Query Letter: A Success Story

I’ve recently had a few friends come to me for advice on starting the wild ride that is traditional publication. My advice: Step One is, of course, finish the manuscript. Step Two: Write a kick-ass query letter — which is harder than it may initially seem. Querying was the theme of today’s #17Scribes Twitter chat, and at the end, I flung down a gauntlet: for anyone brave enough to share the query letter that landed them their agent.

So, my own challenge accepted, here’s the query I sent to Connor back in 2013:

Dear Mr. Goldsmith,

An assassination attempt forces Latona, an elemental mage, to unleash her latent powers, demonstrating potential that far outstrips her training. When the dictator who threatened her family dies, she determines to take this opportunity to change the course of her life, but she quickly discovers that ambition has a high price.

The city-state of Aven is a place where elemental magic shapes the rule of the land as strongly as law and war. In the power vacuum left by the dictator’s death, the conservative old guard clashes with the populist liberal faction over the best way to shape the nation’s future. Latona and her sister Aula, a widow whose frivolous nature conceals a scheming mind, use charisma and cunning to manipulate advances for the populists. Their paths intersect with that of Sempronius Tarren, a rising politician who dreams of a vast empire growing from his beloved city. He believes that the gods have equipped him with the necessary skills and thrown down this challenge – but in order to achieve his goals, he will have to break some of his civilization’s most sacred laws. Custom dictates that no mage may attain the highest political offices, but Sempronius, who has kept his abilities a life-long secret, intends to do just that. Aula sees in Sempronius a man with an extraordinary vision for their nation and the greatness to make it a reality, and she pushes her sister to cultivate an alliance with him. As their friendship blossoms, Sempronius encourages Latona to learn to wield the extraordinary magical power that is her birthright – but Latona’s husband objects to the idea and the alliance, and Sempronius’s secret could ruin them both and destroy their faction’s chance to reform the city.

Aven is a completed 106,000 word historical fantasy with series potential, inspired by late Republic Rome. I write professionally for the education department of the American Shakespeare Center, where I have worked since graduating in 2010 with an MLitt. from Mary Baldwin College. My undergraduate degree is a BA in English and History from the College of William and Mary. I blog both professionally and personally, and I am active on major social media platforms.

Thank you for your consideration.

Sincerely,

Cass Morris

There’s a lot that amuses me about this. For one thing, the idea of addressing Connor as “Mr. Goldsmith” is now pretty hilarious. He is now, definitely, “Connor” to me, “Agent Connor” if I have to explain who he is to other people but which does make him sound like special ops or something, and often but only in my head “Cooooooonnnnnooorrrrrrrrrr” if I’m having a flail. That initial word count is amusing, too. (The tale, as Tolkien said, grew in the telling). I can’t believe, in retrospect, that I didn’t mention having found him through one of his #MSWL tweets. Fortunately that didn’t seem to impair my chances; Connor got back to me within 45 minutes of my having sent this query, requesting the full manuscript. And, of course, the title’s changed, but y’all have been with me on that crazy ride. 😉

This was the thirty-first query letter that I sent out, and the letter did evolve over time — when the first ten or so didn’t work, I did some more research and rewrote a bit. Query Shark is a valuable resource, but I also learned a lot just from following agents on twitter and watching things like the #10queries lists.

And yeah, it was a frustrating process. For all the advice that’s available out there about writing query letters, so much of it is contradictory, making it hard to know if what you’re doing is right or wrong. Ultimately the whole process just seems like inscrutable sorcery — not least because so much of success may have less to do with the letter itself and more to do with that letter arriving in front of the right eyes at the right time.

But what’s super interesting to me is that, for as much as the book has changed over the past three years — and boy howdy has it — this query letter is still a fairly accurate description of the story. The main characters and their motivations are the same — but working with Sarah, I spent a lot of time turning up the saturation levels, so that those motivations are both clear and captivating. The revisions have also focused on what gets the characters from one emotional point to another — and a lot of that has meant upping the stakes in the action to match the dramatic language that catches the eye in query letters (and eventually on book jackets). So, so much has changed — but the heart of the novel has been constant.

Reading Recommendations (while you’re waiting for FROM UNSEEN FIRE)

Hallo! Cold, grey, dreary wintry days always have me wanting nothing more than to curl up with a good book, so I thought I would share some of my favorites with y’all. Not just favorites, but favorites that, in some way or another, I think will be enjoyable to the folk who will like From Unseen Fire. Or, if you like these books, I think it quite likely you’ll enjoy From Unseen Fire!

Some are on the list because they’re Roman historicals: Colleen McCullough’s wonderful Masters of Rome series, and the exquisite explorations of famous or forgotten women by Kate Quinn, Stephanie Dray, and Michelle Moran. Others are classical-flavored fantasies, like Kate Elliott’s Court of Fives and Sabaa Tahir’s An Ember in the Ashes. Some are fantasies with elemental magic or other magical systems I find delightful, such as Mercedes Lackey’s Elemental Masters series or the works of Cat Valente. A few are nonfiction resources: Tony Perrottet’s Pagan Holiday and Philip Matyszak’s wonderful Roman resources. A great many are simply wonderful epic fantasies, often with historical aspects: Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel trilogies, Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind, Juliet Marillier’s Sevenwaters series, the tri-authored Heirs of Alexandria series, the works of Guy Gavriel Kay.

So while you’re counting down the days til September 5th (230, incidentally), give some of these a try, or revisit some old favorites!

Aven Cycle Suggested Reading

And while you’re on Goodreads checking those out, add From Unseen Fire to your “to-read” list!

A creative sort of evening

I was apparently feeling in a rather creative mood tonight. I’ve updated the header banners on FB and Twitter:

fromunseenfirefb1fromunseenfiretwit1-1

The old one was really only ever a placeholder, and I quite like this. The picture’s actually one I took while visiting Rome last summer! I think I’m going to redo it for the blog as well and possible adjust my overall theme to go along with it.

And then decided to try my hand at some lyrical playfulness, inspired by today’s intelligence report. I rewrote “Congratulations” from The Hamilton Mixtape in honor of the GOP’s invention of a new kind of stupid.

So yeah. It’s been an evening.

A Title… Again!

With two years on sub, two years between sale and publication, an editor change mid-stream, and now this, the fourth title change, I’m beginning to think I might be the poster child for “don’t get attached, and nothing is certain until it’s in print” 😉

Book One of the Aven Cycle shall henceforth be known not as A Flame Arises, but rather as:

FROM UNSEEN FIRE

This was a possible title earlier in the process, and I quite like it. In fact, it’s even from the same De rerum natura quotation as the other title! But it’s the second half of the phrase rather than the start.

I know that to an outside eye, this might all seem ludicrous. How can the book’s title change? How can it change after information has been sent to distributors? Well, honestly, I don’t know much about the how on that, but my publisher certainly does, so I try not to fret about it. It’s all part of the complexity of the publishing world and the fact that surviving it takes as much patience as determination and talent. My father reminded me, when I got my book deal, that the achievement came with a condition: the book is no longer mine. At least, not mine alone.

It’s a slightly weird feeling, letting someone else not just hold your baby but dress it and feed it and decide what school it’s going to — but it’s also a feeling I’ve known was coming, have prepared for, and in many ways welcome. I knew I wanted to go the traditional publishing route rather than self-publishing because I wanted a team. I know I have a great one now, and I trust them. So when they say we need a change — a change occurs!