Pub Rants

Queries—An Inside Scoop (Hank Ryan’s Query)

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STATUS: Today was devoted to royalty statements. And they say an agent’s job is glamorous. Snort.

What song is playing on the iPod right now? ELSEWHERE by Sarah McLachlan

This query will be fun because it’s for my most recent sale. This project, PRIME TIME, just sold to Harlequin last week and will be coming out in June 2007.

Hank is a well known TV personality in Boston but this work is her debut novel. (If you are a Boston resident, flip on your telly to the NBC affiliate, which I think is channel 7. You can’t miss her!)

Dear Ms. Nelson:

Think that annoying SPAM clogging your computer is just so much cyber-junk? Top-notch TV reporter Charlotte McNally suspects some of it may be much more than that–in fact, she’s certain it carries secret big-money messages to a powerful inner circle of executives who possess the key to its code. Okay, hidden messages in spam might be a common plot construct but I’d never heard of it. Right off I thought this quite clever.

Turns out–as Charlotte discovers–the last outsider who deciphered the SPAM’s hidden clues now resides in the local morgue. Sinister. Was his car accident really a car accident? Charlotte’s spidey-sense for news may have put her on the trail of the biggest story of her life or the one that may end it. I love this. It’s either the career-making story or the one that will cash in her chips. Yet, there’s a fun tone to the query so it’s not like I think this is some “serious” mystery.

PRIME TIME introduces Charlotte McNally, a hip and attractive fifty-something journalist who’s facing some life-changing challenges. This doesn’t have anything to do with the query per se but it’s an interesting tidbit. We ended up making Charlie forty-something (47 to be exact) because she was single, never married, and this would go over better with the editors. Charlie’s smart, successful and devoted to Italian clothing designers–but she’s worried her news director is about to replace her with a younger model. Love this. Even though she’s won a row of Emmys for her investigative reporting, she’s convinced that unless she digs up another blockbuster in time for the next ratings book, she may be fired from the job she loves. It’s a double layer of conflict. The unexplained car accident and the fact that Charlie’s job might be on the line because our society values youth—especially in this career.

Charlie’s got too many pairs of shoes, too many graying hairs, and even a hot flash or two-but she puts her life on the line for a story, and her heart on the line for a guy. That sums it up!

PRIME TIME–approximately 95,000 words–is a mystery in a lady lit voice. This might have worked a little better at the start of the query but the nice thing is it does confirm what I was thinking the genre of this work might be. It’s an action-filled page-turner, with humor, romance and a stock market scheme so timely and innovative you’ll wonder why someone hasn’t tried it. A twist of an ending will have readers going back to the beginning to check for all the clues they missed. Hank could have deleted these two sentences. In truth, they don’t really add anything to what is a good query. The information is too general and if it’s a mystery, then I’ll assume there should be a twist ending but hey, letters don’t have to be perfect.

It’s also a look from inside at the world of television news: its ambition, cynicism, tyrannical managers, clothing allowances, ratings wars, power struggles, and even a few devoted journalists. She can nix this too.

On a personal note-my 22nd year of reporting at WHDH-TV (NBC/Boston) has been a terrific one so far. I won two more Emmys for my investigative and consumer stories (that makes 23), and three more Edward R. Murrow Awards, including the one for best writing. Aha, now this will perk my interest. Hank has been in the biz for a long time. She knows this world inside and out and can bring that perspective to telling a good story.

After all my years in journalism and affiliation with Investigative Reporters and Editors, I have lots of pals in local TV and newspapers across the country, as well as at all the networks. So I figure, add those publicity and blurb resources to the millions of TV viewers who already recognize my name and we could have a ready-made marketing platform. You blog readers should know by now that agents love tidbits like this. It really helps us to fall in love with the project.
For experienced and savvy women who are weary of reading about chick lit chicks swilling Cosmos (not that there’s anything wrong with that), PRIME TIME is a satisfying selection for beach, book club or curling up with a cup of tea. And they’ll never look at SPAM the same way again. Hank could nix this. It doesn’t add anything. What could have been more interesting if she highlighted the dearth of titles in this genre for the “older” set.

What happens next to Charlie, her career and her future with a dishy professor? I’m currently working on the next in the series, FACE TIME, where Charlie contemplates cosmetic surgery to stave off on-the-air aging, and uncovers a series of murders in a luxury hospital. Hank’s letting me know, in a fun way, that this work is the first in a series. I like it.

