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Publishing woes and query letters
December 13, 2008

Did you read the news that Houghton-Mifflin has allegedly stopped making any new book deals? Publishers are feeling the recession, laying off and freezing salaries. Yikes.

But we can?t let that get us down. We just have to be even better writers. We also have to be even better salespeople of our work, from the proposal to the book store. Re the proposal, a new writer asked me to critique three versions of a proposal for young-adult fantasy. Version #1 was very breezy trying to capture the tone of the book. #2 was a professional, standard proposal. #3 was more of a personal account of where the story came from. Here?s what I recommended:
When I send query letters I tend to be on the conservative side, so my letters are more like #2. I?d say most agents are conservative (?just the facts, please?) so many would be put off by the light-and-breezy style of #1. I would say forget about the personal-story approach of #3 as probably no one cares where the story idea came from.

Keep in mind I?m writing adult fiction/nonfiction rather than young-adult fantasy, so agents representing that genre may be looking for something more attention-grabbing. But I would say that by going with #1 you risk losing many agents with the first sentence, on the other hand you may have greater luck with an agent who likes the unique query style. I would look closely at the agents you send the query to and try to determine their style from any info you can find on them. You might be able to match their personality and requested query info with one or the other of your query letters.

As for the letter content, I recommend being more specific on the main narrative thrust of the story. Come up with a one- or two-sentence summary of what happens in the book. More than anything agents are looking to see if there is a strong story in the book. Also, you might give more information on your idea for a series, that seems to be a strong selling point. Lastly be sure to edit the letters closely, I think I noticed a couple of typos.
Whether fiction or non-fiction, the heart of the proposal must portray a strong story. It?s very difficult to encapsulate an entire book in a few words, but those few words are all you get to catch the attention of an agent or editor. Here are excerpts from two of my proposals, the first is (primarily) fiction, the second (primarily) non-fiction.
Oh! A mystery of ?mono no aware? is primarily literary fiction, a bit edgy, and with tightly integrated non-fiction and visual elements. The main storyline follows Zack Hara, a young Japanese American searching for an emotionally meaningful life while traveling in Japan. Zack finds an ally in a professor and underground poet who introduces him to the concept of ?mono no aware,? roughly translated as the emotive essence of things, most often thought of as the sadness in beauty. The professor, grieving for a missing daughter, assigns Zack a set of mysterious tasks. Zack?s search for self-discovery turns into a search for the professor?s missing daughter, and draws him into the tragic phenomenon of suicide clubs.

Bones in the Sand is about Ka?iulani Edens-Huff?s struggle to protect dozens of ancient Hawaiian burials at an idyllic beach from the construction of multimillion-dollar homes. Framed around the sixteen weeks she lived in the many centuries-old graveyard on the island of Kaua?i, fighting the land owner and state and local authorities, Edens-Huff weaves in her compelling personal history of a troubled past, the richness of Hawaiian culture, and broader social, political, and economic issues. Primarily a memoir, the story also tells a fictional but historically accurate account of one of the ancient Hawaiians buried in the cemetery. The driving narrative force is whether Edens-Huff can succeed in protecting the graveyard before she is driven off the land or arrested, while at the same time learning truths of her own buried identity.
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COMMENTS

Number of comments: 4
click here to add a comment

Lee Witte
Thanks, this is helpful. Err on the side of porfessionalism. I also add a personal note, e.g. if the agent has a blog and I've read it, i'll mention that.

Jo Reed
So, what happened with the queries this young-adult fantasy writer sent out?

Todd
She snagged a request to send in a partial manuscript.

Lee Witte
good for her!

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