Thursday, January 05, 2006

Query Quandary

So I have this novel I'm trying to sell and that means writing a query letter. I've written queries aplenty before and I've managed to sell a few novels and a number of articles with them. You can read the query and synopsis that got me an agent for my first novel here.

Yet it still remains a bugaboo for me. I worked for months over the first version of this query, starting with rough drafts in March of 2005 and leading up to the first letter mailed in July of 2005. I've changed and tweaked it dozens of times since then and I thought it might be helpful (laughable?, entertaining?, a good study in psychololgical disintegration?) to see some of the iterations it has gone through and the thoughts that went into each change. My thoughts will appear in parentheses and in color type, the actual letter text will be in black type. I've deleted specific names and addresses but it should be noted that each letter mailed was personalized and addressed to a specific agent.

Here goes....
_________________________

Version #1

Date


Agent

Agency
Street
City, State Zip

Dear Ms./Mr. Agent:

I’m a multi-published novelist seeking representation for my latest suspense novel, Nick of Time. My prior agent retired and your name emerged at the top of my list based on your reputation in the industry and your interest in medical thrillers.




(I figured this was a good opener in that it established right up front with a minimum of space and words that I'm an experienced, published writer, and that I had done my homework in terms of what this particular agent was after. In each letter I mentioned something specific to that agent, ranging from stuff as mundane as a common interest in scuba diving (it's amazing the info you can get off the web these days) to similar books the agent might have represented. I hoped mention of my prior agent and the reason we parted company would communicate that I wasn't a pain in the ass to work with and our parting wasn't due to any fault of mine, but I also left out mention of the interim agent I had for 3 years who I fired a year ago because I felt he was ineffective. I agonized over whether or not it was better to mention the interim agent, which might mean explaining why we parted company. I didn't want to come across as bitter/angry/difficult or anything like that. But by not mentioning the interim agent, I created a span of about 7 years where it appeared as if I was doing and writing nothing, which wasn't the case and wasn't the impression I wanted to give. In the end I decided to mention only the retired agent and hope the query and/or writing would be enough to establish a connection with an agent and get some communication going. Then I could decide what to say regarding the interim agent.)

Nick of Time tells the story of Rachel Mayton, a brilliant physician researcher haunted by guilt. Five years ago a car accident took her husband’s life and left her daughter, Megan, in a coma, though Rachel emerged unscathed. Determined to help Megan, Rachel develops a highly promising drug that may reverse comas in brain-injured people. A clinical trial has been approved with Megan as one of the patients but it’s delayed when Rachel is shot during a robbery and “dies.” During this near-death experience Rachel sees her dead husband, Doug, who relates a cryptic message Rachel doesn’t understand. Over the next few weeks, Rachel sees and hears Doug several more times, both in dreams and while awake. Then Tim Nerad, a patient in Rachel’s clinical trial, awakens from his coma and disappears from the hospital. When Rachel finds him, his explanation for his behavior – a bizarre tale of time-traveling souls, ghostly visitations, and a future apocalypse – leaves Rachel doubting both his sanity and hers. Yet when she is forced to flee – pursued by the law for a murder she didn’t commit and stalked by zombies who want her dead – she comes to not only trust Tim but love him. In the end Rachel realizes her only hope for survival is to puzzle out the clues provided by her dead husband’s ghost and sacrifice those she holds most dear.

(This one paragraph summary of the book is what consumed most of the first three months of query development and tweaking. It initially began as a 600-word summary and I cut it down to 250 or so. This wasn't easy but it was necessary if I was going to get a one-page query out of the deal. Since I send a short synopsis -- about 1500 words -- with each query, I figured this paragraph needed to communicate the main essence of the story and didn't need to get into any real details. For the query summary I tried to focus on character motivation, the general plot, and the primary story arcs.)

Told in chapters that alternate between current time and a time thirty-six years in the future, the manuscript for Nick of Time (approximately 86,000 words) is complete and available for review. (I debated mentioning the alternating times here because there is no real hint of it in the summary paragraph preceding it. But I also felt it was an important component of the work. I'm not sure if this is the right decision or not.) My previous novels include three stand-alone thrillers, all with a medical flavor, that were published as paperback originals by HarperCollins in the late nineties: Cold White Fury, Eyes of Night, and Second Sight. The rights for all three books recently reverted back to me, making them available for reissue. (I vacillated on mentioning the rights reversion here, unsure if having them was a plus or a minus.) Should you be interested, I have other finished novel projects available for review as well. (Again, the advice on this type of comment is mixed. Some say mentioning it is an indication that you have a closet full of poorly written novels you couldn't sell. But others have said it can be an indication you are a career novelist as opposed to a one-book wonder. I decided to include it in this query since I felt my ability to write publishable material wasn't really in question but I'm not sure if it was the right thing to do and deleted it from future versions.)

