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.
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.