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.


Sincerely,
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.

Jessica

41 comments:

Mark Terry said...

There's a smoothness and clarity to this query that's impressive as well. Very focused. Makes it easy to read.

Angela said...

Thank you for sharing this, and what drew you to request more.

Sandy said...

I'm surprised you'd suggest she put a recipe in with the query. I didn't think agents liked getting anything other than the query letter itself. I've read agents' comments about receiving photos, DVDs, candy, etc. in the mail. While I see how a recipe fits more with this genre of book, it still seems like a gimmick to me and I wouldn't ever have considered sending one.

(Does this comment sound critical? I don't mean it to sound that way if it does; it's just an observation.)

Jessica said...

Thank you both for sharing! Query critiques are always helpful.

Anita said...

This is a very helpful post. I've actually read the book and it gave me an even better perspective than it would have, otherwise. I agree MacInerney did infuse a bit of her voice in the letter, and I like the way her voice entered the query; the presence of her voice didn't adversely affect the level of professionalism in her letter. Nice balance.

Thanks for sharing!

BookEnds, LLC said...

Sandy:

Not critical at all. I think the gimmick in this case (the recipe) does fit with the book and is very different from candy or a dvd. I wouldn't usually suggest such a thing, but sometimes it can't hurt.

--jhf

Meg said...

"Karen was a public relations writer (as we learn in her final paragraph),"

Actually, she says pubic relations, which is a little unfortunate. I guess the lesson is that the odd typo doesn't matter when your query makes a good impression otherwise (or perhaps you retyped this and the whole point is moot). Thanks for posting this. It's great to see examples of queries that worked.

AstonWest said...

Thanks for letting us see this letter and your critique. Very helpful!

Kate Douglas said...

Eek...this post made me go to my files and pull out the query letter I sent to you in March 2001, and all I can say is thank goodness you were still new and searching for clients or I probably wouldn't have you as an agent!

Crimogenic said...

I like the query. It's clear and concise. You definitely get a sense of the writing and the characters. Thanks for posting.

spyscribbler said...

Wow, must seek out this book! I love Maine.

So true about two last names. It's a mess, even if they're hyphenated. I've stood next to booksellers telling someone that the book must be out of stock, when I know it's just right over there... shelved in the wrong place (or even the right place!)

Anonymous said...

I also love this query. It made me want to read more, particularly because of the sentence that was so infused with voice. I do have two questions. I'd been under the impression that cozies were 60-65,000 words, perhaps 70,000. Has the requirement changed? And two, do all cozies need a craft or food hook today? What about an amateur sleuth in a village-type setting with a gentle tone?

Karen MacInerney said...

Meg,

When I saw your comment, I almost choked on my coffee.

Then I went back and looked at the original letter: it was 'public relations', not 'pubic relations', thankfully... although I the latter might be a plus when trying to sell a certain type of book. (Not, however, a cozy.)

Karen MacInerney said...

Speaking of typos... ignore that renegade 'I'!

Anita said...

Anon 11:04 I had a lot of these same questions, as well as others regarding cozies. BookEnds has a great cozy lineup, so I read a number of their clients' books. It gave me a nice feel for cozies and answered a ton of my questions.

To answer your specific questions: They all had word counts around 80,000 and not all had recipes. I don't remember Heather Webber's having a craft or food item at the back, for example.

Dara said...

Thanks for posting this! It helps me to see what a good query looks like :)

JBarWriter said...

Thank you for sharing this, it is most helpful in writing our future query letter.
I do have a question as an aspiring author with few credentials; does lacking such credentials hurt your chances for publication?
jbarwriter
A Writer’s Group

Liz said...

What a brilliant query letter and thanks for sharing Jessica. I love the way the query just flows with such ease. Am green with jealousy!

aimee said...

Thanks to Jessica (and Karen!) for sharing this query. I find the query samples to be one of the most helpful aspects of agent blogs.

Anonymous said...

What made this query stand out for me was the voice. True, if this were one of my crit partners, I would have suggested some tightening, and more focus on the main plot instead of the set-up. But there's a fun, breezy tone woven into the description that clearly says "this is an entertaining cozy mystery."

Diana said...

Thank you for sharing this! Your comments were very helpful. I feel like you've provided me with a fresh way to evaluate my own query letter.

Robena Grant said...

Thanks, Jessica. And thanks, Karen, for being such a good sport and letting us take a look at your query. I have to agree, your voice does shine through, and it's great to know your query would still hold up in today's market.

