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Winning query letters
QUERY written by author Nancy Cavanaugh~
The following query letter helped Nancy Cavanaugh shift from writer to author. Nancy's path took some unexpected twists and turns. Although her agent loved this story, she was unable to interest a publisher.
However, she quickly sold Nancy's second book to Sourcebooks. "Ratchet" was published in April, 2013. And, in a twist, Nancy's first book, "Always Abigail," was published (by Sourcebooks) in October, 2014.
Here's the query letter that triggered Nancy's success avalanche.
When Abigail’s dreams of becoming a pompom girl are dashed, she finds herself in the unlikely situation of having to choose between her two best friends and the school’s biggest outcast. First paragraph introduces the protagonist, her desire (goal) to become a pompom cheerleader and the challenge (obstacle) that develops. The ultimate outcome (resolution) is left unclear, motivating the agent to read the next paragraph.
SIXTH GRADE LISTS AND LETTERS begins with Abigail and her friends poised for a year of pompoms and popularity. However, obstacles immediately mount for Abigail as she’s separated from her friends and stuck in Ms. Hendrick’s (aka Hendrick-the-Horrible-Hundred-Year-Old Hawk) homeroom. Old Hawk pairs Abigail with the schools biggest outcast, Gabby Marco, for a year-long “Friendly Letter” assignment. Abigail can hardly believe her bad luck, especially when she fails to make the pompom squad. As Abigail’s potential future of popularity slips away, she’s faced with the challenge of becoming an outsider when her so-called best friends turn on her. Finally, Abigail’s classroom association with Gabby, the loser of all losers, forces her to make a choice: struggle to cling to a thread of popularity, or let it go in order to become a real friend. Second paragraph expands on the first, as it describes Abigail's goal of popularity, her obstacles of being separated from her friends, failing to make the pompom squad, being saddled with a loser, and then having to make a choice, or not, to understand the true meaning of friendship. Her resolution is not fully described, but leaves open the possibility of success or failure.
SIXTH GRADE LISTS AND LETTERS is told in a unique format of notes, lists, and letters, which especially appeal to reluctant readers. My background includes 15 years of teaching middle school. I'm an active member of SCWBI, belong to a critique group, and attend writers' conferences and workshops. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Congratulations to Kim for winning the Query First-Paragraph Grand Slam and one-hour of consultation with me.
Here's Kim's winning query letter first paragraph. . .
Subject/Title: We All Fall Down Kendra Bishop's dreams are pretty simple: to marry her fiance, have kids, and stay sober. But bad luck has a way of screwing things up for her, no matter how simple they seem.When the handyman turns out to have criminal ties to her future mother-in-law, a murderous history, and an unhealthy obsession with Kendra, the complications are anything but simple. My comments: This paragraph demonstrates how repetition of “simple” works (in this instance) to describe a vexing situation. Kim’s protagonist, Kendra wants the simple basics of life. Add to that her desire to stay sober. And then, pile on challenges with her future mother-in-law and her associates, and simple doesn’t seem possible. This becomes an interesting dilemma that will capture an agent/editor/publisher's interest. I suggest Kim revise slightly to clarify just how complicated Kendra’s situation is in order to elevate the tension quickly. Revision suggestion: Kendra Bishop’s dreams are simple: marry her fiance, raise kids, and stay sober. Unfortunately, bad luck has a way of screwing up her life, no matter how she struggles to KIS (keep it simple). When her future mother-in-law becomes linked to a murderous handyman with an unhealthy obsession for Kendra, her life becomes anything but simple.
From Ed~ Subject line/Title: Redemption Desperate to loose the guilt he feels for his ex-wife's murder, Sonny Clark is in the Colorado Rockies, looking to make a fresh start, when he learns her killers have followed him, planning to kill him next ... along with several people they murdered there a hundred years ago ... when they last killed Sonny and his ex-wife. My Comments: One sentence openers in query letters are effective, providing they’re tight enough to contain all the elements (goal, obstacle, resolution) and short enough to be read in one breath—so to speak. When the reader of Ed's query sentence discovers that Sonny flees killers who murdered him a hundred years ago, this creates a “say what?” reaction. The reader will continue . . . probably. Unlike in Kim’s query (above), word overuse of “kill” doesn’t work as well in this situation. I suggest shifting the paragraph around a bit, breaking it into two sentences, and substituting other words for “kill.” Revision Suggestion Tired of looking over his shoulder, Sonny Clark heads for the Colorado Rockies to make a fresh start and release the guilt he feels over the murder of his ex-wife. However, the odds are stacked against him as enemies close in, planning to take him out, along with several others they’d murdered a hundred years ago . . . when they last killed Sonny and his ex-wife.