You don’t say on your website whether your interest in chick-lit mysteries extends to chic but older chicks-I hope it does. True, my website doesn’t but I don’t practice age-ism. May I send you the completed manuscript? Thanks so much for your time and consideration. I look forward to hearing from you. You sure can!

Hank (Harriet Ann) Phillippi Ryan

32 Responses

  1. Anonymous said:

    Here’s what so interesting. This query–and I’ve never heard of secret messages in spam–seems to be about plot, not about the main character. Is that what agents/editors want to hear?

  2. Anonymous said:

    Looks like simply another example of someone writing about their own life and getting a book deal because of it. Sure, write what you know, but this sounds like this TV personality is writing about her and what she’s gone through. When will that stop being a selling point? After all, Shakespeare was never king of France or a shrew that needed to be tamed. Where’s the room for those people who write based on research and creativity.

    Good luck to this writer, but come on.

  3. Edie said:

    I love the tone of the writing and the whole book idea. A friend who’s retiring in 2 years recently told me she wants to read more books with older women. There are a lot of aging boomers out there–and they read too.

  4. Anonymous said:

    Hi, sorry to bust in on your blog but, I was just wondering, how old do you have to be to get an agent? I mean, can minors get agents?

  5. Anonymous said:

    Wait–you’re not supposed to write what you know about? This person’s been in TV or whatever for like 20 years. She probably knows how to write–Kristen liked her letter and idea, obviously–so she’s not supposed to use her experience to write fiction?

  6. Dana Y. T. Lin said:

    I think this book has both – character driven and plot driven. While the plot is definitely unique, I like that the main character is older, has graying hair, and fighting for what she wants.

  7. Anonymous said:

    Anon 8:37, you make it sound as though it’s easy to whip out a novel just because it’s something the writer knows. Often that’s the most difficult task – taking something you know intimately and being objective and skilled enough to make it others care about it. And research is still required even when you’ve lived the story you’re writing.

    Even in worlds a writer creates, his or her experiences go into creating that world. We may create a protagonist nothing remotely like ourselves, but we’ve known people with some of their qualities. If a writer isn’t drawing on real experiences to create fiction, the writing is probably so dry, the characters so flat that it will never get the attention of an agent, editor, or reader. I bet Shakespeare knew of a shrew he thought needed taming, and he lived under monarchy rule.

  8. Anonymous said:

    Anon 8:37:

    Wow, I hope you’re really not as bitter as you sound. In my opinion, this is a great query – not only is the storyline timely and intriguing, but the author’s life experience brings authenticity to her story’s world.

    Plus, but her job is a great marketing platform for herself and her novels. Shakespeare didn’t have to compete with movies, television and the internet for the average person’s shilling. A new author with a marketing platform has a head start in the game. You may not like it, but it’s a hard fact of living in a consumerist society crowded with choices.

    The query did its part for me. As a reader, I will definitely be looking out for this book.

  9. Anonymous said:

    Thanks, Kristen, this sounds like another best seller.

    Frankly, I’m more interested in reading stories with older characters, and I’m 30-something. Think Jeanne Ray’s Julie and Romeo. Older women come off as more interesting and less desperate. They’ve lived enough not to construct a life around a man, but leave room just in case a good one comes along.

    And I loved the chatty query. I agree that it’s important for the author to know her subject and if she’s worked in the newsroom, I can be guaranteed all kinds of insider juicy tidbits. Love that!

    I will definitely buy this book when it comes out!

  10. Anonymous said:

    I think this book sounds fun, and her platform will not only add credibility but will certainly help her market it. There’s nothing wrong with that!

    To the person who said this breaks the one page rule. Are you kidding me? There is no one page rule. The only rule is to be interesting, if you are, no one is going to measure the length of your query. They’ll just fall in love with the writing and voice, and ask to see more.

    As an fyi, Hank has already generated press on this. There was a fun article in the Boston Herald a few days ago.


  11. Hank Phillippi Ryan said:

    Thanks so much for the kind words! Can you imagine how much fun it is to hear someone wants to buy your book?

    I’ve been a TV reporter for 30 years–first covering the 1976 presidential campaign–then getting assigned to everything from being the medical reporter, to doing those foot-freezing live shots at 5am to make sure viewers know it’s snowing, to interviewing Prince Charles, to surviving on Swedish fish candy while sitting in a car for hours staking out a bad guy.

