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A Very Nice Literary Agent Indulges in Polite Rants About Queries, Writers, and the Publishing Industry

Queries—An Inside Scoop (Lisa Shearin’s Query)

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STATUS: It’s a very good day because I after much work, a project sold and my client is just thrilled to pieces and that’s the best part of this job.

What song is playing on the iPod right now? PAPER MOON by Natalie Cole

At the risk of infringing on Evil Editor’s territory, it occurred to me that I could, with permission, post some of my clients’ query letters and really give y’all a rundown of what worked for me.

The good majority of my authors had never published before I took them on and sold their first book. It happens quite often. And even though I teach a query workshop that gives good tips on how to write a good pitch paragraph blurb about your work, there are no hard and fast rules of what will absolutely make an agent request sample pages.

I think most aspiring writers are looking for some sort of golden key. If I do XYZ, I’ll get a that request and hey, that’s the first step to getting a full manuscript request and on from there.

If there is a golden key, it’s this: write a really good query letter and then follow that up with a lot of writing talent in your manuscript.

So what makes a good one?

Tough question.

So, I’m just going to jump in and show you the actual queries my clients’ sent and I’ll give you some commentary on how I responded to them. Take what you will out of that and apply it to your query. If nothing else, you’ll learn something from the process (or I flatter myself you will) of watching my brain in action while I read a query. And I’m just one agent. Another agent might not have liked this query at all. So subjective. However, even if an agent didn’t respond to this query, they would probably acknowledge that it was well done.

Just to be clear. These are the actual query letters received via email. I didn’t gussy them up or anything. It’s exactly what each client wrote to me. As I share over the next few days, I want you to notice that no letter is perfect. As agents, we aren’t looking for perfection. We’re looking for connection, a spark that this interests us, and that’s hard to define.

So first up is Lisa Shearin’s query for THIEF OF SOULS. This project sold to Ace Books (which is a fantasy imprint at Penguin Group publishing). This novel is coming out next year in June 2007 and was renamed MAGIC LOST, TROUBLE FOUND.

Dear Ms. Nelson,
Hooray, she got my name right. I get a lot of queries that say Dear Mr. Nelson or better yet, Dear Jenny Bent.

I read on Publishers Marketplace that you’re interested in female-oriented fantasy. I think that Thief of Souls, the first novel in my fantasy detective series, might interest you.
Short and sweet but shows she did, at least, a little bit of research about me and what I’m looking for.

What if you suddenly have a largely unknown, potentially unlimited power? What if that power just might eat your soul for breakfast, lunch and dinner? What if every magical mobster and sicko sorcerer in town wants that power? And what if you can’t get rid of it?
Normally I’m not a big fan of what I call the “what if” questions starting the query but let me tell you what got me in this letter. I just loved the tone. The power might eat my soul for breakfast? Mobster, sicko? These are fun terms to be kicking around for a fantasy novel. I perked up immediately. Right away it felt different to me, and I was ready for the longer pitch blurb that’s just about to follow.

That’s Raine Benares’ problem. She’s a Seeker — a finder of things lost and people missing. Most of what she’s hired to find doesn’t get lost by itself. It has help. Dependable help. I’m so tickled. I love the phrase “most of what she’s hired to find doesn’t get lost by itself.” Help she can depend on to use blades or bolts or magical means to keep what they went to all the trouble to get. Perfect fun tone (which matches the novel she wrote). I know this isn’t epic fantasy. It has an urban, lighter feel yet I’m getting all the necessary information about the main character and the role she is going to play in the story. When her sometime partner steals an amulet from a local necromancer, Raine ends up with the amulet and the trouble that’s hot on its heels. What looks like a plain silver disk turns out to be a lodestone to an ancient soul-stealing stone, a stone that seemingly every magical mobster in the city wants — as well as a few heavy-hitters from out-of-town: goblins of the Khrynsani Order, their sadistic high priest, Guardians of the Conclave of Sorcerers, the goblin king and his renegade brother, and an elven spellsinger of dubious motives. Here’s the conflict and I love how she sums up the people who are looking for it as a way of clarifying the problem of being in possession of this amulet and how the plot will unfold. People Raine doesn’t want to have notice her, let alone have to outrun or outwit. She likes attention as much as the next girl, but this is the kind she can do without. “She likes attention as much as the next girl!” I know I’m getting a modern voice with this fantasy blend. It’s subtle and well done.

