Tuesday, November 23, 2010
SAMPLE OF A QUERY LETTER THAT WORKED
Disclaimer—some of the material here is what might be considered “R-” or even “X-rated" by the folks who rate things for us so that we don’t accidentally stumble onto something that we might have witnessed in junior high. Seriously, I don’t mean to offend anyone, so just be forewarned that some of the stuff here (in the story sample that follows) is a bit raw.
I thought you might find it interesting and perhaps helpful to post a query letter for one of my novels to see perhaps a different take on such tools. While books on the subject of query letters, along with columns and blogs are helpful, I think that sometimes in trying to follow all the dos and don’ts we see in those sources, we may become overly-anal when composing our sales letters (which is what they are, right?). In the following query--which resulted in a success rate of 100% of those queried (agents and editors) asking to read the entire mss—I simply tried to create a letter that would do one thing—make the reader want to read the novel.
I’ve followed some of the so-called “rules” of these things… and I’ve broken or ignored others. As a former litmag editor who read thousands of submissions, I quickly noticed a commonality in almost all of the cover letters folks sent along with their stories. Almost to a person, each cover letter resembled whatever current book or article or blog post on cover letters and query letters that was then popular. The writer had just plugged in different names in the blanks and what resulted was an almost exact copy of the sample letter in the book.
I suspect the same thing happens with query letters which are kind of like cover letters and follow many of the same conventions. I know that when I encountered yet another of these slightly-altered clone cover letters, I threw up a little in my mouth and popped a Tums, and I would guess that agents have the same reaction when reading the four thousandth and one query letter that looks pretty much like the previous four thousand.
To be honest, when I was an editor, I never read cover letters until I came upon a short story that I liked. Only then would I look at the sender’s cover letter. Didn’t read any of the others. They were all so similar that all I could see was a future date with me on my deathbed with minutes to go until I could start going toward the light, and wishing desperately I had all that time I’d spent on reading mind-numbing cover letters back…
But, agents and editors don’t have that luxury. They have to read the query letters to find a novel description that they may like.
I think the primary consideration in writing a query letter should be to make it entertaining. After all, that’s the business we’re in—entertainment—and if the letter is pretty much like the previous ten thousand the agent has read, the entertainment value thing is pretty well shot.
That doesn’t mean it needs to be “cutesy” or “precious” or anything like that… unless, of course, you’re writing a novel for the “precious” market and see pink book covers for it… It should be a pretty good reflection of the novel you’re selling and it’s a good idea (I think) to mirror the voice and tone of that novel.
I see I’m starting to deliver “rules” at this point, so I’ll quit and just show the dang thing.
In my completed 92,000 word black comedy thriller, titled:
THE GENUINE, IMITATION, PLASTIC KIDNAPPING
... a couple of two-bit hustlers come up with the bright idea of kidnapping the New Orleans Cajun Mafia King...with a twist. Instead of 'napping his entire body unit, the pair figure to amputate his hand...and hold that appendage for some serious jack. This is their story and how even though everything went wrong that could, they still won. Well, one of them did...sort of...
PETE HALLIDAY, turned out of baseball for gambling, and his smarmy sidekick, part-Indian and full-time polluter, TOMMY LECLERC, both in heavy debt to bookies, get the bright idea to get on the plus side of the ledger by kidnapping the Big Sleazy’s Cajun Mafia King, CHARLES LACY DENEUVE, but with the aforementioned twist. They get the loot—Deneuve, unfortunately, is unable to reattach his primary meat hook as it has suffered extreme freezer burn having not been burped properly placing it in a baggie and storing it in Tommy's girlfriend WANDA’S freezer under the veal cutlets—but Tommy doublecrosses Pete and escapes with the swag. With girlfriend CAT DUPLAISIR, a part-time hooker whose specialty is walking on client's backs in heels with a whip in hand and other tricks and stratagems of the hustling trade by his side, Pete recovers the loot and the chase is on. SAM “THE BAM” CAPALETTI, the Italian Mafia, and the Cajun Mafia go after Pete and Cat, through the French Quarters, the Jazz Fest and even in the "Mighty Oil Slick" before they escape. They decide to hide out in the open in Lost Wages by getting plastic surgery to look like famous folks and at the last minute, Cat talks Pete into going to a plastic surgeon who promises the lowest prices in town as he's sliced all the frills from his practice—frills such as over-priced anesthetics, a downtown office, or a nurse with a current license. They end up looking like famous people, albeit not the ones they had in mind. Instead of the Big El, Pete looks like a skinny Liberace with yellow teeth and Cat... well, instead of Cher, Cat now resembles Bette Midler with black hair and a big schnozz...
