Thanks so much to everyone who offered up their query for critique. As always, if you want to discuss the queries in the comments section, please be polite as if your life depended on it. Because it does.
I’ll reprint the queries in their entirety and then write my comments below each one.
I wrote the second draft of my query to you this weekend—your timing couldn’t be better. See below (and note that the formatting got cut out):
January 26, 2009
(Sent via e-mail)
Dear Mr. Bransford:
Anders Davis and Shannon Niles, two University of Washington student reporters for The Daily, decide to explore the Greek System following what appears to be a rape at a fraternity house. Over the course of their investigation, the two become so enraptured with the object of their study that they become increasingly implicated in the events and crimes they are supposed to be covering.
I learned about you through your blog and am writing to offer A Winter-Seeming Summer’s Night, an 80,000-word novel, largely because of it. One post in particular stands out, in which you wrote, “Around the publishing industry there has long been a hankering for a certain type of book that is both literary and yet commercial, familiar and yet exotic, well-written but not too dense, accessible but with some depth. They are books that are kind of tough to categorize, because they don’t exactly fit into any one genre. I’d often hear people calling them either literary commercial fiction or commercial literary fiction.” I like to think that A Winter-Seeming Summer’s Night fits the hybrid category you describe: it’s fueled by a powerful plot but is also concerned with language and expression, especially because its protagonists are self-aware writers.
The title refers a couplet from the Donne poem “Loves Alchymie:” “So, lovers dreame a rich and long delight / But get a winter-seeming summers night.” The couplet implies that what one so ardently seeks might, once it is acquired, seem quite different than how it is anticipated, and in that respect reflects the novel’s arc.
By way of background, I began the Ph.D. in English Literature program at the University of Arizona this fall, and I graduated from Clark University in 2006, where I earned a B.A., Magna Cum Laude, in English, with a specialization in creative writing. In addition, I write an independent literary blog, “The Story’s Story,” at http://jseliger.wordpress.com, as well as “Grant Writing Confidential” with my father, Isaac, at http://blog.seliger.com. Although I have never been a fraternity member, A Winter-Seeming Summer’s Night draws on more than a dozen interviews conducted with current and former members as well as numerous books and articles about Greek life.
Thank you in advance for your consideration and I look forward to hearing from you.
First off, I don’t know what formatting got cut out in the transfer, but you’re lucky it did. This is precisely how a query letter should be formatted! Forget indents, forget centering….. just a single-spaced letter with two spaces between paragraphs. So good work on that.
I’m afraid, however, that this query demonstrates one very, very common foible: very little of the query is actually about the work itself. Particularly for a novel, this is a grave error. There’s a paragraph about me, a paragraph about the title, and a paragraph about background. The amount devoted to the actual novel: 64 words. That’s not enough.
I don’t really need to know where the title comes from, don’t really need to know so much background unless it’s directly pertinent, don’t really need to know the inspiration that led to the novel, and while I very much appreciate that one of my blog posts resonated, I don’t need to see it quoted back: I remember it. Just a reference is ok.
What IS described here…. it sounds like an interesting premise, but I’m afraid I feel it’s described somewhat awkwardly. How do two people, male and female, investigating a rape become implicated in the crime? I guess that’s the plot, but I’m having a hard time wrapping my mind around it.
Attn: Mr. Bransford,
Gil Jacobs must die in order to save his soul. After living dozens of lives over hundreds of years, the events of Gil’s past are catching up with him, and he is powerless to prevent it.
Gil is supposed to die in a car crash, it’s his fate, but a ghost who knew Gil in a past life is trying to keep him alive as payback for a lost love. If Gil lives past today, he will not be able to cross over when death eventually claims him, and his soul will be ripe for the taking. If Gil dies, he will escape to his next life and the ghost’s chance at vengeance will be lost.
Fortunately, Gil is not alone in his struggle. The soul of a friend watches over him, and she alone has the capacity to keep the antagonist at bay long enough for Gil to die. Even if it means sacrificing her own soul.
FATE’S GUARDIAN is complete at 120,000 words. It is a supernatural thriller directed toward a commercial fiction audience, and first in a series titled DESTINY’S WILL.
I have been writing professionally for the past eight years, although admittedly not in my preferred style or market. I welcome the opportunity to embark on a career as a novelist. Writing is in my blood and I want my stories to be read.
I am a longtime reader of your blog, and I chose to query you because I trust that you have the talent and contacts needed to sell FATE’S GUARDIAN to a respected publisher. I also think that we could work well together, after all, people do business with people.
Thank you for your time and consideration.
This query is fine. It’s structured well, it’s not too long and not too short, and I think the opening sentence is evocative.
But I’m afraid that while I think there’s an interesting idea here, I found the setup confusingly described. Take just this one sentence: “Gil is supposed to die in a car crash, it’s his fate, but…” This sentence could be very easily rewritten as “It is Gil’s fate to die in a car crash, but…”, which would be more readily comprehensible because it doesn’t have a repetitive interjection.
I also came away from the second paragraph thinking, wait, why does this ghost want payback over some other ghost, how did vengeance get in here, and what does this have to do with Gil? The first ghost’s relationship to Gil seems kind of crucial, no? Or is this two stories, and the only relationship that matters is between the ghost and the other ghost? And then there’s a third benevolent ghost, but does Gil know this person is trying to help him by killing him? And most importantly: how does Gil feel about all of this?
Ultimately, I just didn’t get enough of a sense of the “quest” of this novel. Is Gil just a pawn or does he have control over his fate? If Gil’s the protagonist, what is he trying to accomplish?
I also am not a fan of things like “people do business with people” and “writing is in my blood.” They’re cliches, and even if they don’t relate directly to the work itself, remember: Avoid cliches like the plague.
The Realm of Elin might look like 18th century anywhere, but it isn’t. Not even close. It’s the world where Joanna Messina wakes up, after she drowns herself. At least, that’s where Ruarc Trevelian, the man who saved her life and calls himself the king of wherever she’s landed, tells her she is. She thinks she’s delusional and hearing Ruarc describe visions that he’s had of her since she was five years old only confirms that assumption to her. Joanna tries as best she can to cope with being the honored guest of a king that rules over a land of wizards and feuding barons, some of whom would like nothing better than to see Ruarc abdicate and are on the verge of rebellion, and then, of the blue, Ruarc forces her to marry him. Since she’s less than thrilled at the idea, he agrees to keep it a marriage in name only, until she decides otherwise. But that turns out to take much longer than Ruarc ever imagines. Joanna doesn’t want to be a wife or, even more inconceivably, a queen. She wants to go home, especially after she begins having prophetic visions, herself, one of which is of her own death.
As Joanna’s new crown teeters very ineptly upon her head, Ruarc’s long dead cousin, Asric, returns to Elin, hell-bent on revenge for his own execution. To settle the score, he strikes at the two things Ruarc loves most and has sworn to protect. The kingdom he rules and his wife.
I’d like to take this opportunity to plug the following resources on this very blog:
The basic query letter formula
Anatomy of a Good Query Letter I
Anatomy of a Good Query Letter II
And please don’t forget about the FAQs.
Thanks again to the brave authors who volunteered their queries!