Welcome to our Query Letter Deconstruction Day! Tracy Marchini, Literary Agent Assistant at Curtis Brown LTD, has generously agreed to look over and comment on our winning queries, randomly selected. So thank you to everyone who submitted a query. We have four winners today. The query letters will be posted in whole, and Tracy’s comments are in red.
Name: Jennifer Conner
Book Title: Sleep Fall
Paranormal Romantic Suspense
Callum Galloway is a level-four telepath and dream-walker with REM (the Regiment of Enlightened Militia.) Having just returned from a REM mission, Callum is surprised when his partner Jace has another dreamer’s file waiting. REM wants Callum to enter Isabelle Duboius’ dreams. His orders are to make her ‘wish’. The orders are odd, he’s never seen a dreamer’s file like the one lying before him. This woman isn’t drug cartel (This feels odd to me – perhaps “part of a drug cartel,” since a woman can not be a drug cartel?), and she doesn’t have a boyfriend trying to smuggle biological weapons. Why do they want him in her dreams?
Isabelle is afraid to fall asleep, because when she wakes she finds what her subconscious has wished in her dreams has become reality. In Isabelle’s dream, a man appears. From the first moment, she knows there is something wrong. She can’t wake up. This man shouldn’t be there at all. After kissing her and telling her everything will be all right, he asks Isabelle to ‘wish’ that her hair and eye color change. She wants to believe his promises and hesitantly agrees. Isabelle feels her physical appearance change and sees the horrified look on the man’s face. She decides to question him on the true purpose to why he’s there, but now he’s disappeared from her dream. Watch for instances where fewer words would do, for example, this sentence could read “She tries to question him about the true purpose of his visit, but he has already disappeared.” Also, watch for sentences constructed of multiple prepositional phrases, which tend to sound clunky when read aloud.
Later, Callum and Jace go to Isabelle’s apartment. Callum explains to Jace, her photos in REM’s files have changed along with her childhood pictures. Callum realizes that Isabelle has changed the outside world with her dream ‘wish’. Is this what REM wanted all along? Did they send him on a dream-walk so he could test Isabelle’s abilities to change the outside world with her dreams?
Callum is torn, always having been the good soldier. His loyalty to REM was unmatched, and he’d never questioned orders. But when he feels that Isabelle is truly an innocent victim, he lies to his superiors. Callum begins to question his mentor and REM’s true purpose. He suspects REM in conducting human experiments which he finds morally reprehensible and cannot condone. This forces him to wonder if his career with REM has been a web of lies.
REM informs Callum that if he cannot get the information they need from Isabelle they must bring Isabelle into their labs.
Knowing her safety is in his hands, Callum begins a desperate race to reach Isabelle. Callum breaks into her apartment and trieds to convince her of the danger she’s in. He’s the man from her dreams, he can’t be real. Isabelle is terrified and confused, suspecting a trap. Callum knows their time for escape is limited and sedates Isabelle with chloroform. As she sleep falls into her dream word, Isabelle fears Callum has been sent to kill her. He tried to convince her that he and Jace are trying to save her, but she refuses to believe him. Isabelle ‘wishes’ he was never there. When Isabelle wakes, she’s back, alone, in her apartment.
The following week, Jace appears in her dream. Isabelle confronts him, and demands to know who he and Callum truly are. Jace denies that he ever knew anyone named ‘Callum’. She and Jace begin to put the pieces together about REM’s involvement. Isabelle must face her worst fears about the extent of her powers, realizing she’s caused a man to vanish from existence. She ‘wishes’ Callum back. Instantly, Jace remembers his friend.
When Isabelle wakes, she finds Callum on the floor, his body badly injured and his mind distant. Callum whispers that they are not safe. As Jace returns, the three escape before REM arrives to a remote cabin in Canada.
Once at the cabin, Callum is still distant. Isabelle overhears Callum tell Jace about his experience on the other side that he describes as having been ‘ a dark hell’. Guilt over what she did plagues Isabelle making her realize the only way to help him through his struggle is to enter Callum’s nightmare. She saves him from his nightmare that he is in the middle of by pulling him into her dream. Both desperate to find someone who understands how they feel, they make love in her dream. Isabelle ‘wishes’ that he was truly there with her.
As Callum fights to regain his physical strength, he also battles with his emotional inabilities of commitment to women in his past. He wants things to be different with Isabelle. The three of them try and understand the impact Isabelle’s dreams and how they could impact the world if her untold powers fell into the wrong hands.
