Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The query that hooked my agent

Oh, blog readers. I have a very special treat for you.

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!


Matthew Rush said...

My god this is amazing. I mean it's not amazing that it didn't sell, or rather that it has not sold yet, but this post is just such an incredible resource. Such a glimpse into the inside of the process and what works (and a little of what doesn't) is very helpful.

Thanks so much for sharing this with us Tawna, and for analyzing it Michelle.

Christine Fonseca said...

Nice post! Love this!!! Oh, and BTW Tawna - I left something for you on my blog...

salarsenッ said...

This was wonderful. It's almost as if I could hear Michelle talking. Thank you, ladies, for sharing it!!

Claire Dawn said...

I hope I speak for everyone when I say, "We're glad you kept at it!"

That query is so you, too. Except that there's no phallic object involved. But I guess you wouldn't want ot scare an agent on the first date :)

Claire Dawn said...

For the record, I know I commented like 2 seconds ago, but that first sentence!!!


I hope it gets published some day! :)

Jessica Lemmon said...

Thank you, Tawna, for being brave enough to post your original query (which is brilliant, I think) and thanks to Michelle for giving us a "peek behind the curtain." I love to hear how things work since I'm so newly discovering all of it. It is like traipsing up to the castle in the Wizard of Oz and trembling in the doorway. I know what I want, but *gulp!* dare I ask?! Thank you both!!!

LR said...

Wow I LOVE how A Tricky Undertaking begins. Can't believe that didn't sell. If "zombies" are in why wouldn't something like this be a winner?

Re: your query - I like how you achieve a note of warmth at the end. It's hard to be warm in a query (without sounding like a donkey).

My question for Michelle: is it true that one should never ever say the genre of a novel is "literary"? If so, what do you take? "Mainstream"?

Elizabeth Flora Ross said...

I always appreciate having the opportunity to read a query letter that landed a writer an agent. It's even better when I can see the agent's personal response. What is particularly great about this post is that it offers insight into the agent/author relationship between you and Michelle. In my way of thinking, the two of you are the perfect example of how it should work, and it's great to see.

I also feel as Michelle does. I want an agent who loves my work and feels as strongly about it as I do. And I feel I deserve that. I'll keep at it as long as I have to in order to find that!

Thanks Tawna and Michelle!

Cherie Reich said...

Thank you so much for posting this! It's always so helpful to read what works out there.

And, now I'm so sad the book hasn't been picked up to be published yet. I absolutely loved the first chapter, and boy, what an awesome first line!

Patrick Alan said...

My query is simple. I just write -

I want you to want me.

And then the drums kick in.

I know when I send that, I will get offers of representation.

Linda G. said...

Personally, I just sent Michelle a box of Poptarts and some Tootsie Roll Midgees, and told her there was more where that came from if she'd represent me. The whole query thing seemed like too much trouble. ;)

Jason said...

This was fantastic...I like seeing the letter and then reading Michelle's blow by blow insight to what she thought of every part of the letter. It's funny, too, how after reading your blog and following you on Twitter I know nothing in that query letter was fake, meaning it's just you, not someone trying to dress it up overly much. And following Michelle on Twitter I see the same things in the insights she has written. Loved it!

Jean said...

Thanks for the dissection. I'm always intrigued to hear about query letters that worked and why.

Best of luck with your future books!

Pamala Knight said...

Thanks Tawna and Michelle for dissecting Tawna's query letter. That was amazing and so helpful, especially because your advice is so straightforward and simple. I don't know about the rest of the field, but I tend to worry myself into a tight little knot about every little thing and this made me feel a bit less of that.

And can I say WOW to that first sentence? I hope you sell it someday. Very soon.

SM Schmidt said...

How does a manuscript with a first line like that NOT GET PUBLISHED?

I kinda want it on a tshirt now but I'd never have the guts to wear it to class.

Patty Blount said...

I just got out of a meeting and stopped by to see what you'd written today. I clicked one little link. "For what it's worth..."

Oh my everloving God, I laughed so hard, I startled a coworker.

Thank you both for posting and breaking it down for us. This is pure GOLD! Over on YALITCHAT, I've been going through query letter boot camp and I swear to you, it's the writerly equivalent of eating a potato chip... you can't just stop at one!

