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My query letter for the manuscript that became my first published novel, SECRET SOCIETY GIRL, originally sent in early April, 2005. My agent, Deidre Knight, has added her reactiin bold red.

A bit of backstory: I'd already sent this agent two submissions. The first received a full request, then a rejection with a request to send her the next book I wrote. Which I did (second full, the "February submission" referenced below). She still had it on her desk when things started moving with the partial of SSG.
_____________


Dear Deidre,

I know you probably haven’t had a chance to look at my February submission yet, but I wanted to keep you updated on what is going on at my end.

DEIDRE SAYS: Truthfully, if someone addresses me as Ms. Knight after our first email interchange, I begin to feel uncomfortable. I’m an approachable person, and I’m not sixty years old either. Although I appreciate the show of respect, it’s much more important to me to feel as if we’re on at least a somewhat relaxed footing.

Immediately I appreciated Diana’s sympathetic appraisal of my reading schedule. Many authors don’t realize that the “reading stack” is a source of great guilt for most of us in publishing. Having her acknowledge that, yes, I obviously hadn’t read it, but that she understood—and was simply sending me an update—immediately captured my respect and attention.

I’m writing today because my recent work-in-progress has garnered some attention from publishers.


(Agent sits up slightly, listens more attentively. Often authors will toss this claim around in a meaningless way, but the smooth way in which Diana segued into the next sentence had my ear.)


Last weekend, one of my critique partners mentioned it off hand at a conference, and now “whatever I have” has been requested by [Big Publisher] as well as a few agents. I recently heard that you were looking to acquire some YA projects, so I thought it only fair to let you know that this is my latest.


At this particular time I was, in the immortal words of Duran, Duran, “Hungry like the wolf” for both YA, and also really looking for a few new clients. That she had a project that had already attracted publisher interest, and that it was in a genre I was looking for definitely had me sitting up even taller in my virtual seat. Another thing? She’d done her homework; she knew what I was looking for. When an author approaches me and has had her ear to the ground about what our agency, or what I’m personally doing, is always a good thing. Beware the “haughty” update that seems to indicate the whole publishing world is already at your feet. This approach is amateurish. Diana seemed to be a personable, pleasant person who was also aware that her work was gaining some value in the marketplace, even though no deals had been inked.

CONFESSIONS OF A (SECRET) SOCIETY GIRL is a 60,000 word novel suitable for older teens and college students. It twists conventional “secret society” yarns like THE SKULLS into a chick lit tale of college life, complete with classes, keggers, and... conspiracy theories.

This had me at hello. I have always been intrigued by secret societies and conspiracy theories. The word “keggers” brought back my own college days with just one word.

The last thing college junior Amy Haskel expects is to be tapped into Rose & Grave, her Ivy League school’s most prestigious secret society. As far as she can tell, she’s lacking a potential initiate's two basic requirements: 1) a Y chromosome and 2) the ambition to become the leader of the free world. Sure, the sassy, independent Amy is an honor student and the editor of the literary magazine, but everyone knows that “Diggers” (as society members are called) only want future industrial kingpins or shadowy government types of the male variety. Not women –not even smart ones.

Absolutely phenomenal pitch. Was nearly frothing with excitement. It was well written, smart, and made me want to read a whole lot more.

Amy soon learns that much of Rose & Grave’s rep is a combo of Hollywood hocus-pocus and carefully cultivated rumors. After an initiation ceremony that is one part Harry Potter and two parts amusement park thrill-ride, Amy begins to bond with her new brethren, who come from all walks of life, and discovers that the society’s imposing tomb is no more intimidating than your standard frat house. The Diggers are elite, sure, but not in the blue-blood way she always thought.