Then there’s what the amulet is doing to her. New and improved magical abilities sound good in theory, but Raine thinks her soul is a little much to pay for resume enhancement. More story conflict info but notice Lisa sticks with the tone she adopted. It’s not repetitive yet adds some depth to the story. And when she tries to take the amulet off, the amulet tries to take her out. Very hard-boiled sounding Soon Raine starts to wonder if her spells, steel and street smarts will keep her alive long enough to find a way to get rid of the amulet before it, or anyone else, gets rid of her. And the worst part? She isn’t even getting paid. It’s enough to make a girl consider a career change.

Thief of Souls is my first novel. Done. There’s no lamenting that she’s never been published. She has no other credentials to offer so she doesn’t. I loved the query so far so I really don’t mind the lack here. I’m an editor at an advertising agency, with prior experience in corporate communications and marketing. A little tidbit about her that personalizes a little but since it doesn’t really relate to her novel, she keeps it brief and that’s fine.

I’d be glad to send you my complete manuscript for your review. Thank you for your time and consideration, and I look forward to hearing from you soon. Professional wrap- up. I want to see 30 pages without having to think too hard about it. I’m sold on her tone that I know will be mirrored in her writing.

Regards,

Lisa Shearin


23 Responses

  1. barista brat said:

    thank you for posting this!

    i remember seeing the query for ‘bachelorette #1’ which had a very different tone of voice on your website.

    it’s interesting to see what grabbed your interest and why.

  2. Anonymous said:

    Interesting- you seem to like more of a synopsis than what’s normally recommended. I wish all agents could be this clear! And I wish I’d seen this before sending off a query to you. 🙂

  3. Anonymous said:

    Did I actually see this in an earlier version on Evil Editor?

    I agree, Kristen, the kind critique… “Here’s what’s right” approach is very much needed.

  4. Lexie Ward said:

    Thanks for the example, Kristin! And especially, thanks for taking the time to communicate with the writing community.

    I read some comments on different queries at another agent’s blog today, and I have to tell you that agents like you and her are definite godsends. Again, thanks!

  5. eleora said:

    Thanks for posting this Kristen (and Lisa for allowing it.) It really helps to see Kristen’s thoughts on elements of the query and how important tone is.

  6. Kait said:

    Anonymous at 5:42:

    I do think that’s true. Both of my queries that interested Kristin enough to request partials (one just recently) had slightly longer synopses than what some people recommend. The latest one had a one sentence hook, then two mediumish paragraphs and a shorter paragraph summarizing the main conflicts facing the main characters.

    Hopefully the writing in this partial will hold up enough to interest her in a full!

    And best of luck to everyone else in the agent hunting.

  7. Ryan Field said:

    This is a wonderful approach to querying. But I think the important factor writers must realize is researching each individual agency when querying. Though Kristen’s example query is excellent, I don’t know that I’d use something this lengthy (especially with questions)to query another agent. Most agents like to see the writer’s ability to tighten things. And it begins with querying…regardless of whether or not I personally agree. I like Kristen’s approach much better. Be great if this were a new trend in publishing:)

  8. Robin L. said:

    Kristin – thank you so much for doing this! I read Sherry Thomas’s query and really had a hard time understanding why it stood out. This is GREAT! And I don’t think you’re infringing on EE at all since he takes bad/iffy letters and spruces them up and you are showing us why good ones work. I hope you keep it up!!!

  9. Robin L. said:

    Sherry – I hope you didn’t take my comment as insulting at all – just that I didn’t get it. I feel like some of these query guidelines are very subtle and I can’t always spot what’s good and what’s not.

    BTW – I read the excerpt from your book on your web site and I think you probably could have just sent pages and said “Call me” and had an offer of representation. LOL! I can’t wait for it to come out!!

  10. lisa shearin said:

    Gabriele c:

    You want to read my book — WooHoo! My website will be live within the next two weeks. There’ll be a link on Kristin’s site, but the URL will be http://www.lisashearin.com. You can read a plot synopsis for both books (yes, it is a series), with sample chapters to be added, and much more. Drop by and visit!

    Lisa

  11. Anonymous said:

    Thank you for the insight. I see why you picked this project. I’m not big on fantasy but I will buy this book when it comes out.

  12. Anonymous said:

    Love your humor and wisdom. I have a favor to ask. I’m a former teacher from UCLA (teaching writers how to market their work) with a website that is all about that. Would you please check it out and let’s consider a link swap? http://www.getpublishednow.biz. Or you can email me at [email protected]. Might help you receive better queries?

  13. Anonymous said:

    Thank you so much for this helpful information. I’m a first time novel writer and I was so nervous about writing my query letter. I was going crazy looking for some type of help and you’ve provided that. Thank you!

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