    Since 1989, I’ve been the investigative reporter for Channel 7/NBC in Boston (find me at!). We’ve gotten millions of dollars in restitution paid to consumers who were ripped off, gotten foreclosed homes returned to homeowners who were duped by unscrupulous lenders, caused officials to be fired and bad guys sent to jail. I love my job–and hope to keep at it for a long time.

    I’m hoping those years of experience and experiences–as well as how the crazy stress and pressures of TV are especially tough on women and the choices we have to make–will make PRIME TIME a book you’ll connect with and enjoy.

    Anyone who wants advance notice of the release–I’d love to hear from you! Email me at and I’ll answer asap. Plus, if you need info on reporters or the news biz for work you’re doing, let me know. Glad to help.

    Thanks for all the support! You gotta love Kristin’s blog.

    Hank Phillippi Ryan

  12. Jen said:

    Anon 8:37

    John Grisham was a lawyer before he wrote his first legal thriller, and it certainly hasn’t hurt his ability to continue writing books that are interesting. Robin Cook was/is a doctor, hasn’t stopped him from writing best selling medical thrillers over and over again. Since when has knowing your subject matter meant a lack of creativity?

    Sounds like sour grapes to me.

  13. farrout said:

    Hank and Kristin, I’m just excited for the both of you. Frankly, it had to be demanding to fit writing into your rigorous schedule, Hank. Writing consumes me. I lose entire days to it. So, kudos, girl! And, thank you on behalf of a jaded nation for doing something right and good for those who are often overlooked. (Mr. Murrow would indeed be proud.)

  14. Anonymous said:

    Take note of the green-eyed jealousy in Anonymous #2’s post. This industry is rampant with it. Get used to it.

  15. Maprilynne said:

    Larramie mentioned this is a long query and because it came after the rather bitter post I think it was taken wrong. I think she/he has a really good point; it’s somthing that had really struck me in the last few weeks too. Kristin seems to lik–or at least doesn’t mind–long queries. I think it’s rather telling about her. I know some agents who are very, very careful budgeters of their time and if anything is longer than a page they skip it. (Not all, just some.) But Krisin not only is looking for what is in the query rather than how long it is, but also, because she only accepts e-queries, you can’t tell just how long it is.
    In Hank’s case, because she has a lot of credentials as well as an in-depth plot, hers is probably two pages on paper. It’s those of us with no credits that have to cut it short and not ramble on about what we don’t have.:)
    I think that Kristin gets a better hold on what she does and doesn’t want to see more of from slightly longer queries. I have seen examples of query letter that are less than 200 words and they are put forth as the ideal. I think the 300-500 word ones really give you a better idea of not only the plot and characters, but also of the writing style. (For example, Sherry Thomas’s where you could see her writing style right there in her query.)
    I like this trend toward slightly longer queries and think Larramiue had a point.


  16. Patrick McNamara said:

    I did get a spam once that looked like an encoded Al Queda message. The Internet is just as much a tool of criminals as legitimate businesspeople. so the premise isn’t that far off.

  17. Fourteen Year Old Writer said:

    That does sound like an interesting plot. I’m also surprised that Kristen doesn’t mind longer queries. Most agents frown upon them.

    I wish I read more of this blog before I submitted my query, which was rejected.

  18. Beth said:

    First anon–

    Read it more carefully–there’s another whole layer of conflict about the main character possibly losing her job because of her age.

  19. pacatrue said:

    On the matter of query length, I think we also have to remember that Kristen gets email queries (right?), so that she doesn’t know if the query fits a page exactly or not. At least I have never had an email program with page markers. Also, note that she recommends Hank cut a couple of the paragraphs, which then makes the query closer to a page, though still a bit long. Finally, it also appeared, from her comments, as if she were interested and contemplating asking for a partial by the 2nd to 3rd paragraph. If she has made the decision that quickly, then dragging the query on and on can only hurt the author’s chances, because you have a chance to screw up or bore the agent. It sounds like Hank basically needed about three paragraphs to hook the agent on the story, and one to talk about her experience and marketing platform. The rest may or may not have helped a little but it wasn’t needed. I keep thinking of the Seinfeld episode where George learns to make a joke and then get out (“thank you, I’m outta here”) before he messes it up. In short, even though Kristen doesn’t mind longer queries, it seems to still be the case that you have about a page to hook her before she moves on – if that long.

