PhotobucketThis note arrived in my personal inbox this week, from a writerly acquaintance.

“I hate queries,” she said. “They frustrate the hell out of me. Would you be willing to share your query and explain why you did what you did?”

Of course I didn’t mind–as long as she didn’t mind that I post my response on the blog; I’d been struggling to come up with a topic for this week.

She didn’t mind. Here goes.

Dear Query Hater,

Your query hatred is not unique, me thinks, and probably falls second only to synopsis hatred in the necessary-but-not-creative-writing category. Here’s the query I sent to my agent, Elisabeth Weed. I’ve changed the title from Unbounded to The Last Will of Moira Leahy for obvious reasons.

Dear Ms. Weed,

Allison Winn Scotch emailed me just a bit ago to say you’d be interested in hearing more about my manuscript. I’m thrilled for the opportunity, as Allison raves about you and I believe your agency would be a perfect fit for my work.

Weed Literary is looking for inventive storytelling. The Last Will of Moira Leahy is a 100,000 word commercial rite-of-passage tale about death, identity and acceptance, told through the eyes of twin sisters and woven with a fascinating mythology in the vein of Louise Erdrich’s The Painted Drum. You’re also seeking provocative fiction with a dash of humor. Though 9 out of 10 women cry when they read this story, they’ll also laugh a lot.

Former musical prodigy Maeve Leahy has bound herself to the timeout chair of life. Though a decade has passed since losing her twin, Maeve’s nightmares and musical hallucinations persist, and she still sees Moira’s face whenever she looks in the mirror. It doesn’t help that her mother shuns her, her best friend worries for her sanity, and her not-quite boyfriend leaves the country. When she finds a wavy dagger called a keris one night at auction, she recalls her carefree childhood and playing pirate on the Atlantic with her twin. She wins the blade, and its hidden consequences. Anonymous notes about the keris soon appear, rekindling her adventurous spirit. As she uncovers the blade’s secrets, she may learn to embrace music, love and her reflection again, but will she be able to endure the cost?

The Javanese keris is a weapon with a documented history of effect, including the ability to decrease inhibitions, foretell the future, and more. The Last Will of Moira Leahy draws upon this rich lore as the story unfolds, but leaves the reader with the choice–to believe or not in an extraordinary possibility.

I have a master’s degree in psychology and am an award-winning researcher. I’m a published nonfiction author with hundreds of articles in America’s foremost health magazines and online health sites. I’m also the co-founder of writerunboxed.com, a popular genre fiction site.

I’d love to send you The Last Will of Moira Leahy if you think we’d be a good match. I appreciate your time and look forward to your response.

All best,
Therese Walsh

Query Dissection

Disclaimer time. This is not a perfect query. Nothing I write will ever be perfect. (I find myself wanting to tweak this even now, and there is no point!) And there are likely dozens of ways to write a query. Hook ‘em with a killer first line or a high concept or an evocative voice. Be conventional or not. What I did worked for me, but it might not be the right way for you to introduce yourself and your story; only you know that.

So with all of that in mind, here’s my query advice.

Mention your connections. If someone introduced you to this agent or spoke about your work to this agent, remind them about that–briefly, right at the start.

Convey that you know something about this particular agency and why your work would be a perfect fit for them. If you don’t know, put in the time to learn. At the very least, visit their website, study their list, understand their goals. Consider investing in a subscription to Publishers Marketplace to learn what they’ve sold and reading some of their clients’ works. “Hey, I know something about you!” is a great ice breaker and makes a positive impression.

If you can introduce your story by comparing it to a well-known work, go for it. This is kind of like accepting a sampler teaspoon of something at a deli before you commit to buying a full container–”Oh, yeah, so this is what it’s like. Okay, I get it.” Make your sampler as irresistible as you can. On the other hand, don’t call something caviar if it’s egg salad. Just sayin’.

Clarify what’s at stake for your protagonist. Show the agent that your story taps into something primal and is loaded with the potential for conflict. I chose to highlight a former musical prodigy. Someone who’s taken herself out of the game of life. Who has nightmares and hallucinations and difficulty facing her reflection. Not to mention a distant mother, not-quite boyfriend and friend who thinks she’s crazy. (Is she? Maybe.)

Get to your inciting moment. What kicks off the story? Why is it potentially the most important thing that will happen in your protagonist’s life? Because that’s what you’re writing about, right? The most important thing that happens in your protagonist’s life. Provide enough information to seed a reader’s imagination, make them hungry to know more.

Hint at evolution. What happens next? Is there a story here? Change for the protag? The promise of more conflict? Maybe my protag gets up from her timeout chair and finally finds herself again–or maybe she doesn’t. Either way, it doesn’t sound like it’s going to be an easy time for her. And it shouldn’t be. Conflict drives every good book. Don’t give your would-be agent any reason to doubt that you know this fundamental rule of storytelling.

Highlight your strong points. If your novel is centered around something unique, consider blowing the details out a bit. As you can see, I had a lot of love for the Javanese keris. Now’s also the time to highlight anything about yourself that may give your work more credibility. I decided to brag up my research background, my nonfiction work and my psychology degree, because they were pertinent; The Last Will is all about knotty human behaviors, and it involved a lot of research. The nonfiction work reference shows that I’m a professional who understands something about editors and deadlines. And you know I had to mention WU–a site that now boasts over 100 followers on bloglines (go, WU!).

Wrap it up. This is not the place to state that you’ll do anything, make any change, that you’ve been working on the story for a decade, that it’s killing you, that you’ll provide them with an unending supply of chocolate or name your firstborn (or third born) after them if only they’d sign you, that you’d appreciate any feedback at all and could they just– No. Just say thank you for your time, looking forward to hearing. Sign it. Stamp it. Done.

Okay, I did it. I bared my query letter to the world. I feel a little woozy.

Anyone else want to share? What sort of feedback have you had on your query? What’s worked for you–or not? What have you learned?

Write on, all!

Photo courtesy ~yamilletot

About Therese Walsh

Therese Walsh co-founded Writer Unboxed in 2006. Her second novel, The Moon Sisters, was published in March. Her debut, The Last Will of Moira Leahy, sold to Random House in a two-book deal in 2008, was named one of January Magazine’s Best Books, and was a Target Breakout Book. She's never been published with a lit magazine, but LOST's Carlton Cuse liked her Twitter haiku best and that made her pretty happy.