Think: Chris Moore meets David Sedaris and they have a love child with multiple deformities, none of a serious nature... unless it's your own self who happens to be the said love child... This book will appeal to fans of Christopher Moore, Tim Dorsey, and Stephan Jaramillo, among others (including my own fans which are legion and number in the dozens…).
I have nine books in print and work of mine has been nominated for or won: the Pushcart, O. Henry Award, Edgar Allan Poe Award (short story category), PEN/Faulkner Award, Texas Institute of Letters' Jesse Jones Award, and the Violet Crown Book Award. I hold the MFA in Writing from Vermont and a Certificate in Barbering from Pendleton Reformatory, both of which I count as of equal weight in value, especially the latter as I actually made a living with it.
It may be of mild interest that this story evolved from a short story I published in The South Carolina Review and I liked these characters so much I also wrote a screenplay that was a finalist in both the Writer's Guild and Best of Austin screenwriting competitions (reg. WGAe). I’ve refrained from sending the screenplay out for coverage pending publication of the novel.
I’m including the first 5 pages of KIDNAPPING below, to give you a taste of the voice. Thank you for reading and considering my query. I'd be delighted to send you the completed mss.
THE GENUINE, IMITATION, PLASTIC KIDNAPPING
A STREETCAR NOT NAMED DESIRE
The first glitch came up right away. In fine-tuning the kidnap plan, in which Tommy explained we'd go in dressed in three-piece suits like insurance salesmen in case any neighbors were up and about and noticed two guys dressed like shrimpers at this guy's house early in the morning. Well, I didn't have a three-piece suit and not even a two-piece suit, and, upon further researching my memory, didn't even have a sports coat and after quizzing Tommy, discovered he didn't have one either. I figured we'd just go in like we were dressed, but Tommy wouldn't have none'a that.
"Jeez Louise, Pete. We can't do that. This is a big-money community where this guy lives. In-ground swimming pools, that gives you any idea. We show up looking like we usually dress, there's gonna be some lame across the street calling the cops for the two guys look like a home-invasion team."
Turns out he had a plan to get us a few bucks to get suits with. It was a strange-enough idea I thought it could work. I guess you had to be there when he was laying it down. Sounded righteous enough then... I mean, the guy was an Indian...
* * *
An hour later, Tommy and me are sitting on the St. Charles streetcar, at the stop by the zoo down by Club 4141, watching people get on in the front. The last two on are a young tourist couple in matching yellow Bermuda shorts.
"Cool," Tommy said. "Tourists. They'll have cash." He took a drag from his cigarette. He was sitting directly under the "No Smoking" sign, but held it outside the window.
I didn't disagree. There were maybe fifteen people on board, not counting us and the motorman. This was looking better and better. Might get as much as a couple of thousand out of this crew. Get us suits somewhere else than the bargain bins of the Men's Warehouse.
"See that?" Tommy said. I followed his eyes which were locked on the buxom female member of the tourist couple. She was a looker.
"So this." He brought his forearm up, pretending to take a bite out of it.
"You wish," I said, grinning.
"Yeah, well I got something her boyfriend ain't."
I laughed out loud. "Right, Tommy. Ugliness. But I think she's maybe one of those weirdos goes for brains and looks. At least one of those."
Tommy turned and gave me a look. "I'm talking technique here," he said. "I got this technique."
"What... you got a cute way of gettin' on and off?"
"Naw, man," he said, shaking his head like he can't believe how dumb I am. "That's like a big dick. Everybody's got that."
I snickered. "I don't recall you was so blessed in the big wang department, Tommy."
"Yeah, well I was cold that time. We just got out of the lake, for crissake. See, Pete, being a champion at sex is like being good at basketball. You got to be able to go strong to the hole."
There was a young gal behind us who I could see was trying to ignore what Tommy was saying. She squirmed in her seat and studied the scenery out the window, them mansions sliding by.
I was dying to know Tommy's 'technique,' and asked him.
"I piss in 'em," he said.
The gal behind us grabbed her purse and sniffed, loud, got up and moved three rows back to the last seat.
"Fuck you, lady," Tommy muttered. "You don't like the conversation, relocate."
