Dec 8, 2010

Queries That Work

Susan Dennard recently discussed her query process on her blog, and we thought we'd add our two cents in here! We loved her query for THE SPIRIT-HUNTERS. Here's the original:

I read in an interview that you seek strong female leads as well as steampunk. As such, I thought you might enjoy my 90,000 word young adult novel, THE SPIRIT-HUNTERS.

After her brother is kidnapped, Eleanor Fitt – a sixteen-year-old with a weakness for buttered toast and Shakespeare quotes – must leave the confines of corsets and courtesy to get him back.

It’s 1876, and Philadelphia is hosting the first American World Fair, the Centennial Exhibition. It’s also hosting rancid corpses that refuse to stay dead. When one of those decomposing bodies brings Eleanor a hostage note for her brother, she resolves to do anything to rescue him. But to face the armies of Dead that have him, she’ll need a little help from the Spirit-Hunters.

The Spirit-Hunters, a three-man team hired to protect the Exhibition, have a single goal: return the Dead to their graves. Yet, what began as a handful of shambling bodies has escalated beyond the team’s abilities, and time is running out. Whoever rules the Dead is losing control, and when the leash finally snaps, Philadelphia will be overrun with ravenous corpses.

Now Eleanor must battle the walking Dead and deal with her growing attraction to the team’s inventor, Daniel, an exasperating but gorgeous ex-con. From the steampunk lab of the Spirit-Hunters to the grand halls of the Exhibition, Eleanor must follow the clues – and the bodies – to find her brother and stop the Dead before it’s too late.

Though the novel has been written as a trilogy, it can stand alone. I believe it will appeal to fans of Libba Bray’s GEMMA DOYLE trilogy or Cassandra Clare’s CLOCKWORK ANGEL. I’m an active member of RWA, SCBWI, the Online Science Fiction and Fantasy Workshop, and YALitChat. I live in Germany and am working full-time on my next YA novels.

In Susan's words: "I spent a loooooooong time honing my query letter. Like, I took workshops, read books, and got feedback until my eyes bled. A few rules I kept in mind:

1. Be brief, be brief, be brief! Your goal is to snag the agent’s attention immediately and only share enough information so they want to read more. Keep the story summary under 250 words.

2. Do not tell the ending! The purpose of a query is to show an editor/agent that you can tell a story from beginning to end, but you want to leave the end unknown. This is much like the back of book – you want to sell your story and entice them to read more.

3. You must lay out the MC’s goal, why the MC is choosing to act, and what’s at stake if the MC fails."

What we loved about this query started in line one. When Susan mentioned how she found and came to query Joanna, it was obvious she'd done her research. She goes on to very concisely state who the MC is, and who she must become before the end of the story. And from there, the story grows: what starts out as a story about one character suddenly involves that character's brother, her city's safety, and an intriguing relationship with a group that sounds a lot like the 1800s version of the Ghostbusters (who Joanna and I love--there's no way Susan could have known that, but it caught our attention).

Actually, when Joanna and I pitched this novel, we said it was Ghostbusters meets Cassandra Clare meets Libba Bray. Susan's comparison books were spot-on for her story and her writing style, andthat made it easy to see not only how we could pitch the novel, but who we could pitch it to. Susan actually has some good news about THE SPIRIT-HUNTERS over at her blog...

Another good query example? Kody Keplinger's query for THE DUFF. Joanna and Kody did an interview about it over at YA Highway. One of the most quoted lines from the book is from the cover copy--the description of Bianca's relationship with Wesley is "enemies-with-benefits." That line first showed up in her query letter, and it wound up on the book!

Having a strong, clever line like that makes it easy for an agent to start picturing how he or she would pitch the book.