[np]Their safety is shattered as REM’s soldiers attack the cabin. Callum and Jace escape, but they are not able to reach Isabelle and she is captured.
At the REM laboratories, the doctor tells Isabelle she is pregnant. The possibilities of Isabelle’s dream powers and Callum’s telepathy, the child’s powers are unfathomable. Callum and Jace use their special-ops knowledge to break into REM’s headquarters. Reaching Isabelle, Callum confronts the doctor, he has always thought of as his mentor to why he would harm Isabelle. This sentence feels clunky, and is a bit confusing since your pronouns don’t seem to refer to the person they should. The Doctor tells him that Isabelle’s dream powers are not unique. The Doctor (doctor should not be capitalized unless that is his actual name) confirms human experiments were done on a group of women, including Isabelle’s mother. REM has been following these girls, waiting to see if their powers will surface. The Doctor confesses that he is only a part of REM’s plans to capture these women. REM wants to learn how to control the dreamers by force, and shape the world into their vision. When the doctor tries to take Isabelle, Callum is forced to kill him.
Knowing they are trapped, Isabelle tells Callum the only way they can escape from REM headquarters is if she’s sedated and can dream. When she sleep falls, Isabelle wishes them to safety and that REM never knew them. Knowing they are safe for the moment, Isabelle and Callum realize their love and that they must protect their unborn child. Together, they must find a way to warn the other women before their dreams are used for evil by R.E.M.
Congrats on being one of the contest winners, and thank you for being brave enough to enter your work!
I worry that this query is far too long. As is, this is nearly four pages when double spaced, and I fear an agent or editor would probably skim through. If you want to include a synopsis, it should be a separate document. This query also leaves out some important information. We don’t know the book’s length, target audience/genre, or anything about you as the author. I think it would work better if you were to grab us with a one line hook, then give us one to two paragraphs at most about the book’s plot, and then let us know a little bit about yourself as the author. Don’t forget to include an appropriate closing line!
What’s interesting about this is that the ending relies on a dream sequence, which is usually a way for an author to get themselves out of a corner. (Not recommended!) But in this case, it is the only logical conclusion (well, I think.) The only thing I would watch though, is why Isabelle didn’t immediately wish herself to safety? Also, couldn’t she just then wish for the safety of the other women?
Hope this helps,
Name: Lisa Sisneros
Book Title: HAUNTED
Dear Ms. Uber-Agent,
I am seeking representation for my completed 154,000-word novel, HAUNTED, a supernatural romance/ mystery, set in the tone of a modern-day, rock-infused PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, with the timeless romance of THE NOTEBOOK and the atmospheric qualities of THE HAUNTED MANSION. I know some agents/editors are hesitant about book comparisons, but if done well, I think they can be extremely helpful as a way to get a feeling for the book’s tone. As a personal preference, I like to see the comparisons as closers, perhaps because to me it feels like an extra mini-pitch before the letter is closed. Also, consider cutting it down to two comparisons, if you can. (You’ve hooked me with PHANTOM, but I’m not sure about the other two…)
‘Some secrets are meant to be kept.’
And yet, for twenty-six year old Evie Foster, she cannot escape them. Tortured by her tragic past, she’s held together by sheer will and a healthy dose of denial–until the night a dying patient utters cryptic words to her that will change her life forever. Watch the phrase, “…that will change her life forever.” We hear this a lot in query letters.
Horrific memories crash down around her, disrupting her barely-managed sanity until an unexpected collision with the man of her dreams and a sudden brush with death knocks her crumbling world on its side. (Consider again “man of her dreams” – another query letter staple, especially for romance.) Desperate to save her from her self-inflicted heartache, Nick Scalia patiently lets her hold him at arm’s length—until she can no longer deny the hopeless way she needs him. But just as she reaches out to him, she’s thrust into the depths of a consuming mystery surrounding a massive fortune and an abandoned mansion unexpectedly bestowed to her, somehow connected to the haunting love story that begins to pervade her dreams. This last sentence feels a bit long and overwritten. Can you simplify with something more concrete?
She dreams of Sara, the daughter of wealthy socialites from the distant past, consumed by a forbidden longing for Sam, a humble gardener. Despite everything standing against them, they cannot fight the forces of Fate that bind them together, this feels very vague, what are the actual reasons that they a.) are drawn to each other and b.) are prevented from being together? falling into a love so deep and everlasting, nothing can destroy it–not even death. Or so they think.