I have enclosed a synopsis, an author bio, and the first three chapters of Nick of Time for your review (no need to return these should you decide to pass), along with an SASE. Thank you very much for your time and consideration. I look forward to hearing from you. (Though a lot of folks suggest writers need to strictly adhere to an agent's stated preferences, I've also seen several agents, editors, and writers who advise sending a sample of the work with any query, even if it's just the first 5 pages. I didn't include any sample chapters unless it was indicated as okay in an agent's listed preferences. I gave it some serious thought because I think my first few pages are very strong, but I have a hard time interpreting something that says "query only" as meaning it's okay to send along a few pages as well. I did, however, include a synopsis with every query since the synopsis is relatively brief. My bio page goes with each letter, too, and includes review quotes from Publishers Weekly and others for my first three novels, as well as mentions of my many nonfiction writing credits.)

All the best, (I admit I played with the standard "Sincerely" versus this one and then decided I was micromanaging way too much.)



Beth Amos

Enclosures: Synopsis for Nick of Time
Sample Chapters
Author Bio
SASE

___________________________

Version #2

Date

Literary Agent
Agency
Address
City, State, Zip

Dear Ms./Mr. Agent,

I’m writing to you regarding my latest novel, Nick of Time, an exciting blend of paranormal suspense and medical thriller.
(Okay, I decided to ramp up the hype a bit in this version but after using it a couple of times, I decided it sounded amateurish and changed it.) I had three similar novels of suspense published by HarperCollins in the late nineties as paperback originals: Cold White Fury, Eyes of Night, and Second Sight. (For this version, I decided to move my previous publishing info up front and as you will see in the sentences that follow, I also provided some info on sales, knowing that my record isn't the best but isn't all that bad, either. Again, I wasn't sure if offering this information would benefit me or do me harm and after garnering a couple of swift rejections with this letter, I decided to eliminate sales info from future queries.) I received advances that ranged from $10K to $30K and all three books earned through their advances, with total sales for each averaging over 70,000 copies. When Harper bought Avon I was dropped from their roster and the rights to these books have since reverted back to me, making them available for reissue. (I debated long and hard over whether or not to include why, when, and how I was dropped from HC and after trying a few queries with the previous sentence, I decided to drop it in future versions.) My first agent, Linda Hayes, retired four years ago and I spent three years with another agent, Mr. Agent, who represented a different project for me: a humorous mystery that we were unable to sell. Mr. Agent and I parted company amicably a year ago and I am now seeking new representation. (I'm still focused on explaining my 7 years of nothing here, like a job applicant trying to explain long pauses between employment. This time I included the interim agent I subsequently fired (though our parting WAS amicable) and included the fact that this agent was representing a wholly different work for me. I wanted to make it clear that a) I'm willing to try other types of writing and b) I wasn't just sitting on my pity pot sulking all this time, although I did spend some time doing just that. But in the end, I decided this made me sound too scattershot, so I deleted it.)

Nick of Time tells the story of Rachel Mayton, a brilliant physician researcher haunted by guilt. Five years ago a car accident took her husband’s life and left her daughter, Megan, in a coma, though Rachel emerged unscathed. Determined to help Megan, Rachel develops a highly promising drug that may reverse comas in brain-injured people. A clinical trial has been approved with Megan as one of the patients but it’s delayed when Rachel is shot during a robbery and “dies.” During this near-death experience Rachel sees her dead husband, Doug, who relates a cryptic message Rachel doesn’t understand. Over the next few weeks, Rachel sees and hears Doug several more times, both in dreams and while awake. Then Tim Nerad, a patient in Rachel’s clinical trial, awakens from his coma and disappears from the hospital. When Rachel finds him, his explanation for his behavior – a bizarre tale of time-traveling souls, ghostly visitations, and a future apocalypse – leaves Rachel doubting both his sanity and hers. Yet when she is forced to flee – pursued by the law for a murder she didn’t commit and stalked by zombies who want her dead – she comes to not only trust Tim but love him. In the end Rachel realizes her only hope for survival is to puzzle out the clues provided by her dead husband’s ghost and sacrifice those she holds most dear. (This didn't change from the first version.)

