Saturday, July 7, 2012

It's not WHO you know, it's WHAT you write in your query

This is #2 in my series of posts which are meant to demonstrate that you don't need connections to be successful in publishing--just a really good query and manuscript.   To do this, I'm featuring unsolicited query letters that captured my attention and got multiple offers of representation from different agents.  Last week I wrote about Yangsze Choo's letter for THE GHOST BRIDE and today I'm highlighting a letter from author Lori Nelson Spielman for a book we retitled THE LIFE LIST and sold to Random House.  We've also sold rights in 13 other territories (including France, Germany, Italy, Brazil and Spain) and optioned the book for film to Fox 2000.   Again, Lori didn't have a connection to me or to the other agents who offered representation--she just wrote a great query letter.   I'll parse it below.

Dear Ms. Bent,

What’s the downside of a successful thirty-something with the world at her feet who’s set to inherit millions of dollars? She can only get the money if she fulfills the na├»ve dreams of her teenage self, and that’s an order from her dead mother!

I love your blog Bent on Books, and would be thrilled if you’d consider my contemporary women’s novel, ANOTHER SKY (104K words).

Following her beloved mother’s death, Brett Bohlinger naturally assumes she’ll take over the family business. But she is stunned when her savvy sister-in-law inherits the lucrative company, and Brett is handed a yellowed, dog-eared life list. Brett had no idea her mother’s sense of humor was this twisted: her inheritance hinges upon completing the ten remaining goals on her life list—the very list her mother fished from Brett’s Beverly Hills 90210 wastebasket twenty years ago.

And that girl’s life wishes are insane! Have a baby? Not happening. Become a teacher? Surely she’s not expected to swap her lucrative salary and stock options for snotty noses and spelling bees. Buy a horse? The condo board doesn’t even allow fish. And a relationship with her father is out of the question. The coldhearted stranger died seven years ago!

But Brett’s biggest challenge is Andrew. When her driven, big-city boyfriend comes home toting a bottle of Perrier-Jouet to celebrate, she doesn’t have the heart—or the guts—to tell him she is not, and never will be, President of Bohlinger Cosmetics. And she’s sure as hell not telling him about that asinine life list. He’d be history if he found out about the humble, conventional life she’d once craved.

Entangled in a web of deceit, Brett is forced to examine the life she chose and the life she dreamed of as a teen. With a multi-million dollar inheritance at stake and nothing but her mother’s letters to guide her, she wades from her comfy Gold Coast neighborhood into the streets of Southside Chicago in search of a young girl’s dreams. There she faces challenges and victories, and loves and losses, that her youthful heart never could have imagined.

I’m a member of RWA-Pro and a local writer’s group. Like Brett, I work as a homebound teacher in an inner-city school district, though writing is my true passion. Along with my teaching degree, I have Master’s degrees in Speech Pathology and Guidance Counseling.

Pasted below you’ll find the first ten pages, per your guidelines. Thanks so much for your time and consideration.

Warm regards,

Lori Nelson Spielman

If you break this letter down, it is many ways similar to the letter for THE GHOST BRIDE and you can see the same elements that go into a successful letter:  it has a great log line, a reason for querying me, a snappy synopsis, and a bio that highlights the relevance of her personal experience to the book she has written.

First, her log line.  Two sentences, which is absolutely fine, and it sums up the plot while giving a sense of the emotional hook, which is essential.  Then she tells me she reads my blog, which does mean something to me (I appreciate writers who do their homework).   Her synopsis is actually fun to read and it showcases her voice, which is such a great thing to do in a query letter.   And she doesn't have showy writing credentials but her life experience mirrors that of her heroine, and publishers love that--it's a great hook when pitching the novel to media.  

You may have noticed that Lori doesn't include comp titles, which is okay because of her log line.  The reason for including comp titles or a log line is because they serve as a kind of shorthand for the agent--they give me a sense right away of the kind of book I will be reading.  If your log line is effective, therefore, you don't need the comp titles (although including them wouldn't have hurt the letter either).

Best of all, her letter has heart and you can tell from reading it that her novel does too.  It's packed full of words that convey emotion--something to think about when you are working on your own query.  If you can make me feel something just by reading your letter, you know you will capture my attention and get me to request your manuscript.

So, once again, I present you with evidence that you don't need to schmooze to get an agent or a book deal.  You need to do your homework about what makes a great query, research agents to make sure you're approaching the right ones, and of course, write a great book.   Then, all you have to do is press send.  I'm rooting for you!

Oh, and if you're intrigued by the letter for the book that became THE LIFE LIST (which pubs in about a year), please do go over and join Lori's author page on Facebook.  I promise she's just as warm and lovely as the premise of her book.


  1. The query is lively, like "Have a baby? Not happening", and Brett becoming a teacher connects well with Lori being a teacher. I like the story line, so best wishes to the author and her agent.

  2. Enjoyed the letter - thank you for pointing out its key components. The book sounds intriguing.

  3. Your last two posts are so helpful and appreciated. I've attended workshops and have read much "how to" on queries, but the examples and evaluations are the BEST and personally help me the most. Thank you!!

  4. I love this series because most of the other query posts I see are slashes of poor or mediocre queries. Seeing fantastic queries is very helpful. Thank you!

  5. Thanks, Jenny, for taking a chance on us unknown, unconnected writers. I'm so happy my query--and my manuscript--found its way to you.

  6. This is an excellent blog series, as always, Jenny. Thank you for being such a great champion for writers.

  7. This is, without a doubt, one of the best query letters I've ever read. Fantastic job, Lori! I'm seriously impressed and excited to read your book.

  8. I just happened upon this blog today and find the posts informative and helpful for any author. I'll return often.

    Lori--excellent job!