But she also learns that some of the more nefarious rumors about Rose & Grave are true. The alumni members exert an enormous influence, and they aren’t afraid to wield it. The society’s prominent “patriarchs” are none too happy that this year’s seniors have gone behind their backs to tap women for the very first time. They threaten to close the tomb and sabotage the future of both the graduates and the “illegal taps.” When Amy’s confirmed summer internship evaporates after speaking out against the patriarchs’ sexism, she begins to fear that they have the power to do just that. Enraged, the new female taps organize against the patriarchs to prove that women, especially Digger women, are a force to be reckoned with. It’s a move that may save their society, but also earns them some very powerful enemies.

Amy has other worries as well. Her best friend (who has been vying for a society tap since the day she first stepped on campus) refuses to share even one detail about her own secret society experiences, though the outlandish hints she drops make the elaborate Rose & Grave rituals look about as hard as a Rocks for Jocks exam. The editor of the campus newspaper seems to have an ax to grind against both Amy and her society “big brother,” and is willing to blackmail them to get an expose on Rose & Grave (Amy knew she shouldn’t have spent the night at his place!). Of course, it doesn’t help that Amy’s “barbarian” (non-society) friend-with-benefits won’t let the Boyfriend Issue go. And then there’s the little matter of final exams.

Again, as before, Diana intrigued me to the extreme. Please remember how many queries an agent sees every day. I can honestly say that Diana’s was wholly unique and very fresh. She’d pitched a book that I’d want to pick up in the store and buy—I couldn’t wait to “dig” in (sorry for the pun, Diana!)

As you may remember, I graduated from Yale University in 2001 so I'm extremely familiar with the culture of campus secret societies. Though the story is fictional, many of Amy’s adventures are based on the experiences of my friends and fellow students, as well as the true history of societies like Scroll and Key, Wolf's Head, and, of course, the notorious Skull and Bones.

Yes, Diana called forth a mutual acquaintance and our previous interchanges here with this paragraph. Plus, she absolutely highlighted that she was THE person to write this book.

Given the current fervor over secret-society books like THE DA VINCI CODE and the success of Yale-set stories like CHLOE DOES YALE and THE GILMORE GIRLS, I feel CONFESSIONS OF A (SECRET) SOCIETY GIRL is a very marketable concept with series potential.

Please note, everyone: Agents find queries that claim to be the next “anything” both vaguely insulting and amateurish. However, helping an agent see where a project could fit into the market is always good—it expands our five second impression and takeaway from the query, allowing us to immediately picture selling the book. Even the editors we might approach.

_________________________

A few final notes: Those of you who read the books will notice some differences between my original query and the finished novel. First of all, the title. (Titles rarely stay static upon acquisition, and there was a glut of 'confessions' titles on the marketplace at the time.) Also, because I sold this project unfinished, and to an adult house rather than a YA house, I was able to develop the book to be both a good bit longer (closer to 75k for the first one, and the subsequent books have been in the 80s), and to remain unconcerned with the fact that my characters are NOT YA, but in their 20s. It wasn't until after I sold this book that I became aware that YA novels are generally about teenagers. (In fact, one YA house offered on condition that I would make the characters freshmen, not seniors, which would REALLY have changed the story and also been much less realistic, since at Yale you don't join societies until the end of your junior year.)


She requested the partial (which was all I had) within two hours of reading this query, then asked if she should read this or the full manuscript she'd had for a month and a half. I said to read SSG. Within an hour, she offered representation. I received two more agent offers within days and signed with Deidre a few days later. A week after that, we sold a two-book deal in six-way auction.

The final flap copy on the novel is very similar to my original description.

What is also interesting to me, reading this query beside all of these urban fantasy queries, is that my query -- despite having ZERO paranormal elements -- is as concerned with worldbuilding as everyone else's. My book deals with a very specific culture, complete with its own customs, traditions, hierarchy, and jargon, and my query reflects that.