From Barbara~ Subject line/Title: Rescission Katherine Sinclair wants to believe the best of her lover, Josh Bruner, even after their quarrel—even after he dumps her on an island in Florida, then sails off on their boat. His Jekyll-Hyde actions are new, so unlike him, she tries to persuade the retired teacher who comes to her rescue. When Josh does return she must choose between her soft urge to forgive him and her practical urge to follow a plan formed by seasoned citizens willing to prove that revenge is a dish best served cold at a feast. My comments: At first read, it wasn’t clear if this was a clever story or an attempt to play with words that have double meanings. At second read, the story emerged. Katherine is abandoned by her lover, then rescued and counseled by a group of retirees. She struggles between forgiveness and revenge. The last sentence about “revenge is a dish best served cold . . . “ sets the tone for what might follow in the query second paragraph. BUT, here’s what snags this first paragraph. It doesn’t get to the point quickly. Clever play on words like “seasoned” citizens slows down the reading. Plus, the first line raises the question of why does Katherine want to believe the best of him. He deserted her. How can anything qualify as “best” about that? Also, consider a title that not only hints at what's in the story, but can be understood by readers. Although I don’t know this story, it seems to be about a woman who gains expanded perspectives from a group of senior citizens who rescue and befriend her. If that is the case, the following might work. Revision suggestion: Katherine Sinclair struggles to believe the best of Josh, even after he dumps her on a Florida island and sails away. When she’s rescued by a group of senior citizens, Katherine tries to explain away her lover’s Jekyll-Hyde behavior. But, by the time Josh returns to fetch her, Katherine’s new friends have influenced her to get over “forgiveness stupidity” and enact the old adage, “revenge is a dish best served cold.”
BTW: Do you need some help with your query? If so, I'm available for one-on-one phone and written consultation to help you craft a query that gets results: the invitation to submit your work. Consultation programs and fees are given on Writers' Services.
Email, full-query submission example:
Subject line: THE GIRL WHO CRIED GHOST
Sixteen-year-old Alexandria Hawkings knows that lying spins a dangerous web, but she also knows her lies are the only things that save her. At her new school, everything about Alex stands out, from her fishnet stockings and combat boots to the fibs she tells about her family to try to impress her classmates. Alex desperately wants friends, but she was born the unpopular, quirky half of twin siblings and her family has taken up residence in the town’s rumored-to-be haunted house. To compound matters, Alex hears voices in her head -- voices that guide and torment her. One night Alex is visited by Katarina, a dead girl approximately her age. After an unusual alliance is formed, Katarina asks Alex to help solve the mystery behind her death. Voices in her head. Seeing ghosts. Maybe she really is crazy. Alex worries how she will convince others she’s seeing ghosts when she’s lied so often in the past. Fortunately for Alex, not all hope is lost. Dexter the school nerd, befriends Alex and makes it his personal quest to try to help solve Katarina’s mystery. Dexter seems to be Alex’s best shot, but there’s something not quite right about Dexter. THE GIRL WHO CRIED GHOST, complete at 74,000 words, is a YA paranormal novel, the first in a planned trilogy. Readers who like THE GHOST HUNTRESS series and GHOST GIRL might also enjoy THE GIRL WHO CRIED GHOST. I am the Regional Director of the Florida Writers’ Association, a member of the SCBWI, WEbook, YALITCHAT.org, and was senior editor of Fabulous 40rties Magazine. I moderate two adult and one teen writers’ critique groups. I appreciate your consideration of my work and look forward to hearing from you. (285 words)
MY COMMENTS~ The captivating opening sentence introduces the protagonist, but doesn’t describe what she wants. It implies she has to be saved from something, but doesn’t hint at what that might be. The last sentence of query first paragraph needs to hint at the “terrible, awful” something that faces the protagonist. Alex is enticingly described as a complex teenager who lies in order to gain social acceptance with her peers. I suggest dropping her twin sister and sticking with the major issues surrounding Alex. She has more than enough to go around--her wardrobe choices, living in a “haunted” house, and plagued by ghosts no one else can see or hear It’s important to clarify why Alex decides to help a ghost unravel the mystery of her death. Is Katarina trapped between worlds, unable to move on until her murder is solved and the killer brought to justice? Then, when Alex enlists the aid of Dexter, what is it she senses that isn’t quite right about him? Is he more than a volunteer? Perhaps the murderer or an accomplice, determined to thwart the investigation, or quiet Alex permanently if she comes too close to uncovering the truth? The major threat/challenge for Alex needs to be the last sentence in the second paragraph to motivate the agent to request a manuscript submission. Caryn has impressive credentials, as listed in the third paragraph, particularly her involvement in the writing world. It’s a smart idea to compare her story with a similar YA paranormal book series. In this case, it’s also smart to mention a planned trilogy.
