Pub Rants

Jamie Ford’s Query for HOTEL ON THE CORNER OF BITTER AND SWEET

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STATUS: I’m not sure what I think about my day. I’m still here at the office going on 7 p.m., which is never the desired thing. I guess I’ll leave it at that.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? DREAMING by Blondie

As promised and with Jamie’s permission, here is the query he sent me for his manuscript which was originally entitled THE PANAMA HOTEL.

For me, that title didn’t really capture the essence of the manuscript so we spent a lot of time kicking around alternatives before we went out on submission. It was quite a process but after sharing several forerunner titles with a variety of reliable sources, we agreed to HOTEL ON THE CORNER OF BITTER AND SWEET.

One of the fun things about this submission is that many editors loved the title and couldn’t imagine the novel being called anything else.

That means we did a good job. Random House hasn’t mentioned changing it so as far as we know, this will be the title for the book.

Dear Ms. Nelson:

I must admit I hate Asian stereotypes. You know the ones. Good at math. Hardworking. We all look alike. Come to think of it, that last one might hold water. After all, my father once wore a button that read “I am Chinese,” while growing up in Seattle’s Chinatown during WWII. It was the only thing that separated him from the Japanese, at least in the eyes of his Caucasian neighbors.

Sad, but true. Which is probably why my novel has a little to do with that particular piece of history.

I was really caught by his personal connection to the history he plans to explore. I’ve never heard of the “I am Chinese” buttons, which is kind of fascinating.

Anyway, the working title is The Panama Hotel, and when people ask me what the heck it’s all about I usually tell them this:
“It’s the story of the Japanese internment in Seattle, seen through the eyes of a 12-year-old Chinese boy, who is sent to an all-white private school, where he falls in love with a 12-year-old Japanese girl.”

I’ve never seen a novel about a Chinese boy falling in love with a Japanese girl during such a volatile time period. I have to say that I was pretty much hooked by this story concept. Simple but there’s a lot of weight behind it. I did happen to know that the Chinese and the Japanese had long been at war before the advent of WWII so I knew of the general animosity between the countries–but I knew nothing of how that might have played out on American soil.

But it’s more complicated than that. It’s a bittersweet tale about racism, commitment and enduring hope––a noble romantic journey set in 1942, and later in 1986 when the belongings of 37 Japanese families were discovered in the basement of a condemned hotel.

At this point, I knew I was going to ask for sample pages but I have to admit that this paragraph made me pause. Dual narratives are tricky and extremely hard to pull off. I would only know if the author succeeded by asking for sample pages. I was struck by the belongings being discovered in an old hotel. This ends up being a true story and was part of what sparked Jamie to write the novel. I didn’t find out this info until later and I must say that if included, it could have added power to the query letter.

This historical fiction novel is based on my Glimmer Train story, I Am Chinese, which was a Top 25 Finalist in their Fall 2006 Short-Story Competition For New Writers. An excerpt was also published in the Picolata Review.

Nice. It always helps to know there has been some previous recognition.

Think Amy Tan, but with a sweeter aftertaste. I was already thinking Amy Tan but a male version…

Thank you for your consideration and time,
Jamie Ford

The Panama Hotel
Historical Fiction 86,000 words / 353 pages

About the author: James “Jamie” Ford grew up near Seattle’s Chinatown and is busy writing his next novel, Rabbit Years. In addition to his Glimmer Train accolades, he took 1st Place in the 2006 Clarity of Night Short Fiction Contest. Jamie is also an alumnus of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers.

Nice. Some more literary creds. I would have asked for sample pages without the mention though.

He hangs out at www.jamieford.com and has been known to eat jellyfish, sea cucumber and chicken feet on occasion.

This made me smile and that’s never a bad thing.

Now here’s what’s interesting. As I mentioned on a previous blog, an agent friend of mine received the same query and it didn’t spark his interest at all. Now he freely admits that he was in a time crunch at the time he received it. That can change our response. If he hadn’t been, he might have paid a little closer attention but for the most part, this query didn’t float his boat much.