I couldn't help smiling. "She did. What's this pissing thing?"
I saw the street sign flash by. Coming up was where we planned to do our thing. The corner where St. Charles turned onto Carrollton, by the Camellia Grill. Three blocks from where we'd stashed Tommy's Nova to make our getaway.
"Never mind," I said. "Here it comes. You ready?"
"I was born ready," Tommy said. He stood up and reached his hand into his waistband.
The gal who had relocated screamed out, "This man has a gun!"
The streetcar went nuts. Pandemonium erupted—passengers screaming, brakes screeching as the conductor slammed the car to a half. Tommy lost his balance and recovered. The tourist woman in the front screamed one long banshee scream—Ayyyyeeeeeeeaaahhhh! She's just one long scream, punctuated only by the times she has to draw breath.
Eeeeeeeeeaaaaaayaaaaah! Ayaayaaya! Aaaaaayaeeee!
"Shut up!" Tommy screamed. "Shut the hell up!"
He looked down at me where I was just kind of sitting, pretty much in shock.
"You on a break here, Pete?"
I just gawked at him. This wasn't what I'd envisioned. His eyes left mine and I followed his stare to the gal who'd blown the whistle on us in the rear seat. She had a gun out, trained on him with both hands, just like they do on TV. I couldn't move. My entire life didn't flash before my eyes, but about twenty-six years and three months of it did.
"I'm throwing up in my mouth, is what I'm doing," I said. What had I got into?
"You'll wanna brush your teeth before you kiss any girls, then," he said.
Tommy brought his own gun up to bear on the woman in back, same two-handed grip she had. Mexican standoff.
He turned his head slightly down to me, still keeping his gaze on the woman. "Shoot her!" he said. This was just completely screwed.
"You got the gun, Captain Marvel," I said, finally. "You shoot her."
Instead of answering or shooting her, he began to back up toward the front door, his piece still trained on the woman. I got up to follow him. It got worse. Four people in the back pulled out weapons and pointed them our way.
"Shit! Shit, shit, shit!" It was all Tommy could say. My sentiments exactly.
I had to hand it to him, though. He didn't lose it.
"Look, folks," he said. "We're gonna just get off now, leave all you good people be. Everybody just stay calm."
One of the male armed passengers near the back door stood up. He said, "Like hell. I'm taking you out, cowboy."
I felt like I was going to pass out.
The conductor opened the front door with his control and stood up. "Let 'em go," he said. "I don't want no blood in my car."
The guy with the gun didn't like what he was hearing. "Aw, man," he said in a whiney voice. "You can't just let criminals roam around. We got to take a stand. This is New Orleans, not Pansy-Ass-New-York-City. We don't take no prisoners in this town."
"Listen, Dirty Harry," the conductor said. "This is my streetcar. I make the rules. Siddown and shut up and let these folks pass."
Tommy ran for the door and I was closer than his shadow behind him, leaping off a nanosecond after he did, scrambling as fast as we could across the street.
The mouthy man and the woman in back opened up with their pistolas. I didn't turn back to look, just kept running as hard as I could, but I heard glass shattering, people screaming, and the pop-pop-pop of handguns. Something whizzed just past my ear and I was pretty sure it wasn't a mosquito unless insects came in calibers. I ran right into a braking car, bounced off the hood, got up and kept on running. My side was on fire. Any second now, I imagined a hot piece of lead finding my skull or some other tender part. The regrets were coming as fast as the bullets and I kept wondering like you do in such times of stress when it was exactly that God had dropped my case and went off to take a nap or something.
I knew when. Like all of my wrong turns, it had started with my gambling jones.
* * *
END OF SAMPLE
This was the letter that snagged me my agent. Did he sell this novel yet? Well, no, because I had another novel he thought was even more marketable and that’s the one we’re going with at present. KIDNAPPING is on the on-deck circle though. So, at this time, it’s “only available in my room,” but he and I are both confident it’ll end up at Border’s.
I think the secret to writing an effective query letter is to remember that you had a lot of fun writing the story and to convey that same feeling of excitement to the agent. Not by telling him or her you had all that wild fun, but by showing from what’s on the page the joy you experienced in creating it.
One thing I would always include, no matter what the agent says about it—I’d always send a small sample of the novel. Always. In the final analysis, that’s probably what’s going to get you a yea or a nay.
Hope this helps!