SUGGESTIONS FOR A FIRST-DRAFT REVISION~ NOTE: For structure demonstration purposes, I’ve gone inventive and added some elements to the story which may or may not be there.Remember, query letters are read on I-pads and electronic tablets as well as cell phones, so stick to the KIS principle: Keep it simple. Tell your story as tightly as possible so that the agent/editor can quickly grasp the gist of the fabulous manuscript you offer.
Subject line: The Girl Who Cried Ghost
Sixteen-year-old Alexandria Hawkings knows lying spins a dangerous web. She also knows lies may be the only available key to solving a mysterious death and preventing another one--her own. Wearing fishnet stockings and combat boots, Alex doesn’t fit in with the kids at her new school. She resorts to outrageous fibs about her life to deflect snickers about how her family must be crazy to have bought the supposedly “haunted” house. Stressed over being the campus odd ball, Alex wonders if she really is going crazy when she begins to see and hear ghosts in her bedroom. One of them introduces herself as Katarina, a murdered teenager. She begs Alex to resolve the mystery surrounding her death, an event so traumatic it imprisons her in the murky space between worlds. When Alex begins to ask questions around campus, Dexter volunteers to help. They dig through school records which reveal a surprising picture of the murdered girl’s life, including her friendship with Dexter. As Alex unravels clue after clue, she unknowingly pulls herself closer to the killer and to the potential of becoming the next victim. THE GIRL WHO CRIED GHOST, a YA paranormal story, is complete at 74,000 words. Readers of THE GHOST HUNTRESS series and GHOST GIRL will enjoy my story, the first in a trilogy. I’m a former senior editor of "Fabulous 40rties," and now am the Regional Director of the Florida Writers’ Association, a member of SCBWI, WEbook, and YALITCHAT. I also moderate three writers’ critique groups. Thank you for your time and consideration. (256 words)
The following query from Sophie Littlefield opened the door to the publishing world --BIG time.
Dear Ms. Poelle: I am seeking representation for my 75,000-word thriller, "A Bad Day for Sorry." MY COMMENT: The agent had specified that title, genre, and word count be given in the first sentence. Unless requested, don't begin your query with this information. Three years ago, rural Missouri housewife Stella Hardesty stopped her wife-beating husband in his tracks for good. After being acquitted of his murder, Stella launched a career helping other abused women put an end to their problems. When Stella's on the job, abusive husbands and boyfriends disappear--sometimes to the far side of town, and sometimes forever. MY COMMENT: Wow! Great opening paragraph! The author cleverly describes the goal of stopping an abusive husband, the challenge of helping other women do the same thing. Although the resolution is not given, this paragraph will inspire the reader to be curious about Stella, the protagonist. When young mother Chrissy Shaw asks Stella for help with her no-good husband, it seems like a straightforward case. Until Roy Dean Shaw disappears with Chrissy's 2-year-old son from a previous relationship. Now Stella and Chrissy must battle two-bit crooks and deadly Kansas City mafia to get the boy back--all the while staying one step ahead of the law. MY COMMENT: Ahah! The multilevel challenge for the protagonist will motivate the agent to ask for more. I have written professionally for 10 years, publishing articles in computing, parenting, and women's magazines, and most recently working as a copywriter and editor for C&T Publishing. My short story, "Anything for You," was a runner-up for the Crime Writers' Association's 2007 Fish-Knife Award. Other short stories will appear in upcoming issues of "Thuglit" and "Pulp Pusher." Thank you for taking the time to consider my work. As per your request, my first 10 pages and synopsis follow. Upon your request, I would be happy to provide the complete manuscript. Sincerely, Sophie Littlefield
This query began a landslide of success for Sophie . . .
A BAD DAY FOR SORRY was nominated for the Edgar, Macavity, Barry, and Crimespree awards, and won the Anthony Award and the RT Book Reviewers Choice Award for Best First Mystery. Sophie is also the author of three more books in this series: A BAD DAY FOR PRETTY, A BAD DAY FOR SCANDAL, A BAD DAY FOR MERCY (Minotaur) Other Published books include: BANISHED, UNFORSAKEN, HANGING BY A THREAD (Delacorte) AFTERTIME, REBIRTH, HORIZON, (Harlequin Luna) BLOOD BOND, and GARDEN OF STONES (Harlequin MIRA)