Thursday, January 22, 2009

A Query Letter by Gail Oust

By now you should all know that because of a number of requests, you are reading the short series I’m doing on query letters that helped my clients get my attention and eventually representation. Next in line is Gail Oust. Gail is one of my newer clients. As you can see from the letter she only queried me in early 2008, so her first book (part of a three-book deal) isn’t published yet. However, Whack 'N’ Roll is scheduled for August 2009, and we’re very excited. So here’s the letter that launched our relationship, and it had some strange twists and turns.

Address
February 15, 2008

Jessica Faust
BookEnds, LLC
136 Long Hill Road
Gillette, NJ 07933

Dear Ms. Faust,

Enclosed is my proposal for Somewhere in Serenity which you requested in response to my email query of February 11. Somewhere in Serenity, an amateur sleuth mystery of approx 85,000 words, is the first of a proposed series set in a community of baby boomers who have retired early to enjoy a milder climate and explore new interests.

Serenity Cove Estates, a retirement community for ‘active’ adults, is anything but serene after Kate McCall and three of her Red Hat buddies find a severed arm in a Wal-Mart bag while playing golf. Kate, a died-in-the-wool crime and punishment junkie, jumps at the chance to perform her civic duty. Armed with Forensics for Dummies, she sets out to help solve the crime – much to the chagrin of Sheriff Sumter Wiggins.

I’ve previously had nine historical romances published under the pseudonym Elizabeth Turner. I’m a longstanding member of Romance Writers of America, Greater Detroit Romance Writers of America, and Novelists, Inc. Somewhere in Serenity is currently a work-in-progress and not a complete manuscript. I am seeking representation and hope my novel will meet your high standards.

Sincerely,

Gail Oust
Address
Phone Number
Email


I think this letter is a good example of how really simple query letters can be and still work. This isn’t a long letter, in fact it doesn’t even fill a page, but it very clearly gives me all of the details that I need to know to be interested in this book.

The first paragraph gives me the basics, title, genre, word count, a one-line blurb, and of course she reminds me that this is requested material. What many of you might find interesting about this letter is that it’s far from perfect, however it still works. Let’s start with the title. Somewhere in Serenity sounds very much like women’s fiction to me, and never in a million years would I have thought it a mystery. It’s fine since I usually don’t try to get caught up in titles at this stage of the game, but there is no way I would send this book to editors with this title. When looking at titles I would advise you to take a look at books in your genre to see if you see a thread. Most cozies fall along the lines of, A Serene Murder, Death in Serenity, or A Murderous Hat. The second piece of the first paragraph that I feel needs to be looked at more carefully is the hook line. Gail pitched this as a retirement community mystery when really the hook that grabs is the Red Hat mention in the second paragraph. This is an example of really looking closely at your book to see what makes it distinct.

The second paragraph is what really grabs my attention, and this is because this is where the hook comes in. Unfortunately, BookEnds had once tried to sell a Red Hat mystery with no success. So why would I ask to see more of this anyway? A couple of reasons. The first was a line from this paragraph, “Kate, a died-in-the-wool crime and punishment junkie, jumps at the chance to perform her civic duty. Armed with Forensics for Dummies, she sets out to help solve the crime – much to the chagrin of Sheriff Sumter Wiggins.” I thought the vision of this retiree with Forensics for Dummies was hysterical. The writing grabbed me, and of course the third paragraph grabbed me too. This is an author with great experience and a publishing background.

And of course, Gail included all her pertinent contact information, which really helped out later.

This is an instance where I was so charmed by the voice that I thought maybe there were more hooks in the book that the author had overlooked and maybe, if the book was great, I could dig them out and see what we found.

Book Note: After reading the proposal I sadly rejected it. I had a lot of fun reading it and really liked the voice, but just felt that I wouldn’t be able to sell it based on the Red Hat hook. I sent a really nice letter telling her how much I loved it, but would need to see something with a stronger hook. Well, about two or three days later I was reminded that I had once come up with the idea for a Bunco series that I still hadn’t found an author to write, so I quickly picked up the phone, pulled out Gail’s letter, and called to explain my thought. Could we make these Red Hat ladies Bunco players? Ironically, Gail was a Bunco player herself, and it wasn’t more than a few weeks after submitting the revised proposal that we made a three-book deal with NAL for the Bunco Babes mysteries.

Jessica

21 comments:

debra said...

Jessica,

I'm surprised you requested a manuscript that wasn't finished. For fiction, I thought the #1 rule is don't query agents until the book is done. Was this because she was a previously published author?

Deb

Heidi C. Vlach said...

This one's especially interesting for me, considering how many elements aren't quite perfect, but that the letter ended up getting the author representation anyway. Thanks for doing this series!

Jess said...

I have a question - this and at least one other previous one said that it had been requested based on an earlier query.

What was the earlier query? Was it the basic letter that most writers only send first? How many writers make it to the stage these queries are actually for? Or is the "request" from the email query something else?

@Deb, I always thought it was only unpubbed writers who need to have the novel finished, to prove that they can actually finish it and write something coherent.

BookEnds, LLC said...

The query letters that were in response to requested material are basically a clone of the original query. The only change is, typically, the line where the author reminds me that the material was requested.

Published authors can often sell on proposal and rarely need a full manuscript. There are also no cardinal rules.

Anonymous said...

