Attacus Atlas & Other Inventions: Channeling Jean Kwok (and you can too!)


“The query letter is…the single most important page an unpublished writer will ever write” — Nicholas Spark

This week’s subject of discussion is supposed to be about querying tips, as in what tips can you give an aspiring writer when querying potential publishers and agents? Unfortunately my querying stories and experiences are good only in the theoretical — as in it’s a good topic to discuss in the abstract.

None of my query letters directly lead to my getting a publisher or an agent. But the act of learning what to do and how to do it well has allowed me to help others.

But more on that later.

Back to querying tips: I’m going to channel the esteemed writer and my dear friend Jean Kwok. I had the great pleasure of attending graduate school with Jean a thousand years ago before electricity (just kidding!). It was 1990s New York. Before cell phones, before CDs. A time when VHS tapes were still the rage and you could actually watch music videos on MTV. We sat next to each other and learned writing techniques and studied great authors, discussed immortal poets and it was just grand. Then I graduated and moved away and then she graduated and moved away. Fast forward 14 years when one day in 2010 I saw the most miraculous thing in the newspaper: that Jean Kwok had a book coming out, her first novel Girl In Translation. It is so beautifully written and compelling and I was thrilled she was making a stop on her book tour in Atlanta, where I lived at the time. It’d been years since I’d seen her and in her talk, she spoke to the packed audience about her publishing route and her incredible life story – of the struggle she overcame to pursue her dream of becoming a writer. Not only did she fulfill that dream but she is a New York Times best-selling author and her second novel Mambo in Chinatown is gorgeous as well. And her third novel, Searching for Sylvie Lee is coming out June 2019!

Back to the tips — I will always remember Jean’s WOW (words of wisdom) and as a poet I appreciated the rhyme: the order, she said, was hook book cook. She described the letter that she wrote that would lead to a book contract being offered over the course of a weekend:

  1. hook: start with a particularly suspenseful and action-oriented moment of your book where the stakes are high and there is a lot of apprehension and anxiety about what it’s going to happen next to the main character. Keep it short, no more than a paragraph.
  2. Once again a pithy paragraph about your book, a succinct summary and a brief mention of the themes that are important to you and that were addressed in the book.
  3. And now a few words about the cook/author: you. Just relevant details please and try a little humor — funny jobs you’ve had or your recent stint in the Peace Corps followed by, where you went to school or where/how you grew up. Establish yourself as a bit of an expert, because you are; because this is your book, you are its parent and it’s your job as the book’s parent to shepherd it. It doesn’t matter really if it’s fiction or nonfiction or even poetry: it’s your work. You must be a champion, you must not ever apologize.

So I did all of those things: I followed Jean’s hook book cook formula and I kept it to under a page and I got a few nibbles – a few people in the agenting world actually wrote me back. One actually asked to see my manuscript. I was shopping around a memoir proposal as well and I got a few nibbles there too.

But the ultimate answer was always no.

And this is where the other piece of Jean’s advice to the audience is key and crucial to mention: don’t give up. Keep pursuing the dream, ultimately the people who keep plugging away at the writing and the unpleasant task of finding a champion are the ones who end up with a published book. It’s not an easy task. I will add my own asterisk to Jean’s advice: you will learn more by helping others, too. I’ve offered Jean’s hook book cook recipe to many, and it has proved to be successful!

After all the rejections, I was discouraged for a while but ultimately I discovered my love of writing is greater than the discouragement I was wallowing in. So I put my book away and proceeded to the next book I would write  — As part of a large writing community, I was helping other poets and writers, I was championing my friends’ work on social media, and I was attending writing conferences and honing my skills.

So a friend of mine, about 11 months after I stuffed the book into my desk drawer, (metaphorically speaking since the book was on my computer) — she asked, how’s it going with the novel you told me about a year ago and I answered, well a few people looked at it and everyone turned me down; no one wanted the memoir either — but I’m working on something else. She asked to read it. The very next day I sent it off, with the hook book cook query letter attached. And after six weeks of trial and tribulation I heard back that she wanted to show it to someone who then showed it to someone and I found myself receiving an email and then a phone call and then an offer on my debut novel, The Atlas of Reds and Blues. My beloved agent came via word of mouth as well, an introduction through mutual friends.

All this to say: 1. Don’t give up.

2. Keep your query letter short

3. Keep writing.

4. Help others and get involved in the writing community.

5. See 1.

The persistent win.

Books/articles to consider this week: Good and Mad by Rebecca Traister, Souvenir by Aimee Suzara, True Love and Other Dreams of Miraculous Escape by Micah Perks, Lava Falls by Lucy Jane Bledsoe and an NPR interview with Jean Kwok in 2014.

Classic book recommendation: At the Bottom of the River by Jamaica Kincaid.

Author: Devi Laskar

Poet, photographer, soccer mom, VONA & TheOpEdProject alum, Columbia MFA, former reporter, debut novelist!