Ask Me Anything, Part 2: Query Letters

And now back to our regularly scheduled programming.

Lacey asks:

Would you post us the query that got you your fabulous agent?

I would if I could. Except it didn’t quite work that way. But bear with me, folks. And I will post two query letters and in the process Tell A Story with a Moral.

First, we have to go back in time to my first book. A nonfiction travel memoir, which, at the time I was querying it, was called Hobbits On The Silk Road: Dispatches From A Shrinking World. This is the condensed version of what I sent out while soliciting agents. This was back before email queries were the way to go, so I just mailed a very short cover letter and the beginning of the proposal, a four-page essay/pitch/query entitled “Invitation to a Shrinking World.” It began like this:

Twelve weeks before my husband, Nick, and I were due to leave for our long-planned, round-the-world adventure, highjackers sent a trio of airplanes careening into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and would have possibly rammed a 757 into the White House, were they not thwarted by a handful of passengers. As we all know, three thousand people were killed that day. This is a travel book, by the way, and a funny one at that, so I don’t mean to bum out all you prospective readers with this defining moment of darkness, except that it illustrates a point that I didn’t fully comprehend myself until I got a gig acting in a Bollywood movie several months later: The world is shrinking.

From there, it went on for another four pages, teasing out the premise of the book, ending with this line: “Want to come on a trip with me?” It was my opening salvo to my book’s proposal, which became the eventual book’s introduction. If you’re interested, you can click here to read the whole shebang.

In some cases, however, I did email a short query pitch before the proposal. In which case, I sent this:

These are the dimensions of our world: It is the fifth largest planet in the solar system, third closest to the sun. It takes 24,902 miles to traverse the equator, and another 24,859 miles to cross from pole to pole. The total surface of the place is some 197 million square miles, of which about 70 percent is water. Save for the changes wrought by ice ages and ozone-layer holes, the dimensions of our world have not changed in billions of years. They are fixed, finite. The world does not shrink.

And yet, the world is shrinking in every way except the physical. You only need step out into it to see the signs of this condensing, this converging, for they are everywhere: from the malls of Bangkok, now indistinguishable from their counterparts in Los Angeles, to the Internet cafes of Mombassa, where rows of young men flirt with girls in Germany via chatrooms in cyberspace. But to really understand just how deep this shrinkage goes, you have to leave the mainstream and head to the fringe.

Hobbits on the Silk Road does just that. It is a travel book about the shrinking world, a whirlwind ride that takes readers to the soundstages of India’s Bollywood, to beauty contests with Tonga’s homegrown transvestites, to the mountain-hideaways of Kazakhstan’s Tolkien fanatics and inside the townships with South Africa’s lost tribe of Israel. It introduces readers to charismatic Tanzanian rap stars, precocious Cambodian street kids, English-obsessed Chinese doctors and out-of-work Dutch prostitutes, and shows how all of these people lives are being inextricably altered by a different kind of globalization.

A series of eight lively, thoughtful stories, Hobbits on the Silk Roadreveals the new dimensions of our increasingly interwoven existence through tales about the most eclectic of global citizens. It’s a whole new kind of trip and as such deserves a whole new kind of guide—hip, daring and female; think Carrie Bradshaw goes National Geographic. As narrator, I will lead readers to the edges our fascinatingly jumbled planet, pulling them into my adventure and deeper into the ever-shrinking world that we all share

I got a huge response with both of these query/intro letters, not only with agents, but later on with publishers, who, initially, went hogwild for the proposal, as many as ten of them saying they were going to bid. (Can you say bidding war?) Alas, in the end, there was no bidding war. Two houses made offers. Neither one enthusiastically. Neither one outbid the other. But I got a contract. The book came out. It was a flop. Deservedly so. And I’ll get back to that in a bit.

When it came time to shop If I Stay, I had to get an agent again. The one I worked with on Hobbits, eventually titled You Can’t Get There From Here (yeah, I hate that title, too), and then my first YA novel, Sisters in Sanity, had quit the agenting biz. I sent an email to this one agent I wanted to work with. That note basically explained my situation—two books under my belt, my current agent shutting down her list, the editor I had worked with on my YA novel,the one who’d recommend I get in touch with said agent, also leaving editing—and also said that I realized that writing YA was what I wanted to do and that I needed someone smart and strategic to guide my career. I told her I had two YA books in the works and wasn’t sure which should go first. So, basically, instead of sending a smart, tight agent query, I sent a therapy blob. But she responded after a few weeks and told me to send her both manuscripts. And I did. And heard nothing.

