Wednesday, March 29, 2006

My First Query Letter

The following, as promised last week, is an example of the first query letter I ever sent out. My letters have evolved until the most recent version. So, I post this for a comparison between where I started, and where I am now.

What I Like About This Letter
  • The quote in the header: I wanted to make an immediate impression with the tone of the book and my writing style. Agents always say they want the sample chapters to immediately impress them with the writer's unique style and that a writer should include that style in the writing the query letter. I decided to front-load this and integrate some sample text, that doesn't actually appear in the book, into the query letter.
  • Personal connection: Much of the material I read on writing query letters said you should try to personalize your story to the agent. So, the second paragraph, where I discuss what space meant to me, and means to all kids, I thought achieved that
  • Closing: It's a little uber-entrepreneurial, but I think the comparison works between trusted networking of investor/advisers and agents/advisers.

What I Don't About This Letter
  • Length: It's too long. Some of the wordiness in the synopsis and qualification sections could be reduced.
  • Non-germane credentials: My writing credentials section doesn't contain enough pure writing qualifications. At first I thought showing I could sell a book might grab an agent's attention, but I realized after a while this section should focus on more pure publication qualifications.
  • Word count: I should have kept it simple. 79,900 words is basically 80,000. Now, I just round up/down to the nearest 1,000.


“Who could have guessed the small, black cube that helped man colonize the stars could also be used to wipe out humanity? Whoops. Sorry about that.”
- Geoffrey Gumbean, Chief Research Scientist
Excerpt from the Senate Inquiries into the Uber-abnormal Affairs of the Onyx Sun

Specific Person

Dear (Agent/Editor’s Name):

I am seeking representation for my young adult novel, The Incredible Origins of the Onyx Sun, complete at 79,900 words.

As a child, I loved the boundless imaginative possibilities the exploration of space offers. These dreams are now becoming reality as entrepreneurs like Richard Branson and Elon Musk lead us back to the stars. Thanks to their efforts, today’s children will be the first generation of citizen-astronauts, and books like The Incredible Origins of the Onyx Sun may inspire them to continue the journey. As Dr. Sally Ride stated, “Our future lies with today's kids and tomorrow's space exploration.” These words were never truer.

The Incredible Origins of the Onyx Sun follows the story of Zack Goodspeed, a fairly average ten-year-old, who discovers his genius-inventor grandfather has secretly built man’s first interstellar spaceship. By stowing away on this ship, Zack is thrust into a series of adventures that land him on the Moon, throw him into life-threatening situations, and culminate in his saving humanity itself.

The Incredible Origins of the Onyx Sun is the first book in a series. I am currently working on the sequel, The Wicked Adversaries of the Onyx Sun.

Book Synopsis
Zack Goodspeed is a perfectly normal ten year-old boy, growing up in a perfectly normal suburb. His friends are all normal. His teachers are normal. His mother and father are practically Mr. and Mrs. Normal. Everything in Zack’s life is exceptionally normal save one thing: his grandfather, Fyodor.

By any measure, Fyodor Confucius Goodspeed is just plain whacked. He towers over most people at six-feet, six-inches tall. He wears only white, because he can’t bother to spend time matching his pants to his shirt to his socks. He stumbles about, distracted by inner thoughts, like someone who just learned to walk.

Yet, Fyodor is an incredible genius who has just built man’s first interstellar spacecraft powered by a small, black cube called the Onyx Sun. The Onyx Sun is Fyodor’s greatest invention. The Onyx Sun provides unlimited power. The Onyx Sun whisks Zack away on a series of adventures into space.

Freed from his earthbound normalcy, Zack walks on the Moon, meets bold, new friends, and learns how to pilot skyscraper-sized robots called “Mech Leviathans”. Ultimately, he saves humanity from Dr. Ian Machvel, an antagonist whose one aim is to pervert the Onyx Sun into a weapon of mass destruction. In the process, Zack faces many issues relevant to today’s young people, including confronting terrorism, gaining self confidence, and appreciating one’s family.

I have been writing stories since I was eight. At Northwestern University, I studied economics but found Atlas Shrugged struck me deeper than Keynesian economics.

I have published a poem which appeared in Summer Shade: a Collection of Modern Poetry. Until recently, I managed a literary company called Pariah Publishing (, where I gained insight into the dynamics of good writing through personally reviewing and critiquing over 400 manuscripts. I am currently a Product Manager for Riverdeep, an educational software developer, where I frequently interact with children in my book’s target demographic.

I am an MBA graduate of Babson College, the #1 School for Entrepreneurship in the US, where I won the prestigious Price-Babson Fellowship and conducted research under Stephen Spinelli, the man who built and sold Jiffy Lube. Accordingly, I understand the business commitment required to launch successful ventures, like a new book. I also co-edited publications from the tenured professors during this time.

Agency Representation
Much as an entrepreneur seeks investors who can provide business acumen as well as financing, I am looking for an agent who can provide credible feedback on my work as well as representation. In my research, you have consistently arisen as such a source. I wish to submit my manuscript to you and (agency name this case, as my first choice, it was Writers House), exclusively and foremost.