Evie is compelled to explore the decaying, once-beautiful mansion that’s been left empty for decades, hearing whispers calling out to her, inviting her into a mystery that’s been waiting for her for nearly a century. Haunted by her dreams, frightened by the things that stir in the shadows, she must discover what has brought her to this place and why she cannot let go of the darkness that lures her ever forward. But nothing can prepare her for the dangerous spell being cast over her, as she delves deeper into a world of terrible secrets, murderous greed and otherworldly intervention, where the line between the past and the present will blur, threatening to destroy her sanity, her newfound love and even her life. I like what you’re doing here, but think it might be more effective if you could shorten it to three or four sentences.
If you would like to consider HAUNTED, I’d be glad to forward you the full manuscript at your request. Thank you for your time and consideration. I hope you hear from you.
Michelle Graves, pen name
Congrats, and thanks for letting me read your query!
I fear this query is also a bit on the long side. Also, though I realize that authors generally aren’t privy to our inboxes, be careful of phrases that might be overused. Eventually, these phrases become meaningless to us. It’s best to be as concrete as possible in your plot summary, so we know exactly what the protagonist wants, and what the antagonist is going to do to prevent the protagonist from achieving their goals. Also, as you rewrite, you might want to take another look at how the two plots weave together throughout the book. In the query letter, I almost felt like I was reading about two different books, so perhaps making the parallels a little clearer to the editor/agent would help your query stand out!
Hope this helps!
Name: Hannah Spivey
Book Title: SHE SHALL WEEP NO MORE
Hannah D. Spivey
This is my novel and Its’ it’s titled “She Shall Weep No More” it isn’t complete but it currently consists of nearly 80,000 words and it’s fiction. It’s an African-American suspense novel and it’s geared towards mature audience. I’ve found your website on a directory among other literary agencies. I think it’s a great fit for my kind of work considering that you review suspense along- side other genres.
For debut fiction, you really shouldn’t query until the manuscript is 100% done. 80,000 words is already a good length for suspense, and 100,000 is probably too long for most genre suspense. Be careful of using too many words when fewer would do. For example, the first and second sentence would be tighter as, “SHE SHALL WEEP NO MORE is an 80,000 word suspense novel, geared towards an African-American audience.” Novels are fiction by definition, so it’s not necessary to say it’s a “fiction novel.”
One of the main characters in my story is a globally known celebrity. His name is Desmond Waltz and He’s a multi-faceted power house. Don’t capitalize pronouns in the middle of a sentence. (Only accepted exception is if the ‘He’ is God.) He’s an eight time Grammy award winning R&B singer, dancer, motivational speaker, philanthropist, academy award winning actor, and an activist against domestic violence. He has the looks, charm, talent, and the intellect. He’s practically every woman’s fantasy, the envy of most men and the idol of many children. He’s been on the cover of every major magazine and he’s known for all of his good He’s the cream of the crop internationally. In the spotlight he is known as Mr. Squeaks (squeaky clean) unbeknownst (to whom?) he’s temperamental & physically abusive towards his girlfriend at home. No one knows of her existence other than him and his cantankerous mother. Both he and his mother savagely beat his girlfriend “Ebony” on a regular basis and then imprison her in his cellar with his two vicious dogs as a punishment. If the nature of the abuse is unveiled to the public it can be detrimental to his career and it can jeopardize his freedom which is why he threatens to inject her with battery acid, dismember her body and feed her severed body parts to his dogs if she ever told, which is also why he and his mother never allows her to talk on the phone or leave the house. They keep her tied down in the basement. She is only allowed to eat once a day which is bread and corn mush. Ebony is trapped in a life or death relationship and she feels hopeless because she fears that she’ll be discredited and stigmatized for debunking him and his mother for their ominous behavior; Moreover, she’s deathly afraid of him and his mother. It’s a no win-win situation that is until all hell breaks loose.
I feel like we’re learning a bit too much about the specific types of abuse, but not enough about Ebony herself. Why was Ebony chosen by Desmond? Also, I’m a bit unsure of her motivation. Is the fear of exposing Desmond really stronger than the fear for her life? I think that perhaps it’ll be easier for you to write the query when the book is finished, because you’ll know exactly where the book is going.
Biography about myself – Like fiction novel, you only need to say biography.
