Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Query Dissection:
Kelly Gay's The Better Part of Darkness

Today is Query Dissection Day!

As often as a writer may hear agents and editors talk about the importance of a strong query letter, it's rare that they get to see a query letter that actually worked, one that intrigued an agent enough to ask for a full manuscript. So - as promised - today I'm going to talk about Kelly Gay's query for The Better Part of Darkness. And, as an added bonus, Kelly is also going to be writing about her query letter over on her own blog so that you can get the writer's viewpoint as well as the agent's.

I wrote in an earlier post that Kelly's query helped her land me as an agent. That's not entirely accurate. The fact is that a strong query will only get a writer so far. A query is really only a tool for getting an agent to sit up and notice you. A good query may get an agent to read your manuscript, but ultimately it's great writing and talented storytelling that will get you an offer of representation.

That being said, let's take a look at the query that Kelly sent me this past February. The red portions are Kelly's original query; my comments are in italics below:
Dear Ms. Lindsay,

She starts off the right away - do you have any idea how many queries I receive in a week addressed "To Whom It May Concern"? (No, I'm not kidding.) Although I am not overly fond of the honorific Ms., I'm okay if someone uses it. I'm also fine with someone addressing me as Miss Lindsay or just Colleen. I'm fairly informal in that regard but I certainly don't expect others to know that.

I’m seeking representation for my 90,000 word urban fantasy, THE BETTER PART OF DARKNESS, where the beings of heaven and hell have come out of the closet, and they aren’t the things of Sunday school lessons and Hallmark figurines.

This is pretty much a perfect opening paragraph. In one well-structured sentence Kelly not only clearly identifies both the genre and word count, but also provides a compelling one-line hook. As someone whose background in the publishing industry is primarily marketing and publicity, I always think in terms of media pitches and marketing hooks, so this paragraph really worked for me. It's straightforward and gives me all the info I need to want to keep reading the query.

Often a writer wastes time and space and ends up with a bloated query by telling me things I really don't need to hear: I don't need to know where you found my name; I don't need to know that you like my blog (I mean, thanks; I appreciate the sentiment, but it really isn't relevant to your query); I don't need to hear that you've wanted to be a writer since you were in grade school; I don't need to hear that your writing can be compared to X, Y and Z writer (because, really? it probably can't be, and that's just going to annoy me). What I do need are three basic pieces of information that Kelly provides above: What genre does your book best fit into, what is the word count and what's your hook?

Eight months after dying on the job and being resuscitated an hour later, CHARLIE MADIGAN is back patrolling Underground Atlanta for the ITF, Integration Task Force, an agency designed to police and monitor immigrant beings from Elysia (heaven) and Charbydon (hell).

With her partner HANK, a siren from Elysia, Charlie makes sure the co-mingling of species goes without incident. But when her pre-teen daughter, EMMA, learns that her babysitter is lying comatose in a hospital from accidentally ingesting After Glow, a new off-world drug, Charlie takes it personal. She discovers a link between the new drug and the Charbydon Political Party, becoming a target and a possible tool for bringing darkness to the city of Atlanta.

Now that I'm intrigued enough to want to keep reading, I also want more plot details. Here, in two short paragraphs, Kelly has done a wonderful job of giving me a tight synopsis that covers the specifics of all the major plot points while also briefly introducing several of the major characters. When an agent asks you for a plot synopsis for a work of fiction, this is exactly what s/he is looking for.

My character, Charlie, is a tough woman typical of urban fantasy heroines, but she’s also a single mother to a headstrong kid, and a divorcee to an ex who wants her back so badly, he’s bartered his soul to a demon who’s come to collect. Her personal life is just as complex as her work, making her, I believe, a unique addition to the genre.

In this paragraph I get to learn more about Charlie Madigan, the main protagonist of the book. I also learn that Kelly has done her homework in the urban fantasy genre; she lets me know how her heroine is different than many of the strong female urban fantasy characters. I was intrigued by the idea of a single mom who was also a cop and a demon hunter. In my head, I was already composing the tag line that I would use as I was pitching the manuscript to editors ("Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a soccer mom? Hey, this could work!"). By the end of this paragraph, I knew I wanted to at least read a good portion of the manuscript.

I’m a 2005 RWA Golden Heart finalist in the paranormal category and a 2005 Laurie winner for best single title romance novel. I’m also a recipient of the 2005/2006 North Carolina Arts Council grant fellowship in writing.

This is a exactly the kind of bio I want to see in a query. It tells me about Kelly's writing background, gives me very specific examples and - more importantly - the examples she gives me are worth taking the time to tell me about. RWA's Golden Heart Awards are nationally recognized and any editor/agent who is interested in romance, paranormal romance, urban fantasy or YA will pay attention to this piece of information. Likewise, a writing fellowship from a prominent organization is a good thing to tell me.