Told in chapters that alternate between current time and a time thirty-six years in the future, the manuscript for Nick of Time (approximately 86,000 words) is complete and available for review. I have enclosed a brief synopsis and an author bio (no need to return these should you decide to pass), and would be happy to forward the entire manuscript at your request. (This particular copy went to an agent who wanted queries only. I also used it for a few others who were willing to look at sample chapters and altered the letter to reflect that inclusion.) Thank you for your consideration and I look forward to hearing from you.

All the best,



Beth Amos

Enclosures: Synopsis for Nick of Time
Author Bio
SASE
_________________________________

Version # 3 (This one has yet to be sent to anyone, but will be going out soon along with a revised synopsis. I have changed the story significantly, too, in response to some feedback I received from the delightful, gin-swilling, Miss Snark and her many minions.)

Date

Agent
Agency

Address
City, State Zip

Dear Ms./Mr. Agent:

I am a multi-published novelist seeking representation for my latest work, Nick of Time, a paranormal thriller about two men and two women who must traverse the barriers of time and death in an effort to save mankind. The story, which blends hard and speculative science in a tale of intertwined destinies, heartbreaking betrayals, and amazing self-sacrifice, will appeal to fans of Michael Crichton, Dean Koontz, and John Saul.
(This time I decided to eliminate all the agent and sales history from the letter and focus more on hyping/slotting/marketing the book instead. I figure if someone is interested enough in the book, they can call and/or email me to ask about past representation and my publishing history. Some agents' listings do ask for past sales info to be included in the query letter but I just don't feel it belongs there. I might well be wrong.)

Rachel Mayton is a brilliant physician researcher haunted by guilt because she was behind the wheel five years ago when a car accident took her husband’s life and left her daughter, Megan, in a coma. When Rachel develops a new drug with the potential to heal brain-injured people, she hopes it will bring Megan back to life. Prior to launching a clinical trial of the drug, Rachel is shot during a robbery and “dies.” During this near-death experience she sees her dead husband, Doug, who relates a cryptic message Rachel doesn’t understand. When Rachel sees and hears Doug several more times over the next few weeks, both she and some of her coworkers start to question her sanity. Then Tim Nerad, a patient in Rachel’s clinical trial, awakens from his coma and disappears from the hospital. When he later shows up at Rachel’s house, his explanation for his behavior – a bizarre tale of time-traveling souls, ghostly visitations, and a future apocalypse – does little to further Rachel’s cause. Before she can puzzle out the truth behind these strange happenings, she is forced to flee, pursued by the law for a murder she didn’t commit and stalked by “zombies” who want her dead. When Rachel learns her drug might lead to mankind’s demise, she must unravel the complex threads of destiny that tie her and Tim to a crazed man and a heroic woman who exist thirty-six years in the future. In the process she has to puzzle out the clues provided by her dead husband’s ghost, sacrifice those she holds most dear, and come to terms with her growing love for Tim, a man who possesses the body of one person and the soul of another.
(I revamped this one-paragraph summary for this version instead of using the one I had in the other two. Is it better? I have no idea. I kind of think it is, but then I thought the first one was okay, too. I'm shooting in the dark here.)

The manuscript for Nick of Time (approximately 86,000 words) is complete and available for review. I have enclosed a brief synopsis, the first 50 pages,
(this only to those who okay it) and an author bio (no need to return these if you decide to pass), and can forward the entire manuscript at your request. My previous publishing credits include three similar novels of paranormal suspense published by HarperCollins in the late nineties: Cold White Fury, Eyes of Night, and Second Sight. The rights for all three have since reverted back to me. (I still don't know if mentioning this fact helps my cause any or not.)

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

All the best,



Beth Amos

Enclosures: Synopsis for Nick of Time
Author Bio
Sample Chapters
SASE


____________________________



3 Comments:

At 1:33 AM, Anonymous Douglas Clegg said...

Hey, I'd want to read the book from any of these queries -- sounds great!

 
At 3:15 PM, Blogger David said...

You would know far better than me what would serve best as a summary of your plot, but I'm a big believer in getting out of the way in queries, and letting your work speak for itself. That's why I like letter #3 the best -- it's the least self-conscious and most direct. All three are well-written, and I think that's what agents are most interested in -- ultimately, though, you have to interest them in the proposal, and any extraneous info is more likely to hurt than to help.

Dave Feldman

 
At 12:37 PM, Blogger Beth Amos said...

Thanks, guys! Let me know if either of you decide to switch from authoring to agenting.

 

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