Is "died" in the wool here a joke? (The saying is "dyed in the wool.")

Anonymous said...

The title thing. I'm beginning to get a sense that more often than not a title is changed. Am I right assuming this?

Crimogenic said...

Jessica,

Again these queries are so helpful! I'm working on my query, and these example are priceless. They are so different and unique. Good to see that some aren't perfect, but the hook was key. As newies, we stress and stress over the perfect query.... but I'm not sure if there is such a thing. Good to know. :)

Anonymous said...

Crimogenic,

I sensing you are a 100% right. I think in our quest to be perfect, we are making ourselves boring. I am also thinking that maybe I am overloading myself with too many conflicting tips from too many resources. I read my letter the other day that I thought was exactly what everyone wanted, and then read one of my originals. Guess what, I liked my original better. I could hear my voice in the original a lot clearer.

Anonymous said...

Anon,

My first try at a query was a few months ago. I listened to the advice of dozens of other writers and sources, and I know they all meant well, but I ended up with more rejections that I would like to admit. I put the letter away for a month or so, and came back to it. It was clear that my voice had been erased, and the hook was buried. So I see why it didn't work out. I suggest working with a few writers that know your story when seeking help for the query.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the advice Anon. We are starting a critic group here in the next month or so.

Craven said...

I like the fact that you were willing to offer an alternate hook, and let the author rework the story. I would pray for that opportunity if my manuscript was smidge from tipping the scale.

Again, thank you for the insight and help.

Craven

Anonymous said...

I want to know if I am the only person doing this. I read so and so's query letter critique and find out they don't like certain hooks. So I rush and change things. Then I go on someone else's contest find out they don't like cliches? (Exactly what are all of the cliches? because I don't know.) So I wipe out all my dreams, etc. Then I go on someone else's blog find out so and so has lost their voice. Guess waht? You got it. Then someone doesn't like certain descriptive words. You guessed it. Then I come back to Jessica's and find out she loves all of the things I have just removed!!! or at least it appears that way. I am thinking I am hurting myself and going to end up sounding just like everyone else when I write!! And I seriously doubt if I am the only person doing this. I would guess anyone submitting their work to be judged (or as in my case just reading the results of those contests and queries) are going to end up very similiar to each other. After all the results are the opinions of one person. And sounding like everyone else, that is bad, right?

Anonymous said...

The letter is great, the story charming, but I am surprised you did not comment on all the cliches (dyed-in-the-wool, jumps at the chance, anything but, etc.) Cliche writing does not seem to hurt John Grisham, so this may not be an issue. I mistakenly believed agents pushed the EJECT button when they saw this stuff, though. Please instruct if you have a chance.

Anonymous said...

Anon 1:22, I often do the same thing you're doing. In my own humble opinion, I think we need to just write our hearts out (cliche), get the story down, find our voice, edit until we're satisfied, and THEN maybe try to weed out little no-no's like cliches, etc. When I try to keep all these rules in mind while I'm writing, it reminds me of a golf lesson I once received where the instructor said, do this, and this and this and this (you get the idea). Okay, now swing. Someone else advised that I not think at all, just keep my eye on the ball and swing.

BookEnds, LLC said...

This is why I decided to post these letters, to show you how different and varied query letters can be and to show you how easily rules can be broken, but a letter can still be acceptable. Write the letter in your voice. Write a letter that resonate and write a letter that works for you. Agents do not read letters to pick them apart. We do not read them even remotely as carefully as you're reading these. We skim them and hope they scream at us to slow down and read more carefully. It is then that we ask for more material.

--jhf

Juliana Stone said...

To all the anons. I think at the end of the day you can only take in so much information. Everything in this business is incredibly subjective. You have to learn to listen to your gut and keep your voice pure. If you try to apply everything that you think is correct, from what you hear on all of these various threads you'll lose your voice, and I think that voice is what's going to sell you in the end!

Cindy Procter-King said...

Wow, what a great story, Jessica. I've always wondered if agents think to call up a writer they've rejected but the material presented at the time wasn't working, for whatever reason. Very cool that you did that with this book and this author.

Deb, yes, agents will look at proposals rather than full manuscripts from published authors. It depends on the agent, and it probably depends on the project as well. In other words, it depends.

Anonymous said...

I'm not an expert on romances since I don't read them, but it seems many of the prolific romance authors use a lot of cliches in their writing...how else can they write 4-6 books a year? I'm sure many mystery authors et al are guilty of that as well...

Anonymous said...

Thank you for doing this series. I can see why my query might read as a piece of cardboard: no voice and too business-like. And yet...
Thanks also for teaching me to include part of the initial query when I receive requested materials. I hadn't thought of that, and I may have shot my chance at a really good agent because I didn't remind him of me.

Kim said...

I read your post on marketing, and I'm very discouraged. According to it I have very little chance of catching the eye of a literay agent, much less a publisher.
I have a high school education, and this is the first thing I've written so I have absolutley nothing published.
It seems such a shame that a writer is judged on how well known they are verses talent and quality of writing.
Do I have any chance of finding a literary agent, or am I headed for self publishing?

Anonymous said...

On 10:32 AM, January 22, 2009 Anonymous said...

Is "died" in the wool here a joke? (The saying is "dyed in the wool.")

I caught that too. Unless someone in the story literally "died in the wool", that's the sort of mistake that completely ruins a story for me.