Wednesday, January 21, 2009

A Query Letter by J. B. Stanley

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 J. B. Stanley. Another letter from 2004. Clearly that was a good year for me. J.B. is another author who has been nothing but busy since signing with BookEnds. She has had two mystery series published and has two more in the works, with three different publishers in all. Her latest mysteries include Stiffs and Swines and the upcoming The Battered Body. So here’s the letter that launched J.B.’s career.

J. B. Stanley

February 6, 2004

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

Dear Ms. Faust,

I found your agency’s name under the heading “Recommended Agents” on several web sites created for writers. Therefore, I am sending this query to see whether you would be interested in a cozy mystery entitled Death of a Collector.

Death of a Collector is a 48,000 word novel meant to be the first in a series of antiques-themed mysteries. Appealing to both mystery fans and to the millions of collectors fighting over items on Ebay, Death of a Collector examines the fanatical desire for ownership that dominates the world of collectibles. Desire often leads to murder.

Amateur sleuth Molly Appleby is a writer for Collector’s Weekly. Covering the auction beat, Molly also interviews key figures in the collecting world. On a muggy North Carolina morning, Molly attends her first kiln opening where she witnesses the death of a rude, diabetic collector named George-Bradley. The secondary mystery is that George-Bradley’s southern pottery collection is missing pieces created by a reclusive potter.

Death of a Collector contains an eccentric cast of supporting characters including a bossy mother, an overly affectionate auctioneer, a truculent boss, the catty, gay “Queen of Classifieds,” as well as the shy, handsome Marketing Director (who becomes Molly’s love interest). There is also an unusual voice interrupting the narrative. The “voice of clay” comes directly from a piece of art pottery and provides short, lyrical clues.

I have a B.A. in English from Franklin & Marshall College, a M.A. in English from University of West Chester, and a M.L.I.S. from North Carolina Central University. I taught English to middle school students for 8 years, but am now peddling folk art paintings on the Internet. I have worked in both auction houses and an antique shop. I occasionally contribute articles on auctions to AntiqueWeek and to Raleigh’s News and Observer. Other than that, my writing has been limited to unpublished children’s stories and some poetry published in small journals during grad school.

I would be willing to work with your agency in all aspects required in transforming a completed manuscript into a saleable book. Please recycle these pages if they are not for you. Thank you so much for your valuable time.


J. B. Stanley (Jennifer)

What I like about all of these samples is how very different they are. In this one, J.B.’s opening line is very short and sweet, but it is enough to tell me what her book is, that she has a catchy title, and that she’s done her research when it comes to finding an agent.

This letter is over four years old and I’m not sure how I would react nowadays if I saw a word count of 48,000 words. Even for a cozy this is on the short side. However, I think what caused me to ask for more despite the word count is hook. You see, even if there are things that seem off in a query, there are other things like hook or voice that could push us over the edge. I think most agents feel that word count can be altered if the rest is strong enough, and in this case adding 10,000 to 15,000 words should be doable.

What’s interesting about J.B.’s letter is that it’s very detached. I don’t get much of a feel for her voice and I really think, well now I know, that she could do a lot better when writing the description. She’s writing as an outsider telling a story rather than a writer showing the story, which is much more effective. However, cozy mysteries sell so strongly on the hook that often if I see a great hook that I love I’ll request the material no matter what other problems the query might have. It never hurts to read a few sample pages.

J.B.’s bio paragraph is also perfect. Why? She includes information that connects her to the story. We know that she is coming at this not just as a writer, but as someone experienced in the subject, and while that doesn’t necessarily sell a book it does lend it authenticity.

Book Note: J.B. submitted this query at a time when we were accepting unsolicited proposals. After reading her material I requested the full manuscript, but did have some concerns. I ultimately rejected the work with a long explanation as to why. Within a week J.B. resubmitted, and in just a few short weeks after that we sold the three-book series to Berkley. This particular series has since gone out of print, but J.B. has a new series coming soon from St. Martin’s, her Midnight Ink series, and a new series upcoming from Berkley.



Anita said...

Thanks for the great background info...I especially liked learning that you initially rejected the manuscript with a long explanation. It provides hope for all of us working on revisions!

Anonymous said...

I agree with Anita, all these queries have been very informative. Thank for doing this!

Karen MacInerney said...

J.B.... you're absolutely amazing. When do you sleep?

About Me said...

The voice of Clay really hooked me. Sounds interesting. Another great example of successful queries. Thanks so much.

Anonymous said...

Within a week J.B. resubmitted

Did you invite her to resubmit, or did she take the initiative to do it herself? Did she change her submission based on comments you gave?

Craven said...

Thank you, it is very heartening to see that even if a manuscript falls short of 80,000 words, it can still be considered if the hook is there.

Anonymous said...

Hmm. What I find interesting about this query is that it goes against a lot of what I've learned about writing a good query letter. There's very little about the book's plot, nothing about the protagonist needing to find the killer before it's too late. But the fact that you requested material tells me that the hook is what matters most. So in a way, that's heartening. But in a way, I'm totally confused now!

Robena Grant said...

It's interesting that what worked only four or five years ago has changed so much. And yes, I've been guilty of using a format I learned in 2003. Ooops!

Is it that the query "looks" different on the written page (where a business format is used) to that in an email query? And what might work in snail mail doesn't come across in email?

Thank you so much, J.B. for sharing your letter. This has been very helpful.

L.C. Gant said...

I agree with Crimogenic about the "voice of clay"; that was what did it for me, too!

It's very encouraging to hear stories about queries that you rejected the first time around. I used to be so nervous about resubmitting to agents, but now I see that it's really okay, provided you're improved your work.

BookEnds, A Literary Agency said...

Just to clarify, JB did take my feedback to heart and resubmitted a fully revised manuscript. While I'm sure I requested it, I would tell anyone to always offer an agent who helped you a second look.


Anonymous said...

Amazing! How could she completely revise/rewrite a ms. in only a week? Was it that different or did she just add more twists to the existing plot?
Sounds a bit like the Killer Stuff series...

jbstanley said...

Let me admit that I cringe to read this query letter now. The book is too short and the voice is nearly nonexistent! Jessica wrote some comments on my manuscript and invited me to resend should I complete the necessary rewrites. I should also add that when this happened, I had other interest from two major agencies in NYC. But Jessica won out because she had already shown that her expert eye would not only strengthen this first book, but make it salable. I worked tirelessly that week to revise the book and her suggestions were so spot on that the words flew from my fingers! That's why I'm with Book Ends and why Jessica has sold me to three different publishers over the course of three years.
How did my book differ from Killer Stuff? I focused solely on the creation and collection of southern folk art pottery - a very specific passion for some - and I inserted those portions using the voice of the clay, which no other antique/collectibles writers have done.

Great questions, everyone and please believe that my books are better than that letter!