Writer's Life

The Query Letter That Got Me My Agent (with commentary from Jessica Alvarez of Bookends Literary Agency)

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When I wrote my first query letter, I was deeply grateful to all the authors who’d shared their successful letters on the internet. It would seem wrong somehow if I didn’t share mine. This wasn’t the first manuscript I queried. Although I got very lucky (as you’re about to see) I’ve spent quite a bit of time in the query trenches, and I know how frustrating the process can be.

Here’s the query for The Madness of Miss Grey, then titled Heart of Ice:

Dear Ms Alvarez,

Everyone thinks Helen Grey is mad. She certainly causes plenty of trouble at Blackwell, the crumbling asylum where she’s been imprisoned for the last ten years. New doctor William Carter seems decent, honorable, and eager to help. Just the sort of man she can trick into helping her escape.

Will knows he’s being manipulated, but he also realizes Helen doesn’t belong at Blackwell. Getting her out won’t be easy, not for a mere housekeeper’s son educated above his station, and not when her mysterious benefactor is determined to keep her locked up forever.

Helen and Will need to work together if she’s ever going to be free. As their uneasy partnership turns to tender friendship, neither foresees the passion they’ll find in each other’s arms or the love that will save them both.

Heart of Ice is the first in a series I’m calling Dysfunctional Dukes about a family so messed up I call them the anti-Bridgertons. I am currently working on the second installment which is about Helen’s brother.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Best wishes,

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it’s perfect. Not by any means. For one thing, I didn’t personalize it. Though some agents prefer you to get straight to the pitch, just as many say they appreciate when an author includes why they’ve chosen to query that agent/agency in particular. If I could go back in time, I’d probably start with something like:

Dear Ms Alvarez,

I’ve been following you on twitter for a year or two. Earlier today, I spotted your #PitMad tweet which said that, though you weren’t taking part, you were open to queries.

Almost the first thing Jessica asked when she contacted me was why I queried her, so I certainly should have included the information.

An interruption from Jessica: It’s funny; I don’t remember asking you why you’d queried me. I actually normally don’t care too much about that or whether a query is personalized to me, though I know there are those agents who do care. I may have been trying to figure out if you were a #PitMad submission, but no matter now, it all worked out.

Back to Julia: Bookends uses Query Manager, which is why the original query doesn’t include word count, setting, and genre. I entered that information as part of the online form. When querying agencies by regular email, I’d add a line to the above paragraph, something like:

Please consider my 80,000 word historical romance set in late-Victorian Yorkshire.

Still, despite its imperfections, this query had a 100% success rate, (something that would be more impressive if I hadn’t only queried three agents).

Another interruption from Jessica: There were several things that grabbed me with your query. I love the idea of a tortured, possibly mad heroine, and the entire concept struck me immediately as a fresh spin on Laura Kinsale’s Flowers from the Storm. That’s one of my all-time favorites and quite possibly the greatest asylum romance to ever exist, imho. And right away I could tell there was going to be some juicy conflict with the doctor/patient relationship and him coming from humble beginnings. To top it off, I loved the way you described your series as being the anti-Bridgertons—any historical reader will immediately get that, and I can’t get enough of dysfunctional families. So, maybe there are a few things to quibble with, but really, I think the query was spot-on and it hooked me. Plus, it was so good that I basically stole your entire query, so I think you can claim more wins than just 3 for 3

Back to Julia: However, months later, when we pitched the manuscript to Entangled, Alethea Spiridon, the acquiring editor, requested a refined version more in keeping with their brand. I worked with Jessica and the rest of the Bookends team to produce this:

Everyone thinks Helen Grey is mad but, despite ten years imprisoned in Blackwell, a crumbling Yorkshire asylum, she’s managed to cling to sanity. When a new doctor arrives, she sees an opportunity. William Carter is honorable and eager to help. Despite his rigid moral code, desire burns in his eyes. Her pretty face and generous curves are her best weapons and she knows he’ll be a pleasure to seduce…and trick into helping her escape.

Will knows he’s being manipulated, but he intends to help Helen no matter what. She’s no more mad than he is. Though he would never bed a patient, his yearning for Helen torments him. The more time Will spends in this beautiful schemer’s company, the harder it is to resist temptation.

Helen and Will need to work together if she’s ever going to be free. It won’t be easy, not when her mysterious benefactor is determined to keep her locked up and hidden from society forever. When Helen is entangled in her own trap and begins to fall for Will too, she must fight not only for her liberty but for her right to love.

The first one is more restrained (restrained is my comfort zone), but I think the new version does a better job of selling the book.

So, keep working on your query, listen to advice when advice is given, and with luck, you’ll find an agent and an editor who are right for you and your manuscript.

 

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