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Show & Tell - The Evolution of a Query Letter

show and tell May 04, 2021

A query letter is a short piece of writing with a single purpose: to pique an agent’s attention enough that they will be interested in reading more—whether that’s the opening pages of your manuscript or your book proposal.

An agent should be able to skim your query to quickly answer these key 5 questions:

  1. Is this a genre I represent?
  2. Is this book within the word limit guidelines for this genre?
  3. Is this a subject matter or a story I am interested in learning more about?
  4. Does the query make it clear what the book is about?
  5. Does the author have the expertise to write this book?

Here’s one of my early query letter attempts:

Dear Ms. …

[Personalize letter for recipient]

Imagine the book Glennon Doyle might have written had she ignored the inner voice that whispered, “There she is” when she first encountered Abby Wambach. Imagine Glennon, a married, mid-fifties empty nester, hearing that voice again. Wondering if it’s too late to listen to it. Wondering if she’s capable of letting go of everything she knows for the promise of a more authentic life.  My story is like that, only different. Good girl. Rule follower. Harvard lawyer turned ambivalent stay-at-home mom.

On the cusp of an empty nest, I set off on a year-long “adventure” with my husband to discern our next chapter, which for me felt like a last chance to really live my life. The path I was led to felt impossible to follow . Leave my happy-enough thirty-year marriage. Come out as queer even though I’d never kissed a woman. Say yes to my desires while those I loved most urged me to stay the course.

After wrestling for months and finally deciding to trust my inner voice, I hit bottom trying to build a new life. I considered suicide, then reached out to a friend who helped me rebuild my life. Magical “coincidences” began to happen, as if the universe, or God, or my inner voice, was saying, “See, we got you.” I moved to a city where I knew only one person, bought my first home by myself, and experienced that first kiss and more. I could never have anticipated that my “adventure” would have led me to these places, but I was finally home. My inner voice had led me to myself.

My 70,000-word memoir, GRAVEYARD OF SAFE CHOICES, takes the reader inside my midlife journey as I learn to listen to the voice deep inside each of us, calling us to our authentic self. This is the story about finding the courage to break the container you’ve carefully curated in your first half of life and creating a new one that allows you to live with your arms wide open[MMS3] . It is the story of weighing the costs of authenticity and becoming brave at any age[MMS4] . GRAVEYARD OF SAFE CHOICES speaks directly to the longings of women at midlife who are doing the hard work of examining their lives. It will appeal to readers of Doyle’s Untamed, Jennifer Louden’s Why Bother, Dani Shapiro’s Hourglass, and Shonda Rhimes’ Year of Yes.

A graduate of Harvard Law School and Wellesley College and also holding a certificate in spiritual formation from Columbia Theological Seminary, I am an Author Accelerator certified book coach and a founding board member of The Lancaster LGBTQ+ Coalition. My platform is modest but growing . I have connected with my midlife audience as a guest on multiple podcasts and by engaging in large Facebook groups (divorce, coming out later in life, Binders writing groups, international networking, Wellesley alumnae). I host a biweekly show on the writing life produced by my coworking community. I anticipate blurbs from [X and Y ].

I would be pleased to forward my book proposal and/or completed manuscript to you.

Thank you for your consideration,

Suzette Mullen

Why this query could be stronger:

  • The opening was intended to grab the agent’s attention, and maybe it does, but it risks being gimmicky and also confusing.
  • The query is too long—it’s over 500 words. The writer should cut out anything that’s not absolutely essential, including any repetition, and aim to get the query closer to 300 words.
  • The genre and word count isn’t shared until late in the letter. Put that closer to the top.
  • The bio is filled with too much irrelevant information about my educational background and not enough about my writing background. Also the mention of a “modest platform,” while true, doesn’t breed confidence. 

Here’s my current draft:

Dear [AGENT]:

Is it worth risking a “good enough” life to find out who you really are? That’s the question I wrestle with in GRAVEYARD OF SAFE CHOICES, a memoir complete at 70,000 words. This later-in-life, identity story about weighing the costs and choosing authenticity anyway will appeal to readers of Untamed by Glennon Doyle and Hourglass by Dani Shapiro. Because [personalize], I thought it would be a good fit for your list.

I was a good girl and a rule follower. A Harvard lawyer turned ambivalent stay-at-home mom. But everything changed when my nest became empty and an inner voice urged me to spill unspeakable thoughts onto the page. The path that emerged seemed impossible to follow. Leave my thirty-year marriage. Come out as queer even though I’d never kissed a woman. Say yes to my desires while those I loved most urged me to stay the course. I fell apart trying to build a new life and then a desperate phone call set in motion magical “coincidences,” which felt like the universe, or God, or my inner voice, saying, “See, we got you.” I was finally home. My inner voice had led me to myself.

Sometimes the right direction is the one we least expect.

My memoir-writing journey began at the Southampton Writers Conference where I studied with Mary Karr and Roger Rosenblatt. A contributor to Passed On: Daughters Write About Father Loss, Lack, and Legacy, a forthcoming anthology, I’m driven to build a robust platform for this memoir and have already connected with midlife readers as a host of a biweekly videocast, as a guest on multiple podcasts, and in several large online LGBTQIA+ communities. I am an Author Accelerator Certified book coach and a founding board member of The Lancaster LGBTQ+ Coalition.

I would be pleased to forward my proposal and/or full manuscript to you.

Thank you for your consideration,

Suzette Mullen

Why this query is better:

  • As opposed to the potentially gimmicky and confusing opening of the previous draft, the two opening sentences here clearly state the book’s central conflict and also its genre and word count.
  • This draft is much more concise at just over 300 words, There’s no repetition and unnecessary information is omitted, which leaves space for more interesting, universal statements like “Sometimes the right direction is the one we least expect.”
  • The bio is focused more on my writing credentials and also the handling of my modest platform is more positive and shows what I am already doing to attract readers.

I may continue to tweak this query depending on the response it receives, but I feel confident that this version is much stronger than the earlier one.  

In summary:

  • Remember the job of your query is simply to pique an agent’s interest so they want to read more.
  • Is your query as concise as it can be? Eliminate any repetition or extraneous information.
  • Will an agent be able to quickly skim your query to get the information she needs to make a decision? Make sure the genre and word count aren’t buried.
  • Want to learn about pitching your book? Sign up for my newsletter at https://www.yourstoryfinder.com/ for more tips on getting started, getting unstuck, and getting your book out into the world.
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