Comments

( 13 comments — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
dpeterfreund
Oct. 29th, 2007 02:22 am (UTC)
Thanks, wanderingray! (BTW, there's a shoutout to your icon in the World of THE GOLDEN COMPASS antho)
alessandriana
Oct. 28th, 2007 03:48 pm (UTC)
Okay, so, the problem with reading all these query letters? Is that I'm getting this huge list of books I now really need to buy. :\ *adds another to the list*

But yeah, this is a really good query (from what little I know). How long did you spend on it?
dpeterfreund
Oct. 28th, 2007 05:43 pm (UTC)
Thanks, spark_force!

I think this is probably the first thing I really wrote for the book (the blurb, anyway). For SSG I started from the premise, "a book about secret societies the way they really are" and worked outwards. Who best to show the disconnect between the myth about societies and the truth about them? Someone who isn't a "society type." Who would that be? What would happen to her? And so on.

So the pitch really came first. I wrote the first chapter and then the full synopsis, and came back to the pitch and refined it using the actual plotline I'd worked out.

So maybe a few hours, over the course of time I was working on the proposal?
(Anonymous)
Oct. 28th, 2007 05:04 pm (UTC)
Amazing query Diana. I've heard you tell the story but this is the first time I've read your query. Since I'm about a month away from typing the end I've started working on my query letter and reading yours along with Deidre comments is a great start at some do's and don'ts.

Vicki
http://vickilane.blogspot.com
rhonawestbrook
Oct. 28th, 2007 06:30 pm (UTC)
Dude, these are so awesome!

blackholly
Oct. 28th, 2007 08:59 pm (UTC)
You are so good, Diana.
dpeterfreund
Oct. 29th, 2007 02:21 am (UTC)
gracias, Holly!

(How long 'til February?)
alanajoli
Oct. 29th, 2007 02:00 am (UTC)
Wow, this is extremely helpful, particularly the juxtaposition of query with the agent commentary. Thanks!

(Also, the Secret Society Girl books are wonderful. I had assumed they were YA based on the description of your forthcoming Rampant, so I convinced the Youth Services librarian to buy them. While maybe a little racy for YA--depending on the YA being read, as there's plenty of pretty explicit stuff in the high school setting as well--I think they still very much appeal to the older high schoolers.)
dpeterfreund
Oct. 29th, 2007 02:20 am (UTC)
Alana, don't even worry about it. the books are crossover-friendly and in fact the first one was named to the NYPL Books for the Teen Age list, so I bet a bunch of YA libraries have it. I think of it as suitable for high school students (I was reading all adult novels in high school). Also, I think high schoolers would probably like it, sicne they are already thinking forward to college.

Thanks so much for reading!
celeste_gleason
Oct. 29th, 2007 12:34 pm (UTC)
Thanks for sharing that. I really like when authors are willing to share like this, and it was very nice of Deidre to comment on what grabbed her. Queries are tricky to write!
alanajoli
Oct. 30th, 2007 07:42 pm (UTC)
Excellent--supported by the NYPL. No fear!
(Anonymous)
Oct. 30th, 2007 12:38 pm (UTC)
From Josephine Damian:

Diana: You queried before it was done?

Deidre: I always thought that was a huge no-no for an unpublished writer?
dpeterfreund
Oct. 30th, 2007 01:09 pm (UTC)
Yes Josephine. I queried before I was done. I also sold the book on the basis of 79 pages.

No, I don't recommend this practice. But this is what happened: I had just finished the partial and was telling my critique partner about it. She went off to a conference and at dinner, was seated next to an editor who said she was looking for PRECISELY that kind of book. My CP said, "I know someone who is writing a book about a girl and secret societies at Yale." The editor goes, "Have her send it to me!" Friends says, "It's not done yet." Editor says, "I don't care. Have her send me whatever she has!" A few agents overhear this conversation and voila. Critique partner comes home and emails me, "You're never going to believe..." So I sent it out to all those folks, and I emailed Deidre too because of our past connection.

That first editor offered before I even had an agent.
( 13 comments — Leave a comment )

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