I used to include my home address and telephone number at the top of email queries (as if it was a business letter)but read recently not to do that. Something to do with formatting and it not centering correctly, also a waste of valuable lines, and that we should get straight to the reason for the email.
Anyone have a different take on this? Should we perhaps add address and telephone after our signature, or not at all?

L.C. Gant said...

Thanks for posting, Jessica, and thanks to Karen for agreeing to it. Sounds like a fun story! I always enjoy seeing examples of successful query letters. It's one thing to talk about them in the abstract, but I find it much more helpful to read the ones that got it right.

Kristan said...

Thanks for this! I'm really looking forward to this series and what I can learn from it!

Sylvia Dickey Smith said...

As a member of Karen's critique group at that time, I had the honor of reading several of her Gray Whale Inn manuscripts while still in draft! What fun! Good work, Karen, and hi!!

Anonymous said...

I'm so glad you put this on here. Examples of bad queries are helpful, but examples of good queries I feel tell us a lot more.

Thank-you, I really appreciate the query advice, and anything else that improves my chances of getting published.

P.S I didn't even notice the PUBIC problem, when I read it.

Kaye George said...

I'm another member of Karen's Austin Mystery Writer group and it's so fun to see this here! Karen has been a wonderful example and mentor to our group and we're so pleased to see her successes! This letter is SO helpful to see, too!
-Kaye George

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this, Jessica and thank you Karen for being willing to have your query letter open to scrutiny.

When I clicked on the link to your website, my anti-virus had a warning that there was a trojan (maybe this goes along with pubic relations?)

It seems to be a new malware trojan, and I just thought you might like to know!

http://www.avast.com/eng/press-release-js-packed-ab-trj-.html

Karen MacInerney said...

Thank you, anon; I've e-mailed my web designer. Yikes!

Lady Glamis said...

Thank you for sharing these! What a great help to us. :)

Ava Quinn said...

Very informative. Thank you, Jessica, for devoting time to the query letter. Always looking for a new way to make a good first impression!

Joy said...

This is really helpful! I can't wait to see the next letter in the series. Thanks for taking the time to do this.

Anita said...

Anon 11:04 Uh, Heather Webber's books do have gardening tips at the back, so I was sorta wrong in my previous post. Sorry!

Meg said...

"Then I went back and looked at the original letter: it was 'public relations', not 'pubic relations', thankfully..."

Oh, I'm very glad. And I assume a lot of people wouldn't notice it. I work as a proofreader/copyeditor so those sorts of things tend to leap out at me.

I wasn't meaning to nitpick, though - just thought it was funny. Great letter and congrats on all your success!

April Hollands said...

What a great query! I'm at the stage of writing my very first query letter, so seeing such a great example has motivated me to match — and hopefully surpass — Karen's well-written query. I'm looking forward to seeing more and hearing your opinion of them.

Marjorie said...

I posted this comment at Nathan Bransford's blog; I will post it here as well.

I don't get this whole bit with "query letters that work." It seems such an absurd way for a literary agent to determine which projects to pursue further.
A phenomenally crafted query can arrive and upon investigation... the book can be not very good. And a poor query letter can be written by an author whose book can actually be amazing.
Of course, it is the barometer by which an agent decides which projects to pursue... but it seems ridiculous to me. It is sort of like judging who will be the best teacher by the suit the teacher is wearing or the handbag she is holding.
A literary agent should just read the description of a book's content and all the rest is just frills.
I cannot stand the expression "query me." And the author has to design a unique sales pitch to woo an agent. It just seems to enable a lofty power trip with "rejected" being an almost knee-jerk response.

And I add this here:
Flattery? What does that have to do with anything? If I was a literary agent I would not care if the author "roasted" me with ridicule in his query. My eyes would be set on the worth of the project and my own ego would be out of the equation.
Title in italics? What does that have to do with the price of beans? Publishers have editors to design the preferred style of a book.

All of this seems like such superficial ways for an agent to determine which proposals to pursue and which to reject.

Anonymous said...

Unbelievable!

Broadway Blog said...

Thank you so much for posting this series on query letters. This is invaluable insight and information.

Anonymous said...

I used the same format and told my story the same way and I got a form rejection letter from you.

Anonymous said...

What is the best way to write a 250 word synopsis? Seems short but it's been requested.

Helen Ginger said...

I remember when Karen wrote this book. I was the Executive Director of the Writers League of Texas then. She's a great writer.