Here's Kody's original query for THE DUFF:

Seventeen-year-old Bianca knows she’s the Duff (the designated ugly, fat friend). So whenWesley, a notorious womanizer, approaches her at a party she knows he wants to score with one—or both—of her hot friends. God, the man-whore’s arrogance really pisses her off! But Bianca needs to escape from some personal drama, like her mom’s abandonment and her dad’s denial, and a steamy fling with Wesley seems like the perfect distraction. Bianca makes it clear she’s only using Wesley, as if he cares. He’ll sleep with anything that moves after all. Unfortunately, the enemies-with-benefits plan totally backfires.

When her mom files for divorce and her father stumbles into a downward spiral of drinking and depression, Wesley proves to be a surprisingly good listener, and Bianca finds out that his family is pretty screwed up, too. As sickening as it sounds, she has to admit that she andWesley are a lot alike. Soon she becomes jealous of the pretty girls he flirts with and his cocky grin begins to grow on her. Suddenly Bianca realizes—with absolute horror—that she’s falling for the guy she thought she hated.

THE DUFF, my contemporary YA novel, is complete at 53,000 words. The manuscript is available upon request. Thank you for your time and consideration.

In the interview on YA Highway, Kody said, "I went through about a million rounds on this query, changing things and then changing them back and cutting and adding. In the end, I went with my instinct and kept a few of the lines that others suggested I take out. For example, the 'enemies-with-benefits' line is my favorite in the query, and a few critiquers thought it didn't work. but I stuck to my guns and kept it - and that line made it into my flap copy! Other lines people suggested I cut went on the floor and will never be seen again. The first draft of this query was HORRIBLE and it never would have improved without the fresh eyes that helped me polish it."

So what caught Joanna's eye here? What made this a good query? Go see Jo's answer here!

These queries have a few things in common: they're concise, they clearly state conflict, and both authors know who their audience is. But the commonality that ultimately made them shine? Both authors had good critique groups looking over the query, and they developed good instincts about their groups' responses. Yes, there are a thousand tricks you can use to describe your novel in 250 words--and many of these are good tricks! But people who have read your novel, people who get your novel giving you feedback--well, that's a resource there's no replacement for.


Kody Keplinger said...

Awww! I'm so flattered to see mine here!!!
Also, Susan's book sounds AWESOME!

KO said...

I remember the Duff query on YA Highway--

and it's so great to get the inside scoop on Susan's journey!

It is really helpful to see the process.

Thanks for sharing.

Susan said...

::GASP:: That's me! :D :D

I totally saw Kody's on YA Highway when I was researching Jo & making sure my own query was A-OK.

The Sisterhood said...

It's always great to see how a query letter gets broken down. I think one thing many writers struggle with is how to write that short breakdown of the story and I think you did a great job when it came to explaining that the query always needs to get to the point. Thanks for sharing.

Mary Mary

Jessica Lei said...

This is really awesome and helpful :) Thanks for posting!

Najela said...

Both of these queries make me want to read the books. The thing about the buttered toast made me laugh.

Melissa Gill said...

I was so excited to hear Susan's news. I can't wait to read The Spirit Hunters.

Mike Koch - Protect The Risen said...

The query here shows that the author is serious, professional and that they are knowledgeable about the industry. I would suspect therefore this would make them a more appealing client to work with.

Em-Musing said...

As my eyes are also shot,your tips on writing a query letter - specifically that it's the story summary that s/b 250 words or less, and not to give away the ending - are soothing to the pupil.

Monica said...

Wow--FABULOUS query! LOL, totally makes me want to read Susan's book.

Sammy said...

I've been reading Susan's book the last few days and, for the record, it is AMAZING. Y'all have something to look forward to in 2012.

Susan said...

Awww, Sammy! That's such a sweet thing to say!! :D

Kristopher said...

Yesterday, I gave a talk at my local library on how to get published. I read Susan's query letter out loud as an example of a top notch example of how to show you've done your research and how much detail you can pack into 218 words.

Joanna said...

Wow, Kristopher! Very cool.
I'm sure Susan is honored! :-)