I’m an aspiring novelist. I have no previous published literary work; however English has been my favorite topic (I would say “subject” instead of topic, but in truth I’d probably delete this sentence entirely.) throughout school. I chose to write this story because the intensity of the plot is something that is rarely written about or is unheard of. Watch broad generalizations like this. I feel it almost begs the reader to disprove you. For example, PUSH: A NOVEL BY SAPPHIRE has been huge this year, and does deal with similar themes. I feel this is something that would catch the reader’s attention and have them thumbing for more. I have an Associates degree in Business Administration and writing is definitely my passion. (It allows me to express my thoughts and take a walk on the wild side with my imagination.) – I would try to avoid sentences like these. Though we definitely want to feel from the letter that the writer has a passion for their work, delving deeper into why somebody writes isn’t really appropriate for a query. Writing a query is similar to writing a cover letter. Keep it brief, powerful and professional. I’ve found my calling after writing & posting short stories in forums. I’m also querying other agencies.
I thank you for taking the time to read my submission, and if you’re interested I’lld be ecstatic to send you sample chapters of my work. My email address is email@example.com.
Thanks for letting me read your query, and congrats on being chosen!
My most important piece of advice for you, would be to focus on writing the best book possible first, then query. Debut fiction can be a difficult sell in any climate, but harder still in a recession, so before you query, make sure you’ve finished the book, revised until it’s as perfect as it can be, and then send it out to some writing colleagues for critique. Revise again, and then submit!
On to the query — I think we learned a lot about Desmond’s character, but I feel like we don’t know much about our protagonist, Ebony. In the query, she’s only a victim. But we want to see her as a survivor! This will probably become more clear as you write, but what is it about Ebony that is going to make her able to overcome her captor?
Hope this helps!
Name: Delilah S. Dawson
Book Title: SCRITCH
Dear Ms. Marchini,
I seek representation for SCRITCH, a middle grade fiction complete at 43,500 words that is most easily described as Labyrinth meets The Borrowers for 2010. See note below
Twelve-year-old Lena Blackstone’s baby brother screams every night, and no one knows why. That is, until Lena rescues him from a rat in his crib– a rat that bites her with unexpected fangs. The next morning, she discovers a teenage boy stealing socks in her attic. Which would be terrifying if he weren’t four inches tall.
His name is Selwyn, and he tells her that his people, the Scritch, (love the name) have lived in her family’s isolated farmhouse since it was built. What’s more, the creature that bit her was actually a Gobbling, one of the rat-like denizens of the basement. His deadly venom revealed the Scritch to Lena in their true forms. Unfortunately, it’s also killing her.
But the truth behind her brother’s screaming is even more sinister. The ruthless king of the Gobblings wants to become human, and the spell of conversion requires only one more ingredient: the heart of a human child. He wants Lena’s baby brother.
But he’ll settle for Lena.
Thank you for your time and consideration.
Delilah S. Dawson
Thanks for giving me a peak at SCRITCH!
I really like what you’ve done here. I think you could take another look at your opening sentence to see if you can come up with something with more “pop”, but your plot synopsis has all the key ingredients – protagonist, antagonist, and key plot points! Your cliff-hanger is perfect as well.
The only thing you’re missing entirely is a quick blurb about yourself as the author. It’s okay if you don’t have any publishing credits, but one or two lines about yourself – preferably related to why you wrote this story in particular – would round this out nicely.
Hope this helps!
Thanks to Tracy and everyone who submitted their queries to let us take a look. I hope this gave you some great information! If anyone else would like to share their thoughts or comments in the comments area, I invite you to do so — but please remember to be kind and helpful.
Tracy Marchini has worked for Curtis Brown, Ltd. for nearly four years. In this role, she has developed and sold an original book concept for the Ogden Nash Estate, negotiated and sold audio rights, pitched merchandising ideas, given editorial feedback on client and prospective manuscripts, and provided author care.
In addition to her work at Curtis Brown, Tracy is also a freelance copywriter and a professional manuscript critiquer.
Before joining Curtis Brown, Tracy worked as a freelance correspondent for the Taconic Press and as a children’s book reviewer for BookPage. She graduated from Binghamton University in 2004 with a BA in English, concentration in Rhetoric.
Tracy was awarded a 2006 Puffin Grant to write a non-fiction picture book on Queen Lili’uokalani, and is a contributor to www.litdrift.com, a literature webzine written for twenty-something aspiring writers.
Tracy has served as a mentor for the 2008 and 2009 Rutger’s One-on-One Plus Children’s Literature Conference, and has critiqued query letters and/or manuscripts for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Poughkeepsie Conference since 2007.