I’m heading out to San Francisco this weekend for a one-day conference, where I’ll be giving a presentation on query letters. To that end, although my presentation will differ, I thought it might be interesting — both for my readers and for me — to break down my reaction to a specific query. Diane wrote in some time ago looking for help with her letter. While it’s not in a genre I’m specifically looking for, as with any query, it’s about hooking the reader’s attention and getting them to want to read more. With her permission, here’s her letter:
Dear Agent (to be personalized),
It’s August 1968 in Westbruk, California and somebody’s trying to murder Dessa Lechmann, the fire phobic, Dear Dessa Dreams advice columnist. A Turkish carpet merchant, a runaway from a harem in Zanzibar, and a hookah smoker from Cairo tell Dessa that a match-lighting man is the villain. Dessa doesn’t believe them. Because in her dreams the match-lighting man is not the culprit. Besides having ordinary dreams about flying backwards, tsunamis, and upside down coyotes, Dessa dreams about past events she couldn’t know about, set in places she’s never been. Her dreams are as vivid as Technicolor movies and true. So if the match lighting man isn’t the culprit, who is?
In 1906, Liesl-Marie conceived a son. Her priest told her he was not only her lover, but also her father. Any child of theirs would be a monster, he said. Now it’s 1968 and the eighty-two year old Liesl-Marie has septicemia and is about to die. Having a match-lighting son (the match-lighting man described by the carpet merchant, harem runaway and hookah smoker) and suspecting that she has grandchildren and great grandchildren, Liesl-Marie starts fires to slay her monster progeny for the good of mankind. Mistakenly, she thinks Dessa is her granddaughter.
Will Dessa be able to fight through her fears, figure out what kind of childhood trauma caused her to be afraid of fire, deduce who the arsonist is, and save herself and others from the high rising flames of Liesl-Marie’s last fire? Of course! And in KILLING THE MONSTERS (FOR THE GOOD OF MANKIND) a literary mystery of approximately 64,000 words, she’ll employ ingenious methods to do so.
I worked on KILLING THE MONSTERS (FOR THE GOOD OF MANKIND) in the UCLA writing program under the tutelage of Caroline Leavitt, Kris Neri, Jessica Inclan and Leslie Lehr. During the course of my studies I auditioned for and was admitted into three advanced classes. My freelance non-fiction articles have appeared in numerous magazines such as AMERICAN CAREER, PORTHOLE and ACTIVE TIMES. KNIGHT, a professional company, produced two of my plays.
I’ve read that you like mysteries and I’d be delighted to send you all or part of KILLING THE MONSTERS (FOR THE GOOD OF MANKIND).
OK, first reaction: I can’t follow this. You’ve got two different time periods introduced in your letter where you only need to focus on one — the one in which the bulk of the action of the story occurs. If Dessa is your main character, introducing Liesl-Marie in a similar fashion (the structure for both paragraphs is very similar) makes me feel like she’s on an equal footing with Dessa. In addition, the quirky introducing of the Turkish carpet merchant, the harem runaway, and the hookah smoker from Cairo also feels extraneous — and certainly doesn’t seem to need mentioning twice! You also mention prophetic dreams, and then drop that thread.
Consider if you need the para on Liesl-Marie. Can you focus the query on Dessa, and tell her side of the story, while leaving some of the mystery to be unveiled in the book itself?
Beyond the book description, I might cut out the names of your teachers at UCLA, and just focus on the program itself. Also, “I’ve read that you like mysteries” is too generic. Where did you read it? Was it an interview with the agent? In a book like the Writer’s Market? Can you make mention of any of the agent’s specific clients whose work may be similar in some degree with your novel? Also, offering “all or part” of the novel is overkill. I don’t know any agents who ask for a full after reading a just letter. Try “a selection from”.
Diane, I hope this was helpful. Readers, please add your comments as well. Would you wan to read more if you received this letter? Why or why not? What would you change about it if you were sending it out?
If we get a good discussion going, I’d be open to considering a query review like this on a more regular basis, so if you like to see the inner workings of my mind (oooh! Peep-toe pumps! and a Pony!), chime in!