Pub Rants

Category: queries


STATUS: I need a quiet day to read. And just read.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? MOTHER AND CHILD REUNION by Paul Simon

As promised, the general bones of my letter to the editors regarding Jamie Ford’s project. Jane von Mehren at Random House won the auction so I put her name in the salutation.

I actually had a meeting with Jane earlier this summer where I mentioned this project. She was great about emailing me every few weeks just to get an update on when I was submitting it.

She loves this novel, and we are thrilled to work with her on it.

Hello Jane,

This novel my book club needs to read right now—who cares about publication. I started HOTEL ON THE CORNER OF BITTER AND SWEET at 9 p.m. on a Monday night. I thought I would give it a quick look because I knew the author already had an agent offer on the table. I figured I would know within the first 50 pages whether it was right for me. Well, after 10 pages, I realized that I had to tell myself to breathe. There were sections that literally had my heart racing and I needed to skip to end of the chapter just to discover what happens. Then I would go back and read what I had missed, my heart still pounding.

And if you don’t feel this same way as the story unfolds, you’ll know this manuscript is not the right one for you.

HOTEL ON THE CORNER OF BITTER AND SWEET is the story of Henry Lee, a Chinese boy in Seattle who falls in love (although it is forbidden) with a Japanese girl named Keiko right after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. It is also the story of Henry Lee as a middle-aged man forty years later who, when passing by Seattle’s old Japantown’s Panama Hotel, stumbles into a news conference on the hotel steps where the new owner has discovered in the basement the untouched belongings of thirty interned Japanese families. When the owner unfolds, for the news cameras, a Japanese bamboo parasol with a bright orange koi painted on it, Henry instantly recognizes it as Keiko’s. In that moment, he can no longer suppress his familiar and never forgotten longing and he must confront the memories and the choices he did or did not make all those years ago.

Growing up near Seattle’s Chinatown, the author Jamie Ford was called “Ja Mei” by his Chinese relatives—which quickly became “Jamie” to the rest of the world. He is also an alumnus of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers and a survivor of Orson Scott Card’s Literary Bootcamp. In 2006 he took First Place in the Clarity of Night “Twin Lights” Fiction Contest, and his short-story, “I am Chinese” was a Top 25 Finalist in Glimmer Train’s 2006 Short-Story Award for New Writers. He is currently an advertising creative director and HOTEL ON THE CORNER OF BITTER AND SWEET is his debut novel.

This is an unforgettable story about fathers and sons. About love and the choices we make that can forever change our lives.

I can’t wait to have someone else to talk to about this novel.

All Best,


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 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.

Demon’s Lexicon: Letter To the Editor

STATUS: I lied yesterday. Today I’m finishing that contract if it’s the last thing I do…

What’s playing on the iPod right now? (I JUST) DIED IN YOUR ARMS by Cutting Crew

Now that we’ve had a chance to look at the query letter that Sarah sent to me, I thought it might be interesting to see the submission letter I emailed to editors for THE DEMON’S LEXICON. [Note: this is the main bones of the letter since I often tailor it to a specific editors etc.] Since Karen Wojtyla won the auction at S&S, I’ll use her name in the salutation.

Before I share the letter, here are some interesting tidbits about this manuscript and its submission.

1. This novel sold to an editor I had never worked with before. In fact, Karen didn’t know me as an agent at all. I had to ring her up and introduce myself so she wouldn’t think I was some lunatic who wanted to send her something. Now Karen is delighted I made that phone call. We are having lunch next time I’m in New York and that will be the first time we will meet in person.

My point? Agents don’t know every editor on the planet. Now we know a good majority but not all.

2. Here’s another fun tidbit. I knew the minute an editor had finished reading the manuscript because they just had to talk to me immediately about the ending. I received some late night emails and phone calls because of that. Editors couldn’t believe that they hadn’t seen it coming (even though I had warned them in the submission letter). It’s also the only submission I’ve done where I think every editor who loved it, read it twice before the auction unfolded. They had to see for themselves that all the clues were there and they could have figured it out.