And that just highlights the subjective tastes of agents.


39 Responses

  1. jason evans said:

    Ah yes, the “Two Lights” contest over at The Clarity of Night. I certainly can’t claim credit for discovering Jamie, but I can claim credit for recognizing clear talent!

    Woo hoo, Jamie!!

  2. LindaBudz said:

    I like this letter on the basis of the writing alone … clear and direct, yet the author’s voice and slightly offbeat outlook on the world shine through.

    And, yes, the book sounds like a great read, too!

  3. Heidi the Hick said:

    I’ve never seen a query like this- it’s so personal and vivid! The voice really comes through! I’ve been so hung up on getting the query CORRECT that I sometimes forget how important voice is.

    But this above all shows off a great story.

    Thanks for posting it!

  4. Jaye Wells said:

    Those of us who have read Jamie’s work over the last couple of years weren’t surprised by the news of his big sale. I can’t wait to read this book.

  5. JDuncan said:

    Well, I must say I’m about to toss the ‘rules’ of query writing out the window. Would I have requested this if I was an agent? Yep, because it sounds like a great setting for a love story, and the hotel aspect is a nice, unique element. Just goes to show that really, all you need to do is grab the interest of the agent. Rules aside, this query certainly had a more personable element to it, which is generally a good thing, but certainly strayed pretty far from the ‘workshop’ version of query writing. Might be time to start querying outside the box. lol.

    JDuncan

  6. Eileen said:

    I think this is one of the best titles I’ve ever heard. I loved it and based on the title alone I would pick up this book and give it a look in a bookstore. Having heard a bit about the story now I know I would buy it. Thanks for sharing.

  7. Mystery Robin said:

    It’s really interesting how different this query letter is than what I usually see (see as a writer looking at queries trying to get mine just right, that is). I love the conversational tone, and the premise makes me want to go buy the book right now!

    Keep us posted on this one!! And thanks so much for sharing that letter.

  8. Grendel's Dam said:

    Thanks for telling us that another agent didn’t love this. Knowing that even something this fresh and compelling doesn’t pique every agent’s interest shows how subjective the process is. That helps us to keep on querying, instead of trying to find hidden meaning in those form rejections

  9. Anonymous said:

    Thanks for posting this. The query really is different. I like the casual tone, but I never would have written a letter like this myself (probably why I’m unpublished 🙂 If it had been me that wrote this letter, I would have worried that it was too casual and almost gimmicky. I would have thought that I’d blow my chance by sending it out. I’m so glad that’s not the case for Jamie – he did a fantastic job.

    I’m sure I’ve just read too many query letter how-tos. 🙂

    Sandy

  10. Chris Redding said:

    Wow.
    Now this one I can see why it captured your attention.
    Can’t wait to see your letter to editors. I bet you went with the same flavor as the author’s query.
    Thanks for showing us this.

  11. Precie said:

    I’m completely fascinated by this. I’ve been hoping you’d post Jamie Ford’s query, and now that it’s up, I’m even more awestruck.

    It strikes me as a very unusual query…one that works even though it “shouldn’t.” There’s very little in this query about plot, and it seems like there are a lot of “broad strokes.”

    For instance, his claim that it’s a “bittersweet tale about racism, commitment and eduring hope–a noble romantic journey…” strikes me as a blanket statement that queries are supposed to avoid.

    But then the rest of that statement is what hooked me personally—the 1942/1986 jump with reference to the hotel and the belongings.

    I know I’m going to add “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet” (such a great title) to my reading list, but I have to admit the query didn’t grab me.

  12. Patrick McNamara said:

    A one-liner might read:
    “A Chinese boy from a Seattle enternment camp falls for a Japanese girl.”

    Initally it makes me think of an oriental Romeo and Juliet. Remember that China was an ally and Japan an enemy during the war. Although the ages are a little young.

  13. ~Nancy said:

    Love, love, love the title. 🙂 Please keep us updated on this one. I’m a WW II buff, I’m currently revising a WIP which mostly takes place during 1942, so this is up my alley (although mine is a time travel novel).