Too often in a writer's bio, s/he will list a contest or an award that really has no meaning to a publisher or an agent. Rule of thumb: if you've placed or won an award in a contest that an agent or editor is likely to have heard of, then by all means, add it to your bio. If you've attended a writing workshop that is well-known and specific to your genre, please let me know. (Personally, I always like to know about Clarion or Odyssey attendees.) And if you've previously published a book and/or short fiction, you absolutely must include the name of the book and the publisher, or the magazine/online 'zine where your work appeared.


I've pasted the first few pages below, and I hope to hear from you at your convenience.

Best Regards,

Kelly Gay

Nice closing, extremely professional throughout. Really, a very well-written query letter.
So, there you have it: a query letter that worked for at least this one agent. The two crucial keys to a successful query are brevity and clarity; Kelly's query wonderfully demonstrates both.

I hope y'all found this helpful in some way. Questions/comments are welcome! Now go read what she had to say about her own query letter.

(I'm cross-posting this to the FinePrint blog as well; just an FYI.)

22 comments:

C. Taylor said...

Wow! No wonder you signed her. That was an excellent query letter. Thanks for posting.

Now I'm sad that my query is sitting in your slush pile and I won't have a chance to put your advice to use before you read it.

Can't wait to read Kelly Gay's post!

Joya said...

Whoa, that is an AWESOME query letter. The synopsis sounds so cool, and I'm definitely going to check out the novel when it finally comes out. :)

Thank you so much for putting this post together. I'm bookmarking it, and now I'm off to Kelly's blog!

Jinx said...

This is a great query letter and a very useful post. Thanks for putting it up! Now I await Kelly's post...

Amy Nathan said...

This is a great example. Thanks for posting it. I think what's tough for writers is that while you say you don't want to know why you're being queried, I've read plenty 'o blogs and guidelines where an agent wants that right up front, preferably in neon.

Just_Me said...

I want the book!

I'll have tyo go see Kelly's blog now...

Just_Me said...

P.S. Forgive the extra y in the above post. It's not yet 9 am and it's already been one of *those* days.

Scott said...

Great query letter. For me, query letters are my mortal enemy. She makes it seem so easy. Thanks for posting and giving a great example.

LeeAnn Flowers said...

I have to go with c. taylor that my own query is sitting in the slush pile. I loved this dual views on the query. Thanks, Colleen, for the insight.

RobB said...

This is awesome, all these instructional posts are great. They really help us wannabe writer/authors focus on the business end of things.

beth said...

This is wonderful...thanks a lot for sharing! I'm off to revise my query now... :)

ccallicotte4 said...

Thanks, Colleen and Kelly, this was great. I'm with c. taylor and leeann flowers in wanting to snag my query out of your slush pile to revise it using these suggestions!

I always struggle with the bio section - I have no publishing credits, and my career as a physical therapist has nothing to do with the urban fantasy I wrote. I've heard mixed reviews on what to do in cases like mine. What do you suggest?

Mary B said...

Oh noes! I'm also already in the query slush. Boogers. I wish I could rework mine now.

intotheforest said...

Thank you for posting this. It's helpful. The only problem? You've made me want to read the book!

Kristin Laughtin said...

Thanks for posting a query letter that worked! I always see lots and lots of advice on what to put in a query letter, but it's rare to see anyone post examples.

Merc said...

I can see why the letter works, and the explanations of what you like and don't are extremely helpful, Colleen! :D Thanks for the great breakdown.

I took look forward to Kelly's novel now.

~Merc

adawhispers said...

First of all, thanks to both of you for sharing the letter. It really was impressive, and your blow-by-blow feedback was informative.

I have one question, though it might fall into the "Why are you asking the obvious?" category. She included a mini-synopsis in her query, and you mentioned that that was exactly the sort of synopsis you liked to see. With a query like that, would you still want a writer to include the 6-paragraph synopsis you mentioned in some of your submission guidelines?

Alyssa Goodnight said...

Very, very nice query letter. Thanks for posting.

I've read before on your blog (I think!) that you answer all queries that meet your submission requirements. Is the same true of requested materials? Will you respond whether it's a 'yes' or 'no'? Just checking. :)

VELMA SABINA!!! said...

it is so helpful when agents post successful query letters up there. Thanks for sharing it, I've been working on mine for a while now. Hopefully when it's stellar, I plan to query you ^_^

Bella said...

Amazing query letter, no wonder I haven't heard from you since I queried you. It's been four weeks, time to polish mine and re-query you...

Julia said...

Great letter! And it sounds like a great book.

So what do you prefer to "Dear Ms. Lindsay:" as a salutation? "Dear Colleen Lindsay:" maybe?

Amanda Padgett said...

Thank you so much for posting this! I am fine-tuning my first query letter and this helped so much!

alikat-69 said...

I read both yours and Kelly's explainations of her query letter; it's so great that both the writer and agent can discuss what worked in a query letter. I've been sending letters off to agents that deal with my genre - YA fantasy - without much luck so far. I'm already back to revising the book; I now know I need to revise the letter as well. Thank you for the advice.