Monday, January 19, 2009

A Query Letter by Karen MacInerney

I’ve been asked by readers if I would consider posting the original query letters some of my clients sent and critique them—in other words, explain what in the letter attracted me to the work and how that would work for me today, if it would at all. So I’m hoping to do a series based on the queries of my clients. The first in line is Karen MacInerney. Karen has had quite a career since signing with BookEnds in 2004. She’s been the author of two very different series, The Gray Whale Inn bed-and-breakfast cozy mysteries published with Midnight Ink and her fabulous paranormal romance series, Tales of an Urban Werewolf, with Ballantine. Karen’s most recent titles in each series include Murder Most Maine and On the Prowl. I’m thrilled to be working with Karen and so excited that the letter below is what launched it all.

Karen Swartz MacInerney
Address, phone, email

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

June 14, 2004

Dear Ms. Faust,

I enjoyed meeting you at the conference in Austin this past weekend. As I mentioned, I have had my eye on BookEnds for quite some time; when I discovered you would be at the conference, I knew I had to attend. We met during the final pitch session and discussed how the series I am working on might fit in with your current line of mystery series. Per your request, I have enclosed a synopsis and first three chapters of Murder on the Rocks, and 80,000-word cozy mystery that was a finalist in this year’s Writers’ League of Texas manuscript contest and includes several bed-and-breakfast recipes.

Thirty-eight-year-old Natalie Barnes has quit her job, sold her house and gambled everything she has on the Gray Whale Inn on Cranberry Island, Maine. But she’s barely fired up the stove when portly developer Bernard Katz rolls into town and starts mowing through her morning glory muffins. Natalie needs the booking, but Katz is hard to stomach—especially when he unveils his plan to build an oversized golf resort on top of the endangered tern colony next door. When the town board approves the new development not only do the terns face extinction, but Natalie’s Inn might just follow along. Just when Natalie thinks she can’t face more trouble, she discovers Katz’s body at the base of the cliff and becomes the number one suspect in the police’s search for a murderer. If Natalie doesn’t find the killer fast she stands to lose everything—maybe even her life.

I am a former pubic relations writer, a graduate of Rice University, a member of the Writers’ League of Texas, and founder of the Austin Mystery Writers critique group. I have spent many summers in fishing communities in Maine and Newfoundland, and escape to Maine as often as possible. The second Gray Whale Inn mystery, Dead and Berried, is currently in the computer.

If you would like to see the manuscript, I can be reached at (phone number). Thank you for your time and attention; I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Karen Swartz MacInerney

This is a great letter and one that definitely holds up today. Karen was a public relations writer (as we learn in her final paragraph), and I think that comes through in the strength of this letter. Note that at the top of the letter Karen includes her name, address, email address, and phone number. While this seems like basic information, I’ve learned that I need to remind authors how important it is to include.

Let’s start by looking at the first paragraph. Flattery can get you everywhere and Karen used it well here. She wasn’t over the top, but stated what I can only hope are facts. We had met at the conference and she had been watching BookEnds grow (at the time of this letter we were less than five years old). She was smart to remind me immediately how we had met and that we had a personal connection; she also never assumed I would remember and gave me as much information as possible to remind me. Very good.

I like that Karen put the title in italics. Bold, italics, whatever, but something to make your title jump out a little helps. I’m not sure why, but it does. The word count is right there with the standards for cozy mysteries, and since that’s what she’s targeting she’s headed in the right direction. I also want to point out that her description actually fits her genre. All too often I’ve received submissions in which the author named a genre for the book, but the description didn’t seem to match the genre; a romantic comedy, for example, that didn’t sound funny, or a thriller that seemed less than thrilling. One suggestion—and this is probably most specific to cozies—is that it might have helped Karen to give a one- or two-word description of the hook in the opening paragraph. While it’s great that she mentions the inclusion of recipes (almost always required in cozy mysteries), I think it would have been even better if she'd written, “an 80,000-word cozy mystery set at a bed-and-breakfast in Maine.” Something extra to lead me into the description. Oh, and you know what would have been really fun? If she had sent a recipe along. I’m actually acquiring a very interesting collection of recipes that have come along with submissions. Hey, it’s one additional page and it would have helped her stand out.

Typically I would say that Karen’s blurb is a little long and I suspect she could probably have tightened it to one paragraph, but it does work. What really works about it for me is that it gives a sense of Karen’s voice and the feeling for the book. I like the sentence, “But she’s barely fired up the stone when portly developer Bernard Katz rolls into town and starts mowing through her morning glory muffins.” There is so much that’s said in that one line and so much we learn. I get the sense that Karen’s voice is light with a touch of humor and I get a real feel for the hominess of the bed-and-breakfast as well as the arrogance of Bernard Katz.

The second pitch paragraph seems gratuitous to me. Obviously we need to mention the murder and how Natalie gets involved, but it seems that we could probably tighten paragraph number one and end it with the extinction of Katz and Natalie’s need to solve the murder.

Karen’s credentials are impressive. She’s obviously been writing for a while and I really like the addition of her summers in Maine. I think it’s a personal touch, but one that’s perfectly related to the book.

Book Note: We did in fact sell Murder on the Rocks not long after Karen signed with BookEnds. It was the first title to launch her Gray Whale Inn series. Karen and I felt it was better to drop the "Swartz" when publishing, simply because two last names can become confusing to bookstores and to readers. Often they aren’t sure where to shelve the books (under which name) and therefore where to find them; that or they only remember one of the names. So this query letter truly did launch an exciting career for Karen.