And so without further ado, the letter:

Hello Karen,

Let me tell you why I love this novel. First, it’s a story of two brothers—Alan and Nick. Think for a minute. When’s the last time you read a YA urban fantasy that was about two brothers? I certainly haven’t seen one in a long time. But it’s also the story of a brother and sister—Jamie and Mae who get caught in the events unfolding around the Ryves brothers. In fact, their interconnecting lives become absolutely essential to the outcome. Here’s the other reason I love this novel, right at the minute I think I’m brilliant and I have the novel figured out, the author turns the whole story on its head. To say there is a twist would be an understatement. But if you go back and reread, you’ll see that all the subtle clues are there.

So what is THE DEMON’S LEXICON? It’s a story set in modern-day London. It’s about two brothers who are on the run with their mother because she was once the lover of a powerful magician and when she left him, she took an important charm amulet with her. When the eldest son gets marked by the magician’s demon, the family must stand and fight and only the strong yet mysterious bond between the brothers can save them.

The author, Sarah Rees Brennan, is Irish and currently lives in London. For a short stint, she lived in New York and became involved with a wide circle of writers and publishers who encouraged and supported her, including New York Times bestselling authors [Name removed] and [Name removed] (both have already agreed to read the advanced copy for a blurb) and Anna Genoese, a former editor at Tor. She has developed a wide audience through her popular blog,, where she writes movie parodies, book reviews and some stories, and has around four thousand registered readers (she was also recently interviewed about her blog in The Washington Post). She participates in –an adult and YA urban fantasy writers’ community started by Melissa Marr (Wicked Lovely). Currently, Sarah is completing a Creative Writing M.A. with her dissertation tutor Liz Jensen (shortlisted for the Guardian Fiction Prize for her book Ark Baby).

I’m super excited to share this novel with you, and I can’t wait to talk about the ending. So call or email me when you are finished and then I can gush all I want.

All Best,

Query Talk: Demon’s Lexicon

STATUS: I’m finishing my review of this contract if it’s the last thing I do today.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? COME MONDAY by Jimmy Buffett

I have to say I found the discussion about this query very interesting. I have to remember that most of my blog readers don’t spend hundreds of hours reading thousands of query letters. (If you ever get the chance to intern at an agency, I think it would be a real eye-opening learning experience).

So let’s talk about this query and queries in general some more.

1. It’s more important for a query concept to be original than for a query to be perfect.

Sarah’s query for DL is far from perfect. I didn’t post in my blog as an example of that. I’ve read hundreds of “perfect” queries that didn’t have an original story to offer (at least as presented in the query).

Now, this isn’t to say that you shouldn’t spend your time getting a query letter critiqued and perfecting it to the best of your ability. I do think that helps the cause but for the most part, agents aren’t looking for perfection. We are looking for a story spark—something we haven’t seen before—and this is so hard to define because often we won’t know it until we see it. Then it’s compounded by the whole subjectivity issue. When I talk about Jamie’s query, I’ll go into a little more depth on that. His query worked for me but Jamie also sent that same query to an agent friend and it didn’t float his boat at all. Purely subjective.

But back to Sarah’s DL query. Do you know what in that letter caught my attention? It was her outline of the family dynamics unfolding (albeit set in a fantasy world). Seriously, that’s what snagged my interest. So often I get these really distant, lacking-in-emotion fantasy query letters about three folks who end up on a quest but there’s no sense (in the query) of any real, interpersonal relationship dynamics which forms the heart of any story—regardless of genre.

Nick’s mom had an affair with a dark magician and because of her, Nick and his brother have to spend their lives on the run, and Nick is embarrassed that his mother had the affair to begin with.

That strikes me as pretty accurate as to how a 16-year old would feel about it. That alone caught my attention. I actually didn’t care what the rest of the query letter said. Now I did keep reading to get more details (and the possible romantic triangle caught my eye as well) but ultimately I knew I was going to ask for sample pages because I had NEVER BEFORE SEEN this scenario in a fantasy query letter—despite the thousands I receive.

That’s it. Simple. No need to analyze whether the grammar was perfect. Heck, I make enough snafus on my own blog that I’m not one to judge. I’m pretty flexible because grammar errors can be easily fixed. Everything else about writing such as voice? Not so easy. In my mind, the author had captured that sense of teen angst about all relationships which feels authentic. If she manages to capture the same in the manuscript itself, then I know I’m in for a good read, which leads me to point two…

2. You can have the most perfect and original query letter in the world and if you can’t back that up with good sample pages, it doesn’t really matter how great the query letter is. Sarah’s query letter is just fine–not spectacular–but the sample pages were unputdownable from page one.

