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Like some of the others that have been posted here, my query letter comes with a caveat: it wasn't how I got either my editor or my agent. What actually happened was that a casual online acquaintance of mine got a job as an editor with a major publishing company, and when she read on my LiveJournal that I had an original fantasy novel sitting around, she asked to see it. Over the next three years she walked me through two uncontracted revisions of the manuscript, and toward the end of that time she also gave me a referral to an agent whom she thought might be a good fit for me.

I e-mailed that agent (who only looks at queries by referral, and had no clear submission guidelines posted) to ask how much of the manuscript she'd like to see with a query. It was a very brief letter, with no details about the book other than its title and genre. But my e-mail signature included a link to the first two chapters of the ms. on my website, which turned out to be a smart decision on my part -- she promptly wrote back to say she'd read the partial online, thought it was great, and would I send her the full manuscript?

You might think that was the beginning of a beautiful partnership, but in fact that wasn't the end of the chain on either the editorial or the agency side. The agent had my ms. exclusively for four months, until I took her fellow agent Rachel Vater's wise advice (given in response to a question I'd posted in her LiveJournal) and politely inquired about its status. The agent apologized for not realizing it was an exclusive, and took the book home with her that weekend. A couple of days later she wrote back to say those fatal words, "I liked it but I didn't love it," and explain that while she could easily see the book sitting on a shelf somewhere, she wasn't enthusiastic enough to represent it.

Fortunately, she ended her letter with a much more welcome sentiment: "If there's anything I can do to help you in your agent search, please let me know." If I hadn't been an ardent follower of Miss Snark I might easily have missed that comment, but thank Dog (in this case Killer Yapp) I had learned that such offers were rare, and well worth following up on. I asked my rejecter if she knew of any other agents who might enjoy my work -- and a few hours later, I had two more referrals (to agents who, again, only looked at queries by referral) and the assurance that at least one of those agents was looking forward to hearing from me.

This is the query letter I sent to that particular agent, again via e-mail:
Dear Ms. Adams --

As the Faery Queen's appointed Hunter, Knife alone has the courage and skill to fight the crows who threaten the Oakenfolk's survival. Yet neither she nor the Queen can do anything to stop a mysterious magical disease from claiming the faeries of the Oak one by one.

But there are humans at the bottom of the garden, and a glimpse inside their House convinces Knife that they have powers and knowledge that could help her people. Still, if the human world has so much to offer, why is the Queen determined to keep the faeries away from it? Is there a connection between the House and the Oakenfolk's loss of magic? And why is Knife so drawn to the young Paul McCormick -- that strangest of creatures, a human male?

Knife determines to learn the truth about the Oakenfolk's relationship to humanity, no matter what the Queen might do to prevent her -- a quest which threatens the growing friendship between herself and Paul, puts both their lives in jeopardy, and challenges everything Knife has ever believed about humans, faeries, and her own heart's desire. And when at last Knife discovers the secret the Faery Queen has been hiding, she is forced to make an agonizing choice between love and freedom that will change her life, and the lives of her people, forever.

My love of children's and YA fantasy began when I was a child, and has never flagged since. As an author I have been practicing and honing my craft for over twenty years, and have benefited from the online guidance and encouragement of professional fantasy authors Pamela Dean and Patricia C. Wrede, among others. Knife is my second completed novel, and [Editor] at [Publisher] has taken a strong interest in the manuscript, guiding me through two revisions before passing the latest version on to [Editor's Boss] for his verdict.

[Agent] was kind enough to give me your name and e-mail address and suggest that your agency might be a good fit for me. I understand that she talked to you yesterday and verified that you'd be interested in looking at Knife -- may I ask how much of the novel you would like to see, and by what method you'd prefer to receive it?

Thank you for your consideration,
--
R.J. (Rebecca) Anderson
Half an hour later I had a reply from Adams Literary asking for the full ms. via e-mail; two days later I got a note telling me they were halfway through the manuscript and loving it; and ten days later, I accepted their offer of representation. Six weeks after that my agent had drummed up enough editorial interest to take Knife to auction, and I ended up with a two-book deal from HarperCollins.

Like I said, I am not sure how much my query letter had to do with any of this, but I do know that maintaining a pleasant and professional tone in my correspondence with agents and editors, even when they critiqued or rejected my manuscript, made a huge difference in the opportunities that came my way. The editor who eventually bought my book is not the same as the editor who first requested it, nor even at the same publishing house -- but if it hadn't been for that first editor and the revisions I did for her on spec, my book would not have been ready for my present agent and editor.

So this would be my advice for the unpublished and unagented authors out there (as I was myself just six months ago):
  • Set up a clean, professional-looking website with the first two or three chapters of your novel on it. Discreetly include the link in your signature when querying editors and agents, posting to writers' forums, etc. They may not choose to look at it, but if they do, you might be able to skip the partial stage and go straight to a request for a full.

  • Don't be afraid to do revisions on spec. Even if you don't end up working with that particular editor, odds are that those revisions will strengthen the book for submitting to other editors and agents. Don't turn down free professional criticism! And do take revision requests as an encouragement -- editors are too busy to waste time writing up detailed suggestions for improving your book unless they think it has serious potential.

  • Whatever you do, don't be rude to editors and agents who turn you down. Deal with them politely and professionally. You don't have to grovel, or even agree with their criticisms, but at least you can thank them for looking at your manuscript. And if they should offer to refer you to another agent or editor, jump at it!

Comments

( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
poshcat
Oct. 28th, 2007 09:43 pm (UTC)
This was a GREAT post. Thank you so much for taking the time to tell us your story, and for all that terrific insider's advice.
rj_anderson
Oct. 28th, 2007 09:56 pm (UTC)
Thank you for commenting! I'm so glad that it's been of help to at least one person.
robinellen
Oct. 29th, 2007 01:33 am (UTC)
Great advice, Rebecca :) I've done revisions twice now -- once for an agent (who didn't take me on, but her suggestions definitely made the book stronger), and once for an editor (who's currently reading the revised version). it's encouraging to hear how things came together for you!
(Anonymous)
Oct. 29th, 2007 09:13 pm (UTC)
Congratulations
R. J. , congratulations on the contract! What great news. I hope to hear more about your work.

Becky
ext_68383
Oct. 29th, 2007 09:14 pm (UTC)
Re: Congratulations
Uh, sorry, didn't mean that last comment to be anonymous.

Becky
rj_anderson
Nov. 3rd, 2007 07:11 pm (UTC)
Re: Congratulations
Thank you very much, Becky! I've always enjoyed your blog and the thought-provoking discussions that take place there.
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )

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