Adepts of Twitter know my agent, Sara Megibow, does #10queriesin10tweets nearly every Thursday. This is a feature where she pulls ten queries out of the NLA slushpile and tweets her reaction. Whether she passes or accepts, she tweets why while guarding the anonymity of the author. I don’t need to follow, but I still find it fascinating.
In her latest installment, she tweeted something that got me thinking: “#3 cont. btw – I’m not judging. This person might be just learning and will figure out the biz and be a bestseller. #10queriesIn10tweets“
Even bestselling authors had to send out their first query, so I thought it might be helpful if some brave soul of an author might post his or her first query next to the one that resulted in an offer or a sale. I asked on my writers’ loops and found some victims volunteers. But I also figure I might as well go first.
So here, in all its glory is my very first query letter. I sent it to Kristin Nelson, ironically enough, and it garnered me a form rejection a few days later. In fact, I got zero requests based on this query. Thank God. This manuscript has taken up permanent residence under my bed where it probably mates with the dust bunnies to create mutants. In all honesty, I’m too scared to look.
Upon completion of my manuscript I’ve researched agents who accept women’s fiction, and discovered your website. I thought you might be interested in reviewing my novel Tournament of Hearts and considering representing me.
Tournament of Hearts is a completed 92 000 word romance novel set in late 11th century England.
At the age of twelve, Linnaea of Kimmeridge entered a convent. Little did she know that life had something else in store for her. Six years later, through a series of unforeseen circumstances, Linnaea finds herself not only leaving the convent forever, but trapped between her loyalty to her father and her awakening feelings for Alaric, who as a boy was fostered at Kimmeridge and who acted as her older brother’s squire. Alaric also finds himself torn in a similar manner, caught between what his honour tells him to do and his attraction to Linnaea.
Before she knows it, Linnaea is caught in the middle of a dangerous struggle for lands, as her father offers her hand in marriage to the winner of a tournament whose outcome she has no control over. In the face of her father’s expectations, Linnaea soon finds that she must bow to someone’s will, but if she’s forced to do that, she might as well choose whose will that will be.
The desire to write came relatively late in my life, but I have, for as far back as I can remember, made up stories in my head which were inspired by books I enjoyed. Although my high school teachers all used to comment on my writing ability, like a typical teenager, I took this as a sign that I should rebel against any formal attempts to force me to write my own stories. I first tried my hand at it back in 2001, almost 20 years after I had graduated from high school and found that I not only enjoyed it, I could actually write. In other words, this is my first novel, although a form of my work has appeared in print in form of a knitting pattern featured in Charmed Knits: Projects for the Fans of Harry Potter (Wiley Press, 2007).
I’d be happy to send you a complete copy of the manuscript for your review. Thank you for your time and I look forward to hearing from you. After all, how often do you come across a manuscript whose title was inspired by a curling competition?
Quite clearly, I was trying too hard to be cutesy here, and I thought any publishing credit was a good thing, even it had nothing whatsoever to do with my ability to write fiction. I had no clue how to write a pitch paragraph, and since I didn’t have many writing credentials, I rambled about inconsequentialities.
The following year, I joined the RWA® and took a workshop in query writing. One of the first assignments in that workshop was to go to the bookstore or Amazon and look up books similar to our manuscripts. We were then to read the back cover copy and word our pitch paragraphs to sound similar.
I also had a new manuscript I was shopping that year. Here is the query I wrote based on that workshop:
Dear Ms. Megibow:
I read on Natalie Bahm’s blog that you are open for queries from romance novelists for the month of June. I am an aspiring historical romance novelist seeking representation for my manuscript entitled TERMS OF SURRENDER. Set against the backdrop of the American War for Independence, it is complete at 104,000 words.
While her father and older brother confront redcoat forces with the Vermont militia, Kate Chambers is entrusted with the upkeep of the family farm. As the burden of chores increases, her younger siblings are often more hindrance than help. And now she’s discovered an injured man in her hayfield.
A deserter from the invading British army, Stephen Blackthorn is in search of a home in a world where he doesn’t belong. Patriot and Loyalist alike view him as the enemy. Then Kate, ignorant of his identity, takes him in.
As Stephen recovers from his injury, his help proves invaluable in surmounting the burden of chores, but when her feelings become engaged, Kate realizes she may be forced to choose between her family and the enemy. Then her younger brother takes matters into his own hands and has Stephen arrested as a potential enemy spy, and she makes her decision. She will rescue Stephen, but at the cost to her own heart, for she knows she will have to send him away. However, he sees her need and vows to return, despite the threat of her father coming home from the war and discovering him.
An active member of the Hearts Through History chapter of the RWA and editor of the Seduced by History newsletter, I hold a BA in French literature. This manuscript is a finalist in this year’s Sheila contest. I would be pleased to send you TERMS OF SURRENDER for your consideration. I may be contacted at [NUMBER] or [EMAIL]. Thank you for your time and consideration.
I did a few more things right here. I personalized, and I wrote a better pitch. I also had a better idea of what credentials consisted of. This query garnered me more than one partial request, but unfortunately the writing in the manuscript itself didn’t hold up to the query.
I wrote three more manuscripts after that, but I didn’t polish them all. The next manuscript I queried was the fifth one I’d completed at least in draft form. It was also my Golden Heart® finalist from 2011. On March 25, 2011, I queried my A-list of agents with this letter:
I am seeking representation for my 80,000-word complete Regency romance A TALE OF TWO SISTERS.
Scarred by her governess’ suicide, debutante Julia St. Claire must marry to save her family from financial ruin, so she seeks to guard her heart in a civilized, sensible union. When such an arrangement is offered by the man of her sister’s dreams, Julia must either betray her sister or risk giving her heart to childhood friend, Benedict Revelstoke. But Benedict, a second son, fears he has destroyed her trust by revealing his love for her–until she turns up at his townhouse with a scandalous proposal.
An active member of the Hearts Through History chapter of the RWA and editor of the Seduced by History newsletter, I hold a BA in French literature. This manuscript is a finalist in the Regency category of this year’s Golden Heart contest. The complete manuscript is available at your request. I may be contacted by email at [EMAIL] or by cell phone at [NUMBER]. Thank you for your time and consideration.
See that? Short and sweet and hooky. And I didn’t try to tell the entire story here. I just wanted enough to arouse interest. This pitch totally disregards the secondary romance in the book (I didn’t call it TWO SISTERS for nothing), which is nearly as important as the main romance.
This one got me loads of requests. For now, I’m calling it my last query, because it led to more than one offer of representation. Of course, putting Golden Heart finalist in the subject line didn’t hurt me, but I’ve since learned from Sara that she ignores contest results when she’s reading queries. She goes straight to the pitch paragraph. If the pitch paragraph doesn’t grab her, she passes.
Your pitch paragraph is probably the most important part of your query. Hone it. Read back cover copy and make yours sound like that. It’s tough to condense a 300-page novel into a few snappy sentences. Focus on the first third of your book to garner interest. All you want to achieve with your letter is that magic request.
This post is the first in a series of first and last query letters. Want to send me yours? Contact me.
Edited to clarify: I unfortunately don’t have the time to start up a query critique service. I’m asking for more victims here to share their early query efforts in contrast to the query that got them an offer, sale or at least requests for pages.