Don’t lose sight of that.

And here’s my last point of the day. I often think that writers want the holy grail of query letter writing. That if I do X (and just tell me exactly what X is) in the query letter, then I’ll get an agent and a book sale.

It doesn’t work that way. It’s an aligning of several factors and then having that all come together because the query caught the agent’s attention, the agent loved the sample pages, then the manuscript was strong, and then editors loved it and then once published, the readers loved it and then…

It’s magic.

Query For Demon’s Lexicon That Landed Me As The Agent

STATUS: TGIF and might get out of here before 6 p.m. …

What’s playing on the iPod right now? SAVE A PRAYER by Duran Duran

Since I just announced my two recent auctions, I thought it might be fun to share the original query letters with my blog readers.

First up is Sarah Rees Brennan and with her permission, the original query letter that was sent by email and that made us request 30 sample pages.

Dear Ms. Nelson and Ms. Megibow:

I am a big fan of Ms Nelson’s blog and the dedication and positive attitude obvious in every post. I would like you to consider THE DEMON’S LEXICON, my YA urban fantasy set in modern-day England. The manuscript is complete at 75, 000 words.

What can I say, I’m a sucker for flattery! Seriously, it’s a very straightforward introduction. All the necessary information is given.

What would be the first word to come to mind about the runaway romance between a beautiful, headstrong woman and a darkly fascinating magician?

For Nick, it’s ’embarrassing’, since said beautiful, headstrong woman was his mum. 16 year old Nick has been brought up on the run from the darkly fascinating magician after things really didn’t work out between him and Nick’s mother. He resents his mother for the predicament they’re in, and he was mostly raised by his older brother, Alan.

The answer wasn’t what I expected, and I love how she taps into exactly what a 16 year old would think about his mother and a romance. She has my full attention.

Nick has also been brought up knowing that there are certain people who have limited magical abilities. Some of them, the magicians, increase these magical abilities by summoning demons who give them more power – in return for the magicians giving them people to possess. The other magically gifted people have considerably less power and rely on magical trinkets and information, exchanged every month at a ‘goblin market.’ As the only people who know about the magicians and their victims, they do try to control things, but it’s an endeavour that is not going well.

This is a quick explanation of the world she has created. Notice it doesn’t take pages and pages. One brief paragraph. I expect the next paragraph to give me more of the conflict that is going to unfold with the character of Nick that she has introduced.

Nick, who can summon demons and is pretty handy with a sword, is mostly concerned with just getting by, but his life is greatly complicated by the advent of his brother’s latest crush. Not only is she a little too attractive for Nick’s peace of mind, but she has a boy in tow who bears the marks of demon possession. Added to that the fact that Nick has started to suspect that Alan, the only person in his life who he trusts, has been lying to him about a few very serious things, and not only Nick, but everybody else, are in for some surprises.

And here’s the conflict. I’m intrigued. Two brothers on the run. One is lying. Hum… I think I need to see more.

I have a popular online blog, some contacts in the writing and publishing world. I want to move ahead on this with an agent, and I also want an agent for the long term, for negotiation and guidance – in fact, everything it says on the tin – that is to say, your website.

I’m still wondering what a “tin” is and if it’s a Irish/British saying… but what the heck, I’m interested enough to read sample pages.

Thank you for your time, and I look forward to hearing back from you.

Sarah Rees Brennan

On Monday, I’ll share with you the letter I wrote to the editors that started all the excitement about this very special novel. Until then…

I’m out.

Prolific or Unpublishable?

STATUS: Crazy busy. A couple of deals are going down so I’m spending a lot of time on the phone.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? The BARE NECESSITIES by Phil Harris (from The Jungle Book)

Nothing is more frightening for an agent then to receive a query where the author proudly announces that s/he has 10 completed manuscripts and a few partials ready for review and can s/he send them along.

Yikes. I realize that the writer includes this information to show the seriousness of intent (or ability to write lots of material) but that’s not what I’m thinking. I’m thinking, “You’ve completed 10 manuscripts and none of them have been published at this point? Did you need 10 manuscripts to learn how to write?”

Now this might be erroneous thinking on my part. Maybe this person is really good and just happens to be prolific.

If that’s the case, you spring that information on to your agent after you’ve signed for representation. (Keywords here are “signed for representation.”)