Christopher Mahoney

Friday, March 24, 2006

How to Write Query Letters That Don't Suck

I have entered into a whole new, more challenging part of the writing process: writing a query letter that doesn't suck. If you are a new writer finishing up your first manuscript, just thought it was hard to press through those lackluster chapters, find words when they wouldn't come, or make your story hold together believably? Nope, that was just the warm-up. Writing query letters...that's when the real "fun" begins.

In writing a book, the author is quite often the sole gateway to what content is placed on the page and how much of it. In writing a query letter though, you have to take all that content and boil it down to a one-page letter that is interesting and unique. The agent runs this game and the trick is standing out from the crowd since they see thousands of query letters a year, each claiming to be from the author of the next Da Vinci Code.

To kick-off this process, I read a few books recommended to me by writer friends as well as more than a few Writer's Digest articles on the subject. The best of the books was How to Write Attention Grabbing Query & Cover Letters, which puts aside the infomercial veneer too many books in this genre take on in favor of practical, concise suggestions for writing great query letters. It also includes some example query letters, which I found interesting but wasn't quite sure they would fit my book or writing style.

Next, I went a little nuts. I wrote sixteen versions of my first query letter over a year before I sent a single one. Thankfully, I started writing them while I was working on my book so they haven't held up my book going out to agents now the manuscript is done. However, I do think looking back this was overkill. My thought at the time the insanity started was that if I just wrote the right query letter, with the right combination of wit, intelligence, and passion, it would unlock an agent's heart (and phone) and convince her/him to represent me. I used the same overbearing process for the SAT and GMAT and that had worked decently well. But looking back now, although this approach helped me hone my pitch, I probably could have achieved the same goal in half the time, with half as many drafts.

So my advice to anyone going through this process now is:
  • Read a maximum of two short books and three articles on the subject. Companies will always try to tell you to read more, but...hey...that's because they're often trying to sell you more books on this topic. Unfortunately, writers are kinda suckers on anything that can help us get an agent or a publisher, because quite often we're desperate to get one!
  • Write up to ten drafts, but no less than five distinctly different ones
  • Get them out as fast as possible. You're going to be waiting a long time for agents to write back. So, you might as well rush to the wait.
As far as what to put in a query letter, I have had the most success with the following guidance from the material I've read as well as my own experiments:
  • Be Natural: Make the tone of the letter casual, like you are talking to a friend. Think about how many letters agents and publishers get addressed to "Dear Sir". They probably read more letters than Stanford admission officers, most from people with formal offers for the next Harry Potter (riiiiight) that they have to "BUY NOW!". Skip all that hype and standoffish hoopla. Just write your idea down on paper as you would write a friend. That alone will distinguish you.
  • Be Concise: If you hear one thing about agents, it's that they have no time. Don't add to the burden; reduce it. Try to make your letter shorter than one page. Use this straight-forward template:
    • Open with a simple statement you are looking for representation for your completed manuscript. (If it's not completed, you shouldn't be writing.)
    • Specify in the first two sentences the genre and the title.
    • Use the first paragraph to summarize the plot. Give the whole plot, including the ending. Agents aren't your readers. They don't care about spoilers. They want to know how the whole story flows before they can judge if it's even worth reading.
    • Use the second paragraph to list your qualifications. Do you have subject matter expertise? What have you written before? If you don't have any writing credentials, get some. Write anywhere third-parties will let you. Publish an article for your local newspaper. Do book reviews. Just get your name and your unique voice out there. Then list is in this paragraph as a qualification, within reason. Don't just list a bunch of self-published drivel no one reads.
    • Wrap-up with a short statement about why you are soliciting this particular agent or publisher. What authors that she/he represents do you like?
Even after going through this, I don't purport to be an expert. This is just what I've found works better than other query letters I've written. With my first query letter, I got further interest in my entire manuscript from Writers House, my top choice agency. Although I didn't end up obtaining representation there, I do think the fact they even responded with a personal note to my inquiry showed my query letter had achieved a certain level. I'll include my query letter here soon. Best of luck with yours!



Thursday, March 9, 2006

The Final Postcards

Rudy did an excellent job on the return postcard for my query letters to agents. After the conceptual work he did nailing Professor Goodspeed's look, he came up with the final two designs to the left.

After doing an informal poll, it seems like most people I know like both equally. Personally, I prefer the first because it captures Professor Goodspeed's affable nature better, but the sheer detail in the second also draws me in. In fact, the second presents a very powerful environmental scene. I mean, just look at that moon!

However, I want an accurate portrayal of the characters to drive interest in my book. Quite often, it is interesting characters that suck us into new stories. So, since the first is closer to Grandfather Goodspeed, I chose to use that.

The next step is to make the postcard as user-friendly as possible. I had Vistaprint produce a bunch of blank, postcard-size prints with Concept 1 on the front. I am generally not a huge fan of Vistaprint, since I have had a couple of disappointing experiences printing business cards through them. But I figured they couldn't ruin something as simple as this, and they actually did do a nice job and it was inexpensive.

I created a template in PowerPoint for the back copy, attached to the right. It is written from the agent's point of view, since they are the ones returning this postcard. Of course, postage will be affixed as well on the top right.

Overall, I think this is superior to the standard SASE (self-addressed stamped envelop) since it ties into the imagery of the book and even easier for agents to respond since all they need to do is check a box (like those notes in grade school, huh?)