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The Successful Query Letter: Exhibit A

Last week, Sharon cleverly used her post to invite reader feedback—the responses she received contained some good  suggestions and valuable constructive criticism.  Among other points, Lynn (who, it should be noted, has a fine editorial eye) suggested that instead of serving up generic advice about query letters, we post a letter that “blew us away… Write about it, post it as an example so we can see what a great query is!”

 I am more than happy to oblige.  I’ll  begin with nonfiction and follow up with a fiction example next week.

First, a brief disclaimer: I know that writers spend a lot of time working on and occasionally obsessing over query letters, but there is no single magic formula for how to put one together.  I generally suggest that writers craft a pitch that reads roughly like (good) back cover copy, gives a sense of the story arc, the characters and the voice in which the book is written, but leaves something to the imagination.  I’m not a fan of the exhaustive synopsis—too much detail can get unwieldy. Close with a few lines about who you are, where your book fits into the market and its actual or (for nonfiction) proposed length and that’s it, you’re done.  But enough with the general. Here is an example of a project that I ended up signing and selling, which came to me via a beautifully crafted query letter.  I’ve pasted the query here, and below I discuss why it so impressed me.

Dear Jessica,

 I appreciate your hands-on-approach and your interest in “history with a thesis.”  I am an academic with a background in character-driven narrative writing, and I’ve just finished a book about an extraordinary group of farmers who have given me hope for the future of American food. 

 Lentil Underground introduces readers of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “Fast Food Nation” to a little-known movement in central Montana.  My book is the first to chronicle farmers who are changing our food system in the belly of the beast: the American grain belt.  If we’re going to overhaul the way our food gets to our plate, we’ll have to do it here in the heartland, and people like these colorful lentil enthusiasts will need to lead the way.

I am a Montana native and have been working with this group of farmers for five years, initially as an agricultural policy staffer for United States Senator Jon Tester and more recently as an academic.  I first ran into the story when I was touring full time as a country singer, and try as I might to corral it into three-and-a-half minutes …I ended up with a book.

 Per the instructions on the Dystel and Goderich website, I am pasting a brief synopsis below and attaching my first chapter. 

 I would be very happy to send you my full proposal and/or the full manuscript – but only if you give me permission.  I know you have a lot to read, and I appreciate your attention.

 Thanks,

Liz Carlisle

This query is brief, to the point and totally successful. I am not an agent who demands short pitch letters—I don’t stop reading after 250 words. But writing with this kind of clarity and economy of language is harder than it looks.  So what did Liz do right?

First, she showed that she’d read enough about me to know the kinds of projects I represent.  She then told me that she has academic credentials but also the ability to tell a story (two things that do not always go hand in hand) and she closed her first paragraph with an intriguing line.

Like you, I am familiar with the many critiques of the American food system—well deserved and bleak as they are—but here is a book that promises something hopeful, in the “belly of the beast” no less.   Carlisle also identified her audience via the books they read. I cannot overemphasize the degree to which it is crucial that nonfiction writers are able to accurately place their books in the context of the existing market. She showed me she has a handle on the competition and then—three cheers— promised something new. Acquisitions editors are forever in search of the new and fresh, so my ears perked up yet again. “Colorful lentil enthusiasts” is also not a phrase you hear every day. Her three lines of author bio, in which I learned she was a country western singer turned congressional staffer turned academic were so deftly and succinctly written—plus  fascinating—that I knew I’d request the proposal and the full mss.

Her book, The Lentil Underground, will be published by Gotham in 2015.

5 Responses to The Successful Query Letter: Exhibit A

  1. Bill Appleton says:

    Goes to show what I know. I lost interest at the end of the second paragraph. Didn’t seem that she had any real point to make. Sigh. Guess I’ll keep me day job….

  2. Lynn says:

    I have to admit, Bill, lentils do not have me swooning with excitement either, but I do believe Liz had a point. Her sentence, “My book is the first to chronicle farmers who are changing our food system….” is her point.

    This is also a great example of doing your homework and targeting the right agent. Jessica’s interest in health/self-help, e.g., healthy eating was right for her.

    Thank you, Jessica, for your insight in what worked for you in this example. I’ve been refining my query for the past year, as I finish my WIP, and I do have it slightly under 250 words. Still, it’s good to know that there are agents who are not so rigid in wanting that one page query.

    I look forward to the fiction query next week!

  3. DGLM says:

    Hi Bill and Lynn,

    You both point out something important here. Queries are WILDLY subjective. Especially in the subject driven world of nonfiction, picking the right agent is crucial. For example, I have limited expertise in books on sport, so I’m not sure how able I would be to recognize something fresh. I would not say categorically that lentils make me swoon, but the idea that they could was intriguing. A query letter is only effective in as much as the manuscript bears out the proposal of the pitch.

    This book straddles food politics, narrative science, and economics in a very lively and engaging way–and those are all subjects that interest me. Thanks for your input, and Lynn, I promise to better at interacting!

    Jessica

  4. sharon says:

    Jumping in to say that, though I may be in the minority, lentils definitely DO make ME swoon! Can’t wait to read this one.

  5. stephen seager says:

    A great query letter indeed. But, of note as well, is the terse, economical and elegant style of Jessica’s comments. From experience I can say what a joy it is to get a thoughtful, well-written, stylish letter from an agent. Two fine examples of excellent writing. And I’m thinking of lentils…

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