In a query, it’s best to highlight one work and one work only. We have to fall in love with your writing first and we only need to read one project to do that. Then we can explore what else you have in your arsenal.

Secret Language Of Agents (part two)

STATUS: BEA is in 29 days. Boy, I’m going to be busy getting all my appointments set up. Not to mention that three of my authors will be featured there. I see running around a large convention center in my near future…

What’s playing on the iPod right now? I HEARD IT THROUGH THE GRAPEVINE by Marvin Gaye

I might have to dig deep for some more examples. I don’t tend to use too many catch phrases when I respond to sample pages (and I always personalize responses to fulls). Yesterday’s example is pretty much my mainstay or I actually comment on a specific issue regarding the work.

I have used this one though (or a version there of):

“I really need to be 100% enthusiastic about a work to take it on.”

Translation: I liked it; I didn’t love it. Also implied is that it’s a tough market and I don’t feel confident in my ability to find this work a home.

Secret Language Of Agents

STATUS: We just had one big whopper of a thunderstorm roll through. Chutney has decided to hide under Sara’s desk. Thunder—not her favorite thing.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? GOOD by Better Than Ezra

Oh wise one, share with me the secret language of agents. (Sounds like it should be a title of a book.)

Actually, we don’t really have one but I’m convinced that writers think we do. I’m amazed at how much time is spent interpreting and analyzing sentences in rejection letters (for sample pages) that may ultimately be throw-away lines (as in they are somewhat “standard” and writers shouldn’t read too much into them).

So for fun, I thought I’d tackle a few this week. Now remember, I can only give the translation based on my unique perspective, and I certainly don’t speak for all agents.

Here’s a sentence that I’m guilty of using fairly often. It really fits what I’m trying to convey. I don’t want to go into too much detail (too time-consuming) but I want to add a little comment beyond the standard NO letter.

“I just didn’t fall in love with the story as much as I had hoped.”

Translation: The writing is solid or good but for whatever reason, I didn’t feel connected to the characters or the story or something. The “click” just wasn’t there for me, but I can see it being possibly there for another agent.

Practical Query Magic?

STATUS: It’s a rare, rainy day in Denver. As long as it stays rain and doesn’t turn to snow…

What’s playing on the iPod right now? WHY? by Tracy Chapman

I ran out of time yesterday before I could share some of the practical help we offered to the attendees of the Women’s fiction panel at Pikes Peak.

So what if you have an overdone theme for your novel. You can still make your query stand out by highlighting some other elements that spotlight the uniqueness of your story.

And I imagine some of these points could apply to more beyond women’s fiction. In case it helps, here’s a list.

Top 5 Things you can do to make your Query stand out:
1. Have the pitch in your query match your tone/voice of your manuscript
2. If using a common theme, highlight what would make your women’s fiction work stand out.
3. If the events are based on a real life story you read or heard about, sometimes that can be an interesting tidbit to include. If that gave you the “what if” question that you then explored in your novel.
4. Readers of XYZ authors would also enjoy this work and then explain why.
5. Highlight something that makes the main characters unique.

Query Confession

STATUS: This song is totally making me want to visit Key West—that and the sudden cold spell Denver is having for the next two days. I’m so ready for spring.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? FINS by Jimmy Buffett

I love reading other blogs, but I have to be honest and say I haven’t been looking at my favorite sites for over two weeks. I feel so out of the loop.

So it was interesting to see one of my stats being batted around—the stat that last year the Nelson Agency read over 20,000 queries and we took on 8 new authors.

But here’s where the confession comes in.

I didn’t read 20,800 queries. My incredible assistant Sara Megibow read 20,800 queries (three cheers for Sara!) and I think it’s important that writers know the truth about that—that there are many agents who have assistants who screen the queries.

I probably only read about 4000 queries.

And how did I get that number? Well Sara, on average, usually sets aside about 60 or 80 queries for me to look at out of about 400 a week. With a little simple math, I came up with the number 4000–which I’m basically just pulling out of a hat.

Now there are some agents who read all their own queries (bless their souls—I don’t know how they do it), but I think writers should at least understand that the possibility exists that screening occurs.

In good news though, I’ve taken on two new clients since January—both from queries that were received and not by referral. Now how that will shake out in terms of final numbers for the rest of the year, I’ll let you know.