh wounds. (If you don't know the story, go here). You never know how long your road to publication is going to be. You never know which query, which agent, which manuscript is going to be The One. But the important thing is not to give up.
Once you’ve perfected your query, remember it’s a numbers game. Send it out and send it out and then send it out some more. This is a subjective business and you deserve an agent who loves your writing as much as I love Tawna’s. So don’t settle for anything less. I wish you all the best of luck!
Applause! Applause! Applause!
Thank you so much to Michelle for taking time out to do this guest post.
Readers, do you have any questions? Fire away!