So many aspects of being a writer are anxiety-producing. I’ve basically been bathing in cortisol since I finished a first draft of MINOR DRAMAS & OTHER CATASTROPHES in 2016. Finding an agent? Going on submission? Working on revisions? Writing another whole book? To be honest, I’m pretty much red-lining with anxiety all the flipping time.
I’m not trying to be a downer (and maybe being an author is different for people less prone to panic), but I think the uncertainty of a career in writing generally inspires worry. Or twitchiness. Or–I don’t know–cold sweats and mysterious hives.
Clicking “send” on a query letter is an adrenaline-infused moment, for sure. To minimize my pain and suffering, I over-prepared my submission materials. First, I took an online class called Query Comprehensive at The Loft Literary Center with Kelly Van Sant. With Kelly’s and my classmates’ help, I wrote a version of my query letter that made me a finalist in an online pitch contest. I gained confidence and scored my first two requests that way.
While those were out, I hired an editor to review my first ten pages, my synopsis (this was insanely hard to write), and the query letter once again. I felt great about the submission package by the time we’d finished with it. In the end, all told, I sent twelve queries to agents I’d thoroughly researched. Four of these requested more pages, and two offered to represent me.
Mine was a very fast process. I sent my first query in January 2018, and I signed with my agent two months later. I think there are a number of factors that led to my querying success. These included the timeliness of my book’s topic and the commercial aspect of my writing, for sure. And then, I think it was the preparation I described above. I invested in the submission process before I’d failed at it. If you have a couple of hundred bucks you can use to do this, I recommend it. If not, I’d find an online writers’ group or discussion forum (QueryShark comes to mind) where you can study the unique form of the query letter and get some feedback.
Here’s the full version of my letter that landed me my agent. I personalized that first paragraph based on each agent’s #MSWL and client list. I know I might not follow all of the “rules” here, but it worked for me. Also, the name of one of my main characters, the genesis of the conflict, and the title of the book have all changed since I sent this letter! It’s funny how books evolve.
Dear Ms. MacKenzie,
You mentioned timely women’s fiction and a penchant for “mom heroines” in your agency biography, so I’m hoping DETENTION, complete at 95,000 words and featuring two not-quite-there-yet badasses might appeal to you.
Isobel Johnson can’t stand helicopter parents like Elizabeth Abbott, a stage mom whose world revolves around yoga, Starbucks, and interfering in her children’s lives. Elizabeth resents teachers like Isobel, who effortlessly bond with students, including Elizabeth’s own teenagers, who’ve been pulling away from her more each year. While they share zero values, the women’s simultaneous meltdowns force them together in a battle against the school principal and a pack of rabid parents.
Isobel has spent her career in Liston Heights side-stepping the community’s high-powered families. When she receives a mysterious, threatening voicemail accusing her of Anti-Americanism and a “blatant liberal agenda,” she realizes she’s squarely in the fray. Meanwhile, Elizabeth, obsessed with the casting of the winter musical, inadvertently elbows the female lead in the gut while celebrating her son’s mid-size speaking role. She’s the instant star of a damning viral video.
Humiliated, Elizabeth drifts for the first time since her kids were born. At the same time, the principal suspends Isobel amid pressure from an angry Republican Senator. Each woman seeks redemption, and when they both show up at a school-sponsored 5k, they’re determined to fight for it, lest they forfeit their standings in a community where appearance is everything. Like Celeste Ng’s LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE, DETENTION explores contrasting views of motherhood. The action takes place within a ridiculously cutthroat school setting, similar to the one depicted in Amy Poeppel’s SMALL ADMISSIONS.
Like Isobel, I’m a veteran English teacher. I live in Minneapolis and belong to the Women’s Fiction Writers Association and the Loft Literary Center. I will appear in this year’s Listen to Your Mother Twin Cities show, a storytelling celebration in honor of Mother’s Day. You can learn more about me on my blog, Word Savvy, and on Twitter @52BooksPlus.
I’m pasting the first 10 pages of the manuscript below.
Thanks so much for your consideration,
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- Don’t Be a Delicate Flower: Advice to a Younger Kathleen - Tuesday, November 19, 2019
- Kathleen’s Query Letter! - Tuesday, November 12, 2019