I decided to not worry about getting an agent until I had a finished book. And in spite of what I’d asked her, I decided that If I Stay should be the book to focus on. Or rather If I Stay demanded to be finished. So I finished it. And when I still hadn’t heard back from that first agent, I decided it was time to send it out to some more people. So I wrote the following query letter.

Sometimes life can change in an instant. So it happens for 17-year-old Mia. One February morning, a light dusting of snow closes school in her Oregon town and Mia and her family go out for a drive. By the end of that morning, an accident has radically altered Mia’s world, leaving her own life up in the air. IF I STAY chronicles one 24-hour-period in which Mia fights for her life, grapples with what has happened to her family, and weighs what she comes to understand is ultimately her own decision—whether or not she stays. Through the course of the day, readers will come to understand the life that Mia has lost but also the love that remains. Alternating between flashbacks of the life she lived and the critical hours after the accident, which Mia observes like some sort of living ghost, IF I STAY is a love story: about Mia’s family, her boyfriend, her best friend, and about music.

IF I STAY is my second young-adult novel and my third book.  I’m the author of YOU CAN’T GET THERE FROM HERE: A YEAR ON THE FRINGES OF A SHRINKING WORLD, a travelogue published by Rodale in 2005 that chronicles the year I spent traveling around the world, hanging out with subcultures in far-off locales (a third sex in Tonga, Tolkien role-players in Kazakhstan). It was a Booksense pick. In September of 2007, my first young-adult novel SISTERS IN SANITY was published by HarperCollins. It follows five girls shut away in a behavior modification bootcamp and it was inspired by a story I did for Seventeenmagazine about ten years ago. Kirkus described it as “Girl Interrupted meets Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.”

I’ve been working with TKTK but she’s closing up her shop and I’m now looking for an agent who specializes in YA. TKTK suggested I get in touch with you. I’m looking to work with someone who can help me think strategically about my career and insure that I can keep writing YA novels for a good long time. I’d love to show you IF I STAY, as well as my published work.

I look forward to hearing from you.

I think this is a fine letter. I sent it out to four agents, most of whom knew the agent I had been working with. All of them specialized in YA lit. I was a published author with two books. And yet after six weeks, only one had responded, asking to see the full manuscript. Another sent a form rejection. The rest, radio silence.

Meanwhile, as all this was going on, one of the agents who works at the same agency as my current agent had read the partial manuscript of If I Stay I’d sent over what was now months ago and asked if they still had more time. I said yes, in fact, the manuscript was now complete. She asked to see it. I sent the whole thing in. Waited some more.

About six weeks later, I got a very enthusiastic email and call from my current agent—the one I’d always wanted to work with, the one I’d initially emailed the wholly inappropriate “what should I do with my career?” note to five months earlier. She had, at last, read If I Stay, and loved it. She offered to rep me.

She never saw my query letter.

So, here we have a tale of a very effective proposal for my first book that reeled in a lot of agent and publishing interest but eventually lost the publishers’ interest and the book went pfffzzz. And then a tale of a moderately effective (I think) query letter that hardly anyone bit at, followed by a very enthusiastic offer of representation by one respected agent and a book that had a very enthusiastic reception by publishers and has done as well as I could ever dream.

So what’s the Moral? I’d say that it’s not the query letter; it’s the work.

I had a kickass proposal for my first book, but I can’t even read that book now. It makes me cringe. It just doesn’t nail its landing (Oh, who am I kidding? It barely makes it onto the balance beam!). For whatever reason, If I Stay it nails its landing. I’m not saying it’s a great book, or a shitty book, but it’s an  authentic book and for whatever reason the work resonated. Now, I’m not saying that quality or authenticity is the only thing that will resonate. But there’s usually something inherent in the work—literary or commercial appeal, a big celebrity attached, hugely original premise, insanely addictive vampire lovestory—that will get the peoples to embrace the work. The query letter is just the bait to get them to take that first bite.

None of which is to say that query letters aren’t important. They are what get you through the door, show that you know how to string together a sentence, have a voice. There are now several web sites like queryshark that will help you hone your query. But if your work is not polished or authentic or original or commercial or whatever it is that publishers and agents are looking for—and all of that is totally subjective, of course and not being an agent, I haven’t a clue what that is—all you will be left with is a rocking good query letter.

So, Lacey, to answer your question, a draft of If I Stay got me my fabulous agent (and the persistence of her colleague, who kept bugging her to read the dang thing). And I’m grateful every day that none of those other agents answered my queries!

writingLauren Walters