    Kudos to the author!

    ~jerseygirl

  14. Anonymous said:

    I have to admit, I loved, loved, loved this query too – it reminded me of Nicholas Sparks’ query for The Notebook. Admittedly, both query letters are ‘out of the box,’ but I think the key here might be what type of story you have to tell. This type of query leads me to believe that the book will flow in the same, beautiful pattern. That’s a pretty compelling thing to get across. Congrats Jamie! But for JDuncan, don’t give up on the ‘in the box’ query letter yet. I wrote one of those, sent it out to 3 agents so far, and the response rate has been one full ms requested and one partial requested. I write YA though, so maybe this worked in my favor. All in all, I have to say, the world of queries is a strange land. – Jess

  15. Beth said:

    I can scarcely believe anyone would look at this query and not want to see pages. But it’s more than just the concept, good as that is. (Tons of built-in conflict. Yum.) It’s the voice. This man can write, and very engagingly, too. I also like the fact that he’s confident without being arrogant. I’ll definitely be watching for this novel to appear.

  16. bran fan said:

    From reading both the queries that Kristin recently posted, it is becoming more clear what grabs Kristin’s attention. It is the quirky detail that forces you to read on. So, if you’re querying, and your query looks cookie-cutter and overly-workshopped, try going for the quirky detail. It might make the difference.

  17. Anonymous said:

    I echo all the positive remarks about the query.

    But

    Did he send the identical query out to other agents? What about our having to personalize our queries?

  18. Susan said:

    Hello, let me introduce myself.
    I am a book blogger and a book club moderator of two book clubs. I have read books,that authors and publicists have sent. I would be very interested in reading and writing a review for your client Jamie Ford on his upcoming book” Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. Book blogging is another way to get the word out to the general public. Other bloggers read other book bloggers reviews.
    You can visit my blog at http://38thavedivareaders.blogspot.com/
    Thank You for your attention.
    If you are interested please send me a email at [email protected].
    Thank you,
    Susan Curtis
    520 32nd Ave, N Unit F
    Myrtle Beach, SC 29577

  19. David Kubicek said:

    Great title! Reading the query has done two things for me: 1) It has given me a fresh perspective on writing an effective query letter, and 2) It has made me want to read the novel–which I plan to buy as soon as I log off.

  20. Shari Lopatin said:

    Random House picked this one up, huh? Not surprised. It sounds like an AMAZING book, and I can’t wait to read it! I’m a professional writer–more on the journalistic end. Former daily newspaper reporter, current magazine freelancer both regionally and nationally. However, I’m new upon entering the world of creative writing queries. This post was insanely helpful for an experienced journalist who knows how to query editors, but doesn’t understand the universe of literary agents. I plan to subscribe to your blog, as I think you can help me navigate this new world for my first novel. Thank you!

    –Shari Lopatin

  21. Horatio said:

    I’ve seen this author mentioned in connection with other agencies! From what I could tell, he had a lot of agents jump on this query and was left in the fortunate position of having his pick. How interesting to find out who he settled on. Loved his idea and am not surprised in the least by his success. If anyone is interested, they posted an interview on Amazon.com with this author.

  22. crescentgirl said:

    I’m just starting to write a story. And I was always worrying about writing a query letter. Right now I will be ready after I’m done.

  23. Jessica R. said:

    Seeing the query letter for a book I adored is almost a treat. More importantly, it’s a great eye opener. Love how personal and non-formulaic the query turned out.

  24. ask said:

    Thanks , I have recently been looking for info about this subject for ages and yours is the greatest I’ve came upon so far.
    However, what concerning the bottom line? Are you sure about the source?

  25. Angela L. said:

    I’m intrigued by this book and will definitely read it! Congrats to Jamie! I love the past and present day tales as it adds a great dimension to an amazing story.

    I love to write as well and am excited to be working on my first novel, which also has a past/present storyline.

    Would love to send you my query letter.