I love what Michelle said about your voice showing through and it does.

Now, I'll put you on the spot and BEG to read the whole story. Please??

Dr. Goose said...

I haven't read it yet but sounds like the first sentence is the road to salvation. I'll check it out.

Abby Minard said...

I always love to see the query letters that attracted the agent to you! Hopefully that book will get published someday!

Jen J. Danna said...

Tawna and Michelle,
Thank you both for sharing the material and your analysis of it. This kind of post is immensely useful for anyone who is in the midst of querying their work (or those that have yet to start).

And Tawna, those pages are hilarious and definitely make you want to read more. Looking forward to seeing this one see the light of day sometimes in the hopefully not-too-distant future!

Lisa McQuay said...

Thank you so much for your generosity in posting your query letter. Your post helps to make this more real and personal. Good luck in selling that book. I'd read it. :)

Candyland said...

Michelle + Tawna=superamazingawesome
It's always been clear why she picked you, Tawna. This reiterates why.

Michelle said...

Thanks to both of you for sharing this. It's been a great help. I am actually looking forward to working on a query letter now! :)

Taymalin said...

May I second the t-shirt suggestion? Or maybe mugs. Yes, a "for the record..."(don't want to spoil the first line for anyone who hasn't read it yet) mug would be awesome.

Joaness said...

You can get the Mug custom printed at (just an FYI)
Awesome and interesting read. I am a new writer and appreciate the help and insight.

bonafidebetty said...

Thank you so much for sharing your query letter and to your agent for sharing her insight.

You are a great writer and I'm looking forward to reading your books. I hope A Tricky Undertaking sells soon.

Janelle said...

Dear Michelle,

Please sell this book. Now. Really. I need to know what happens next. That is all.



Dear Tawna,

Best. First. Line. EVER!


PS - Thanks for sharing this, guys! It is really interesting to see the comments!! :o)

Elizabeth Ryann said...

Oh, what a lovely thing to share! Thank you both! That was insightful and hilarious, and I really want that book to sell now too!

Shakespeare said...

Love the excerpt--and, believe it or not, your complications only make me more determined to work hard and keep trying.

I hope your persistence (and your agent's persistence) pays off in a big way over the coming decades!

Tawna Fenske said...

Yikes! I got swamped yesterday and totally forgot to reply to blog comments. Forgive me?

Thanks so much to everyone for your kind words about the query and the pages. I know you aren't supposed to have favorite children, and you DEFINITELY aren't supposed to have a favorite child who isn't one of the three scheduled for publication (er, the analogy just fell apart, didn't it?) but that's kind of how I've always felt about A TRICKY UNDERTAKING. I love that book more than any of my others, which is probably why I've never given up hope it'll sell someday.

Thanks so much for reading, and for all the nice things you've said here!


Bonnie C said...

I know the post was geared more towards the query letter (awesome, btw, both letter and breakdown) but I have to join the chorus of disbelief that A TRICKY UNDERTAKING hasn't been sold yet. WOE! I very much want to read the rest of not just that book but whatever you've cooked up to follow. Simply awesome.

CKHB said...

You had me at "finding a man who's not afraid of a woman with a desire to find the perfect embalming solution."

Julie Musil said...

That first line IS hilarious!

Jenna said...

Ok, that's just wrong. You can't leave me hanging like that for the rest of this tale!!!

If you don't sell it, might I suggest waiting until you are not going to annoy anyone to whom you have a contact obligation, and then release it as an eBook? This is precisely the sort of tale that may not sell to conventional publishing, but would gather a huge following online.

Juvenal2010 said...

I must say you certainly grabbed me with your first line.
James Blunt.....

Seriously, a marvelous start and makes me wonder about the lack of publisher acumen. I add my voice of thanks for your willingness to share.

Sebastian said...

Thanks for letting me know that I can be myself in my queries. Some people make you think you might drop the pin to the handgrenade if you don't follow the rules exactly to the letter.
I actually feel free now.

intheclosetnovelist said...

I just found this post and thank you so much for sharing! You are such a fun writer, and your words are both enlightening and entertaining! As a newbie autor just mailing out querys, I was in dire need of comedic relief amidst my automated rejection notifications ;) Keep up the good work, I can't wait to pick up one of your books!