Monday, July 14, 2014

Five Serious Tips (and one silly one) for How to Write a Winning Query Letter

Ooooh, query letters. Is there anyone who actually likes writing them? When I was a writer looking to pitch my work to agents, I was obSESSed with query letters--studying other people’s queries for what worked, what didn’t, how they changed and evolved, and how writers finally got to YES.

My own query, for the book that would become my debut novel, SALT & STORM (originally titled—terribly—THE ROE WITCH), started out pretty much as humbly as you could imagine. I had my X meets Y hook (“CHIME meets MOBY DICK!”), but aside from a few basics (character’s name, age, the setting, the main players), I wasn’t sure how to structure it.

Here was my first attempt:

On the struggling whaling community of Prince Island, sixteen-year-old Avery Roe grew up hearing her grandmother’s words: “This will all be yours someday.” She knew exactly what those words mean, They mean she has a job waiting for her, a responsibility, a gift passed from mother to daughter for generations. They mean she will someday replace her grandmother as water-witch of Prince Island and lead her island out of ruin and back to the golden days. They mean it will be her, her and not her mother, the only Roe woman to turn her back on magic.

But before the words can come true, Avery’s mother returns, stealing her away from her grandmother’s cottage of the rocks with the intention to turn her into a lady and not a witch. Her mother doesn’t know, though, that Avery still has one magical gift left to her: the ability to tell dreams. When Avery awakes one night with a vision of her own murder, she knows only her grandmother and her family’s magic will keep her alive.

And here, four months later, was the final result that ultimately landed me an agent and a book deal:

Dear [Mr. / Ms. Agent],

My Young Adult novel, THE ROE WITCH, is complete at 87,000 words and a historical fantasy novel based on New England folklore. THE ROE WITCH is CHIME meets MOBY DICK, and I’m submitting it to you due to [your interest in historical fiction and fantasy or whatever.]

Sixteen-year-old Avery Roe wants only to take her rightful place as the witch of Prince Island, making the charms that keep the island’s whale men safe and prosperous at sea. But before she could learn how to control her power, her mother, the first Roe woman in centuries to turn her back on magic, stole Avery away from her grandmother. Avery must escape from her mother before her grandmother dies, taking with her the secrets of the Roes’ power.

When Avery awakens from a dream foretelling her own murder, she realizes time is running short—for her and for the people of her island, who, without the Roes, will lose their ships and the only life they know.

With the help of Tane, a tattooed harpoon boy from the Pacific Islands, Avery plots her escape from her mother and unravels the mysteries of her mother’s and grandmother’s pasts. Becoming a witch may prevent her murder and save her island from ruin, but Avery discovers it will also require a sacrifice she never expected—one she might not be able to make.

I believe THE ROE WITCH will appeal to fans of novels that blend the real and the fantastical, like Maggie Stiefvater’s THE SCORPIO RACES and Franny Billingsley’s CHIME, as well as character-driven historical fiction, like Elizabeth Wein’s CODE NAME VERITY.

I’ve worked as a journalist with Bloomberg News, and I am a graduate of Harvard University, where I was taught by authors Bret Anthony Johnston and Suzanne Berne. I am also an active member of SCBWI. 

I’ve pasted [pages/synopsis] below. Thank you for your consideration!

Kendall Kulper

[email and snail mail address]

Okay, so, what changed?

First, I knew that my query had to start with my main character, Avery. This book is her story, and although I liked the “struggling whaling community” and the appeal of starting with a quote from her grandmother, ultimately it’s what Avery wants that drives the whole story, which makes it the most important thing for agents to understand.

Also, I drastically toned down the lyrical quality of the query. There’s a debate about how much literary tone should go into a query. Some writers are great at infusing a query with the tone of the writing, but I think it’s tough to walk that line between evocative and distracting. I finally decided that agents ask for a query and a writing sample for a reason: the query is the place to present my story in as clear terms as possible, while I can show off my style in the writing sample.

When I was writing the first query letter, the story itself was still evolving through edits and revisions. I wrote this first query way before the book was finished, and while you should ONLY send queries to agents for polished, completed work, I don’t think there’s ever a wrong time to start thinking about how to pitch your book. Actually, I’ve found that writing quick, query-style summaries as soon as I start a project is a great way to nail down the most important plot points: who is the main character, what do they want, what’s standing in the way, and what are the stakes.

So because I still wasn’t 100% sure where this story was going, the one big thing my first query lacked over the final was stakes. What was the point of this story? Why should anyone—especially this agent—care about the book? Tying Avery’s plight to her grandmother’s legacy and the survival of her island made her story more complex. It gave her a bigger reason to fight and more for readers to care about (and want to know more about).

When I finally sent out these queries, I was careful about who I sent them to and why. I tried to personalize every letter I sent in some small way, especially if I had a connection to the agent. In the letter to the person who would eventually become my agent, Sara Crowe, I included the following:

You and I were in touch a few months ago regarding my Young Adult manuscript [title of previous manuscript], and you requested to see the full and asked me to get in touch with any future projects. I’m seeking representation for THE ROE WITCH and would be delighted to show it to you.

Just a small note to remind Sara of who I was, that she had enjoyed my previous work, and that she wanted to see more from me. For agents I hadn’t queried before, I tried to include something about their interests or clients’ work that would suggest they might like my book. Those little personalizations can do a lot to help a query stand out in a very crowded landscape.

Okay. We’ve gotten through all the serious tips. Ready for the ridiculous one? Never underestimate the appeal of a hot tattooed boy. Seriously. Avery’s love interest, Tane, was a part of the book from the beginning, but I had a hard time figuring out how to get him in the query and debated even having him in there. Turns out it was a good idea I did. Agents loved him, and what’s more, readers love him—and want to know more. The official summary for SALT & STORM is based off my query letter, and the NUMBER ONE thing that grabs people’s attention? Yeah. Tattooed harpoon boy FTW. 

-- Kendall Kulper, author of Salt & Storm, Little Brown, September 2014

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1 comment:

  1. Query letters can be very difficult to write. Thanks for sharing yours and for the tips on how to write a good query.