  20. Elektra said:

    This query thing is teaching me just how true it is when agents say the business is subjective. Some of these simply don’t catch my interest at all, but obviously a top-notch agent loved them and was able to sell them respectably.

  21. Mrs. Brain Bomb said:

    Congrats on your sale! The book sounds really fresh and interesting. I love that the protagonist isn’t a twenty something. Contrary to what others say, I think the fact she’s a TV journalist lends the work an authenticity that no amount of research will. Good luck.

  22. Marley Gibson said:

    Just heard your news, Hank!!! Huge congratulations to you for working hard, not giving up and getting your book to the right agent and editor. Hope you’re celebrating!!

    All the best,
    Marley = )

  23. Lori said:

    @#&%*&!!!! That’s the sound of me crashing and burning. Don’t get me wrong – hearty congrats go to Hank as well as to Kristen for recognizing the potential of the boomer market. But (sob) my own WIP is about a 54 yo woman named Charlie who is experiencing the joys of menopause and trying to figure out who killed a man in her office late one night and why.

    I’m so glad to see others who want a more mature and savvy heroine that I”m not even all that upset that Hank will get her “Charlie” out there first. Break that ground girl! Hopefully, I’ll be right behind you…if I ever get this *$!! thing finished.

    : )

  24. Juju said:

    I feel your pain, Lori… I came here looking for help in building a query for my own WIP, which, as it happens, also hinges on hidden messages found in spam emails. Ah well, maybe we can both catch a ride on Hank’s coattails…

  25. Anonymous said:

    I know my post is very late, but I wanted to contribute to this discussion. Regarding Anonymous 8:37, I understand that perspective. Publishing is about money (as it should be; it’s a business), so no one can deny that the author’s job in this case definitely contributed to her success. As Nelson pointed out, as soon as Ryan mentioned her job and her Emmys: “Aha, now this will perk my interest.” Nelson isn’t denying it– she sees a ready-made market. That’s her job as an agent. So, when Anonymous 8:37 says, “Looks like simply another example of someone writing about their own life and getting a book deal because of it,” isn’t that true in a way? I don’t know why all the other responses here are quick to deny it. Nelson certainly isn’t denying it. The anonymous poster might be saying things you all don’t want to hear, but I don’t know why you’re afraid to hear it. I think it’s just the truth. And that doesn’t make it good or bad– just true.
    Still, I disagree with some of what that poster says. No, Shakespeare was never a king, but he did write many plays about kings. Was that because they inspired him, or was that because he thought of his audience and knew that kings would draw them in and fill the theatre? I think it was probably both. Shakespeare thought of marketing. He had to, or no one would attend the plays. And that’s what Nelson and Ryan are doing here. I may not like the sound of the book (and I don’t), but if you read the other responses here, you’ll see that the premise appeals to some people.
    Still, it’s definitely not Shakespeare, and a lot of memoirs or pseudo-memoirs have been getting published lately. Shakespeare might have known how to market his work, but like Anonymous 8:37 said, our current market does leave me wondering: is there room for those who write based on research and creativity? After reading the “Aha” comment Nelson gave, do you think she would have represented this book if Ryan was an unknown with no TV reporter experience?
    I don’t know. I’d like to know.

  26. pete said:

    Amazing to me that something like this letter would get anyone’s attention. You couldn’t wedge another cliche into it with a shoehorn. I hope the book is better than the letter but I don’t see how it could be. What a weird, weird business this is.

  27. Ink Johnson said:

    Pete–seems pretty original to me. Even if it isn’t, writing marketable fiction is all about putting a new spin on old themes. The letter is coherent, clear, and cute, and the writer really knows the biz inside and out. Of course it stood out.

  28. Anonymous said:

    I’ve met Hank at a New England writer’s conference and she’s incredibly friendly. I did not realize she was a fairly new author as she comes across very knowledgable and sophisticated.

  29. IZZI said:

    I understand anonymous 8:37, because I have read too many books of people telling a story that means something to them, but only to them, because they were the only ones who experienced it. But those works don’t need to be a threat to other writers. If a writer is original and creative and good at what they do, I find it hard to believe that they will be pushed out of the market so easily as some of you seem to suppose. Their writing will be able to stand on its own and make a name for itself.