Sunday, August 10, 2014

Query Letters 101

I consider myself a bit of an expert on query letters.
If you think I’m being arrogant, yeah, maybe a little, but the reason I consider myself somewhat of an expert is that I’ve queried around 100 agents and fine-tuned my query letter as I went.
I want to share with you my query letter that nabbed me the most kick butt rock star agent around, Stacey Glick, of Dystel & Goderich Literary Management. (If you somehow haven’t heard of them, let’s just say that along with repping me, they also represent the PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES.) No, I’m not biased. Ha!
So here is my query, after much massaging:

I am seeking representation for my crime fiction novel, BLESSED ARE THE DEAD. This novel was inspired by a story I covered as a crime reporter and my own efforts to get a serial killer to confess to taking and killing a little girl. When the man died in prison two years ago, I was called for a comment, so I guess I’m considered an “expert” on him now.
Gabriella Giovanni has never met a man more exciting than a murder.
Her big Italian-American family can’t understand why Gabriella chooses her adrenaline-pumping career as a San Francisco Bay Area newspaper reporter over being married with little bambinos running around. Instead, Gabriella spends her days flitting in and out of other people’s nightmares and then walking away unscathed, like a teenager exiting the haunted house at the fair. That’s partly because for twenty years Gabriella’s managed to avoid confronting her own dark childhood memories: her sister’s kidnapping and murder.
That changes when a little girl disappears on the way to the school bus stop.
Gabriella’s quest for justice and a front-page story leads her to a convicted kidnapper who reels her in with tales of his exploits as a longtime serial killer and his promises to reveal his secrets to her alone. Editors warn Gabriella she is in danger of losing her job when the biggest newspaper in town keeps scooping her on the story. Believing that the fate of her beloved job and solving the mystery of her sister’s disappearance both lie in the hands of a serial killer, Gabriella risks her life to meet him when he is sprung from jail on a technicality.
The novel is complete at 88,000 words and took first place in the mystery category of The 2011 Sandy Writing Contest. The final judge, an editor at Simon and Schuster, said this about it:
“I liked Gabriella and wanted to spend time with her. I also thought the author did a good job establishing character, plot, AND building suspense within a short period of time. This reminded me of Sue Grafton or Jan Burke.”
I am a member of Sisters in Crime, polished my manuscript in a master class on the novel at The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, and am involved in three writing critique groups. I am a freelance writer and maintain two blogs.
Thank you very much for your time and consideration. I have included the first chapter so you can get a feel for my voice.
Kristi Belcamino

Let’s break it down:
1st paragraph
Introduces you. So, I know Janet Reid (Query Shark) hates that introductory paragraph, but I say unless you are querying JANET REID, keep it in. It’s polite.
The next three paragraphs:
The summary of your novel. This is what you want to appear on the back cover copy of your book. It’s fun to write and summarize in this way.
The  next paragraph or two: Facts about you and your novel/your credentials. (It’s 80,000 words. I’m a Sisters in Crime member. My manuscript won an award.)
Closing paragraph:
Thank you and HEY I’ve included the first five pages (or first chapter) so you can get a feel for my voice!
Okay. So a few things to point out. I always, always, always included that last line. I either included five pages or an entire chapter. My thought was if the query had interested them, but they were on the fence, they could read further to see if my writing was something they liked. I really recommend doing this unless someone specifically says “QUERY ONLY.”
In addition, only include it in the email. If you attach it, an agent will probably never look at it. Attachments are a big no-no in the query process unless they ask you to attach a word doc.
I knew my query was working because I had dozens of requests to read my full manuscript.  And, then I also came across this article by Literary Agent Jill Marr on how to query agents. And lo, and behold, as I read her article, I saw this in an article she wrote on queries:
There are also several ways to stand out in a good way. Here are a few examples of some first lines that have caught my eye recently:

Gabriella has never met a man more exciting than a murder. (Again, this one works because the author is showing me so much, but in a new and different way. This character is a loner and someone who deals with death and murders. I already like her!)
So, Jill liked it, too. The reason I even have the gumption to offer up my query in the hopes that it will help is because when I first sat down to write my query letter, I had a stack of query letters from other authors that I used as inspiration.

I hope by me sharing this and you reading it you can get some ideas or inspiration about writing query letters.


seana graham said...

Great stuff and not arrogant at all. Thanks.

Kristi said...

Thanks, Seana.
So glad it was helpful!